Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a movement for racial equality and the end of police brutality towards African Americans and the institutionalized oppression and marginalization of Black people in the United States and around the world.
Problems and Purpose
Co-founded in 2013 in the United States by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a movement for racial equality, the end of police brutality against African Americans, and the dismantling of international oppression of Black people. The movement employs multiple methods of deliberation and engagement, from activism that takes place primarily online, to offline protesting, community organizing, and promoting political participation to realize racial justice.
Activists in the movement have revived the Black liberation movement of the 1960s and are calling for action in response to what they see as virulent racism in the US. Characterized as the "largest movement in U.S. history" by the New York Times, the main purpose of the movement is to broaden the conversation around state violence to include the myriad ways African Americans are intentionally marginalized and denied equal rights. BLM presents itself as a political and ideological intervention to end state violence that takes the form of systematic and intentional targeting of Black communities by police. The movement's supporters do not argue that Black lives are more important than others, but that in a society where the fundamental rights of Black people are denied, their liberation is fundamental to the freedom of all.
The movement also aims to spread awareness and information on the plight of Black communities so that ignorance is no longer an excuse for non-action. Activists have found social networks and independent media—provided they are free from censorship, disinformation, and obfuscation—to be the best tools for mobilization and knowledge sharing. In more recent years, the movement's targeting of racial violence has widened to emphasize state oppression of women, transsexuals, self-identified queer individuals, and other minorities. The ultimate goal of BLM is to affirm the value of Black lives and to free themselves from the White, straight, male elite who continue to set social standards and norms across the country.
Background History and Context
Issues of violence toward young Black men and institutional racism within the United States’ criminal justice system were heightened with the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African American and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch coordinator who fatally shot Martin while he was visiting his relatives. News of the event and the people involved circulated quickly online, fueling community tensions and leading to widespread protests and accusations that the American criminal justice system is fundamentally biased against people of color, especially Black men .
Indeed, while African Americans make up just 12% of the population, they represent 26.4% of victims of deadly police actions . There are more Black people killed by the police today than there were Black people lynched in the late 19th century, an era when strict racial segregation was still enforced. Although segregation was abolished in 1954, Black people in the United States remain politically, socially, and economically disadvantaged compared to their White counterparts .
Despite advances in civil rights, institutional violence persists and is targeted primarily at young Black men between the ages of 15 and 35. A British study found that young Black men in the United States are five times more likely to be killed by a police officer than White men of the same age. Moreover, in almost all spheres of American society, African Americans are at a disadvantage: 42% of Black children live in high-poverty communities , 40% of homeless people in the country are Black , and Black people (especially children) are overrepresented in the national prison population . These realities have fueled people’s sense of indignation and anger at state institutions as a source of the constant threat of violence against Black Americans.
Outraged at Zimmerman's 2013 acquittal of Martin's death, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi created the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag across numerous online social networks. Remaining largely unnoticed for several months, the hashtag was finally taken up by millions of Internet users as the murders of unarmed African Americans continued. What began as a hashtag soon grew into a broader movement—first, in the United States and then internationally. In 2014, the BLM movement—now distinct from the hashtag—initiated an urgent, national call to action and dialogue on the issue of police killings of unarmed African American youth. BLM broke into the mainstream, gaining millions of supporters and followers internationally after the 2014 killing of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson sparked reported civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri 
In 2020, following George Floyd's murder by police officers, BLM support grew drastically with nation-wide demonstrations protesting police brutality and the racism entrenched in the policing and justice systems.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
One of the unique features of Black Lives Matter, besides its innovative and extensive use of social media, is its relative decentralization and dispersed leadership. Unlike the African American liberation movements led by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, BLM does not rely on a single person or figurehead to speak on behalf of the Black community. According to the movement’s founders, no voice in the movement can claim to fully represent another's views. In this sense, multiple leaders are seen as modern-day revolutionaries, directing a new civil rights movement. However, it was the three women who first launched the hashtag who took the protest to the next level, organizing it as a social movement with staying power.
Some researchers on the issue of movement leaders have, however, pointed out that although BLM was created by three women, the most influential people are still men for the vast majority of the movement’s actions and decision of individual chapters. Moreover, partially due to social biases, men in the movement remain those with the greatest ability to connect individuals with each other .
The sources of BLM’s funding are difficult to ascertain. It would seem that the information shared on social networks does not require special funding since platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are free to use. Many of the events generated by the online organization and its supporters likewise do not require funds, as they are generally either online meetups or in-person get togethers and protests.
However, conferences and more traditional means of participation and community mobilization and management require funding. BLM has raised thousands of dollars through its website and online platforms like GoFundMe. The movement has also set up online funding channels allowing supporters to offer direct donations to the families of the victims, prisoners believed to be innocent, lawsuits, and the overall movement. Fundraisers and charity events are also organized by independent activists and NGOs across the country.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
BLM ensures that localized power structures are combined with an inclusive process that consciously integrates women activists, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and other marginalized or disenfranchised groups. For example, one of the most ‘followed’ BLM Twitter activists is a Black, gay man, and one of the movement’s founders identifies as queer and is married to a transgender man . Based primarily online, the movement is open and accessible to all, while remaining aware and sensitive to the divisions and diverse identities within the black community.
