On July 13, 2013, George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, was acquitted on the charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter. This acquittal led to outrage throughout the nation from many African Americans and allies who believed it to be a result of a racist system. As people took to social media, the hashtag #blacklivesmatter grew in popularity.
But unlike most hashtags, this one became a movement.
Over the past three years, Black Lives Matter (BLM) has attracted a sizable following across the nation. BLM’s biggest asset as an organized movement is their ability to strategically mobilize large groups of people. In Chicago, BLM protestors shut down the magnificent mile, a space generally known for its high-class shopping, choosing a location that would garner optimal attention and exposure. Their movement strives to provide visualization to those deaf and blind to the systemically racist injustices that pervade black lives every day.
The 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black male, brought widespread attention to the issue of violence caused by racism against African Americans. Soon afterwards in 2014, Michael Brown, a young black man, was shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. The two had an altercation in which Wilson shot Brown, who was unarmed. Later that year Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy, was shot by two police officers while he was playing with a fake gun. In the years following, there has been a string of incidences that have brought into question biases within the justice system. These include the deaths of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Natasha McKenna, Freddie Gray and many others. Just in this past month alone, Alton Sterling was shot while pinned down by two officers and Philando Castile, was killed while reaching for his license and registration as the police officer had allegedly instructed.
After each of these events, the hashtag #blacklivesmatter became a point of discussion across media outlets everywhere. While the movement is widely known by name, there seems to be a general lack of understanding about what BLM is striving to achieve.
In a practical sense, the movement’s more primary focus lies in changing the justice system.
According to their website, BLM’s demands include “swift and transparent legal investigation of all police shootings of black people; … the demilitarization of local police forces; and community accountability mechanisms for rogue police officers.”
All of these demands are made with the goal of dismantling America’s prison industrial complex, which notably affects minorities the most.
According to the Center for American Progress, people of color make up just 13 percent of the population. However, 60 percent of those incarcerated are people of color, 40 percent of whom are black.
Statistics like this display the disproportionate way that black people are affected by the U.S. Criminal Justice System.
The Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, which was done by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, found that blacks are more than twice as likely to be searched at traffic stops compared to their white counterparts. According to the NAACP, the rate of incarceration for blacks is almost six times that of whites. The Center for American Progress states that one in three black males born in 2001 will go to prison, while only one out of 17 white males is expected to do so.
The stories behind these statistics helped form the basis of the BLM movement, which developed around dismantling the false presumptions that members of the black community are dangerous or predisposed to criminality,
The movement hasn’t been welcomed on all sides. BLM has been called racist and is occasionally viewed as an anti-police movement.
But these are all misunderstandings of the nature of BLM. The narrative of #blacklivesmatter doesn’t paint black lives as being worth more than white lives, or Latino lives, or blue lives. What is implied by the movement is that black lives matter, too – the justice system just treats them as if they don’t.
BLM represents the black men who are likely to be given prison sentences that are 20 percent longer than those of white men, but deserve the same chance of rehabilitation that Brock Turner received.
In light of the fatal shooting of several police officers in Dallas, as well as incidents in Baton Rouge, July has seen an increase of backlash against BLM. Some think the ongoing BLM protests against police instigated these violent incidents. However, according to the official website of BLM, they are not an anti-police movement. But still, there are those that persist that one cannot support BLM and support police officers at the same time.
“They don’t mean ‘black lives matter’, they mean ‘let’s agitate against the police matters,’” Rudy Giuliani said in an interview with Fox News.
However, BLM’s goal is not to make the world an unsafe place for police officers, but to make the world less of a threat for black citizens.
BLM has also been criticized on other fronts. For one, not focusing on black-on-black crime.
Some argue that black-on-black crime is more of an issue in the black community than white cops killing black people. Statistics suggest that most crime is intraracial. The Bureau of Justice Statistics states that from 1980 to 2008, about 84 percent of white murders are committed by other white people. In the black community, that number rises to 93 percent within that same time period. The movement’s counterargument is that African Americans live in a society that provided blacks with lower-quality education, worse housing and lower wages, and therefore, it is not a surprise that more violence pervades in these communities.
The BLM movement hopes, eventually, to shift their focus to include other issues that plague the black community as a result of centuries of racism and marginalization. They hope to tackle issues such as the public education system (which is notorious for failing poor minority communities), affordable housing, food insecurity and reproductive justice challenges for women.
BLM has proven to be a powerful force in addressing the issues of racially-motivated violence. Rather than replacing previous neighborhood coalitions, they’ve partnered with them to help work on issues most pertinent to each neighborhood. In the Bay Area, they joined Fight for 15, a campaign to raise minimum wage. In Washington D.C., they focused on gentrification, and in Chicago, they partnered with Campaign Zero, an organization focused on changing policing methods through policy change.
Here in Philadelphia, the movement is partnered with the Philly Coalition for Racial, Economic, and Legal (REAL) Justice, a grassroots community organization. According to REAL’s mission statement online, their focus is to “provide a safe space for community organizations and individuals … to eliminate the system of white supremacy and police terror across all areas of racial, economic, and legal oppression.”
REAL will be leading a march against police terrorism July 26. For more information, those interested may visit the Philadelphia Coalition for REAL Justice page on Facebook.