The date was July 13, 2013.
Criminal justice reform advocate Patrisse Cullors sat at the edge of her bed in a Susanville, California, motel room, staring at her Facebook timeline in shock. A jury in Sanford, Florida, had just found George Zimmerman not guilty of murder in the February 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a black 17-year-old.
“I was confused,” Cullors said in an interview Wednesday. “I was hurt. I felt betrayed. But then very quickly I was like, ‘We gotta do something ... The moment I get home, I need to hit the streets.’”
A despondent Alicia Garza — Cullors’ friend who served as special projects director at the advocacy group National Domestic Workers Alliance — posted a love letter to black America on Facebook the same day.
“Black people, I love you,” Garza wrote. “We matter. Our lives matter.”
Cullors’ comment on Garza’s post birthed the hashtag that became a battlecry: #BlackLivesMatter. Fellow activist Opal Tometi saw both messages and helped Cullors and Garza create a communications infrastructure, Twitter and Tumblr pages that made the hashtag go viral, launching what eventually became a global protest movement.
In 2014, the co-founders worked with local activist groups across the U.S. and Canada to establish a network of official Black Lives Matter chapters. That global network is supplemented by a larger coalition of pro-BLM organizations with thousands of activists from different walks of life who protest in support of the Black Lives Matter cause.
Five years later to the day since the Zimmerman verdict, advocates and observers are still coming to grips with how that moment has shaped the course of American history. Recent legal and political developments beg the question of whether the country is better or worse off since the Black Lives Matter movement was born.
There was undeniable progress, initially. In the months after the Zimmerman verdict, and especially after the August 2014 fatal police shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, social media and smartphones helped a generation of newly conscious young activists create mass awareness around the injustices suffered by black people across the U.S. Names like Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice became universally known thanks to protests and viral hashtag campaigns on Twitter and Facebook.
Under President Barack Obama, the Black Lives Matter movement made gains in reforming policing and protecting civil liberties. The administration allocated millions of dollars for law enforcement agencies to invest in body cameras to increase police accountability. Efforts to reverse the growth of America’s incarcerated population received bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Reporters, citizen journalists and activists shed brighter light on police brutality, leading to the exposure of law enforcement corruption scandals and forcing police administrators and prosecutors to change their policies. In some cases, officials were even fired in disgrace.
The movement also brought national attention to the conflicts of interest among local prosecutors, who are often tasked with deciding whether to indict police officers for misconduct while maintaining close personal and professional relationships with those same officers. New York has responded by creating a system for state attorneys to assign special prosecutors to preside over criminal cases when officers were tried criminally for killing civilians.
Black Lives Matter activists have run for mayor and been elected to city council. They’ve advised Obama and created a “woke” culture that’s influenced a new generation of socially conscious entertainers and pop culture.
But despite its successes, the Black Lives Matter movement has faced major backlash as well. The pro-police Blue Lives Matter movement has successfully lobbied state and federal lawmakers across America, who in turn have passed laws that police reform advocates argue are designed to further criminalize dissent.
The Supreme Court recently reaffirmed qualified immunity for officers who kill civilians. The public’s right to view police body camera footage has been limited by laws that critics say are designed to shield officers from unwanted public scrutiny. The Trump administration’s Justice Department, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has indicated it will no longer monitor troubled police departments to hold them accountable for racism and misconduct, and will re-invest in private prisons. The president himself has endorsed police brutality.
Meanwhile, the rampant videos of alleged police brutality that shook up the nation in 2014 and 2015 have become so common they rarely make national news anymore. Cullors acknowledges that matters are bleak for Black Lives Matter supporters under the Trump administration, but says things could be worse if BLM had never been born.
“I’m so grateful that in this time, especially under this current government, that we created a movement five years ago,” she said. “It gave us a blueprint on how you fight back. We’ve seen the Women’s March. We’ve seen [the] March for Our Lives. They’ve used it to change policy, to change culture.”
Some critics have inveighed against the movement’s use of social media as a primary weapon of resistance. Cullors points out that social media has created a fast-track mechanism of civic action that circumvents stagnant and often corrupt legal systems, as well as other intractable institutions of power.
They helped give us #OscarsSoWhite, revitalized #MeToo and paved the way for #NeverAgain, which has already achieved landmark gun control legal reform in states like Florida and Illinois. Cullors says none of these subsequent hashtag movements would have happened if Black Lives Matter didn’t do it first.
“What our movement has been able to do in five years is galvanize a new generation to change the course of history,” she said.
Others have criticized BLM for not doing more to emulate the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s — running as political candidates and more aggressively lobbying government officials to change policies. (In actuality, BLM has done both). ACLU deputy legal director Jeff Robinson, who also serves as director of the Trone Center for Justice and Equality, says that criticism is misguided.
“If you look at five years of work in the context of the entire struggle for racial justice in America, you’re talking about a minute that has gone by in a struggle that has literally been hundreds of years long,” Robinson said in a phone interview. “But it’s been a very significant minute, it seems to me.”
By most historical accounts, the Civil Rights Movement lasted about 20 years, from 1948 to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. But despite its length and storied legacy in the American imagination, a staggering degree of black inequality still persists, Robinson says.
He points to a February study released by the Economic Policy Institute that showed the collective plight of African-Americans has remained the same or worsened in many key ways in the 50 years since King was shot dead in Tennessee. In 2015, the rate of black homeownership was just over 40% — almost exactly what it was in 1968, and 30 percentage points lower than the white homeownership rate, according to EPI. Between 1968 and 2016, the share of black people in prison or jail almost tripled. It remains more than six times the white incarceration rate.
“When King was killed, it felt like a lot of the momentum that came had been drawn back,” Robinson noted. “What came next was Nixon and the War on Drugs ... Anybody who says, ‘Let’s go back to what we did before,’ how can you say that? When you take a clear look at where we are today, we still have voter suppression in America — affirmative action being rolled back piece by piece. ... [King’s] dream turned into a nightmare.”
For truly sustained social change to take hold in the U.S., America must reckon with its white supremacist roots and reinvent itself by truly changing hearts and minds on an individual and local level, Robinson adds — a strategy that he says BLM has put at its forefront. The movement’s relentless protests around black and brown people victimized by state violence has forced America to stand naked and look itself in the mirror.
“The country hasn’t liked what it sees,” Robinson said. “Instead of going to the gym, America wants to tell the mirror it’s wrong.”
Latonya Goldsby, leader of Black Lives Matter Cleveland, says BLM supporters don’t necessarily have to commit entirely to one strategy over the other. Some must work as outside agitators while others work the system — like their civil rights forebears did — to achieve their ultimate goals of universal black and brown liberation.
“Part of the reason why our elders were so successful with their civil rights movement is because they embraced everybody,” Goldsby said Thursday. “If we focused on that and got rid of the nonsense, we would be able to build more people power.”
July 13, 2018, 11:02 p.m.: This story has been updated to include context about the official Black Lives Matter global network.