Chances are you have been asked to tweet, friend, like, or donate online for a cause. Nowadays, social movements are woven throughout our social media activities. After all, social movements start by activating people.
Considering the ideal type stages discussed above, you can see that social media has the potential to dramatically transform how people get involved. Look at stage one, the preliminary stage: people become aware of an issue, and leaders emerge. Imagine how social media speeds up this step. Suddenly, a shrewd user of Twitter can alert their thousands of followers about an emerging cause or an issue on their mind. Issue awareness can spread at the speed of a click, with thousands of people across the globe becoming informed at the same time. In a similar vein, those who are savvy and engaged with social media emerge as leaders. Suddenly, you don’t need to be a powerful public speaker. You don’t even need to leave your house. You can build an audience through social media without ever meeting the people you are inspiring.
This is what happened in the case of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. The movement was co-founded in 2013 by three Black community organizers: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Garza, Cullors and Tometi met through Black Organizing for Leadership & Dignity (BOLD), a national organization that trains community organizers. They began to question how they were going to respond to what they saw as the devaluation of Black lives after George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin in February 2012. Garza wrote a Facebook post titled “A Love Note to Black People” in which she said: “Our Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter." Cullors replied: "#BlackLivesMatter." Tometi then added her support, and BLM was born as an online campaign to support all Black lives - including women, queer, and transgender people.
This emergence stage quickly escalated to coalescence, as the movement became nationally recognized for its street demonstrations following the 2014 deaths of two African Americans: Michael Brown—resulting in protests and unrest in Ferguson (St. Louis) - and Eric Garner in New York City. Since the Ferguson protests, participants in the movement have demonstrated against the deaths of numerous other African Americans by police actions or while in police custody. In the summer of 2015, Black Lives Matter activists became involved in the 2016 United States presidential election.
Social media is immensely helpful during the coalescence stage. Coalescence is the point when people join together to publicize the issue and get organized. President Obama’s 2008 campaign was essentially a case study in organizing and publicizing through social media. Using Twitter and other online tools, the campaign engaged volunteers who had typically not bothered with politics and empowered those who were more active to generate still more activity. It is no coincidence that Obama’s earlier work experience included grassroots community organizing. In 2009, when student protests erupted in Tehran, social media was considered so important to the organizing effort that the U.S. State Department actually asked Twitter to suspend scheduled maintenance so that a vital tool would not be disabled during the demonstrations.
The next stage of the development of a social movement is institutionalization, when it it is an established organization, typically with a paid staff. In the case of Black Lives Matter, the movement grew into a national network of over 30 local chapters between 2014 and 2016. The overall Black Lives Matter movement, however, is a decentralized network and has no formal hierarchy. The movement still has a strong presence and has even joined forces with other, more systematically organized groups, such as the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). There is now a coalition of groups across the United States which represent the interests of Black communities. It was formed in 2014 as a response to sustained and increasingly visible violence against Black communities, with the purpose of creating a united front and establishing a political platform. The collective, also known as a social movement sector, is made up of more than 150 organizations, with members such as the Black Lives Matter Network, the National Conference of Black Lawyers, and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
Watch the Video 11.3.2 below, Black Lives Matter: A History, as it explains how this group has been fighting to be heard since 2013 - and the phrase itself is now being seen on streets and screens all around the world after the killing of George Floyd.
In the summer of 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic, masses of Americans took the streets to demand justice for George Floyd who was pressed to the ground by his neck by a Minneapolis police officer for more than 9 minutes while he called for his deceased mother and pleaded, "I can’t breathe" (as was presented at the beginning of Chapter 1.1). The footage of the brutal murder went viral via social media incensing Americans already in a state of anxiety, locked down in their homes, and economy shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The calls for justice soon began to culminate in more specific demands to defund the police. Scholar Angela Davis, also a prison and police abolitionist, argues that these calls are rooted in abolitionist philosophy which aims to strategically shrink the size of the prison industrial complex (PIC) eventually rendering it impotent while diverting funds towards community investment and social services such as youth centers, addiction and substance abuse supportive services, mental health, and education to more effectively target the root causes of crime (Democracy Now!, 2020). Activists and scholars view the prison industrial complex as a system designed to marginalize Black, Brown, Indigenous, and poor communities while providing slave labor for corporations and the state while also disenfranchising those communities electorally (CR10 Publications Collective, 2008).
While some argue that defunding the police would make communities less safe (Southers, 2020), abolitionists argue that the latest expansion of the PIC originates in false fears engineered by politicians, like Richard Nixon, aiming to redirect the primary national concerns of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement to the need to crack down on drugs and crime. As explained in the 13th documentary below, in the 1980's President Ronald Reagan doubled-down on this tactic by waging a "War on Drugs" that disproportionately incarcerated Black and Latinx populations. The “tough on crime” political tactic has been effective in ginning up the public fear needed to justify expansion of local police budgets and lengthier sentencing policies such as those featured in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which was signed in to law by President Bill Clinton and largely written by now Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden (Alexander, 2010).
Another point of controversy is that fact that these uprisings grew violent, sparked by the burning down of the 3rd precinct where the 4 officers involved in Floyd's murder worked. One Monmouth University poll revealed that 54% of respondents thought the actions taken by protesters, including the burning of the precinct building, was fully or partially justified (Monmouth University Poll, 2020). The demands to defund the police have been influential in Minneapolis where Floyd's murder took place, as the City Council has agreed to disband the police department and create a new public safety system, though activists say they will have to wait and see what actually comes of these efforts.
While comparisons to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s abound, the broader legislative and structural impact of these uprisings is yet to be seen. Still, polls showed that in the two weeks following Floyd's murder, support for Black Lives Matter increased significantly as unfavorable views of the police surfaced which combined with increasing public sentiment, among all Americans, that African Americans face substantial discrimination.