In a scene from Sacha Jenkins’ new documentary, a father asks his 12-yearold son to tell the camera what he’s been told to do if their car is ever pulled over: “Put your hands up on the dashboard, so the police don’t think you have any weapons, or show your hands.” He responds, “I gotta tell a 12-year-old how to interface with law enforcement, because I’m scared that if he acts silly and does something with his hands, they will kill him… I’ve got to teach him how to conduct himself… so we can make it where?…” “Home.” “Home. Can you imagine a film wherein white Americans, a white dad and his cute little 12-year-old son: ‘Son, tell the camera what I told you to do when the cops pull us over.’ America would be outraged. But because we are not considered Americans, it is what it is and things don’t change.” This poignant exchange cuts to the heart of the injustice propelling the movement for Black lives: in a country built on the ideal of human equality—but also built on the backs of enslaved Black women, men, and children—who actually belongs and counts as a full, rights-bearing citizen in everyday interactions with the state?
The Black Lives Matter movement emerged during the Obama presidency, an era marked, the author notes, by its seeming celebration of the American multiracial ideal but for that very reason also by its complacency regarding persistent systemic racism. Taking stock of the movement, the author outlines its origins, goals, characteristics, measured accomplishments, and strategic concerns. His purpose is to determine how the movement might strengthen itself to become “a sustained, truly mass struggle” that will be able to “pose a deeper challenge to existing social and political arrangements.”
Begun as a hashtag to express outrage regarding George Zimmerman’s 2013 acquittal for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter grew into a movement with the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown. Initiated by three women— Patrice Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi—it has now grown to include a number of locally driven movements across the country. The fervor with which activists took up the rallying cry underscores the potency and broad salience within the Black community of the movement’s central concern: racist violence, especially at the hands of police officers—who are experienced by many as a repressive, rather than protective, force.
According to the author, today’s racist policing is simply the latest manifestation of a continuum that spans slavery, Jim Crow, and contemporary mass incarceration—all meant to “enforc[e] racial hierarchy” and exploit “black surplus labor.” While the movement initially mobilized around an end to—and accountability for—police violence, it has since broadened its purpose to address a more wide-ranging slate of injustices and fundamentally transform power relations. As a self-consciously inclusive movement, it has centered the experiences of typically marginalized identities: members of the Black community who also identify as women, queer, trans, disabled, and so on.
The author describes Black Lives Matter’s methods as “militant” even if nonviolent: the disruption of everyday places and practices by occupying “intersections, sporting events, [and] police stations”; staging “die-ins”; and organizing marches and rallies. These “creative disturbances” serve to “dramatize” (to use Dr. King’s word) the daily injustices experienced by Black communities. Self-consciously avoiding electoral politics, the movement wishes to remain independent, is decentralized and youth-led (though intergenerational), and also resists narratives that blame anti-Black state violence on the Black community instead of white supremacy.
So far, the movement’s accomplishments include some police officers being charged and/or disciplined but also, perhaps even more importantly, a shift in the way people think and talk about racism and democratic participation. However, the movement’s decentralized structure and diverse ranks mean that it must inevitably address internal tensions—regarding how confrontational to be, whether to propose policy recommendations or just focus on mounting “mass pressure,” whether to confront white supremacy only or capitalism as well, and how to address persistent patriarchy/ heterosexism among activists. The movement must also address external opposition, especially from police departments engaged in “demoniz[ation]” and militarized repression of the movement but also from sections of “white America” who simply take the notion of “black criminality” as fact, uncritically consuming images of movement activists as “looters”/“thugs,” and minimize the reality of anti-Black racism, obscuring it through phrases like “All Lives Matter.”
Although Black Lives Matter has drawn diverse supporters to its protests, the author argues that it still needs to do more to fulfill its enormous potential and should therefore continue to strengthen its alliances with other social/racial justice movements.
