By Andrew Henderson
Zimmerman: Hey we’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there’s a real suspicious guy, uh, [near] Retreat View Circle, um, the best address I can give you is 111 Retreat View Circle. This guy looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.
Dispatcher: OK, and this guy is he white, black, or Hispanic?
Zimmerman: He looks black.
Dispatcher: Did you see what he was wearing?
Zimmerman: Yeah. A dark hoodie, like a grey hoodie, and either jeans or sweatpants and white tennis shoes. He’s [unintelligible], he was just staring…
Dispatcher: OK, he’s just walking around the area…
Zimmerman: Yeah, now he’s coming towards me.
Zimmerman: He’s got his hand in his waistband. And he’s a black male.
This was an excerpt from a 911 call made by George Zimmerman on Feb. 26, 2012 to the Sanford Police Department as he was following 17-year-old Trayvon Martin through a local neighborhood. Zimmerman shot Martin after the teenager had left from a convenience store in Sanford, Florida, where he purchased a pack of Skittles candy and iced tea. Zimmerman told police he killed Martin in self-defense. Martin was unarmed.
Come mid-March, the story had gained national attention in publications such as the Atlantic and New York Times. Additionally, the shooting placed Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” laws under scrutiny as well as cast a national eye towards how race played a role in the shooting of an unarmed black teenager.
The incident resulted in a Department of Justice investigation, which ultimately found not enough evidence to bring civil rights charges in the case, as well as Zimmerman’s acquittal on July 13, 2013, according to USA Today. Not guilty of second degree murder and acquitted of manslaughter.
Furthermore, then-President Barack Obama — the first black president, who came under right-wing attacks for his identity, coated in racism and birtherism, and was often “forced—or chosen—to disguise expressions of his race,” — was pressured to speak out about the incident.
“My main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama said at the Rose Garden in late March, according to Politico. “All of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves.”
As it would turn out, there were many Americans who took with great seriousness the killing of Martin. Behind the scenes, a new movement was forming: Black Lives Matter.
What is Black Lives Matter & how did it start?
Black Lives Matter came about as a result of the verdict handed down in Zimmerman’s trial.
Alicia Garza, one of the main founders of the movement, in an interview with The Guardian, spoke about where she was and what she was feeling when she first heard the verdict.
She was in a bar in Oakland, California, when she learned of the verdict by scrolling through her Facebook feed. Surrounded by her husband and friends, she said everything began to grow silent.
“Everything went quiet, everything and everyone,” Garza said to The Guardian in a July 2015 story. “And then people started to leave en masse. The one thing I remember from that evening, other than crying myself to sleep that night, was the way in which as a black person, I felt incredibly vulnerable, incredibly exposed and incredibly enraged. Seeing these black people leaving the bar, and it was like we couldn’t look at each other. We were carrying this burden around with us every day: of racism and white supremacy. It was a verdict that said: black people are not safe in America.”
In an attempt to express her anger and vulnerability, she took to writing a message on Facebook and posting it to her page. The message ended with: “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.”
A friend of Garza’s, Patrisee Cullors, read the post 300 miles away from Oakland that same night. She used the hashtag #blacklivesmatter as a “call to action, to make sure we are creating a world where black lives actually do matter.”
Garza and Cullors, both community organizers and activists, then reached out to another activist they knew named Opal Tometi. They first started the movement by setting up social media accounts on Twitter and Tumblr and encouraging people to share stories of why #blacklivesmatter, according to The Guardian.
After the shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, did the Black Lives Matter movement begin to coalesce outside of being just online and into physical spaces.
Watching the scene unfold in Missouri, Gaza said the three of them organized a “freedom ride” to Ferguson under the umbrella of the Black Lives Matter campaign, and more than 500 people signed up from 18 different cities across the U.S.
According to the Black Lives Matter website, the project is “now a member-led global network of more than 40 chapters” and they describe themselves as “an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.”
The prominence of the movement, however, has also bred criticism. Many have referred to the movement as being anti-police or anti-white. Even the hashtag has birthed a counter hashtag movement in the form of #AllLivesMatter — the argument being that the Black Lives Matter movement is inherently placing the importance of black individuals above all other lives, so to speak.
This is likely also reflected in a June 2016 Pew Research Center study which found about “four-in-ten Americans express support for the Black Lives Matter movement, but blacks are considerably more likely to do so than whites or Hispanics.”
Writing in Vanity Fair, L-Mani Viney says in no way does valuing the lives of black people in the U.S. somehow mean the de-valuing the lives of others. Viney goes on to say there is a sense of confusion and anger when people shout “All Lives Matter” because “we as African-Americans have supported America in nearly every moment of victory and crisis this country has witnessed.”
A sense of historical context as related to black people in the U.S. is similarly echoed by Judith Butler in the New York Times when she stresses the importance of the chant “Black Lives Matter.”
“But when and where did black lives ever really get free of coercive force? One reason the chant ‘Black Lives Matter’ is so important is that it states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been historically realized. So it is a statement of outrage and a demand for equality, for the right to live free of constraint, but also a chant that links the history of slavery, of debt peonage, segregation, and a prison system geared toward the containment, neutralization and degradation of black lives, but also a police system that more and more easily and often can take away a black life in a flash all because some officer perceives a threat.”
