The Black Lives Matter movement began in the summer of 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who had shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, black teen. Co-founder Alicia Garza added that the movement “was a response to the anti-Black racism that permeates our society and also, unfortunately, our movements.”
Since then the campaign has grown exponentially over it’s short span, rising from a local protest to a national movement in it’s first few months. Today, #BlackLivesMatter has become a household hashtag.
But as the movement approaches its third birthday this summer, it is worth asking whether or not it has been successful. A farther examination, seems to say it has not.
A quick note: To critique the Black Lives Matter campaign is not to say that systematic racism does not exist or that their claims are all unjustified. It’s to say that the movement has failed to make any real progress for the lives of Black people in the United States and across the globe.
In fact, the movement has even failed to catch fire with many Black Americans, a study in the summer of last year found that only 31% of black voters identified with the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” While 64% said that “All Lives Matter” more aligned with their views.
Furthermore, many opponents of BLM have noted that the movement may actually be counterproductive because of the “Ferguson Effect.” The theory goes, that police officers become sensitive to public scrutiny and pull back on police work, giving criminals avenues in which to freely commit more crime.
The credibility of the Ferguson Effect has been highly disputed but some criminologist who had originally denied the correlation are finding the evidence harder to ignore.
“These aren’t flukes or blips, this is a real increase,” said University of Missouri at St. Louis criminologist Richard Rosenfeld. “The only explanation that gets the timing right is a version of the Ferguson effect.”
There is perhaps no better evidence of the Ferguson Effect than Chicago. The city saw a 20% increase in homicide rates from 2014 to 2015. As fivethirtyeight.com notes, “the severe spike in gun violence Chicago is experiencing can be dated to the release of the video in the Laquan McDonald case”
The trend can be seen across America, murder rates rose in 59 of the 60 biggest U.S. cities from 2014-2015.
Of course the entire 16% rise in homicide rates can not be accredited to the BLM movement. And the campaign has undoubtedly furthered the conversation about racial injustice in American and across the world. But after three years, one would hope for more concrete change.
Black Americans surely have reasons to be disgruntled. To be born black in America is to face a steep uphill battle on the path to success.
For starters, the majority of Black Americans start their young lives in schools that are under-resourced, and often times failing. As President Obama adds this creates “pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails.”
The data backs up the Presidents claim. Nearly 1 and 3 black, male high school dropouts aged 25-29 were imprisoned or institutionalized. Overall, black males are 6 times more likely to be imprisoned than their white counterparts.
The difficulties don’t stop there. Black Americans then face further obstacles when attempting to obtain a job. Studies have shown that simply having a black sounding name can make an applicant half as likely to receive a call back for an interview.
The results of these strains are evident in the economy. Black Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed as White Americans and those who do land jobs earn 25% less. This inconsistency leads can lead to health problems and thus even much lower life expediencies for blacks in America.
However, these struggles has not been the focal point of the Black Lives Matter movement, instead BLM has focused on their relationship with police.
To an extent, their claims are justified. In 2015, 258 of the 990 people killed by police were black, a total of 26%. While blacks make up just 13% of the American population. Additionally, the uncovering of racist emails exchanged by police officers only validated what many had already known, some police officers are racists.
Failures of BLM
While BLM has many justifiable and admirable ambitions, the movement has failed to recognized that some police killings are vastly different than others. Of the 990 citizens killed by the police, only 93 were unarmed. And 74% of those killed by police were attacking an officer. With tragedies such as these, nuances can seem unimportant, but they are vital in ensuring that the movement is not watered down.
Of course 990 people killed by police is way, too high. But the BLM movement has seemingly turned these disasters into a war against law enforcement. The page has previously demanded for a “decrease in law-enforcement spending at the local, state and federal level” and “a reinvestment of that budgeted money into the black communities most devastated by poverty.”
Yet, as The Economist points out, “what black people in cities such as Baltimore and St Louis need isn’t less policing. It is better, less institutionally-racist, less thuggish policing that actually solves crimes. If so many murders didn’t go unsolved, then perhaps there would be fewer of them.”
To be fair, BLM has been a dynamic movement, and the “National Demands” page has since been removed from their website. And the “What We Believe” page now has a much more positive and empowering spin. But much of the damage has already been done. 78% of all Americans now saying they prefer “All Lives Matter.”
A Lack of Leadership
Many of the struggles for success that BLM has faced can be traced back to the lack of strong central leadership. BLM tries to address this issue on it’s misconception page, including “It’s a leaderless movement” as its number 2 misconception. They add:
The Black Lives Matter movement is a leaderfull movement. Many Americans of all races are enamored with Martin Luther King as a symbol of leadership and what real movements look like. But the Movement for Black Lives, another name for the BLM movement, recognizes many flaws with this model. First, focusing on heterosexual, cisgender black men frequently causes us not to see the significant amount of labor and thought leadership that black women provide to movements, not only in care taking and auxiliary roles, but on the front lines of protests and in the strategy sessions that happen behind closed doors. Moreover, those old models leadership favored the old over the young, attempted to silence gay and lesbian leadership, and did not recognize the leadership possibilities of transgender people at all. Finally, a movement with a singular leader or a few visible leaders is vulnerable, because those leaders can be easily identified, harassed, and killed, as was the case with Dr. King.
However, this passage seems to miss the point. Great leaders don’t have to look like Martin Luther King Jr., but they do need to have his passion, his charisma, and his courage. Without a leader the movement is susceptible to a more radicalized message being purported by the media.
This was no more evident than in a Minneapolis in the summer of 2015, when Black Lives Matter protesters chanted “Pigs in a blanket, fry’em like bacon.” A message that clearly sounds like a threat to police officers.
When given the opportunity, Black Lives Matter St. Paul organizer Rashad Turner, refused to condemn the chant, further damaging the groups credibility.
Friends into Foes
While one would think that BLM would want to work with America’s first black President, the group has seemed to chase away the alliance of President Obama.
When seemingly discussing the group Obama noted “you can’t just keep yelling.” He then offered what some advice, adding, “The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room and then start trying to figure out how is this problem going to be solved.You then have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable —that can institutionalize the changes you seek and to engage the other side.”
When members of the BLM movement did finally meet with the President, one activists complained that she felt that their voices were not being heard. Obama replied “you are sitting in the Oval Office, talking to the President of the United States.”
Chants into Change
Of course, not every movement will find its MLK, Jr. or Nelson Mandela. But a strong leader who can lead a civilized movement could help restore the American perception of Black Lives Matter.
The “11 Major Misconceptions of the Black Lives Matter Movement” on the BLM website is beautifully articulated and easy to get behind. A face of the movement who can eloquently purvey this message could change the hearts Americans.
The evidence is clear, systematic and individual racism still plays a strong role in America. The Black Lives Matter campaign was founded to help dispel the these inequalities, but over the course of it’s three years it has been largely unsuccessful. Since the movement began, killings of citizens and police officers alike have risen.
Only with a more clear-cut national message and a strong central leader can Black Lives Matter start to turn chants into change.
Image Credit: Politico