When security forces disproportionately kill or repress civilians of a particular racial/ethnic identity, the international community often advocates determinedly on behalf of the persecuted group and puts pressure on the government in question to stop such practices, sometimes framing its concern in terms of the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine (the international community’s moral obligation to protect civilians when the country in question demonstrates itself unable or unwilling to do so). But what if this repression happens in one’s own country, and what if that country happens to be the United States? Is there any reason to see or treat these practices in the U.S. differently from those that happen in other countries, or to be any less outraged?
The presence of racism in U.S. law enforcement is difficult to deny: one study found that “the probability of being Black, unarmed, and shot by police is about 3.49 times the probability of being white, unarmed, and shot by police on average” (Ross 2015). Of course, it may be true at the same time both that members of the Black community are disproportionately and unjustly killed at the hands of the state and that many police officers may be acting not out of overt malice but because they feel genuinely threatened—but the crux of the matter is that their very assumptions about danger and threat have racial dimensions, and that must be acknowledged and addressed. In other words, the fact that a young Black man is assumed—in a spur-of-the-moment decision—to constitute a threat just because he is walking around a particular neighborhood or wearing a hoodie or even running away, often without any other indicators of violent intent, is itself the problem. Until children and young people and adults of all identities can walk around without fearing for their lives at the hands of the people who are supposed to be protecting them, the U.S. will not be an equal society.
- Black Lives Matter is a nonviolent movement that emerged in response to several high-profile, well-documented killings of unarmed Black people, most at the hands of police.
- Racist violence in law enforcement must be understood within the broader historical context of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration of Black people—all of which have served to “enforc[e] racial hierarchy” and exploit “black surplus labor.”
- Black Lives Matter has broadened its purpose from addressing only racist police violence to addressing a broader slate of injustices, centering the experiences of more marginalized members of the Black community, and fundamentally challenging power relations.
- To become a broad-based, sustained movement capable of “pos[ing] a deeper challenge to existing social and political arrangements,” Black Lives Matter needs to, among other courses of action, strengthen its alliances with other social/racial justice movements
When unarmed civilians are being killed at the hands of the state—whether that killing is due to direct targeting or fear or negligence—citizens must put pressure on police forces and government officials to acknowledge and address the problem. Action can be taken by holding police officers accountable and transforming police department norms that may legitimize racial profiling or harsher treatment towards people of particular racial/ethnic identities. The larger and more broad-based the Black Lives Matter movement becomes, the more pressure these police departments and government officials are going to feel. Building a broad-based movement means the widespread participation of allies, which necessarily brings with it complicated questions about identity and power in organizing: How can allies support the Black Lives Matter movement without reinstating the very relationships of privilege and oppression that the movement is trying to abolish? Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, provides a powerful and useful response at the end of her short essay “Herstory” on the Black Lives Matter website: “[W]hen Black people cry out in defense of our lives, which are uniquely, systematically, and savagely targeted by the state, we are asking you, our family, to stand with us in affirming Black lives. Not just all lives. Black lives. Please do not change the conversation by talking about how your life matters, too. It does, but we need less watered down unity and [ ] more active solidarities with us, Black people, unwaveringly, in defense of our humanity. Our collective futures depend on it.” In other words, it is important that allies acknowledge difference in experience and especially the way in which members of the Black community in particular live in a society that often treats them as if their lives do not matter. Speaking in universalisms—“we’re all one” or “all lives matter,” as nice as those sentiments may sound—erases the unique injustices that the movement is trying to confront.
Exploring Questions About Identity, Power, Language, and Capitalization
You may notice that we have chosen to capitalize “Black”, “Indigenous” and “Native” in our analyses. Below are a few sources that discuss reasons for and implications of this decision.
The Case for Black With a Capital B By Lori L. Tharps, The New York Times, November 18, 2014
The Discussion on Capitalizing the “B” in “Black” Continues By Barrett Holmes Pitner, The Huffington Post, November 24, 2014
Ask a Radical Copyeditor: Black with a Capital “B” By Alex Kapitan, The Radical Copyeditor, September 21, 2016
Rickford, R. (2016). Black Lives Matter: Toward a modern practice of mass struggle. New Labor Forum, 25(1), 34-42.