The shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2012 sparked a movement that challenged, and challenges, US society to look at anti-black racism and state violence. Aided by social media, Black Lives Matter (BLM) is moving beyond borders and spreading across the world. It has also had a profound impact on the tone of the US Presidential election – a key moment of exposure being the disruption of Bernie Sander’s campaign rally in Seattle.
The issues articulated by BLM are not new. They identify issues such as mass incarceration (2.8 million black people are locked up by the state), violence against black people (in 2015 about one in every 65 deaths of young African Americans was at the hand of the police), and 500,000 undocumented black immigrants as examples of Black people being systematically dehumanised by the state and society. However, this is a movement with a difference. For one, it is unabashedly intersectional. ‘Intersectionality’ was a term coined by US academic Kimberlé Crenshaw and has had a resurgence in the 21st century. Crenshaw argues that the problem with identity politics is that it “frequently conflates or ignores intragroup differences.” When looking at violence against women for example, “this elision of difference is problematic, fundamentally because the violence that many women experience is often shaped by other dimensions of their identity, such as race and class.”
BLM has taken this perspective seriously. It was a movement started by three women, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza, and it states that it is a movement that moves “beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within Black communities” to address and advocate for the experiences of black disabled people, black women, and queer and trans black people. BLM consciously and actively engages with the multifaceted experiences of black people. This is in direct contrast to some of the notable civil rights movements, such as the 1995 Million March, that focused more closely on the experiences of straight black men.
Furthermore, BLM is challenging the notions of leadership. When looking at US civil rights movement from the 50s to the 90s, we might look to the strong and charismatic leading political and cultural figures, from Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, to Nina Simone and Assata Shakur. When looking at BLM, it is hard to pin-point leaders. Of course, the movement has gained prominence through certain name-recognition: including, and more importantly, the names of the victims of police brutality, and through music such as Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé. However, the type of model of leadership diverges from previous civil rights movements: and this is intentional. BLM seeks to empower local leaders and anyone who can offer their talents or expertise.
One could argue that, in terms of its strategy, BLM has much more in common with the Occupy movement than it does with the dominant images of US civil rights movements that we have received over the years. It draws its strength from a different model of activism: combining grassroots organising with social media, direct action with localised concerns. It has created spaces for organisation and discussion, and has refrained from defining what those spaces should look like. This shares many parallels with the Occupy movement. It centred on the gross inequality between the 1% and the 99% This constituted a broad uniting message, but it was also malleable enough to accommodate different groups to confront injustices in their own communities across the US and the world. Under the banner of Occupy, protestors in Wall Street can protest against corporate greed, but in the community, Occupy groups have, for instances, organised to fight foreclosures and stop people being evicted from their homes, and have organised to support the victims of Hurricane Sandy. Similarly, the activism of BLM was triggered by outrage over the issue of police brutality, but it is flexible enough to embrace more localised issues like the Flint water crisis: highlighting that the scandal is an example of structural racism and state violence because the 57% African-American population have been denied access to clean water. The argument goes, that had the residents of Flint been white and middle class this problem would not have arisen.
Fundamentally, BLM was triggered by police brutality, but its methods and model chart a new territory from previous civil rights movements. It offers a mixture of intersectional perspectives and local organising united under a desire to challenge state racism. In terms of the dynamics of the movements, more parallels can be made between Occupy and BLM than with civil rights movements, but there are key differences in terms of the issues and demographics (Occupy was largely driven by white middle class). I will be watching with interest to see how BLM continues to build in the US and across the world, and what its impact will be on (and following) the US Presidential Election.
Pouneh Ahari is a Young Fabian member attending the USA Delegation. You can follow her on @pounehahari.