Volume 6       Number 278

It’s not an easy definition because, while Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a national movement, it’s just a decentralized confederation of chapters, with no central organization to codify its identity. But intrinsic to its beliefs is advocacy against police violence toward black people as well as other policy changes related to black liberation. BLM was founded, and is lead, by three prominent women in the fight for racial equality in this country: Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi.                                                                                 

It’s not an easy definition because, while Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a national movement, it’s just a decentralized confederation of chapters, with no central organization to codify its identity. But intrinsic to its beliefs is advocacy against police violence toward black people as well as other policy changes related to black liberation.    

BLM was founded, and is lead, by three prominent women in the fight for racial equality in this country: Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi.                                      

BLM banner

                                                                                   Image by Drew Angerer/Getty Images                

This is no small group, with 40 chapters worldwide, and a handful outside our country. As an indication of the vitality of the movement, four recent polls suggest that in recent weeks anywhere from 15 million to 26 million turned out to participate in protests and demonstrations over the death of George Floyd. According to crowd control experts, this is the largest such movement in the country’s history. The momentum of such gatherings is major. A best estimate for thoday’s BLM movement is that probably close to 5 percent of the entire population of the country has participated. By contrast, protests to unseat a government have been seen to succeed internationally when they involve just 3.5 percent of their population at their peak.

What is particularly heartening is the amount of support from whites. Unlike other past BLM protests, in nearly 95 percent of counties that had a protest the majority are white, and nearly three-quarters of the counties are more than 75 percent white. According to nose counters, the movement appears to have attracted the younger and wealthier. Half of all protesters said this was a first-time occurrence for them. A majority said that they were motivated by seeing videos of police violence toward protesters of the BLM movement.

Timing also appears to be a factor in the large turnout. The coincidence of the coronavirus pandemic and the Floyd protests means that more people could see them, and more had the time to be a part of protests. They also took the risk of exposing themselves to the virus, although a good number wore masks and distancing was difficult– this doesn’t appear to be a deterrent. The whole country has been incited by the BLM movement because police brutality is intricately linked to acts that result in death.

To better understand the meaning of the group, it is necessary to go back and look at its origins. The movement started just in 2013, with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a teenager, by an off-duty security guard in Jacksonville, Florida. It gained momentum and became recognized nationally after street demonstrations following the 2014 police shootings of Michael Brown near St. Louis and Eric Garner in New York City.

This went into high gear following the May 25, 2020 shooting of George Floyd in Minneapolis, where the outcry, among people of all races, of “BLM” and “George Floyd” resonated in 2,500 of our small towns and big cities, and in the entire world. The geographic spread of these protests is indicative of the depth and breadth of the movement’s support. While around since 2013, BLM has garnered much more support recently, seeing a big shift in public opinion about the movement. There has been support from organizations like the NFL and NASCAR as well as from celebrities amid the publicity generated by the recent protests.

The support by the NFL is especially meaningful. Back in August 2016, in protest for the treatment of African-Americans by police, Colin Kaepernick, a highly successful NFL quarterback for San Francisco, knelt on the sidelines during playing of the National Anthem. After a few games of doing this, Kaepernick, while injured, was released by the San Francisco team, and essentially went into sports exile. His voice continued to be heard and some players continued to protest. Of course, president Trump chimed in, distorting Kaepernick’s message, by saying that this was a disrespectful act to the American flag and our country, which it was not.

Three years later, the NFL was split, spurred by his actions, along racial and labor-management lines. At that time, Kaepernick, still unable to connect with a team, sued the NFL, saying they had blackballed him. He finally reached an agreement, some say for ten million dollars. The recent recognition of the BLM movement by the NFL is a vindication of his courageous stand. Kaepernick has remained a spokesperson for the BLM movement.

It is understandable that BLM has placed so much emphasis on police killings of black people. It is the 21st century version of lynching. Lynching was always outlawed, but people got away with it anyway. Police killings have recently accomplished the same thing, taking an African-American life unnecessarily and getting away with it, up to now. With the benefit of strong police unions, sympathetic prosecutors and complicit judges, police have gotten away with shooting hapless blacks and even strangling them.

The BLM originally used social media platforms including hashtag activism to reach millions of people rapidly. In 2014, the American Dialect Society designated hashtag #BlackLivesMatter as the word of the year. It was also selected one of the hashtags that changed the world in that same year. The group has successfully used Facebook and Twitter to gain web support with hope of producing spillover into the offline world. BLM has also moved into black university student movements. The ease with which bystanders can film graphic evidence of police violence and post the videos onto social media has driven activism all over the world. The use of body cameras has also spread rapidly to reveal police brutality, even though some officers don’t turn them on.

