Contextualizing Black Lives Matter Movement in the American Context

Black live matter movement
Credit: Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota, USA / CC BY

The recent murder of George Floyd has brought American racialized injustice and state violence into renewed focus, which is amplified by Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric. The anti-racist protests that continue to spread beyond the United States are notable for their size, speed and ambitious goals, fueled in some cases by the coronavirus lockdown and the economic anxiety this has produced. The fact that both the health and economic consequences of this unforeseen crisis are falling most heavily on already marginalized groups serves to galvanize the movement for racial justice while highlighting broader arguments about structural inequality. While protests against police brutality are nothing new in the US, the context created by COVID-19 has added a new and unpredictable element. 

Another familiar feature of this long-running social conflict which has found new importance is the violent response of the police, which has infuriated protestors while being stoked and enabled by political figures on the right, most notably the President. Scenes in major US cities seem to show the police as the aggressors rather than peacekeepers, something which is not new to American politics but which has been rendered undeniable by ubiquitous smartphone videos. As a recent New York Times op-ed argued; “If we’re going to speak of rioting protesters, then we need to speak of rioting police as well.” 

Rather than being a protest by some sections of the public against the government, the escalation on the part of police forces has played into a growing environment of political polarization which places the protestors in both cultural and physical combat with the state’s security apparatus. This fits with the extensive historical literature on social movements, revolutions and civil war which often see tit-for-tat escalation in terms of both actions and rhetoric as a cause of mass violent social unrest.

Social Movements and Contentious Politics

The academic literature on social movements and contentious politics, associated with Tilly and Tarrow amongst others, sets out a clear process describing how protests escalate into sustained violence. A social movement emerges or reignites in response to some event, organizing around mobilizing symbols and advancing some set of demands. The government might respond to this with compromise or co-option, but in other cases will respond with violence. Such cases of violent overreaction by the state will typically serve to increase public sympathy for the protestors, bringing more people to their cause while radicalizing their demands. Crucially, it is this state violence which fans the flames of social contention, predictably ramping up the tension and conflict. This can trigger a cycle of tit-for-tat escalation which can spin off into a number of outcomes. 

While no theory captures the individual complexities of every case there are numerous examples following a now familiar pattern. Perhaps the most illustrative example is that of the Arab Spring, which enveloped many countries in the Arab world in 2010-2012. Protestors initially mobilized around a disparate set of demands, protesting against political corruption and economic stagnation. The Jordanian government was able to successfully manage the protests by using strategies of co-option and legitimization to prop up the regime. On the other hand the Mubarak government in Egypt and the Tunisian regime both engaged in a heavy-handed crackdown on protestors, weakening public support and leading to the defection of the military and police, thereby collapsing the governments. The ongoing Syrian Civil War, as a relic of the wider wave of Arab Spring protests, represents the most extreme possible outcome. 

This framework can be applied to the current Black Lives Matter protests in the US. The murder of George Floyd was the instigating event, re-galvanizing a protest movement that started in 2013, rose to prominence in 2014 Ferguson but which can be traced back to the legacy of the Civil Rights movement. The protests are the combined product of old and new social movements. The use of symbolic gestures (like the raised fist) and mass mobilization of people on the streets are features of the old social movement. However, the use of social media and the decentralized form of leadership are common features of newer social movements. Similarly, they advanced demands around justice for George Floyd while pointing out a legacy of racial injustice reaching back to slavery, the 13th Amendment and Jim Crow laws.  

Many of the protests quickly took a violent turn, with both a heavy-handed police response and rioting by some protestors. There is significant debate around who escalated the violence first, but there is clear evidence that in many cities the police were not able to de-escalate, and appear to have ramped up the violence by attacking largely peaceful groups of protestors. It is particularly telling that in the context of protests against police brutality, Amnesty International has recorded at least 150 separate incidents of police attacking peaceful protestors, bystanders and journalists. Tear gas, a chemical weapon banned in war, has been used liberally by security forces, including to facilitate a photo opportunity for the President. 

This overreaction and lack of control from the police has helped fuel further protests, while more radical demands such as the abolition of the current system of policing are gaining prominence

This follows the vicious cycle laid out by scholars of contentious politics, which has been visible in the Arab Spring and elsewhere. This may lead to revolution or coup d’état, in cases such as Egypt where the government loses the support of the military. It can also lead to civil war, in cases where the state is very weak or where insurrectionists have outside help. It may also lead to a stronger polarization of society, as protests lose momentum but where grievances remain unaddressed. Given the overwhelming strength of the American state, it is the latter outcome which seems most likely. 

