Three words written on billboards nailed to home gardens across America. Painted, in giant yellow letters, on a street next to the White House. In headlines around the world, in store windows, in advertisements for major brands, in photos of social media profiles of anonymous citizens and famous people from sports, culture, politics. Black Lives Matter (BLM): Black lives matter. A three-word phrase that has catalyzed what many scholars agree to call the largest protest movement in the country’s history.
“In intensity and geographic scope, it is the largest protest movement in the history of the United States,” says Neal Caren, a professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, an expert on contemporary social movements in the North American country. “Never before have there been so many protests, for so long and in so many different communities.”
Since the May 25 death in Minneapolis of African American George Floyd At the hands of the police, there have been at least 7,750 protests associated with the Black Lives Matter movement in 2,000 localities across the nation’s 50 states and in the District of Columbia, according to a count by Princeton University and Armed Conflict Location and Event Data. Project (Acled), an organization that investigates protests around the world. Nearly one in 10 American adults said they participated in one of these protests, according to a study published in June by Civics Analytics, and half of those who said they participated in the protests said it was their first time. The vast majority of these demonstrations have been peaceful: 93% did not register any serious damage to people or property, according to the same study by Acled.
It’s hard to establish the role of Black Lives Matter, emerged seven years ago as a marginal protest movement against police brutality towards the black population, in each of the protests. But it is just as difficult to deny that it has provided a slogan, a guide, a channel of communication and a framework to attract new activists. “There is no membership card, it is more like a slogan,” explains Pamela Oliver, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, expert in collective action and social movements. “There is a wide range of people protesting and an organization trying to control their brand. At least since the civil rights movement of the sixties, we talk about complex and decentralized social protests, and now there are even multiple local organizations in the same city.
Without a hierarchy, without a manifesto, and without a clear structure, BLM has become a powerful instrument for change and a fundamental voice on the issue of race in America. Following Floyd’s death, there was a record wave of donations to groups fighting for racial justice, redrawing the map of activism in a matter of weeks. ActBlue, the leading platform for online giving for progressive causes, experienced its busiest period in June, above the highest peaks of the recent presidential primaries. The Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation created a $ 6.5 million fund available to affiliated local organizations to fund grassroots work.
“It has become a social movement brand that people can relate to,” explains Caren. “We talk about many local people putting things in common through organizations that existed but are being renewed, new ones, or simple calls on social networks. There is no central committee. This flexibility allows adaptation to the needs of each community. They have shown that they are good at drawing attention to issues. Also, in many cities, they have achieved notable changes in concrete policies, putting pressure on local politicians, and it is rare that a movement does so quickly.
BLM was born in 2013, just like a hashtag after the exoneration of George Zimmerman, a civil neighborhood watchdog, in the shooting death of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin in February 2012 in Florida. It was created by three black women, Alicia Garza (Los Angeles, 1981), Patrisse Cullors (Los Angeles, 1984), and Opal Tometi (Phoenix, Arizona, 1984), as “a global network run by its members” that represents “an ideological intervention and politics in a world where black lives are systematically and intentionally aimed to die ”. In 2014, the movement began to have national relevance in protests over the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, at the hands of the police.
The violent crackdown on the Ferguson protests mobilized a new generation of activists. It also increased the sensitivity in the media to report African Americans killed by the police. By 2016, BLM had more than 30 national chapters. “The movement didn’t come out of nowhere, it connects with the past,” Oliver explains. “Since Occupy in 2011, there have been consistent protest movements. One can speak of a wave of protests, which grew with the arrival of Trump. Let us remember that this Administration faced protests from day one: the women’s march, immigration, climate change. Floyd’s death inspired many people, but there was already a network prepared to organize protests. “
The confluence of the coronavirus pandemic, experts agree, has to do with the massive mobilization after Floyd’s death. “On the one hand, the pandemic has changed the structure of lives, people have more time, they are more at home. On the other hand, it has produced a change in the feeling of empathy, of understanding: people identify more with the problems of others ”, explains Caren.
Under the influence of BLM, there has been a significant evolution in public opinion. 69% of Americans, according to a June Washington Post study , believe that Floyd’s death reflects a broader problem in how the police treat blacks, compared with 29% who believe it is an isolated incident. In 2014, 51% believed that police deaths of African Americans were isolated incidents. At the end of June, according to the Civis Analytics study, 62% of Americans expressed support for BLM. Including 47% of those who voted for Trump in 2016.
Recent violent episodes in Kenosha (Wisconsin) and Portland(Oregon), and President Trump’s insistence on talking about “chaos” and “domestic terrorism,” which has brought