Obama’s response to Black Lives Matter left some wishing for more
President Barack Obama was the first black president in the history of the U.S. That alone made his election a historic one, with the New York Times, albeit prematurely, proclaiming with his election that the “racial barrier” had fallen. Understanding this aspect of his identity as intertwined with his presidency is helpful in understanding his views and responses to Black Lives Matter.
Arguably one of the most comprehensive stories that ties together the legacy of Obama as the first black president is told by Ta-Nehisi Coates in “My President was Black.”
“My President was Black” explains how “Obama was able to overcome centuries of institutionalized racism to become the first black president and how his blackness inflected, and often constrained, his presidency.”
In relation to the Black Lives Matter movement, and the threat black people often disproportionately face in the forms of police violence, Coates said typical traumas which often mark African-Americans of Obama’s generation were largely absent in his life which gave him “an ability to emote a deep and sincere connection to the hearts of black people, while never doubting the hearts of white people.”
“But the kinds of traumas that marked African Americans of his generation—beatings at the hands of racist police, being herded into poor schools, grinding out a life in a tenement building—were mostly abstract for him….In its place, Obama was gifted with a well-stamped passport and admittance to elite private schools—all of which spoke of other identities, other lives and other worlds where the color line was neither determinative nor especially relevant. Obama could have grown into a raceless cosmopolitan. Surely he would have lived in a world of problems, but problems not embodied by him.”
Perhaps it’s this difference of class Obama had within his identity as a black man that led to criticisms that he failed the Black Lives Matter movement by not speaking out enough.
Of course, Obama spoke out several times on issues of race. The L.A. Times chronicled at least seven specific instances where he spoke out on racial matters ranging from George Zimmerman’s acquittal to the killings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Following Zimmerman’s acquittal, Obama said, in White House remarks:
“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
He also issued a statement following the decision by a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri to not charge Officer Darren Wilson with the death of Michael Brown.
“First and foremost, we are a nation built on the rule of law. And so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make. There are Americans who agree with it, and there are Americans who are deeply disappointed, even angry,” he said. ” It’s an understandable reaction. But I join Michael’s parents in asking anyone who protests this decision to do so peacefully”
Yet, even for his many public statements and efforts to open dialogues between the police force and Black Lives Matter, many within and outside the movement felt not enough was done or even when he had spoken out it hadn’t been strong enough.
Following the killings of police offers in Dallas, Texas, Obama wrote an official letter to law enforcement. Mychal Smith, writing in the Washington Post, said the letter glossed over the realities of police brutality, saying while every loss of life is tragic that “the amount of violence experienced by police officers is not comparable to that which they inflict.”
Smith goes on to say that while Obama has acknowledged the legitimacy and concerns raised by Black Lives Matter, his words were not enough.
“These instances of violence are not aberrations; they are the point of policing,” Smith said. “Since the days of slave patrols and urban labor uprisings, we have employed police to violently reinforce American hierarchies. If we cannot be honest with police about the nature of their job, then any efforts toward reform are useless.”
Even one of the founding members of Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza, writing in Time, said in his post-presidency Obama should “help the people who his presidency failed.”
“When it came to black people, Obama often weighed heavily on the notion of personal responsibility for black people, at the expense of systemic accountability,” Garza said. “When Michael Brown was gunned down in the street with more than ten shots, our President did not acknowledge that Mike Brown could have also been his son, as he did for Trayvon Martin years earlier. Instead, h
e encouraged young black people not to hate the police, because they have hard jobs, and failed to get tough with police departments that demonstrate a pattern and practice of abusing, murdering and torturing—as happened in his home base of Chicago—black people in epidemic proportions.”
Looking back, in an interview with GQ, Obama said he believed there was a delay in how quickly the White House was able to respond to the unrest in Ferguson. However, he believes any stronger sentiment than he offered or public outrage on the matter would have been “counterproductive.”
A movement born from and driven by social media
Black Lives Matter began as a note on Facebook and then transformed into a hashtag, primarily through Twitter.
According to the Washington Post, which ranked the 10 most influential hashtags around social issues in 2016, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was tweeted 12 million times ranking at #3. The Post said “the hashtag has quite literally transformed from an online-community unifier to a political movement and tangible organization.”
#BlackLivesMatter was outdone by the #Ferguson hashtag which ranked at #1 with over 27 million tweets, which meant the news of what was happening there “hit Americans’ Twitter timelines before the story seized cable news’s attention.”
According to the Pew Research Center, the first time #BlackLivesMatter appeared on Twitter was July 13, 2013, which was the very same day of George Zimmerman’s acquittal.
Falling in line with how the movement started to accelerate after the killing of Michael Brown in August 2014, Pew Research Center found that despite the prominence the hashtag has today it was slow to gain prominence, only appearing on Twitter 5,106 times in the second half of 2013.
Black Lives Matter has often been referred to as the new civil rights movement, or the civil rights movement for today’s time. And whereas the civil rights movement which emerged in the latter half of the 20th century relied on newspaper reporters, photojournalists and the rise of broadcast news, Black Lives Matter has found its niche in social media.
