Although it existed prior to police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement gained significant influence thereafter. Formed in 2013 by three Black organizers, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullers and Opal Tometi, BLM today includes more than 50 different organizations. The murder, which was captured on video, prompted the largest racial justice protests in the United States since the civil rights movement and inspired action in many other countries as well, including the UK, New Zealand, France, and Colombia (Silverstein, 2021).
Like the Occupy Wall Street movement, BLM is characterized by a rejection of hierarchy, favoring a “leaderless” approach,” and its inclusivity. Scholars have noted that BLM is far more interracial than previous movements (Sugrue, 2020). A hallmark of BLM has been dialogue with political leadership (Rickford, 2015). BLM is also different from so many civil and political rights movements before it due to the ubiquitous use of technology and social media as a tool for organizing. BLM has used many classic techniques of nonviolent direct action in conjunction with protests, including creative slogans, organizing vigils, meeting with police leaders and legislators, and more. Media outlets dubbed 2020 “the year of the protest” due to the BLM protests. Social media has been particularly important in engaging the public about police abuse and killings of people of color. Research has shown that digital platforms are now an essential part of social movements (Freemon, McIlwain & Clark, 2016). Social movements utilizing social media have been found to be more inclusive, larger, and quicker to mobilize (Bennett & Segerberg, 2012). Mundt, Ross and Burnett (2018) found that BLM’s use of social media helped it to build connections, mobilize participants and resources, engage in coalition building and control the narrative about its activities. An analysis of 50 million Twitter posts between January 28, 2013 and April 30, 2021 found that the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was used far more frequently after Floyd’s murder, resulting in a more engaged public via social media. It has been used in more than 25 million original Twitter posts, which collectively have garnered approximately 444 billion likes, retweets, comments, or quotes. This is roughly 17,000 engagements per post. The prolific use of the hashtag helped spread the movement from the local to the global (Wirtschafter, 2021).
As a social movement, BLM is of interest to the field of peace and conflict studies for a number of reasons. Critics of BLM, like critics of previous social movements for civil rights, assert that it would be better for activists to use more mundane and mainstream channels for social change, such as legislation and the courts. Yet, as many have noted, these channels have not only been unhelpful in remedying civil rights issues, they have frequently exacerbated them (Alexander, 2010). As Hoffman et al. (2016) explained, “the Black community has no reason to trust that people representing them in elected office and the political system will work to rectify at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement. For those who have privilege, it is easy to rely on the system, which has tended to work for them and protect them. For those who the system has not worked, alternatives are needed” (p. 601). BLM can be seen in part as adhering to Gandhian principles, in particular, the principle of noncooperation with anything that is humiliating. Yet it does not explicitly disavow violence. It has also drawn a diverse group of allies, making it a unique movement for scholarly examination and for activist inquiry.
While there is typically opposition to social movements, BLM has garnered a particularly vitriolic backlash owing to the political divide in the U.S and to media narratives that present it as dangerous and harmful. Hoffman et al. (2016) noted that BLM challenges the worldviews of those who have privilege. Even the simple phrase “black lives matter,” intended to show the value of black lives and to underscore the historical and contemporaneous undervaluing of people of color, has been co-opted by oppositionists to assert that “All Lives Matter,” a total disregard of the point—that racist violence, especially by police as in the Floyd case—tell Black people their lives matter less than others. BLM founder Garza called on the long history of non-hierarchical social movements in the shaping of BLM. She explained that the notion of a charismatic leader like Martin Luther King Jr. was always in part a myth or over-sell, in that it under-appreciated courageous community activists who did not want celebrity status. In fact, Garza, like many before her, was critical of the need for “strong leaders,” noting that “strong communities don’t need strong leaders.” BLM leaders have also recognized that it is not just identity that makes someone a passionate advocate for a cause. Indeed, Garza and other BLM activists have called out other charismatic leaders who are more interested in self-promotion than advancement for people (Jackson, 2021).
