Pinned to the ground and held down by two police officers, Brandon Glenn has his face buried into the Venice Beach cement on May 5, 2017. A group of five bystanders watch as police officer Clifford Proctor takes out his gun. Proctor’s partner backs away, probably in confusion. Proctor fires from less than two feet away into Glenn’s back. He shoots again. Glenn, with two bullet holes pierced through his back, falls backward stomach-up, deceased. After official review, for the first time in Los Angeles’ history, chief of police Charlie Beck recommends the District Attorney to file criminal charges for Officer Proctor. The District Attorney declines to prosecute and dismisses the case. Does Glenn’s life matter? Do Black Lives Matter? This paper will trace the Black Lives Matter movement and attempt to find who the first person to ask, or rather to demand, the acceptance of the notion that black lives do indeed matter. Based on the evidence that will be presented, I argue that the Black Lives Matter movement has been in existence since the beginning of American society since racism has been an inherent part of our culture for all time. I will show how the modern Black Lives Matter organization was the first group to put a name to the issue and unite African American dissenters from all walks of the movement. This paper will also trace specific, discrete events that took place after the Black Lives Matter organization was founded, and argue why they caught wind with the American public. Ultimately, I will show the essential role of social media platforms and the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter in the upbringing of the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement.
Before analyzing how social media impacted the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the organization itself, it is essential to understand that the Black Lives Matter movement has existed long before the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter came into existence. I argue that putting a founding date for the movement for Black Lives Matter is impossible because racism against African Americans has been an inherent part of this country’s culture since its founding. Beginning with slavery, the idea for Black Lives Matter began with early abolitionists. After the end of slavery, a more modern form of Black Lives Matter began and was brought to light with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. But even though the 1960s is known for the era of Civil Rights, the African American community was divided in how to tackle the issue of equal rights. As such, several groups were formed, each with a different methodology and proposed solution.
Take, for example, the Civil Rights era in the mid 1900s. The group most closely resembling the modern Black Lives Matter organization was the Black Panther Party who, advocated against police brutality (Holt). One of the founders and leader of the Black Panthers, Bobby Seale said in an interview in 1970, that he was influenced at first by Martin Luther King Jr., but as time progressed he could not stand the nonviolence aspect of King’s preaching, so he turned to Malcolm X (Holt). The African American may have been united in their fight against police brutality, King condemned the southern police departments in his Letter to Birmingham Jail, among other places, but the community was not united in the way they would achieve their goal (Curtis). Ultimately, Martin Luther King’s group faded away after King’s message turned to focus on the Vietnam War and his assassination in 1968. The Black Panther Party, however, remained active until 1982, but they too faded after their leaders were arrested and heavily condemned by the politicians. The all-encompassing name “Civil Rights Movement” does not accurately represent what each of these groups were fighting for. Perhaps King’s group advocated for integration, but Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party were more interested in Black Pride.
By 1966 a “Black Power ferment” emerged, consisting largely of young urban blacks, posing a question the Civil Rights Movement could not answer: “how would black people in America win not only formal citizenship rights, but actual economic and political power?”
From the 1980s, after the dissolution of the Black Panther Party, the movement for African American rights, especially against police brutality, was virtually nonexistent by name. While of course there were cases of police brutality, the lack of unification figure, prophet, or social media tools to unite people together disallowed for another movement wave to come about. This all changed as technology evolved, particularly with the invention of the camcorder in the late 1980s. In 199, George Holliday filmed the infamous Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, which sparked national outrage and resurfaced the issue of police brutality against African Americans. The video, which aired on national television, caused mass protests across the country and particularly in Los Angeles. Riding the wave of these protests came the OJ Simpson Trial, which exposed the racist tendencies of Mark Fuhrman, one of Los Angeles’ most prominent detectives. Known as the “Trial of the Century,” the 1994 case aired on national television exposing the inherent racism that was not only implicit in police departments across America, but as lead counsel for Simpson Johnnie Cochran argued, was explicit. Cochran spoke not only to the jury when he told them, “you are the conscious of our community … you police the police.” Cochran’s closing arguments reignited the spark against police brutality nationally.
This brings us to the 21st century, and the creation of social media, the portable cell phone with access to the Internet wirelessly from every location. It was only a matter of time before these inventions would come together with the always-existing movement to end police brutality and the fight for the rights and equal treatment of African Americans. Through the use of these inventions, in 2013 there has there been a uniformity in the way African Americans view police brutality and the quest for equal opportunity. Instead of discrete events being implicitly linked together, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter allows for discrete events of mistreatment of African Americans to be explicitly linked together in a movement with a name.
