(NEW YORK) — After a grand jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in July 2013, Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi created #BlackLivesMatter to start a broader conversation about racism in the U.S.
Five years later, issues brought to the national fore by the grassroots organization have become staples of progressive platforms. From Parkland to #AbolishICE, there is a direct through line to calls to hold government accountable for gun violence and the treatment of minority communities, political experts say.
“The movement is growing. Its influence on American politics is growing,” said Deva Woodly, an assistant professor of politics at The New School. “Not only has it shifted the attention of activists, but also the public at large.”
Much of that influence has been in shifting conversations on race and the role of protests in politics.
“It has popularized civil disobedience and the need to put our bodies on the line,” Cullors said. “With things like the Women’s March, and Me Too, and March for our Lives, all of these movements — their foundations — are in Black Lives Matter.”
Black Lives Matter has also attracted backlash, including from President Trump. On Fox News in July 26, Trump, who was then running for office, said, “I’ve seen them marching down the street, essentially calling death to the police, and I think we’re going to have to look into that.”
In November 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was grilled by black members of Congress on the House Judiciary Committee for an FBI report on “black identity extremists,” seen to target Black Lives Matter.
As a member of the Senate in 2015, Sessions once said, “I do think it’s a real problem when we have Black Lives Matter making statements that are really radical, that are absolutely false.”
Cullors said their message and their movement was one designed to be active online and to mobilize protests in the streets.
The movement’s online presence has been critical to its impact and growth over the last five years. A recent report from the Pew Research Center found that #BlackLivesMatter has been tweeted nearly 30 million times since 2013, an average of 17,002 times a day.
“That hashtag is recognizable. That hashtag evokes something, I think, in the spirit of all people — not just here in America but around the world,” said Sonia Lewis, the lead of the Sacramento chapter of Black Lives Matter and the cousin of Stephon Clark, who was killed in a police-involved shooting this March.
On the street, Black Lives Matter has both sustained protests around police violence and has shaped the principles of more recent protest movements.
And the movement’s work has reverberated far beyond urban enclaves that have often seen the tension between law enforcement and minority communities play out.
Delaney Tarr, of the March for Our Lives protests that stemmed from gun control protests after the mass shooting in Parkland, said Black Lives Matter has been something she’s “incredibly conscious of.”
“No matter who the perpetrator is, gun violence is still gun violence,” she added, saying that the lessons from Black Lives Matter have been something her movement has factored in because “we really wanted to be as intersectional as possible.”
In addition to protests, Woodly said Black Lives Matter has been instrumental in “changing people’s minds about what’s possible and desirable.”
According to Gallup’s most recent Most Important Problem poll, Americans rank immigration and race relations as the third and fourth biggest issues facing the country, a shift from five years ago, Woodly said.
Black Lives Matter helped popularize some of today’s more liberal policy positions. “The call to abolish ICE is connected to the call to abolish police and prisons,” Woodly said.
Adrian Reyna, the director of membership and technology strategies at United We Dream, a youth lead immigrant rights organization, echoed that sentiment.
“They have really set the ground to be able to push back against federal agencies like ICE and CBP, who are basically executing the agenda of putting as many people into the deportation pipeline and into detention centers,” he said.
The Movement for Black Lives platform, released in 2016 by a coalition that included 50 activist groups related to Black Lives Matter, calls for single-payer health care and the legalization of marijuana, in addition to an end of mass incarceration and police violence toward black people.
Cullors said there are “so many different” elected officials who are challenging the status quo right now, calling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent election “a testament to our movement.”
Kerri Evelyn Harris, who is running for Senate in Delaware on a progressive platform, said Black Lives Matter has “made sure that we had to recognize things that for so long that we’ve turned a blind eye to.”
As for the future of Black Lives Matter, Cullors said the organization is “in the middle of an evolution.”
“For the last five years, we’ve been on the streets. We’ve been protesting. We’ve been shutting down highways,” she said. “And now, we have to ground down and decide what are the strategies, what’s our institution going to look like.”
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