Rhetoric, culture and Polarization

While this is a familiar pattern of escalation there are some features of this situation which are particular to America. This movement has its roots in the persisting and problematic idea of the white supremacy, which goes back to the founding of the world’s oldest democracy. While such systemic racism is embedded in societies around the world, the legacy of slavery has a unique effect on modern American politics. Meanwhile, the Civil War has helped to produce a heavily contested view of history and a sense of geographic polarization, emphasizing North/South and urban/rural divides in a way which intimately shapes everything from education and art to elections. 

Within this context it hasn’t helped that politicians, from the President on down, have decided to play into greater division as an electoral strategy. Leaders across the partisan divide have failed to arrive at a consensus to manage the prevailing racial hostility effectively, undermining efforts however minimal — to implement a police reform bill. The President has continued to ramp up his rhetoric, re-tweeting a video (now deleted) of one of his supporters shouting “White Power” at a protestor and accusing the BLM movement of “Treason, Sedition, Insurrection!” Meanwhile, Vice President Pence has repeatedly refused to say “Black Lives Matter”, showing an inability to engage with the substantive demands or arguments of the movement. Furthermore, Trump has attempted to use the state’s security apparatus in a highly personalized way, deploying the Secret Service and bringing in agents directly under the command of the Attorney General. As such, the Federal government gives the appearance of having picked a side, rather than serving as an honest broker between local communities and local police forces. This has helped cause a breakdown in trust which cannot be easily repaired by a Democratic win in November.

Another issue is the culture of policing within the US.  Most police officers do not live within the communities they serve, often commuting from suburban homes to urban communities. There is also a preponderance of white officers, even within African American communities. Police officers also hold vastly different views on policing and social issues than members of the public.  This cultural and political disconnect that acts as a barrier between the officers and the community they are meant to protect and serve.

In recent years the police have come to develop their own symbols and culture. Online space populated by law enforcement portrays an insular and often disturbingly racist culture, as exemplified by a private Facebook group operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.  The  thin blue line flag now associated with the “Blue Lives Matter” counter-movement and the Punisher Skull have emerged mobilizing and identifying symbols. These kinds of symbols are common to social movements and protest groups, but do not fit with the constitutional role of the police and neutral arbitrators and peacekeepers. 

Today, the America has ceded a privileged status to the police establishment. By describing chokeholds as ‘innocent’, the President has condoned the atrocities meted out against the marginalized. His vision to ‘Make America Great Again’ is based around a lionization of the ‘American soldiers’, including the law enforcement officials at the forefront of the cultural war against the progressive policies. It is the kind of identity politics that the white conservatives can rally behind.

Beyond this, these symbols serve to reinforce two key narratives. Firstly, that the rest of society stands against the police, requiring a fortress mentality. This is exemplified by the fact that while it is safer to be a police officer now than it was 50 years ago, police themselves believe it has become more dangerous

Secondly, that the police should think of themselves as warriors, constantly in danger and on the verge on using and receiving violence. This second narrative is encouraged by people like Dave Grossman, a wildly popular police trainer who encourages officers to be mentally prepared to kill at all times. Grossman seeks to promote a vicious cycle of perpetual violence, arguing that; ‘We fight violence. What do we fight it with? Superior violence. Righteous violence.’  In short, many law enforcement bodies in the US are no longer functioning as neutral agents of the law, but rather as a semi-autonomous social movement within the state, complete with their own symbols, own mobilizing myths and heroes. This particular cultural moment in American policing, in collision with systemic inequality and the pressures created by coronavirus, explains why state violence was allowed to escalate so quickly. 

It is on some level unsurprising that a broad, cross-racial coalition demanding justice and reform was met with some kind of reactionary backlash, particularly given the polarization affecting America and many other Western democracies. However, the worrying aspect of this is that this backlash appears to be embedded within aspects of the state’s security apparatus. The danger is that precisely those institutions of policing and the judiciary which are supposed to help manage social conflict have now become drawn in as major antagonists. Resistance to reform has gone beyond institutional inertia, instead becoming an existential battle in the ongoing culture war. The upcoming election is only likely to heighten the tension at a moment when political leaders should be seeking meaningful compromise and progress.

Daniel Odin Shaw is the Director of Political Violence and Conflict Resolution Programme at The International Scholar.

Saman Ayesha Kidwai and Desara Cera are Research Assistants with the Political Violence and Conflict Resolution programme at The International Scholar.