That simple yet provocative hashtag was created on the back of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood-watch coordinator who fatally shot 17-year-old unarmed African-American, Trayvon Martin in February 2012. The deceased teenager would later be posthumously placed on trial for his own murder.
34-year-old community organizer Alicia Garza took to Facebook to post her feelings towards the case and when friends Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi (an activist and feminist writer, respectively) added a hashtag to her words, Black Lives Matter was born.
But just who are the three women behind one of America’s most powerful and influential movements?
The three women met through the Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity (BOLD) program, which they were each a member of; the program was designed to help rebuild Black social justice infrastructure.
The leader and spokesperson of the three – Garza – was, at the time, also the Special Projects Director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, an organisation which works closely to ensure the fair treatment of individuals working in the domestic sectors across America.
Evidently, Garza has always been an active member of community projects and a voice of discontent towards the American government’s treatment of minority groups. Her sharp-tongued activism against governmental powers has seen her come under attack from the conservative press, who question whether she is merely an idealist rather than the revolutionary people claim.
Journalist John Perazzo wrote in FrontPage Magazine that Garza was ‘a young woman who candidly reveres Assata Shakur – the Marxist revolutionary, former Black Panther, and convicted cop-killer whose 1979 escape to Fidel Castro’s Cuba was facilitated by the Weather Underground Organization and the Black Liberation Army. Others whom Garza praises for “extraordinary” accomplishments include Angela Davis (a Marxist and former Black Panther) and Ella Baker (an avowed socialist who had ties to the Communist Party USA and the Weather Underground).
What is most alarming in Perazzo’s article, however, is his scathing summary of what Black Lives Matter represent as a movement: ‘Black Lives Matter (BLM) is in fact one of the most destructive, hateful, racist movements in living memory. Founded by a core group of revolutionaries who detest the United States and revere the nation’s most devoted radical enemies, BLM is, at its essence, an ideological reincarnation of the Black Panther movement that flourished in the Sixties.’
As passionate and intriguing of an argument he puts forward however, it’s hard to detach Perazzo’s criticisms from the political bias it’s so deeply rooted in.
Granted, extrajudicial killings have dropped by 70% since the Sixties and the days of the Black Panthers where almost 100 black men were killed annually by the police in the U.S. However, African-Americans today still comprise 26% of police shootings even though they only makeup 13% of the U.S. population. What does this tell us?
There have been arguments that the words “Black Lives Matter” has connotations of erasing the matter of other lives, which has led to some trying to coin the hashtag, #AllLivesMatter. But, in the face of African-Americans being unlawfully murdered by the hands of the State that are there to protect, isn’t this response hugely offensive? Julia Craven, writing in the Huffington Post, says: ‘When I say “Black lives matter,” it is because this nation has a tendency to say otherwise. Racial discrimination does affect all minorities but police brutality, at such excessive rates, does not.’
Garza herself denounced the mainstream adaptations of the original hashtag: ‘#BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean your life isn’t important – it means that black lives, which are seen as without value within white supremacy, are important to your liberation. Changing Black Lives Matter to All Lives Matter is a demonstration of how we don’t actually understand structural racism in this country. If you really believe that all lives matter, you will fight like hell for black lives.’
Irrespective of where one stands on the movement, it is hard to ignore the achievements of BLM in such a short space of time. To date, there has been nearly 700 demonstrations worldwide and recently their influence saw more than 500 black people from around the U.S. journey to Ferguson to offer their support in response to the shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014. the group also inspired the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture, which was adopted by players of the St. Louis Rams and even lawmakers in the United States House of Representatives.
At the time of writing, marches and protests are occurring on a near daily basis, the latest demonstration being against the unjust shooting of Ezell Ford who was killed by policemen, Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas last summer as part of an “investigative stop”.
Such is the power BLM has these days when Walter Scott was shot dead by a white policeman in April this year, the shocking footage was captured on video by bystander Feidin Santana and immediately passed on to the group. It was through fierce pressure and collected footage that led to the arrest of the police officer, attracting worldwide media attention in the process.
In a world where black people aged between 19 and 25 are 4.5 times more likely to be killed by police than any other age or racial group, something in America is fundamentally wrong. It remains to be seen whether Black Lives Matter could well be the much-needed answer. Perhaps their brand of reactive outrage will prove damaging to the already-strained race relations in the US. Or maybe this kind of vocalisation and mobilisation is exactly the kind of jolt which will snap the country from its apparent disillusionment.