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Essay: #BlackLivesMatter

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  • Published: 14 October 2015*
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The movement

In 2012 in a relatively small city in Florida a 17 year-old unarmed black boy was gunned down while walking home from the gas station after getting snacks. The killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL by George Zimmerman received national attention. Zimmerman was eventually charged and tried for Martin’s death, but was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter starting the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. #BlackLivesMatter is described on the website blacklivesmatter.com as ‘an ideological and political intervention in a world where black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression’ (Black Lives Matter, n.d.). The hashtag quickly turned into a movement in 2014 following the shootings of Michael Brown, John Crawford III and the death of Eric Garner. Brown was gunned down in Ferguson, MO by police officer Darren Wilson. The decision on whether or not Wilson would face criminal charges was brought to a grand jury that decided that Wilson should not be indicted. Crawford, another black man, was shot and killed by police officer Sean Williams in Dayton, OH while visiting a Walmart. Similar to Brown’s case, a grand jury decided not to indict officer Williams. All of these incidents were closely followed by the media and received national attention; America was watching. The death of Eric Garner to many was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Eric Garner died after being placed in a chokehold by officer Daniel Pantaleo in Staten Island, NY. A bystander recorded the incident on his cellphone and it was released to the media. In the video Garner could be heard saying that he was unable to breath, but officer Pantaleo continued and Garner later died. Again, officer Pantaleo was not charged.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement is a call-to-action to encourage people to stand together against racial inequalities against black people and to fight against the expectations of normality defined by white supremacy. There are 23 active Black Lives Matter chapters and almost 672 #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations have been held worldwide. The demands of participating protesters are to end racial profiling, police brutality and the demilitarization of state police departments. This movement is ongoing with the hopes of creating a world where black lives are valued like the lives of others.

The Theory

Rhetoric, agitation and control and social change all contribute to the conceptualization of a social movement. Bowers et al. defines rhetoric ‘as the rationale of instrumental, symbolic behavior’ (Bowers et al., pg. 1). For the purpose of this paper, agitation is defined as ‘ persistent, long-term advocacy for social change, where resistance to the change is also persistent and long term’ (Bowers et al. pg. 3). Agitation occurs when people who normally do not have a say affirm social change and are met with opposition, which then requires them to take uncommon persuasive action. ‘Control refers to the response of the decision-making establishment to agitation’ (Bowers et al., pg. 4). Agitators ultimately result to having to use more than just verbal persuasion to seek attention and to gain momentum to achieve their goals. The media at times will label the agitators as radicals because of the extreme measures that are sometimes necessary in order to obtain social change. Agitators can use various tactics in attempt to effectively persuade the public to support their ideologies. ‘A dramatic event or a significant establishment action may inspire individuals to dissent’ (Bowers et al., pg. 6). Which leads to one of two kinds of agitation occurring’agitation based on vertical deviance or agitation based on lateral deviance. ‘Agitation based on vertical deviance occurs when the agitators accept the value system of the establishment but dispute the distribution of benefits or power within that value system. Agitation based on lateral deviance occurs when the agitators dispute the value system itself and seek to change it or replace it with a competing value system’ (Bowers et al., pg. 7).

Control is generally held by an establishment of people who hold the power and once that power is obtained, they must work to remain dominant. The ‘establishments have a distinct advantage over agitators because of their superior power and their ability to adjust to activists’ tactics’ (Bowers et al., pg. 8). Overall the establishment is able to control things because they hold the power and ability to say what is correct in society and to establish the rules of society; they are able to label inferior vs superior. ‘An establishment’s power to define is amplified through its dominance of mass media outlets. Because of their power and financial superiority, establishment leaders own media outlets that can be used to disseminate messages favorable to the establishment’ (Bowers et al., pg. 10). Because of this agitators must attempt to seek legitimizers and or stage news worthy events in order to manipulate the media into persuading in favor of their ideology. A legitimizer can be described as someone within the establishment who for whatever reason may agree with some of the agitators’ ideologies. News worthy events can be a wide array of things, from protests to large petitions. Leaders of the establishment usually see any action against the establishment as a threat to their authority and in response seek to protect their authority.
Within the process of social change other concepts that are present are social organization, power and rumor. Social organizations distribute social power. Five types of social power are reward, coercive, legitimate, referent and expert. ‘One individual or group has reward power over another when the first can give benefits like money, status, or acceptance to the second’ (Bowers et al., pg. 15). ‘Coercive power exists when one individual or group is able to influence another’s behavior by the threat of punishment’ (Bowers et al., pg. 15). Legitimate power ‘exists when one individual or group is perceived by another as having an assigned position’somewhat like a charter or social contract’of wielding influence’ (Bowers et al., pg. 15). ‘One individual or group has referent power over another when the individual influenced is attracted to and identifies with that individual or group’ (Bowers et al., pg. 15). Lastly, ‘expert power exists when one individual or group thinks that another has superior knowledge or skill in a particular area in which influence is to be exerted’ (Bowers et al., pg. 15). Power can be present within a social organization and as well as between agitators and the establishment. The last concept present in the process of social change is rumor. ‘In agitation and control situations, one tactic that both sides frequently use is rumor. A rumor occurs when information is passed from one individual to another without official verification/denial or when information is passed from one individual to another in the absence of any trustworthy official source’ (Bowers et al., p. 18).