Perhaps another reason for the difference between the organization of Black Lives Matter and groups that came before is because it was founded and is run by three women. The past movements of similar ideas mentioned above were all run by men. The founders themselves address this aspect of their organization in an interview: Cullors said that organizing the movement has not been easy because women in leadership are still looked at skeptically. Garza said that women are often not seen as leaders, and that dealing with the patriarchy struggles has been a challenge. “I believe if Black Lives Matter was created by three Black men, Opal, Alicia and myself wouldn’t have to fight so hard to remind people we are the co-founders,” Cullors said. Despite these struggles, the founders believe that the previous civil rights movements were led by women at the root. In their interviews, the founders mentioned Ella Baker, Diane Nash, and Fannie Lou Hamer as women who were critical in developing such movements yet their names are not heard very often. Cullors said women are on the front lines, strategizing, organizing and developing policy around the country. She described women as the “architects of the movement.”
Now that we have established the ongoing existence of the Black Lives Matter movement in American society, we can begin to look at how the organization Black Lives Matter has altered the movement and provided a name for it in contemporary America. I argue that the instrumental use of social media by the organization has allowed it to maintain ongoing media coverage. In order to reach this conclusion, it is essential to look at how the Black Lives Matter organization has evolved since its 2013 founding and assess the strength of its presence across the country. According to the organization’s founders, the organization was founded as a mere hashtag in 2013 in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida. Founded by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Khan-Cullors, the organization acknowledges that it is a part of a larger movement that existed long before the organization’s founding. In an interview with Madame Noire, Garza said, “This isn’t the beginning of a movement, this is the continuation of a struggle that’s been happening for at least 400 years.” Khan-Cullors wrote in her own article for Medium.com that Black Lives Matter is “a part of the larger Black liberation movement.” Most importantly Khan-Cullors writes that she and her colleagues did not start a movement. Rather, she writes that they started a network. This is exactly what Black Lives Matter is — a network that puts a name to the issue and allows for the collection of people to show support and advocate against the unfair targeting of African Americans in American society.
Black Lives Matter, the organization, was able to create the network that Khan-Cullors refers to thanks to the technological advancements of the 21st century, namely social media, and most importantly, with the use of the hashtag. According to Carnegie Mellon University, the invention of the hashtag came about as an idea in 2007 in order to group like-minded people together through an idea. It was first used on Twitter in the early 2010s. And this is exactly how the Black Lives Matter organization was founded — with a hashtag. Garza, one of Black Lives Matters’ founders — notes that it is thanks to social media that the organization gained the widespread attention that it did. “Twitter can be a vehicle that connects us and helps bring us together to strategize around how we’re going to build the kind of power that we need to transform the world that we live in,” Garza said. The chart below shows this network in action: it portrays the 13.3 million “#BlackLivesMatter” tweets that aired on Twitter between July 12, 2013 to March 31, 2016.
By looking at this chart, one can tell there are particular spikes in social media presence of the hashtag spikes at certain discrete points. At each of these points, the Black Lives Matter organization evolved and its message was altered.
The first time the hasthage appeared on social media was in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting of unarmed African American tenager Treyvon Martin. According to Black Lives Matter co-founder Khan-Cullors, another co-founder Alica Garza first uttered the words Black Lives Matter after hearing about the acquittal, and then Khan-Cullors decided to make a hashtag out of it by posting it on Twitter. This tweet gained some attention, but it is nothing compared to the amount of internet traffic the next time the hashtag was posted on Twitter. At this point in the Black Lives Matter organization, the mission statement was less centered around police brutality, because although Zimmerman was a former security guard, he was not acting in the capacity of such a guard when he shot Martin. As the years will progress, the Black Lives Matter organization will alter their message to focus exclusively on police brutality, and in modern times, the prosecution of officers who commit such police brutality.
