More than a hashtag.
Saddened by the fact that I have a son that I can't fully protect from the authorities. Hell, I can't protect myself. #BlackLivesMatterAndre Perry
On July 13, 2013, Alicia Garza was hanging out with some friends at a bar in Oakland, California, when she saw the news: George Zimmerman had been acquitted of second-degree murder for the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012.
Garza, a community organizer and activist with a large social media presence, checked the sentiment of the reaction on Facebook and was disappointed by much of what she saw. So she decided to add her thoughts to the mix. According to the New Yorker, this is what she posted:
“the sad part is, there’s a section of America who is cheering and celebrating right now. and that makes me sick to my stomach. we GOTTA get it together y’all.”
Later, she added, “btw stop saying we are not surprised. that’s a damn shame in itself. I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter. And I will continue that. stop giving up on black life.” She ended with “black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.
Garza’s friend and fellow organizer Patrisse Cullors was moved by the post and added the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to her own social media commentary and that of others.
Cullors told NPR, “I put a hashtag on it because it just felt so necessary to archive it."
twin, #blacklivesmatter campaign? can we discuss this? i have ideas. i am thinking we can do a whole social media/all out in the streets organizing effort. let me know.”
Patrisse Cullors’ post on Alicia Garza’s Facebook wall, July 14, 2013
They continued the conversation online. Patrisse Cullors posted this on Alicia Garza’s Facebook wall on July 14, 2013: “twin, #blacklivesmatter campaign? can we discuss this? i have ideas. i am thinking we can do a whole social media/all out in the streets organizing effort. let me know.”
They teamed up with a third organizer, Opal Tometi. And, with the efforts of two queer women and the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, a movement was born.
Actually, it’s not that simple.
At a high level, #BlackLivesMatter is a successful hashtag. Almost 2M Instagram photos have been tagged with #BlackLivesMatter, and the phrase was used 9M times on Twitter in 2015 alone. It’s had more staying power than many of the other hashtags we’ve featured in this content series.
American University School of Communication’s Center for Media and Social Impact [CMSI] released a 90+ page report “Beyond the Hashtags” that focused on social media’s role in the Black Lives Matter movement. The report was published on February 29, 2016, and it involves analysis of online media from 2014 and 2015. The researchers analyzed 40.8M tweets posted in this time period. It’s worth a read in its entirety. Most of the data in this section is available thanks to the excellent work of the report’s authors.
In the early stages, which lasted over a year, #BlackLivesMatter was mostly used by activists and was often posted by those on the ground during protests. It was tweeted less than 500 times in June and July 2014. But in August 2014, #BlackLivesMatter was used over 52K times, mostly in connection with the Ferguson protests.
On the day of November 24, 2014, when it was announced that a grand jury had decided not to indict Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, the hashtag was used over 100K times. Around 90% of these tweets were posted between 8pm and midnight Central time, coinciding with the timing of the announcement. As the CMSI researchers state, “This is the moment the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag first broke through to a larger audience.”
It wasn’t just activists and organizers tweeting anymore. Celebrities and ordinary people were adding to the conversation about police brutality—and their followers were listening.
This is the moment the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag first broke through to a larger audience.”CMSI Researchers
The wounds are not "old." They never fade. They are present. They are real. They have not healed. #blacklivesmatterJanet Mock
Two weeks later, it was announced that Eric Garner’s killer wasn’t indicted, and the Twitterverse got even louder.
"I was vaguely aware that some conservatives did a 180 around the Walter Scott and Eric Garner stories, but I was surprised at the prominence of the voices," Deen Freelon, one of the study’s authors, told NPR. "You're not seeing 'Eric Garner deserved it' or 'Walter Scott deserved it.' It was more [arguments about how the bigger problems were] abortion and black-and-black crime."
Then, on December 13, 2014, simultaneous protests against police brutality were held in a handful of major cities, leading to another #blacklivesmatter usage spike.
My motto for Eric Garner case: Hey DiBlasio! Black lives matter more than your f-ing tax money.Ann Coulter
According to the CMSI report, “Foreign countries using the US’ domestic human rights violations against it is an old propaganda tactic that dates back to at least the 1930s,” as this example from an Iranian news account illustrates:
Many used the hashtag to raise awareness for lesser-known Black victims of police brutality.
There were around 10,000 #BlackLivesMatter tweets a day between January and May 2015.
#BlackLivesMatter isn't solely about affirming the lives of victims of police brutality. It's about affirming the value of all Black life.zellie
And the hashtag has had relative staying power; the conversation remains top of mind.
#BlackLivesMatter has come up frequently in the context of the 2016 presidential race, with some candidates in active support.
White rapper Mac Miller asked what White people have done to support the movement on Twitter. He sent this tweet out before a GOP presidential candidate debate in December 2015.
Pop culture has also played a large role in awareness raising, from the runway to the football stadium to the red carpet.
Beyonce’s “Formation” music video, with #BlackLivesMatter references, dropped February 6, 2016, during Black History Month and just before her performance at Super Bowl 50.
Dear White People who listen to rap music... What have you done for the #BlackLivesMatter movementMac Miller
And YouTube personality Dan Howell noted its visibility at the Oscars later that month:
“As we've found with other hashtags promoting activism, #BlackLivesMatter brought about a reactionary response in the form of statements that “all lives matter”.