As a movement, BLM has withstood a powerful political push for “All Lives Matter,” clearly a political ploy to diminish the movement and position it as “anti”—police, specifically, and white people in general—when nothing is further from the truth (Hoffman, Granger, Vallejos & Moats, 2016). Importantly, BLM activists found that social media allowed them to control their own narrative, in contrast to mainstream media which often depicted BLM as violent and its demands inappropriate (Mundt, Ross & Burnett, 2018). Earlier analyses of media coverage of Trayvon Martin and BLM found that 88 percent of news stories used an anti-black frame. Also common were pro-white frames and stereotypes about Black people, emphasizing criminality, violence, and threat (Lane et al., 2020). Indeed, mainstream media tended to depict protesters as “looters and rioters” and to associate demands like defunding police and teaching a more comprehensive and critical view of U.S. history with being “politically correct” or “woke.”
George Floyd was one of approximately 1,100 people killed annually by police use of force in the United States in recent years, according to data compiled by Fatal Encounter, a nonprofit that tracks police-involved deaths since 2000. A disproportionate number of the people killed, like Floyd, are African American (Sugrue, 2020). BLM efforts in general, but in particular after Floyd’s murder, resulted in real changes in many cities. Four days after the murder, Chauvin was criminally charged, and on April 21, 2021, he was found guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. In July 2021, Chauvin was sentenced to 22 ½ years in prison. Although the state had asked for a 30-year sentence, that Chauvin was prosecuted, convicted and sentenced is somewhat historic, as rarely do officers face trial let alone get convicted and sentenced for unlawful killings (Lempert, 2021). Three other officers were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. Their trial is set for March 2022. As a result of BLM’s attention to the Floyd murder, the police officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor were fired. Taylor was a Black woman who was shot eight times in a botched drug raid on her home in Louisville, Kentucky. Less than two weeks after Floyd’s murder, nine members of the Minneapolis city council announced support for dismantling the police force, one of BLM’s goals. President Lisa Bender said, “We’re here because we hear you …We are here because here in Minneapolis and in cities across the United States it is clear that our existing system of policing and public safety is not keeping our communities safe. Our commitment is to end policing as we know it and to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe.” Minnesota Governor Tim Walz also promised police reform would be forthcoming. New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio also pledged to shift some of the city’s police funding to youth and social services. Many police departments and cities banned chokeholds, and former President Trump issued an executive order prohibiting them as well. A bipartisan bill, the Justice in Policing Act, was introduced to Congress. It would ban no-knock warrants and make it easier to prosecute police for misconduct. Several initiatives were taken to better track police misconduct. Protestors also helped topple confederate statues and called for name changes of schools, roads and buildings that were named after racist figures. BLM had argued that these are daily reminders of racism and have no place in U.S. society. BLM’s efforts after Floyd’s murder helped spearhead accountability in media, as several top news leaders were forced to step down after publishing racist material. Similarly, several executives of major companies also resigned or lost their jobs, and companies like PepsiCo changed the names or imagery associated with their products, for instance, Aunt Jemima pancake syrup. The TV show “Cops,” long accused of contributing to stereotypes about Black males as disproportionately criminal, was finally taken off air after 32 seasons (Ankel, 2020). Further, BLM has spearheaded efforts to improve the way K-12 public schools and colleges and universities teach about racism and the legacy of slavery today.
Yet, despite these achievements, BLM has faced significant backlash, like other social movements for racial justice before them. This essay looks at BLM from an historical perspective, discussing how it is an essential outgrowth from previous social movements and in particular, the repression of them. In doing so, I show that criticism of BLM and violence against activists is similar to that of other eras, and that even the concept of “peaceful protest” has been framed by White people in ways that minimize or repress activism for racial equality. Next, the essay focuses specifically on the backlash against BLM. Although that has come in many forms, I emphasize the wave of anti-protest laws has been enacted in many states. While some of these pre-dated the Floyd murder, many were clearly focused on curtailing BLM.