The next time the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter gained national trending status on Twitter was in July 2014 just about one year after it made its initial appearance. This trending status was caused by the Eric Garner strangulation by police officers in New York City. There are key differences between this case and the Zimmerman case that allowed for more media attention and for an evolution of the Black Lives Matter organization. First, this strangulation was caught on video. It allowed for users to much more easily share an interactive media on Twitter with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to show support for the movement and their disapproval with the New York Police Department. The flood of protests, mostly in New York and California, came only after a New York grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who committed the strangulation. This event caused the Black Lives Matter organization to focus exclusively on the accountability of police officers who commit police brutality. They altered their message to policy recommendations such as in cases of police brutality, the District Attorney should not be the one to review the case because of an inherent conflict of interest. Instead, the Black Lives Matter organization recommended that the US Attorney’s Office take charge of all such investigations.,
The Black Lives Matter organization surely would have lost the public’s interest if it weren’t for a second extreme case of police brutality that took place just a few weeks after the Eric Garner strangulation. The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri ignited a second wave of much stronger protests, especially in the St. Louis area. This case gathered significant media attention because the shooting involved an 18-year-old victim who was shot 12 times. Furthermore, protesters were under the impression that Brown had his hands up and yelled, “don’t shoot” before he was killed. A subsequent FBI investigation revealed this was not the case. The residents of St. Louis, however, were furious with the shooting, and took the streets in fierce protest. These protests are what really put the organization Black Lives Matter on the map. I argue that after the Ferguson shootings, the organization’s message changed from merely condemning the justice system to actively recruiting protestors to take to the streets and show their verbal (and in some cases physical) disapproval with law enforcement. This was the first case of mass protests nationwide since the founding of the Black Lives Matter organization.
Three months later, even bigger events allowed for Black Lives Matter to remain at the forefront of the American press and media coverage. Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy, was shot in Cleveland, Ohio after an office suspected he was carrying a loaded pistol, which turned out to actually be a toy gun. After Rice was killed, the #BlackLivesMatter Twitter trending status reached a new high, over 10 times as high as its last peak during the Michael Brown shooting. This shooting, the third major case of police brutality since the founding of the Black Lives Matter organization, solidified the credibility in the organization’s message. It showed the American public, of all races, that these were not random case of police brutality and shooting of unarmed African American; instead, this was clear and convincing evidence that there is a racist epidemic among the police departments across the United States. After the Tamir Rice shooting, Black Lives Matter gained not just national attention, but international attention (INSERT DATA), showing its importance.
Another reason why the Black Lives Matter organization has been able to sustain its presence in the American public and media for so long is due to its opposers actually increasing the organization’s visibility. The most prominent example of this took place in July 2016, when Micah Xavier Johnson ambushed and killed a group of Dallas police officers in the name of the Black Lives Matter organization. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick attributed the violence to individuals on social media, “former Black Lives Matter protesters”, and others with anti-police views later expressing regret for his statement. The leaders of the Black Lives Matter organization, unlike the Black Panthers group in the mid to late 1900s, explicitly condemned Johnson’s actions and urged that he acted alone and the Black Lives Matter organization is one of peace rather than violent protest. Then-President Barack Obama had his hands full in giving one of the most important speeches of his presidency at the memorial service for the fallen officers. Obama’s mentioning the phrase “Black Lives Matter” in his speech was the first time he did so. Obama did not condemn the organization and instead suggested that there was no group blame to be assigned. He specifically called for unity and noted that we are not as divided as we seem. Obama did not refer explicitly to the organization, but the use of the phrase was enough to garner national media attention once more to the organization.
Obama’s July 2016 Dallas speech led the way for presidential candidates to explicitly refer to the organization during the 2016 presidential debates. Most notably, candidate Bernie Sanders said during a nationally-televised presidential debate that Black Lives Matter is a “very real” movement. This only came after influence from the Black Lives Matter Organization during the 2016 presidential election. Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted town hall meetings, protested outside debates, and made their voices heard at every possible opportunity, ensuring they would continue to be covered by the national media.
After the summer of 2016, the Black Lives Matter organization evolved to become a more broad organization, standing for the including of African Americans in society and moved away from merely protesting police brutality. The most notable example of this altered message came after the 2016 Oscars, commonly referred to as the “whitewashed” Oscars. The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag took to Twitter once more, coming close to peaking in usage in condemning the lack of African American actors and directors winning Academy Awards. This led to widespread media coverage, and perhaps one of the most emotional Oscar moments in 2017 when African American-filmed and produced movie “Moonlight” won best picture. There is no indication that Black Lives Matter had any influence on the Academy in awarding the film best picture, but one can only assume that the media presence played a large role.
The Black Lives Matter movement and subsequently the organization’s instrumental use of social media has clearly obtained the status of prophecy in American culture. The organization, founded and run by three women, is the first of its kind to be broad enough to encapsulate all American fighters for civil rights, equality, and justice for all. The organization finally labels the movement and simplifies its fundamental message using a mere three words and a hashtag. These three words will forever remain a part of American culture and have undoubtedly earned the leaders who coined them prophet status, despite how little-known the individuals might be. Despite the dissenters to the movement, the counter-protesters who argue all lives matter and blue lives matter, few will stand on the record and disagree with the three words “Black Lives Matter.” This in it of itself is a work of prophecy.
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