With the recent killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, along with the shooting of several police officers in Dallas, #BlackLivesMatter is at the forefront of political activism. The hashtag is several years old, used most widely on twitter but also on t-shirts and protest signs. It has caused controversy not only from the hashtag itself, but also the city-stopping protests.
Historically, black people and communities have protested against the violations of their civil rights. Institutional racism around the world has a long history and seemingly continues today, in a world we like to think of as equal. Organisations such as the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have played a large role in the development of civil rights, and whilst these organisations gained notoriety throughout the twentieth century, individuals also caught the attention of the media, such as the cases of Rosa Parks and Brown vs. Board of Education. These groups protested against frequent lynching and segregation as well as against other discriminatory practices common at the time.
Another well known activist group from the twentieth century, The Black Panther Party, originated with efforts to make members of the black community safe from police brutality in a community in California, and later developed into a much larger political movement, and reactionary group that was born out of what they believed to be the failures of the pacifist counterparts.
Today, discrimination exists both subtly and more visibly. Black people are seemingly given longer prison sentences than white people and are disproportionately likely to live in poverty, often as a direct result of black people being excluded from important services and support.
These issues have created a culture where civil rights activists argue black lives as less valuable, and it is this message that Black Lives Matter have set out to destroy.
It began in 2012 when George Zimmerman fatally shot black teenager, Trayvon Martin. Later, in 2013, he was acquitted of murder of the 17-year-old, a ruling that drew outrage across the world. In the time between, Trayvon Martin’s life was dissected in the media, and activists accused news outlets of posthumously placing him on trial, implying that his murder could be justified if he had the right criminal background.
Alicia Garcia posted on Facebook about Trayvon Martin’s death in July 2013, ending with the statement ‘Black Lives Matter‘. Another friend, Patrisse Cullors, shared this, adding #BlackLivesMatter, and the hashtag was born. The two were close friends, activists and community leaders, and they reached out to a third activist, Opal Tometi, and together the three of them started circulating the hashtag across social media. Eventually, other people joined the movement, producing events, posters, and clothing that helped the campaign reach further than social media would allow it.
In August 2014, Michael Brown was fatally shot by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. After the shooting, protests broke out, and soon #BlackLivesMatter was in common use across the country. Protests continued throughout the rest of the year, as the grand jury deliberated and ultimately decided that Darren Wilson should not be indicted.
However, high profile deaths of black men at the hands of police have continued across the country. In November 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, a child playing with a toy gun, was fatally shot by police. His sister was thrown to the ground when she attempted to run to her brother.
Again, in April 2015, Freddie Gray died in hospital due to injuries sustained while he was in the back of a police van. Not long after, in June, protestors rallied after the Charleston Church Massacre, in which white supremacist support, Dylann Roof, shot and killed nine black people, leaving more injured. In July 2015, Eric Garner died after police officers put him in a chokehold after questioning him for selling cigarettes illegally. His last words, ‘I can’t breathe’ echoed around the country and online, and like the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’ soon became a powerful statement from protesters wanting justice and an end to police brutality.
As time has progressed, the Black Lives Matter movement diversified its goals. Along with protesting police brutality against black people, rallies have been held to protest against violence toward trans women, against the widespread use of the confederate flag, and campaigned for economic equality.
Their influence grew, with presidential candidates discussing the movement in televised debates. They protested rallies for presumptive nominee Donald Trump, often facing violence from Trump supporters.
Many activists have been arrested over the course of the movement. One source alleges hundreds of activists were arrested this July, including prominent campaigner DeRay Mckesson. Critics of the movement have argued that protestors are too disruptive in their protests, shutting down areas of the city and forcing a halt to Toronto Pride Festival. Others have argued that the movement is too focused on hating white people and police officers. Some have campaigned for #AllLivesMatter to be used instead, though Black Lives Matter has responded to point out that it is not all lives that are endangered by police brutality, but disproportionately black lives.
This controversy was further ignited by the recent shootings in Dallas, where a black man described as a sniper shot police officers, ultimately killing five. The shooting took place during a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest. Micah Johnson, the shooter, was said to be acting out of anger at killings of black men by white police officers, but was not affiliated with any group. Johnson spent time deployed in Afghanistan but was sent home in order to face sexual harassment charges, and his family say that when he returned he was a ‘changed man’. He was blacklisted by local Black activist groups, deemed unfit for recruitment, and felt huge amount of anger at injustice in the world, particularly involving the government and the police. Since the shooting, discussion around Black Lives Matter has been varied in tone, with some denouncing the movement as condoning violence.
Over the three years the movement has been active, it has gained supporters across the world, with rallies of solidarity being held in cities such as London, Dublin, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Cape Town. The widespread awareness that #BlackLivesMatter has created is no small achievement, but as black people continue to suffer from police brutality, the campaign must go on.