Repression and Marginalization of Black Activists: A Brief Historical Review
Historians have pointed to three major waves of nationwide uprisings in the 20th century related to racism and specifically police violence. The first occurred at the beginning of the 20th century and ended with what has been called the Red Summer in 1919. The U.S was bitterly divided, with tense racial relations, gender inequality, anti-immigrant fervor post-World War I, and, like today, dealing with a global pandemic, the Spanish flu. 1919 saw dozens of violent racial clashes in at least 25 cities. Police typically did little to disrupt these incidents and in many cases, arrested Black individuals who were doing nothing or were defending themselves. Then, in 1921, violent white mobs, with police complicity, assaulted Tulsa, Oklahoma’s “Black Wall Street,” killing at least 300 people and leaving nearly the entire Black population of the city homeless. Black people responded by organizing, with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) being founded in 1909 and amassing 500,000 members by 1945. Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, formed in 1921 as part of an international movement for Black pride. The second wave came during the Great Depression and the time of World War II. Many were outraged that the U.S. was fighting a war for democracy abroad, with many of its soldiers being people of color, yet still had not reconciled its own racism. Black people again organized, and media began publicizing the “Double V” campaign to end fascism abroad and racism at home. 1943 saw at least 240 violent clashes. In every case, the police came in to protect White people and arrest Black people. Activists staged sit-ins and protested police brutality both nonviolently and violently, leading to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. This is considered the third wave. Black activists were divided on the degree to which they should always adhere to nonviolence. Martin Luther King Jr. and others espoused a nonviolent approach, and followers used a variety of direct-action tactics and were faced with violence by Whites and in many cases, by police. Followers of Malcolm X and later the Black Panthers believed self-defense was an essential part of Black pride and that they would remain powerless when police had the ability to use force and they did not.
According to Sugrue (2020), “2020’s uprisings resemble those of 1919, 1943, and 1968 in certain respects: They grow out of simmering hatreds seeded by the long, festering history of white violence and police brutality against African Americans that has taken hundreds of lives per year, including Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, three of the most recent victims. Most of 2020’s protests have been peaceful, early reports have found, with a fraction becoming violent.” But, as Yannick Giovanni Marshall (2020), scholar of Black Studies, asserted, even the understanding of what peace should look like has been racially coded. Further, Marshall (2020) and Sebastian (2015) explain that most Americans have a distorted view of the “nonviolence” of the civil rights movement that they glorify as the way to make social change. While BLM has been criticized for not necessarily using violence but provoking it, Sebastian (2015) noted that provocation was a hallmark of Martin Luther King Jr.’s approach. Like BLM, King was admonished by liberal Whites to bring it down, to be less disruptive. King responded to eight White liberal clergymen who wrote that while they supported his movement, his tactics were “foolish” and “counterproductive” in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail. He wrote that the goal was to dramatize the problem of racism such that it could no longer be ignored. “In other words, violence was not something that simply happened to activists; they invited it. Violence was critical to the success of the 1960s civil rights movement, as it has been to every step of racial progress in U.S. history” (Sebastian, 2015). In fact, just a month after he was released from the Birmingham jail, King and other organizers marched Black children through the city’s streets, knowing full well that they would be met with Bull Connor’s violent police force but approving the controversial tactic because the sight of those innocent kids under attack would help propel the movement. The kids called it D-Day. King was even criticized by Malcolm X but defended the tactic as “one of the wisest moves we made” (Sebastian, 2015).
