Lindon Harris Sidwell Friends '16

The #BlackLivesMatter movement was created following the 2013 grand jury decision not to indict George Zimmerman for the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. This event marked the beginning of a string of tragedies which thrusted persistent racial inequity into the national spotlight. Throughout America, historically rigid tensions between communities of color and law enforcement have caused and have been compounded by highly publicized incidents in which innocent lives are taken at the hands of an evidently biased police force. These fatal encounters, singular in their media coverage, represent a juncture at which the active violence of the system of racist oppression stands out for all to witness. The #BlackLivesMatter movement rode the waves of media sensationalism, with activists taking the opportunity to voice quieted objections and promote defiance to institutional racism and its denial. Three female activists, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, co-founded the organization to protest racial injustice by mixing modern social-media activism with more traditional tactics such as sit-ins and marches. According to the movement’s website, the organizers’ goal is to effect holistic change:

We are broadening the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state...the ways in which Black lives are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity…#BlackLivesMatter is working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. We affirm our contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression. We have put our sweat equity and love for Black people into creating a political project–taking the hashtag off of social media and into the streets.”

Clearly stated, their vision for change extends beyond the scope of policing and seeks to attack racial injustice in all the ways it is perpetrated.

Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and Samuel DuBose, are just some of the individuals whose deaths at the hands of police have, with the help of protests led by #BlackLivesMatter, incited a national awareness of the inequities of present-day America. Racial bias is a facet of oppression that can be tragically fatal when it goes unchallenged in the psychology of American law enforcement. Utilizing the advantages of modern


technology, citizens have allowed social media to play a central role in bringing visibility to the movement, creating heightened social awareness, and inspiring action against the injustices that #BlackLivesMatter seeks to challenge. #BlackLivesMatter often trends on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with messages expressing widespread outrage at the instances of police brutality against people of color. With every injustice, the movement gains momentum, increasing a wide support base of individuals yearning for change. Inspiring a dedication to effect change in thousands of people, black and white, young and old, the movement has grown to decentralized network of civil rights activists with chapters in 23 states, all growing more impatient as more lives continue to be lost and questions remain unanswered.

To the appreciation of many, some change was indeed afforded since the movement’s beginning, proving the power of channeling the frustrations of millions of fed-up citizens. Seven months after the shooting death of Mike Brown, the Department of Justice issued a scathing report on the Ferguson law enforcement, exposing absurdly unjust practices and the outright exploitation of black communities for revenue. The following is stated in the report:

“Our investigation indicates that this disproportionate burden on African Americans cannot be explained by any difference in the rate at which people of different races violate the law. Rather, our investigation has revealed that these disparities occur, at least in part, because of unlawful bias and stereotypes about African Americans.”

The corruption rife in Ferguson, Missouri is by no means an isolated example; it is a representation of a greater system of inequities faced by black communities across the country since emancipation. The truths that this and similar reports expose give credence to the vexations whose silencing only feeds into the compounding cycle of oppression that leaves black communities ravaged with poverty and violence. Though these actions are a step in the right direction, much more extensive reform is necessary to satisfy advocates and resolve these deeply rooted issues.

The actions and demands of #BlackLivesMatter have received mixed responses from the public. One of the most discussed challenges to the movement is the #AllLivesMatter response. Obviously, all lives matter, but when that is used to contradict the original slogan, the statement dismisses the specific struggles that black Americans face. It implies that their cause is not worth specific recognition or support. The verbiage of the #BlackLivesMatter movement could be off-putting to those who do not understand or have not been exposed to a nuanced understanding of modern systemic racism. For example, another common response is for skeptics to point at the high rates of violent crime in black communities as to discredit activists’ frustrations with violence perpetrated by outsiders. The pitfall of this argument is that, while it draws concern to a very real problem, it fails to recognize that these issues are part of a cycle of poor education, poverty and racism. Impoverished black ghettos across America are often the same communities which faced social, economic, political, and educational disenfranchisement during centuries of overt oppression. African enslavement in America and subjugation under Jim Crow segregation comprises 345 of 408 years of American history. As a society, progress in the face of such history, requires enormous cooperative effort, and #BlackLivesMatter seeks to jumpstart a necessary period of national introspection. Those involved speak out against injustices and raise awareness with the hopes of reforming the existing mindsets and institutions which imperil African Americans.

In mid-August, leaders of the organization released a comprehensive plan, dubbed Campaign Zero, demanding local, state, and federal governments to refine the American policing system to end the destruction of communities of color by biased law enforcement. The website for Campaign Zero spells out the meticulously detailed, extensive, and multi-faceted initiative, providing statistical evidence and credited research to support the agenda. The website also includes an examination of the leading 2016 presidential candidates’ plans for police reform. Bernie Sanders’ policy proposals align most with that of Campaign Zero.

In the last two years, #BlackLivesMatter has become a ubiquitous mantra printed on t-shirts, chanted in the streets, and hashtagged on the internet. As expected, it attracts fervent criticism as well as loyal support. Regardless of any controversy surrounding its tactics or message, the organization has succeeded in sparking a much-needed conversation in this country about an issue too many people avoid: systemic racism and prejudiced law enforcement. The message the movement has stuck to thus far is clear and noble. The uproar initiated by these activists is against a system which disempowers and threatens a historically oppressed group of people, and, in the face of stiff opposition, those involved exhibit necessary urgency and determination in their pursuit of equity.