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Black Lives Matter and Social Justice

July 28, 2016

African American writer James Baldwin once noted, "to be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage." Baldwin's words continue to echo in American society today, where racial inequality has yet to substantially dissipate. Despite the victories in Brown vs Board of Education, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act, schools and neighborhoods are re-segregating, and elements of the Voting Rights Act were recently stripped of substantial power. Forty-two percent of black children are educated in high-poverty schools. The unemployment rate for black high school dropouts is 47% (for white high-school dropouts it is 26%). Black people constitute just 13.2% of the US population, yet they account for 37% of the homeless. One in every 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised because of a felony conviction–a rate more than four times greater than the rest of the US population. Moreover, African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million people in jail and are incarcerated nearly six times as often as white people.

Following the trial of George Zimmerman in July of 2013, a number of incidents regarding police brutality reached heightened levels of publicity across the US. George Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida, who shot a 17-year-old African American named Trayvon Martin the previous year. Martin was unarmed, but Zimmerman was found not guilty of second-degree murder and was acquitted for manslaughter by a Florida jury, triggering an explosion of activism in the following months. Shortly thereafter, writer and activist Alicia Garza of Oakland, California logged on to her social media, posting a message concerning the trial, ending her post with "Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter." Her friends shared this post, which began circulating on social media, where the hashtag #blacklivesmatter began to emerge. In the following days, Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi began to formulate ideas around organizing a campaign to fight police brutality. 

On August of 2014, 18-year old African American Michael Brown was shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Similar to the Zimmerman case, Brown was unarmed. Massive protests ensued in the city, in which police officers arrived in riot gear to quell the unrest. By this point, #blacklivesmatter (often shortened to #BLM) began to permeate the posters and banners as well as the chants of people in the streets of Ferguson. Following the deaths of more young black and unarmed men, the phrase surfaced time and time again in the public sphere, specifically by political leaders and in pop culture. Garza and her peers founded the organization Black Lives Matter (BLM), which now has over 26 chapters throughout the country, including in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The Black Lives Matter organizations has been the leading voice in what has been dubbed the new civil rights movement of the era. 

This movement spurred the creation of a database called Mapping Police Violence, designed to collect statistics on police killing and violence in the United States, with a specific focus on black deaths. This research claims that at least 1,149 people were killed by police in 2014 and 26% of those were black. "In March 2015, 36 black people were killed by police—one every 21 hours, and a 71% hike in numbers from the previous month."

The BLM movement utilizes local communities that seek to include women and queer individuals. However, the BLM movement has also been criticized for the lack of a central or charismatic leadership. Yet, younger activists claim their strategy to incorporate individual agency into wide grassroots actions is more effective. Part of the movement's visibility can also be traced to the importance of social media, which is used disproportionately by young black Americans. Approximately 96% of African American Internet users between 18-29 are on social media. According to Todd Wolfson, the author of Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left, social media has become crucial to the grassroots power of these sorts of movements. "The cyber left is about flattening hierarchies, flattening governance processes, combined with using the logic of social networks for deep consensus building." Despite the effective use of social media as a tool for documentation and shaming, some activists fear its potential to divert attention from long-lasting policy change. They are also growing frustrated with the appropriation of the hashtag or groups who seek to counter the movement, such as "All Lives Matter."

One must not confuse BLM the organization with BLM the broader movement, which is composed of a number of different organizations across the country (Coalition Against Police Violence, Black Youth Project 100, etc.), which maintain a sense solidarity through social media platforms. Moreover, activists are using social media to highlight the inconsistencies and contradictions between police findings and eyewitness accounts, demanding (and in some cases achieving) greater accountability. BLM the movement has effectively employed different tactics from "die-ins," voting drives, and rallies across the United States. The movement has even warranted the attention of President Obama, who met with its leaders in the Oval Office in February of this year. The issue has also played a crucial role in debates between the democratic candidates on the campaign trail.

In May of 2015, the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing released a comprehensive report, which laid out suggestions for best policing practices to improve trust among law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. According to an Associated Press analysis released in late July, 24 states have passed at least 40 new measures following the events as Ferguson. These measures include issues regarding officer-worn cameras, training about racial bias, independent investigations when police use force, and new limits on the flow of surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies.

The local Minneapolis chapter of the BLM organization has received national attention for their incredible organizing and community work within the city and surrounding Metro area. On the busiest weekend before Christmas, it organized a protest at the biggest shopping center in the country, Mall of America. Protesters attended despite intimidation tactics being used to scare organizers from holding the protest. But the most well-known example of BLM Minneapolis organizing would be the 4th Precinct occupation following the murder of Jamar Clark on November 15th, 2015 by the Minneapolis Police Department. The occupation was sustained by mainly young, queer, black youth from the Metro area and lasted for 18 days before police moved in. Many people in Minnesota and even across the United States were confused following the rise of Black Lives Matter and many did not quite understand what the movement was trying to accomplish, and they saw it as a branch of 'Black Power.' BLM is a reaffirmation that black lives DO indeed matter despite destructive practices, including white supremacy, institutionalized racism, and police brutality. BLM seeks to change the narrative and create understanding that black lives are just as important as the lives of everyone else in this country.