Discussing BLM protests, Marshall (2020) noted, “Our peace is not their peace. Their peace has been when we accepted, quietly, the corpses of Black people thrown against our screens. Our peace is when they stop killing us. Our peace is when they lose faith in the certainty of impunity. When they have to live the rest of their lives straining to decipher every eerie sound in the wind, hoping it is not bad luck. Our peace is when they are forced to pause, and for the first time since the passage of the Act on the Casual Killing of Slaves, wonder whether they might face a consequence.” Marshall asserts that protest is typically framed by white supremacy that emphasizes “peacefulness” and commands a differentiation between “good and bad protestors.” Liberals during the King era and also during the BLM protests who support the goals got upset when King marched through their neighborhoods calling out segregation and racist housing practices just as progressive Bernie Sanders was upset about the “extreme” tactics used by protestors at his events (Sebastian, 2015). This framing of protest ignores the historical and current fact that people of color face far more risk when doing anything, let alone when rising up against police violence. Marshall (2020) explained,
In their peacetime, Black people are killed with impunity. In the time they are anxious to go back to – the time which helicopters and riot police and armies are sent to bring back by force – Black people are killed with impunity. In their regular order, Black people are killed with impunity. In their time of laughing loudly in cafes, Black people are killed with impunity.
In the times when videos of Black people being killed fall out of the news cycle, Black people are killed with impunity. In the time when this president is in power, Black people are killed with impunity. In the time when this president is not in power, Black people are killed with impunity. In their “counter-looting, Black people are killed with impunity. In their prisons, their hospitals, their streets, their police stations, Black people are killed with impunity.
In their riots, Black people are killed with impunity.
Their peace, their regular order is a place where Black people are killed with impunity.
Just as King was criticized for the fact that violence did break out at many of his marches and protests, BLM has faced outrage that buildings have been burned and looted and people killed at protests. But Sebastian (2015) noted, “Yet history shows that this violence is the inevitable consequence of challenging the racial status quo.” While King wanted a nonviolent movement, he learned that if the response to organizer’s efforts was not a violent spectacle, little changed. Hence the shift of efforts Albany, Georgia to Birmingham. Other movements achieved success only after violent state responses—the gay rights movement, labor rights movements, the end of slavery and more. Marshall (2020) goes on to call the movement after George Floyd was murdered an uprising, rather than a protest. “Their protest is a full course meal. When they are finished with it, they give us the “peaceful protest”, the bones and gristle and entrails of their protest, thrown out like chicken feed to the slave cabins. I am not that hungry.” Although Marshall’s points about who gets to protest and how they are received are critical and should be of great discussion amongst peace and conflict studies scholars, another concern is the repression of the right to assemble that has been escalated since Floyd’s murder.
Protest is a hallmark of social change movements. It has been used by movements of all sorts, from labor to anti-war, civil rights, gender equality, gay rights, environmental issues and more, and at every level from the local to the international. Gene Sharp includes protest on his list of 198 methods of nonviolent direct action. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan (2011) found that protest is a key component of successful nonviolent movements, even those that result in regime change and creating democracy.
Concurrent to protests has always been efforts to stifle or quelch them. As was noted, civil rights protestors in the 1950s and 1960s were met with physical resistance from counter-protestors, racial hate groups, and in many cases, law enforcement. Yet something new happened as a result of BLM and the widespread protests after the murder of George Floyd. The backlash was not just amongst those who disagreed with the movement or police but rather at the legislative level. Many states had already begun enacting anti-protest legislation. but such efforts dramatically escalated after Floyd was murdered (Adams, 2021). At least 80 anti-protest bills have been introduced in several states, all by Republican legislators. That is twice as many anti-protest proposals in 2021 than any year prior. Matthew Delmont, a history professor at Dartmouth College, asserted “It’s important to understand that the anti-protest bills we’re seeing right now are an attempt to maintain the status quo and prevent more significant change that would lead to more equitable systems” (Adams, 2021).
