The origins of Black Lives Matter (BLM) started in response to the death of 17-year-old aeronautical science enthusiast, Trayvon Martin. The young man, who was returning home after buying Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea, died at the hands of a racist neighborhood watch volunteer in February 2012. Records indicate that it took forty-four days for the killer to be arrested, only to be acquitted by a jury of primarily white women.
Stunned and disappointed by the acquittal, Oakland-based activist Alicia Garza created a Facebook post on July 13, 2013, professing: “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter. Black Lives Matter.” That last phrase, “Black Lives Matter”, was turned into what is now the ubiquitous hashtag by activist Patrisse Cullors and began trending on Twitter. Community organizer Opal Tometi agreed to build out social media platforms so that activists and allies could connect and organically foster strategic planning. And, thus, Black Lives Matter—the movement—was launched online serving as a serious call-to-action. According to Cullors, “It is a tool to reimagine a world where Black people are free to exist, free to live… it is a tool for our allies to show up differently for us.”
The response to the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter triggered mobilization efforts calling for police accountability and law reform. BLM activists have been known to confront presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at political rallies, but have also organized freedom rides, highway shutdowns, sit-ins and die-ins to shed light on the relevant issues to affect change. Their ongoing online campaigns against racial profiling, police brutality, and inequality due to racism in the criminal justice system are sustained by the rallying cry for measurable improvements in policing. All of this is centered on the foundational intersection of race relations and deadly force by cops in the United States.
Any student of Black history knows that there’s always been a movement for Black lives, certainly before BLM. So this type of organizing is a legitimate continuation of the Freedom Struggle. The 2013 murders of Eric Garner and Michael Brown Jr., both at the hands of officers who were not charged, drove home the feeling that Black lives, in fact, do not matter to the powers who uphold the criminal justice system. As the world watched during each of these tragedies, organized protests continued to be the way BLM responds to these killings. By 2014 #BlackLivesMatter was being used on Twitter over 50,000 times a day in relation to organizing.
Even with the Obama administration willing to speak out against racial discrimination, activists felt that they should have done more to dismantle the oppressive systems in place to protect law enforcement who seem to be licensed to kill. Though harsh critics, BLM representatives were invited to the White House to discuss policy solutions and desired outcomes. Leading up to the 2016 election, however, opponents of BLM began hashtags #AllLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter. By 2020, the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor set the tone for utter outrage and palpable frustrations to explode after the unjust murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic and the threat of contracting coronavirus, massive Black Lives Matter protests broke out across America. On May 30th, a global rally was held for Floyd, and by summer civil unrest in the name of George Floyd was documented in 2,000 cities and towns in all 50 states, five U.S. territories, and in over 60 other countries. The world was demanding change and accountability for the violence and corruption at the hands of law enforcement. BLM protestors continue to demand reform such as defunding police departments, suggesting instead that funding healthcare (including mental health), education and community programs will bring about true change. The ultimate goal is to create actionable solutions to the main issue of over-policing, use of deadly force towards Blacks by officers, and accountability for cops who cross the line.
Athletes like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James have been vocal supporters of #BlackLivesMatter from early in the movement, and these days celebrities, politicians, and just about every corporate Twitter account uses the hashtag in solidarity with these calls-to-action. The movement gained further momentum with the naming of Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C. near the White House prompting BLM murals to be painted on roads across America. The co-founders of Black Lives Matter were featured on the cover of Time Magazine though Alicia Garza never imagined at the time of posting her love note to Black America that all of this would be the outcome. In a CBS Sunday Morning interview, she reflected, “I wanted to make sure that we were in a place that really represents the legacy and the enduring tradition of Black organizing and Black resistance.”
In Brooklyn, the Black Lives Matter movement has taken shape with calls of police reform within the NYPD. Governor Cuomo has also set an April 2021 deadline for municipalities to redesign their police departments or risk losing state funding. The first BLM mural was painted in bright yellow letters on Fulton Street at Restoration Plaza in Bedford-Stuyvesant before others were painted on city blocks in Harlem, Midtown and Queens. Throughout summer these street-painted murals were the settings for protests and uplifting (socially distanced) community events. Organizing took the form of traditional marches, shutting down Brooklyn Bridge traffic, and other non-traditional forms of resistance. Newer facets of the BLM movement have also taken shape in Brooklyn. The Black Trans Lives March was held with throngs of protestors and activists taking over Eastern Parkway in front of the Brooklyn Museum. Also, over 100 activists—mostly Black Muslim women—participated in a BLM protest by performing their daily prayer ritual in the plaza of the Barclays Center. Their motivation was to bring awareness to the Black women like Rekia Boyd and Natasha McKenna who have also suffered at the hands of law enforcement yet are often forgotten or erased from the narrative.
Locally, the influence of BLM is seen in organizations like The Building Black Bed-Stuy Committee that “was formed in response to stagnant growth when it comes to accumulating black wealth and gentrification.” Brooklyn-based entrepreneur and design visionary Kai Avent-deLeon, owner of lifestyle concept shop Sincerely, Tommy, co-founded the committee “to protect and preserve the Black community in her neighborhood.” Last year’s BLM protests motivated Avent-deLeon to use Instagram as a platform to provide helpful resources for those who want to support the movement, and to date has raised over $102,000. Aurora James, creative director and founder of shoe and handbag line Brother Vellies in Brooklyn, created Seeking Shelf Space and the 15% Pledge, a call to “multi-brand retailers and corporations to dedicate 15% of their total purchasing power to supporting Black-owned businesses.” Their mission is “to encourage the private sector—from Fortune 500 companies to individual consumers—to use their financial power to create more equitable market share for Black-owned businesses.” So far, companies like Sephora, MedMen, West Elm, Yelp, the U.S. edition of Vogue and Macy’s have joined the pledge. Her goal is to see a Black-owned business that benefited from the pledge reach a $100 million valuation. Then there’s Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, who is a Brooklyn based investigative journalist known for her coverage of civil rights in the United States. In 2020, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her introductory essay to the 1619 Project that "aims to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States' national narrative."
Not so long ago, there were considerable debates about the relevance of what some like to call “armchair activism” or “slacktivism.” There were negative connotations based on “the practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media or online petitions, characterized as involving very little effort or commitment.” Yet, given the data pointing to the many 21st century revolutions that began with a mere hashtag, we should readily acknowledge the direct impact of online social engagement on in person activism that challenges the status quo. Over the last eight years, the most prolific of justice seeking movements that has taken shape on the timelines of social media platforms is that of #BlackLivesMatter.