Black Lives Matter: How It Started and What It Stands For
It began with a few words that soon became a hashtag on social media: Black Lives Matter. It was July 2013 and George Zimmerman had just been acquitted in the shooting death of unarmed Black teenager Trayvon Martin.
It was another blow to the Black community. A community that is still terrorized by white supremacists, routinely brutalized by the police, and pursued by suburban vigilantes (we can’t forget about “BBQ Becky” and friends).
“Black Lives Matter” Is Born
Sitting in a bar with her friends, Alicia Garza saw the news of Zimmerman’s acquittal and took to Facebook with an impassioned response:
“Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter, Black Lives Matter.”
Patrisse Cullors, a community organizer from Los Angeles, shared the post with a hashtag: #BlackLivesMatter.
It wasn’t long before Garza, Cullors, and fellow black community organizer Opal Tometi co-founded Black Lives Matter (BLM) as an online campaign.
BLM gained national recognition during demonstrations in 2014 after the police-involved deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Its first in-person demonstration was a Black Lives Matter Freedom Ride to Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown was shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson.
From 2014 to 2016 BLM’s founders expanded their project into a national network of over 30 local chapters.
The Evolution of Black Lives Matter
Today Black Lives Matter is an international movement against systemic racism towards Black people. The movement is decentralized and has no formal hierarchy, and BLM chapters function mostly independently. Here’s how the BLM website describes it:
“The Black Lives Matter Global Network is a chapter-based, member-led organization whose mission is to build local power and to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.”
The BLM movement has already had many successes, including exposing rampant police corruption in Baltimore, Chicago, Ferguson, and Cleveland. And it has been influential in ending the reigns of state prosecutors with questionable records, including Anita Alvarez, who waited 13 months to bring charges against the officer who shot Laquan McDonald, and Tim McGinty, who oversaw grand jury proceedings that resulted in no charges being filed against the officer who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
Black Lives Matter Guiding Principles
Despite criticisms to the contrary, BLM describes itself as an inclusive, expansive movement. The BLM website explicitly acknowledges Black queer and trans folks, the disabled and undocumented, people with criminal records, women, and other vulnerable communities.
BLM is guided by the idea that Black lives matter, regardless of gender identity or expression, economic status, ability, disability, religious beliefs, immigration status, or geographic location. The movement works for freedom and justice for all Black people, and, by extension, all people. Read more about BLM’s guiding beliefs.
Criticisms of BLM
BLM is unapologetically Black in its positioning and doesn’t feel it needs to qualify this position. But the very name of the movement has sparked criticism and backlash. Since BLM’s founding in 2013, it has been challenged by counter movements and slogans.
Among them, “all lives matter,” a common refrain that is based on either a misunderstanding or intentional misinterpretation of what “black lives matter” means.
The reactionary group “White Lives Matter” has been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (torch-wielding alt-right protestors chanted “white lives matter” during the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia).
BLM co-founder Alicia Garza has responded to criticisms that BLM is separatist, racist, or anti-police this way: “#BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean your life isn’t important—it means that Black lives, which are seen without value within White supremacy, are important to your liberation.”
The Movement Continues
Despite its critics over the years, Black Lives Matter has helped shape an entire generation of activists. Today it’s one of the most influential movements of the post-civil rights era.
The BLM movement continues because the struggle continues.
Less than 2 weeks before posting this blog, a Black doctor was harassed and handcuffed by a police officer in front of his home for no apparent reason (the encounter was captured on video) while loading a van with supplies to help unhoused folks in Miami during the coronavirus pandemic. To add insult to injury, the officer wore no facemask or gloves, putting the doctor at risk.
Black Lives Matter has changed the way we talk about police violence and the systemic racism Black people face in America and around the world. The movement is here to stay, and the conversations are long overdue.