Some states saw proposals to give immunity to drivers who hit protestors. Others attempted to prohibit those convicted or a crime-related to a protest from receiving student loans, housing assistance, unemployment benefits and more. Other Republicans introduced a bill to make anyone convicted of “rioting” ineligible for state jobs and other state and local benefits. Florida enacted a rioting law that is being challenged due to the overly broad definition of rioting. It is considered the most severe anti-protest law, placing strict penalties on those convicted of “rioting,” denying bail to those arrested until after they have made a court appearance, making it a felony to destroy a flag or monument, and allowing officials to appeal in cases where municipalities vote to cut police budgets. Melba Pearson, a civil rights attorney and former candidate for Miami-Dade state attorney, called the Florida law “a solution looking for a problem.” Pearson explained, “What the bill does is, it creates a new class of minimum mandatories and enhances charges for organizers of the protests. So we’re going beyond people who have done something illegal. The fact that people would now be afraid to go out and protest … is another way of attacking your First Amendment right. This means people are going to be less likely to exercise that right due to fear of excessive government action.” In essence, this law and others like it will have a chilling effect on protest. Matthew Delmont, history professor at Dartmouth College, asserted, “It has been a pretty consistent pattern, at least since the 1960s, that any kind of movement for racial justice is accompanied by a strong desire by a different set of the population to rein those protests in and re-establish a sense of order — typically for white Americans.” He went on, saying “The way authorities have limited protest activity is by trying to demoralize different social movements. The over-policing that comes along with law-and-order politics just makes it difficult to build and maintain grassroots social movements that would have regular public protests. The bills we’re seeing today are as much about signaling to different constituents as they are about trying to stop the kinds of massive protest we saw last summer” (Adams, 2021)
James Tager, a human rights lawyer and director of research for PEN America, an organization devoted to advocacy for free expression, found that between 2015 and 2019, 116 bills were proposed in state legislatures to limit the right to protest. PEN’s report on those bills came out two days after Floyd was murdered, and Tager said there was a dramatic increase afterwards, noting that many of the proposals were targeted at specific protest movements, most notably BLM. PEN conducted a follow up report from June 1, 2020 through March 15, 2021 and found at least 100 anti-protest proposals in 33 states. In many cases, state legislators largely copied and pasted from other states. At least twelve laws are mostly copycats of the Florida law. Tager commented, “Perhaps the most frustrating thing is the way that this onslaught of bills helps to shift the discussion around protest toward the idea of expanding the sphere of illegality for protests, seeing protests increasingly through the lens of actual or potential illegality rather than focusing on protest as a right that is fundamental to us as humans and as Americans and working to enshrine that rather than degrading it.” Further, Tager noted that while many of the proposed bills or enacted laws may not pass constitutional muster, “there would still be a cumulative effect of degrading and denigrating the space for protest in the U.S. because these bills would send the clear signal to potential and actual protesters that there are potential serious consequences for engaging in the protest” (Bidleman, 2021).
In proposing these bills, legislators typically invoked derogatory and misleading language. DeSantis, for instance, cited supposed “professional agitators bent on sewing disorder and causing mayhem in our cities” as well as “Crazed lunatics” and “Scraggly-looking Antifa types.” Lawmakers made it seem as though BLM protests were all violent melees, when in actuality, less than five percent of BLM protests involved any protester violence. Tager explained, “I think Republican legislators see this as a winning issue, particularly because they don’t have to engage with actual protests. They just get to engage with this kind of made-up version of hyper-violent protests that they’ve painted, or have had painted for them” (Bidleman, 2021).
As a social movement, BLM’s work is a model of courage, given the politically divided time, and tremendous backlash it has faced, including violence from counter-protesters and in some cases law enforcement. The movement has prompted dangerous legislative efforts to stifle protest. These moves affect others outside of the BLM movement as well, even though they are unlikely to withstand legal challenges. Regardless, given the history of efforts to chill progressive activism in the U.S., peace and conflict studies scholars and activists must continue to examine BLM and lobby for repeal of such threats to our area of study and action. Further, the field must do more to examine the violence of structural racism and the history of White-defined “peaceful” protests. As Marshall (2020) noted, the de-radicalizing of movements plays into the hands of the state, the group most responsible for racist oppression. As a field, we should do more than pay lip service to Black Lives Matter and to addressing systemic racism.
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