For a movement comprised and led primarily by young people, it should come as no surprise that Black Lives Matter would coalesce around social media.
One aspect to consider for the movement’s dependence on social media is the decline of print newspapers and the rise of online outlets. According to the Pew Research Center, only 20 percent of adults in the U.S. say they often get news from print newspapers; in comparison, 38 percent say online and 57 percent say television.
A 2014 study “The Dynamics of Public Attention: Agenda-Setting Theory Meets Big Data” found while traditional media primarily sets the issue agenda and determines which issues are emphasized, a mutual and reciprocal “causality” between social media and traditional media can emerge. However, the study found that social issues, which Black Lives Matter would fall under, are reported and discussed on social media at an 8:3 ratio to traditional media.
Simply stated, people, especially younger people, are congregating and discussing more on social media when it comes to social issues.
There has even push a pushback from those both inside and outside the movement against forms of traditional media due to perceptions of more traditional outlets not understanding events from the point of view of the protestors. Several times, for example, during the documentary “Whose Streets?” about the events in Ferguson told by the people who live there, you can hear several people taking issue with broadcast news crews out on the street.
During a scene filmed near the site where Michael Brown was killed, camera crews set up when a local man comes over telling them that they come in here whenever they want, but it’s people like him and others who have to live there and live in those realities. The incident exposed a sharp divide with how that community perceived members of the traditional press.
Furthermore, research has shown the Black Lives Matter community to be unlike other social movements because of its ability to bond over the course of time. According to the study conducted by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, more than a third of those who participated via social media for the first time continued to participate during subsequent Black Lives Matter events.
And while starting as a hashtag, the group has grown into a collection of national and local organizations working under the banner of Black Lives Matter and becoming more of a political force. The 2016 election, at least on the Democratic side, was a lesson in this with candidates viably reaching for the support of Black Lives Matter. An example of this was when some of their members met with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after a campaign stop in New Hampshire.
How is Black Lives Matter under Trump?
Current President Donald Trump has not spoken explicitly about Black Lives Matter during his presidency. However, he did several times as a candidate.
After Black Lives Matters members took over the stage at a campaign event led by Senator Bernie Sanders in August 2015, Trump, responding to a reporter’s question, said the incident was a disgrace which “showed such weakness.” He went on to say he would never allow something like that to happen during his campaign and would fight whomever tried to interrupt one of his events.
“I don’t know if I’ll do the fighting myself, or if other people will,” he said.
Another instance, this time in an interview on “The O’Reilly Factor,” in September 2015, Trump said Black Lives Matter was “looking for trouble,” that it was was “disgraceful the way that they’re being catered to by Democrats” and he also proclaimed that “all lives matter.”
Seemingly keeping on his promise from August, Trump said during a November 2015 campaign rally that the crowd reacted appropriately when they shoved, tackled, punched and kicked a Black Lives Matter activist.
“Maybe he should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing,” Trump said on Fox News.
However, while Trump may not be as outspoken about Black Lives Matter, this doesn’t mean his administration hasn’t been taking note of the group and other groups which have taken a stance against his presidency.
Recent headlines make note of activists being jailed who have participated in anti-Trump protests, or the U.S. government demanding the details on online visitors to an anti-Trump protest website and the Justice Department ordering a review of all police reform agreements made under the Obama administration.
Furthermore, documents from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, and obtained by Al Jazeera, showed how rallies held by white supremacists were characterized as being in the right for being legal and counter-protests were to blame for any violence.
“The report said that during the June 26, 2016 protest in Sacramento, ‘violent anti-fascists, including anarchist extremist elements, attacked a group of white supremacists who gathered for a legally permitted rally.’
The document also makes a clear distinction between ‘lawfully protesting white supremacists’ and ‘white supremacist extremists’ who participated in the violence.
Brandi Collins, campaign director at Color of Change, told Al Jazeera the language in the DHS report is “especially striking.”
“The subtext here is stunning,” Collins said. “It tells us who the government is training to view as threats and the rightful targets of ongoing surveillance and which groups will be offered protection.”
With the way Trump dominates the news coverage nonstop with just his Twitter feed, it could become easy to think Black Lives Matter isn’t as active as it once way. Writing in Salon, Chauncey Alcorn says while the movement is alive and well across the U.S. and on social media, but “you probably wouldn’t know that from watching CNN.”
Alcorn argues the mainstream media “no longer has the bandwidth to cover alleged discriminatory treatment and brutality inflicted on African-Americans by police” and are too busy raking in the ad revenues of covering Trump, which, according to the Shorenstein Center, made up 41 percent of all news stories during just his first 100 days in office.
The reason Black Lives Matter hasn’t been making CNN breaking news alerts as of late can partially be explained by Alcorn’s explanation, but also how the movement’s efforts have started focusing more on policy following Trump’s election.
“What people are seeing is that there are less demonstrations,” Alicia Garza said to the Chicago Tribune. “A lot of that is that people are channeling their energy into organizing locally, recognizing that in Trump’s America, our communities are under direct attack.”