Although it is framed in racial terms, BLM does not exclude White ‘allies’ who wish to take part. While defending Black lives and rights, activists within the movement are aware that many White people are knowledgeable and actively interested in improving the living conditions and inequalities of African Americans. Members of the hacktivist group Anonymous, Black celebrities, conservatives against the abuse of power by police officers, Democrats, and a considerable number of young people continue to support and participate in the movement. The aim is to maximize participation so that the stories of diverse individuals can be heard and so that no one group within the movement can claim superiority over another.
Thanks to the low barriers to entry, BLM has been able to move their online activity to the streets. Being a Black, multiracial, feminist, non-denominational, and youth movement, it allows a broad section of the Black and allied population to join BLM in various forms, both online and offline. Unlike more insular movements or protest groups like Anonymous and “black blocs,” BLM supporters dress in everyday clothes and show their faces in public, reinforcing the idea that anyone can and should be part of the movement.
To open access to all, activists used newly developed social media that quickly reached thousands of like-minded people across the country, rejecting the traditional movement structure centered on a charismatic male and a top-down decision-making process. Black people marginalized by institutions and their own community have thus played a central and highly visible role in the formation of BLM and in the ongoing work of the movement. In this sense, BLM does not select participants. Rather, they all struggle for social justice in general, and against the discrimination experienced by Black people, particularly young victims of violence and police abuse.
Methods and Tools Used
BLM is a powerful but diffuse movement, linked not by physical proximity or political consensus, but by the mobilizing force of social media. A single word, hashtag, or video on sites like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter connects the stories of victims of police violence and transcends geographic boundaries. Even a single, shared image on Facebook has been shown to mobilize a large number of people in just a few minutes. Events are no longer invisible and disparate, but visible to the general public and interrelated. Deliberation and information sharing is first and foremost online. Activists communicate online and build solidarity through virtual networks that give their distinct voices national attention and mass power. Deliberation and decision-making take place on the internet—an extension of the public sphere—thanks to the massive sharing of openly accessible information by Internet users.
In terms of in-person activities and interaction aside from street protests, participants have pursued advocacy work using mainstream media and dialogue with politicians, which are key elements of policy change. Indeed, political and social realities have shown that it is not enough to participate online; it is also necessary to act and meet those with the decision-making power to advance the movement’s cause through policy and institutional change. As a result, the movement has increased its visibility and begun a powerful, national conversation on police misconduct and racial inequality.
BLM members’ engagement with politicians and the press varies between the conventional—letters to representatives, open dialogues, and petitions—and the confrontational—litigation and protest. Its tactics continuously evolve, shifting from large to small scale, and from periodic or time-limited events to long-term, sustained action.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Following the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, protest movements calling for reform of the criminal justice system spread quickly within online social networks. As an extension of the public sphere, the Internet provides the BLM movement with a political forum to publicly share and preserve personal stories of abuse and the memory of the victims. In using the Internet, Black Lives Matter taps into an existing space to mobilize and share information in the struggle for the liberation of Black communities. Through social networks and phone calls, BLM have been able to connect and unite people across the country. The original online movement and the use of #BlackLivesMatter was a celebration and humanization of Black lives that would eventually coalesce into a more sustained, organized attempt to change political institutions.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
As the movement has matured, deliberation and information sharing have remained largely online. Depending on how they are managed or moderated, online deliberations and interaction can be conflictual or constructive, given participants’ diverse backgrounds. Even if the causes are not seen and experienced as being the same, individuals—often younger members of the Black community and adherents to conservative ideologies—can still find common ground if dialogue is centered on the common goal of ending police or state abuse.
The movement's most resourceful activists believe that the whole organization cannot remain online and that in-person action and face-to-face engagement are essential. There is thus a need to at least unite around a common message, under a common cause, to effectively present as a collective and to exercise the persuasive power needed to bring about institution-level changes toward the goal of racial equity.
The slogan Black Lives Matter became attractive, especially during the protests that followed the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown and murder of Floyd, because they created a common cause with martyrs to organize around. At that point, the movement was able to move from virtual, online life to the streets. One of the reasons online interaction and the use of a hashtag spread so quickly and easily is that the medium forces organizers to distill the complexities of police brutality, racial inequality, and social justice into a simple, easy-to-remember slogan. Offering an umbrella for dispersed social justice campaigns and individuals to unite under creates the opportunity to address a variety of issues and demands. Alternatively, it can cause fracturing down the road and lead to the dismantling of the social movement before any life-changing alterations to the existing political, social, and economic system can be achieved.
Nevertheless, BLM continues to use social media to connect people who share the same struggles and values, and to organize and mobilize participants for in-person marches and demonstrations. The movement relies on the ability of social media to act as a deliberative arena for the exchange, collaboration, and strategizing of BLM’s actions and goals. It is yet to be seen whether social media can sustain a coherent, collective political agenda and develop the capacities necessary to achieve its goals. At the very least, social media has allowed those unable to participate in physical, in-person events to show their support, engage in conversation, donate money to the cause, and share knowledge and information on a serious socio-political issue.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
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