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Black Lives Matter: A Short-Lived Phenomenion or an Ongoing Movement?

Updated on January 7, 2016

In 2014, Black Lives Matter suddenly burst upon the scene in Ferguson, Missouri, in response to the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. But, in reality, the movement dates back to 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing Travon Martin. It began with a hashtag and quickly morphed into an international organization. “By October, the disparate demonstrations had transformed into a united movement,” Alisa Robinson wrote in her article Black Lives Matter: The Evolution of a Movement.

But the relevant question is whether the movement will soon fade into oblivion or blossom into a long-lived struggle for black liberation. A few things about Black Lives Matter may suggest a possible answer to the question.

Intended Meaning

On the surface, Black Lives Matter is self-defined, but many have intentionally or unintentionally ill-defined it in their negative responses to it. For example, John Perazza wrote: “…it seems difficult to imagine anyone taking issue with the obvious, self-evident truth articulated by these three simple words, but when we peel away the veneer of deception, we find that Black Lives Matter is in fact one of the most destructive, hateful, and racist movements in living memory.”

What it does not mean: The meaning of Black Lives Matter may, first, be defined by what it is not. It is not a destructive, hateful, and racist organization, and it does not mean that other lives don’t matter, as some have claimed. Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of the group, stated: “It doesn’t mean your life isn’t important—it means that black lives, which are seen as without value within white supremacy, are important to [black] liberation.” Cullors made it crystal clear here that Black Lives Matter was never intended to mean black lives are the only lives that matter.

A rhetorical slogan: Secondly, Black Lives Matter is a rhetorical slogan. It serves as “a rallying cry for all black people striving for liberation,” as stated on Black Lives Matter’s website. It is “brilliant in its simplicity, expressing so much in so few words,” added Khury Petersen-Smith. Because of this brilliant simplicity, the statement has great appeal to other groups—brown, migrants, women, and so on. For example, many groups have adapted it to their groups, and some media groups have used it, even against the demand of the founders who gave them permission to use it if they would give credit to its source. The founders called the violation of the agreement “the theft of black queer women’s work.”

The American Dialect Society chose it “as their word of the year for 2014,” and 1,100 “black professors expressed support for it,” according to The Economist. As a rhetorical slogan, the three-word statement is so appealing that it even appeared in an episode of Law and Order: SVU.

An organization: Black lives matter is more than a self-evident truth, a rhetorical slogan, or a rallying cry; it is a “chapter-based international organization, working to validate black life and to re-erect the black liberation movement.” Its website lists ten chapters on the East Coast, eight on the West Coast, five in the Mid-West, four in the South, and one International: Toronto, Canada—twenty-eight chapters all total.

These chapters are “a network predicated on black self-determination” and, therefore, each chapter has the right to limit participation, according to the website. Also, the chapters have varying membership policies.

A Unique Organization

Black Lives Matter is a unique organization. It is unique, first of all, in that it was organized by three young black millennial women—Alicia Garza, 34; Opal Tometi, 31; and Patrisse Cullors, 31—who were already greatly accomplished professionals and well-experienced activists, according to Wikipedia.

Cullors graduated with a B. A. degree in Religion and Philosophy from UCLA, co-founded the prison activism organization, Dignity and Power Now; served on the board of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights; participated in the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership; received a Fulbright Scholarship and the Sidney Goldfarb award; and was named 2007 Mario Savio Young Activist of the year and 2015 NAACP History Maker of the year.

Tometi received a B.A. degree in History and an M.A. degree in Communication and Advocacy from the University of Arizona. She is a writer, a strategist, a community organizer, and Executive Director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration. She was featured as a new civil rights leader by Essence magazine in 2014 and by The Los Angeles Times in 2013, listed in the Root 100 list of African American Achievers between 25 and 45 and the Cosmopolitan Top 100 list of extraordinary women, and was named on the Politico 50 2015 Guide to Thinkers, Doers, and Visionaries. Finally, she is a student of liberation theology.

Garza is a writer, whose work is published in the Guardian, The Nation, The Feminist Wire, and The War Times magazine. She served as Director of People Organized to Win Employment Rights, as Special Projects Director of National Domestic Alliance and, later, as Executive Director. Also, she served as a board member of Forward Together (Oakland California branch), and was involved with Organizing for Leadership and Dignity.

These three extraordinary women gave birth to this unique organization.

