Black Lives Matter: From a Love Letter to a 21st Century Global Movement

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The struggle against racism and discrimination has once again been put on the world’s table. This fight has already been headed for years by Black Lives Matter, a grassroots movement that gave a shared name to the struggle first in the US and then on an international stage. The spark that started the organisation came in the form of three friends: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. In a social media post following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watch volunteer charged with the murder of teenager Trayvon Martin, #BlackLivesMatter was born as a loving shoutout to the black community. This was in 2013; since then, the hashtag has evolved into the first (global) civil rights movement of the century. 

The hashtag started spreading online, especially on Twitter. Social media remains a one of their major tools, but it served an especially important means to enable visibility and growth during the movement’s first moments. The online and offline activities of Black Lives Matter have walked hand in hand. On 9th August 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by police while unarmed. Along with Darnell Moore, Cullors organised a ride to Ferguson in support of the protests that followed and was greeted by a crowd of over 600 people. Together, they made a commitment to not only support the St. Louis area in their struggle but to continue the work in their respective hometowns. Afterwards, #BlackLivesMatter did not only develop towards a recognised movement with chapters in 18 US cities, but also gained far wider online support. 

A memorial placed during the protests (Image: Jamelle Bouie / Flickr)

The global growth of the movement started with the Black Lives Matter Global Network, which provides guidelines for local organisers in a decentralised way. The Black Lives Matter homepage encourages local leadership and initiative: “Our goal is to support the development of new Black leaders, as well as create a network where Black people feel empowered to determine our destinies in our communities.”

Even though the movement was largely focused on the US for a few years, there has been a steady growth of international chapters both in support of the struggle in the US and fighting for rights in their own countries. In 2015, protests started in Toronto, Canada against police brutality following the deaths of Andrew Loku and Jermaine Carby. This was the start of the Toronto chapter. In the UK, protesters blocked the road leading to Heathrow Airport in 2016, bringing attention to police brutality in the country. Similar examples can be found all around the world, amplified by the online discussion that rises continually as new cases of racism and violence surface. 

Despite seeming like a US-centred movement and ideology, Black Lives Matter has deep resonance in European cultures. For many, these problems might seem far away from their own lives, but the truth is that Europe has a long history of oppression and disregard for human rights. In his Guardian story, Gary Younge discusses the dangers of forgetting past actions and opinions as “such selective amnesia … leads ineluctably to a false sense of superiority around racism among many white Europeans toward the US.”

For Black Europeans, this has devastating results. In France, Adama Traoré, 24, died unrecorded at the hands of police in 2016 while reportedly pleading with words that have recently again enraged the world, saying he was not able to breathe. His sister, Assa, has been fighting to make his name known and turn it into a ‘rallying cry’, with little success before the death of George Floyd in a strikingly similar way. This demonstrates the exact problem Younge was warning about: with no real regard to past and current racism, the issues of violence, discrimination and prejudice in our European societies remain hidden and leave some of our citizens suffering. 

In the UK, recent events have once again surfaced a long overdue discussion on racial violence and discrimination. Proportionally, Black people are ‘more than twice as likely to die in police custody’, according to the BBC. Although deaths at the hands of police are rarer in the UK than the US, with around 1,700 cases in 30 years compared to around the same amount in a year, the statistics tell a saddening story of the structural racism that exists in the society.

The Windrush Scandal in 2018 was a telling example of the racist remains of Britain’s colonial past: a group of long-term British residents who migrated to the UK before 1973 were detained, deported, threatened with deportation, denied healthcare or had their rights otherwise violated by the Home Office. Alongside events such as the Grenfell Tower fire and increased advocacy for diverse education, the Windrush Scandal brought forward questions of belonging and trust within Black communities and others. These issues have been made even more obvious by the COVID-19 pandemic as ethnic minority groups have been hit the hardest economically and socially due to poverty, poor living conditions and working in the most affected industries. 

Stories continue to surface as we speak, and no one is excluded from the implications. Just last week, German MEP Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana was roughly handled by the Belgian police after standing up for two black teenagers. The police allegedly refused to believe her status as a MEP and the 71-year-old was pressed against a wall, ‘forced to stand with her hands up and legs spread, while her handbag was searched’.

What is clear is that this conversation isn’t going away until permanent changes to societies are made. Protesters all around the world are putting their lives at stake to finally have justice. While the US struggles with its deeply rooted racial discrimination and violence, it’s time for us Europeans to face and change our own perceptions around racism and stop turning away from a history of discrimination and white supremacy. It’s time we embrace and respect all the different cultures we live amongst and guarantee an equal peace and safety to life for all. Even with everything Black Lives Matter and other activist groups have achieved, a lot remains to be changed. It’s up to all of us to ensure that we hear them, see them and act accordingly to make change happen.

Image: New York Times