BLM generally engages in direct action tactics with the objective of making people feel so uncomfortable that they begin to address the issue. This is accomplished through protest, marches, and rallies. Political slogans are evident starting with “BLM”, “I can’t breathe”, “white silence is violence”, “no justice no peace”, and “is my son next?”, among others.The printed word, music, and film have also been used extensively since 2013 to spread the word about BLM. A number of cities have painted murals of BLM in large letters in their streets.

The statistics are tricky. In 2019 police officers shot and killed 1,001 people. That’s about three a day. The rate that black Americans are killed is more than twice as high as the rate for white Americans. Police shootings are supposed to be a function of how often officers encounter armed and violent suspects. In 2018 African-Americans made up 53 percent of the known homicide offenders in the United States, which is four times as high as one would expect given their share of the population.  That would lead to the supposition that it’s the reason why black people are so involved in police altercations. But that doesn’t explain the abusive situations where unarmed people are shot while fleeing, and a crowd of police officers jump on a defendant and choke him to death.

There is ample criticism of the BLM. Most notable is president Trump. He doesn’t like the movement and makes no bones about it.  Further, he is using racial discord as one of the cornerstones of his reelection campaign. The president has increasingly denounced the BLM-led protests, pointing to instances of looting and vandalism while describing himself as a protector of law and order. On June 26, Mayor Bill DeBlasio of New York led a group that painted a BLM pronouncement directly in front of the Trump Towers on Fifth Avenue to thumb his nose at the president.

Polls show that the Trump strategy is backfiring. A majority of Americans say the country’s leader should focus on the underlying reasons for the protests, and not on cracking down on protesters, even those who break the law.

Critics accuse BLM of creating a false narrative of racial bias in police violence. They say that the data does not support the movement’s claims about racial differences in police violence. They blame social media for destabilizing us through our powers of imagination and confirmation bias, and then lashing out on that basis. This is hard to believe, given the excessive amount of negative data, the commentary and videos of police violence. They also accuse BLM of being anti-police. It’s hard to distinguish between bias and justified reactions when dealing with such outrageous continued behavior by the police.

Further, there are claims that the “Ferguson effect” has limited police performance and increased the crime rate. This alludes to the nearby St Louis shooting in 2014, which reportedly made officers less active in upholding the law because they are afraid they may be charged with breaking the law. Former FBI Director James Comey directly stated that BLM is partly leading to a national increase in the crime rate because police have pulled back from doing their jobs. Most credible sources do not find an increase in crime nationally, or in St. Louis particularly, that could be attributed to BLM.

BLM is also labeled a violence-oriented hate group. If you are a policeperson or a police supporter, it is hard not to think of BLM as being a hate group. In reality, they are only protesting against the police who commit violence toward African-Americans.

The police have to recognize that too many stories of civilians who are not a  threat to officers being killed make the headlines, and many more are threatened and manhandled. To top it off the police are rarely charged with crimes. It is obvious that this has been going on for years and it is only because of cell phone cameras, surveillance equipment and the recent officer cameras that these incidents are now coming to light more frequently. And then when there are protests, police often step in aggressively and retaliate with tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper sprays and batons. It’s no wonder that people of color cringe when the Man In Blue confronts them.

But the violence that occurs is not BLM sponsored. They march and protest during the day. The looting and violence occur at night when professional criminals use the protests as a disguise for their actions. These professionals work in teams, having lookouts stationed at key locations to keep an eye out for law enforcement officials, pulling up with cars and vans to attack designated retail stores. This isn’t the work of BLM.

The question of whether BLM is anti-Semitic deserves discussion. Judaism and Israel are not big on the BLM agenda. However, there is a natural tendency of BLM to be sympathetic to other peoples who they feel are being discriminated against. It is true that in 2016 an BLM-affiliated organization named Movement for Black Lives used words like “genocide” and “apartheid” to describe the Israeli government. This was a few sentences in a 400-page manifesto. In recent years this inflammatory statement has been dropped.  BLM has been much less vocal in their condemnation of Israel while continuing to support Palestinian rights as do many Jewish organizations and people.

Major Jewish organizations, such as the Union of Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish organization in the United States, wholeheartedly endorse BLM, as well as many other Jewish organizations and thousands of Jewish people who have participated in its protests and who give generously to their cause. They feel BLM is expressing a Jewish value. This support would be unlikely if they believed BLM was anti-Semitic. Jews are the ones who would know.

After a tentative startup, in a few short years, most Americans have come to support the BLM movement, according to Pew Research Center reports. Protests led by BLM organizers have eventually developed into large movements, with some crediting the organization as starting the 21st century civil rights movement.

“There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”

–Rev. Martin Luther King

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