Secondly, the organization is unique in its affirmation statement. Unlike other civil rights organizations, it affirms the contributions of all black people—women, gays, transgender, disabled, undocumented, and black people with criminal records. It “goes beyond extrajudicial killings of black people by police and vigilantes” and “beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within black communities, which merely call on black people to love black, live black, and buy black, keeping straight…black men in the front of the movement while our sisters (queer and transgender) and disable folk take up roles in the background or not at all,” as stated on Black Lives Matter’s official website.

Thirdly, Black Lives Matter is unique in that it includes “all the ways in which blacks are left powerless”—poverty and genocide, 2.8 million blacks locked in prisons, women bearing the burden of assault on children and families, burdens hetero-patriarchal society put on gays and transgender people, the relegation to the shadows of 500,000 undocumented black immigrants, using black girls as negotiating chips during the time on conflict and war, and attempting to squeeze blacks into boxes of normality defined by white supremacy, according to Black Lives Matter website.

Without a doubt, Black Lives Matter is a unique organization. It is perhaps the only international civil rights group that is organized and led by black women and includes blacks of all stripes (as victims of the state and as leaders of the organization), and that affirms so many ways in which blacks are rendered powerless.

Evolution of the Movement

Since 2013, the movement has evolved, perhaps, into one of the most effective civil rights organizations since the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “In just two years, what began as a call to action over social media morphed into an international push to end the various forms of institutional and physical violence negatively impacting black people and ending lives,” stated on blacklivesmatter.com/two years later. Eric Gardner’s killing sparked about 62 demonstrations; and Michael Brown’s, about 264. From these demonstrations, the movement evolved into “a united cause aimed at subverting the systematic devaluation of (black) lives and the normalizing of the truth that all (black) lives matter.”

It has held demonstrations in every major city in the country and has connected with and inspired other movements—Students for Justice in Palestine, Native Lives Matter, and Hong Kong’s prodemocracy marches. Within approximately “523 days,” beginning July 19, 2014, “the movement held at least 1149 demonstrations,” according to a record kept at Elephame.com.

As the movement evolved, it forced changes in governmental policy. A few examples are: President Obama called for an end to transfer of certain kinds of military-style equipment from federal government to police departments, and the FBI announced new efforts to improve its tracking of fatal police shootings; and Chicago and Baltimore mayors fired police chiefs.

Moving beyond protesting police brutality, the movement “expanded its reach onto the campaign trail and college campuses,” stated The Atlantic. It “forced presidential candidates to reckon with the legacy of racism and police brutality,” forced Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley to released detailed criminal-justice platforms, and forced resignations at the University of Missouri and Yale University.

Yet the movement has faced backlash from friend and foe. A few examples are listed: Friends of the group raised questions about the in-your-face tactics used to block Democratic presidential candidates from speaking and the decentralization of its organization. Foes seek to discredit the group: When Donald Trump supporters attacked a protestor at a rally, Trump said, “Maybe he should have been roughed up.”

Black Lives Matter.com/two-years-later-black-lives-matter-faces-critiques-but-it won’t-be-stopped responded to the backlash. Three statements from the document follow:

  • This is not a movement where a sole leader reigns from on high. Work is often in collaboration with other local groups, which continue to shape the national focus.

  • Black Lives Matter members are accountable to their communities, each other, the network of communities and the larger movement as a whole.

  • Looking to the future: It takes time to reimagine a world free from anti-black racism, sexism, trans-misogyny, and economic disenfranchisement and envision what policies, practices, and spaces are necessary for black people to thrive.

The Future of Black Lives Matter

What has been shown here about Black Lives Matter implies that the organization may have longevity. It is implied, first, in the truth about the meaning of black lives matter—it is an appealing rallying cry for racial equality that may be longed remembered and used; it is an international organization, with chapters in all sections of the country and Canada; it embraces black people of all stripes; and it addresses the many ways in which black lives are rendered powerless.

It is implied, secondly, by its extraordinary founders with their extensive resumes, available platforms, and deep commitment to black liberation.

It is implied, thirdly, by its extraordinary achievements in such a short period of time—forced presidential candidates to reckon with the legacy of racism and police brutality, moved the President to end transfer of military-style equipment from the federal government to police departments, led the FBI to improve its tracking of fatal police shorting, and forced the Democratic presidential candidates to create policy statements in harmony with its work.

It is implied, lastly, by the fact that the issues driving Black Lives Matter are issues that, perhaps, will not be solved in the lifetime of anybody living today.

This implication is just what the term implies—implication. But only time will tell whether Black Lives Matter will live long or die young. The hope of the world is that it will not need long life.

But that is only a hope.

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