Fundamental strategies that agitators can practice are petition, promulgation, solidification, polarization, non-violent resistance, escalation/confrontation, Gandhi and guerrilla and revolution. These strategies are not necessarily used in a particular order because some strategies can be seen as reactive versus active. Petition occurs when agitators first present their demands to the establishment hoping for a resolve by way of appeals, sources of evidence and through messaging (Bowers et al.). Petition is an important strategy that agitators must consider to avoid the risk of the establishment discrediting them for not first giving an opportunity for the establishment to meet demands. Should agitators find that their petition has not been successful; the next possible strategy is promulgation. Promulgation consists of exploiting the media and using available resources such as technology, posters, protests, informative handouts, etc. Protests done in the right place can lead to them being deemed as news worthy events that lead to media coverage. Solidification takes place amongst the agitators in an effort to solidify and remind participants why they have chosen to come together to fight for their cause. Solidification can be achieved through the use of slogans, symbols and terminology. ‘Almost every agitation movement uses the strategy of polarization once it has attracted a substantial following. Polarization assumes that any individual who has not committed to the agitation supports the establishment’ (Bowers et al., pg. 40). The purpose of this tactic is to push an individual into making a choice of being for the agitators or for the establishment; there is no in-between. After members have been successfully recruited by other agitators, leaders of the movement must decide whether or not to practice non-violent resistance or escalation/confrontation. Non-violent resistance is a form of peaceful protest; whereas, escalation/confrontation tries to instigate the establishment into responding with violent suppression tactics. ‘The strategy of Gandhi and guerrilla confronts the establishment with a large group of agitators committed to the strategy of nonviolent resistance and another group committed to the physical destruction of the establishment’ (Bowers et al., p. 48). This method assumes that both efforts of the groups will ultimately lead to achieving the overall goals of the movement. Lastly, the strategy of using a revolution goes as far as possibly starting a war between agitators and the establishment.

BLM Freedom Ride

On August 28th, 2014 during Labor Day weekend agitators in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement from all over the United States set out to participate in a Black Lives Matter Freedom Ride. This call to action was designed in the spirit of the 1960s Freedom Riders and would bring people to Ferguson, MO, the city where police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown. This movement for social change received a great deal of resistance from the establishment, the establishment being the state government and local police officers. Hundreds of people traveled from near and far as part of this movement to protest against police brutality and racial profiling. The killings of several black men in such a short time frame without just cause created a slew of grievances that were not being met with solutions or justice. Participants were looking to challenge the injustices’ of the social order. The BLM Ride was agitation based on vertical deviance. The agitators were seeking a balance of power, they were not necessarily against police, they were against police officers who use excessive violence against black people and single them out solely based off of their race. Protesters and members of the BLM movement were not looking to completely abolish the judicial system, but they do not agree with the unbalance of power and the deadly oppression of black people that was occurring so rapidly. The BLM freedom riders arrived ready to take action and provide their support to the ongoing protest efforts.

Hundreds of BLM members began to arrive in Ferguson to join local activists in a march for freedom. Shoulder to shoulder, agitators began chanting ‘hands up, don’t shoot’. The slogan created in remembrance of Michael Brown and to help create solidification amongst the group. This slogan embodied the agitators’ ideology and while marching made it easier for them to be understood. The number of people shouting ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ spoke volumes to the collective grief that so many people were feeling. While everyone was not necessarily from that community, they were still able to relate to the loss and the struggle for justice. The march continued through the streets of Ferguson and people could be seen wearing black shirts with Mike Brown’s name across their chest while making their way to the street where he was tragically killed. Upon reaching the memorial that was created in his honor in the exact spot his body laid for hours before being removed; agitators were met by local and state police officers. The establishment, also standing shoulder to shoulder, created a line to prevent agitators from continuing. They were prepared for violent suppression. Accompanied with gas masks, bulletproof vests, tear gas and guns they were ready to reassure their control.

The BLM freedom riders remained solidified, approaching the establishment with their hands up, a symbol associated with the BLM movement representing victims being unarmed when they were shot and killed. Other BLM freedom riders raised posters with different messages on them such as a list of names of all of the victims, calling for the arrest of police officer Darren Wilson, seeking justice and with the movement’s name Black Lives Matter, just to name a few. The media presence in Ferguson increased tremendously since the death of Michael Brown and because of that, this was a great place for the BLM agitators to hold a protest. Although, the establishment attempted greatly to control the media coverage they did so unsuccessfully. All of America was able to see the chaos happening in Ferguson and how the establishment responded to the agitators. Journalists and protesters were being arrested and tear gas being released. The establishment resulted to exerting coercive power in an attempt to get agitators to back down, but protestors remained solidified in confronting white supremacy. The protest continued for hours that day and BLM Freedom Riders participated in other various activities throughout the weekend. Workshops were held to teach agitators how to successfully continue resistance and effectively use polarization tactics to their advantage upon returning home.

Overall agitators used the Gandhi and Guerilla method during this protest. Older men and women and children were agitators that were committed to nonviolent resistance and a select group of agitators committed to physical destruction by looting and remaining aggressive toward the establishment. The BLM movement created this promulgation in efforts to combat white supremacy and to advocate for solidarity amongst supporters. With so many killings taking place in a short period of time, agitators felt that it was important to bring together supporters through an organized protest. Instead of trying to get the media to come to them they brought the story to the media.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement is a great example of agitation and control and the fight remains ongoing with protests still taking place across the country. ‘The call for black lives to matter is a rallying cry for all black lives striving for liberation’ (Black Lives Matter, n.d.). This movement has exposed that even in the year of 2015 not everyone is treated equally and that some people still need to be taught that black lives, indeed, do matter.

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