President Obama chose to address the “all lives matter” comment in this way:
“I think the reason that the organizers used the phrase ‘black lives matter’ was not because they were suggesting nobody else’s lives matter. What they were suggesting was, there is a specific problem that is happening in the African American community that’s not happening in other communities. And that is a legitimate issue that we’ve got to address.”
Do people who change #BlackLivesMatter to #AllLivesMatter run thru a cancer fundraiser going "THERE ARE OTHER DISEASES TOO"Arthur Chu
Comedians and poets used tongue-in-cheek logic:
Anthony McPherson - "All Lives Matter: 1800s Edition"
And regular folks provided simple explanations of #BlackLivesMatter in 140 characters or less:
To say #BlackLivesMatter doesn't diminish the value of other lives. It simply states something that this nation has never believed #FergusonBroderick Greer
Black Lives Matter has been intentionally inclusive from its early days. Over half of the organization’s guiding principles address inclusion, directly or indirectly.
It’s also intentionally leaderless. While Garza, Cullors, and Tometi undoubtedly created the hashtag and coined the name, others are frequently called on to serve as the movement’s spokespeople. Johnetta (Netta) Elzie and DeRay Mckesson become involved in Black Lives Matter during the Ferguson protests, during which they used social media as a form of both activism and citizen journalism, and have remained at the forefront. In fact, Mckesson, who had mere hundreds of Twitter followers before Ferguson and now has 338K followers, is running for mayor of Baltimore. He made the announcement of his candidacy on Twitter and told the New York Times that he uses the platform as a way to draft speeches, to make sure what he says is tweetable.
In honor of Black History Month, the White House invited a group of African-American leaders to meet with President Obama to discuss civil-rights issues on February 18, 2016. DeRay Mckesson, Brittany Packnett, and Aislinn Pulley were invited on behalf of Black Lives Matter. Pulley declined the invitation saying she was not interested in being a part of "a photo opportunity and a 90-second sound bite for the president."
a photo opportunity and a 90-second sound bite for the president.
The differing opinions and actions of personalities within the movement have lead to some tension.
As stated in the New Yorker, Elzie, Mckesson, and Packnett do not officially belong to a chapter of the Black Lives Matter organization, and Elzie takes issue with Garza, Cullors, and Tometi being called the movement’s founders, arguing that it started in Ferguson.
A movement without clear leadership is more open to interpretation, appropriation, and inconsistency. The media have missed key details in segments and articles on Black Lives Matter; other organizations have tried to profit from the phrase, putting it on t-shirts and refusing to share the proceeds; and the message has seen some well-intentioned adaptations, such as Brown Lives Matter, that frustrate its creators.
One particular example demonstrates the movement’s lack of central organization: Garza was heading into San Francisco from Oakland on Martin Luther King Day earlier this year when she heard on the radio that the Bay Bridge had been shut down due to a Black Lives Matter protest. She hadn’t known about this particular protest, taking place in her city, on her planned route.
“…the Twitter data show that the hashtag initially migrated from its online birthplace offline to street protests, then surged in popularity online based in part on social media coverage of the protests.” (CMSI report, p. 34)
Many have called for the importance of separating the hashtag from the movement. It’s paradoxical. The “leaderless” movement has parallels with the democracy inherent in social media where a follow, a favorite, a RT all act as votes of a sort. However, it’s understandable that a movement may not want to be defined solely by a social media symbol, a digital conversation. Democracy has more checks and balances than does the wild world of hashtags, after all.
According to the Black Lives Matter website, “#BlackLivesMatter is an online forum intended to build connections between Black people and our allies to fight anti-Black racism, to spark dialogue among Black people, and to facilitate the types of connections necessary to encourage social action and engagement.”
On the other hand, in reference to the organization, “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”
There are 27 Black Lives Matter chapters across the U.S. and there’s one international chapter, in Toronto.
Then there’s the movement, which is arguably the umbrella over it all.
The offline presence of Black Lives Matter is not as easy to measure as the online, but it’s undoubtedly strong. Physical manifestations include t-shirts, posters, and murals. The phrase has had wide-ranging impact, from a mention on Law & Order SVU to marches, protests, sit-ins, and rallies to a question during one of the Democratic Debates to “blacklivesmatter” being voted American Dialect Society’s word of the year in 2014.
While offline organizing is a key component of the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s a movement that both wouldn’t have happened (at least in this form) without social media and that harnesses social media as a tool in its purest form.
Many of the movement’s key players are active on social media. As DeRay Mckesson told Wired: “The thing about King or Ella Baker is that they could not just wake up and sit at the breakfast table and talk to a million people. The tools that we have to organize and to resist are fundamentally different than anything that’s existed before in black struggle.”
The thing about King or Ella Baker is that they could not just wake up and sit at the breakfast table and talk to a million people. The tools that we have to organize and to resist are fundamentally different than anything that’s existed before in black struggle.
DeRay Mckesson told Wired
And many of those not active in Black Lives Matter nevertheless bore witness to acts of police brutality against Black Americans via social media platforms, by watching the video of Eric Garner struggling to breathe on Facebook or seeing the photo of Michael Brown’s lifeless body on Twitter. Social media put these painful images in front of the eyes of millions, making the issue if not impossible at least far more difficult to ignore.
“I think the victory that people are actually looking at police killing black people is huge. Fifteen years ago, no one cared if police were killing black people. I mean that just wasn't newsworthy... The media wasn't making this an issue, and the fact that it's now a real live conversation is a huge success.”Patrisse Cullors, as told to NPR