Resisting Repression: Black Lives Movement in Context

The huge wave of protests against police violence that is happening this week has new features tied to the current moment, but is grounded in a movement that has been building for decades. Its direct ties to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2014-2016 should be obvious, but that movement, in turn, built on what was happening before. The idea that “nothing happened” about the Black movement between the end of the Civil Rights Era and Black Lives Matter is a product of an educational and media environment that tends to center on what the White majority is doing and only notices Black organizations when they cause a lot of disruption, quickly forgetting them once the disruption goes away.

My ongoing protest event research and my forthcoming review of the recent history of Black and non-Black groups addressing criminal justice issues shows that the roots of the current mobilization can readily be found in the 1990s and 2000s. The video-recorded beating of Rodney King by four Los Angeles police officers in 1991 was shown on national television. At that time, video cameras were large and people were not generally carrying them around, so the footage was shocking to most people and had a galvanizing effect on public discussions about race and policing. The four-day Los Angeles “riot” and a wave of protests and smaller riots in many other cities followed the not-guilty verdict for the four officers in 1992. There was a rise in Black mobilization in the wake of these events. In 1995, Louis Farrakhan of the National of Islam organized the massive Million Man March. By the end of the 1990s, there were public discussions of reparations for slavery and “racial profiling” by police had become a major public issue. The NAACP and the ACLU and other groups produced studies and reports. There had been a series of major protest campaigns around police violence in New York between 1997 and 1999. Incite!, Critical Resistance, and the Radical Black Congress were all founded in the late 1990s. Black women and queer people played critical roles in these 1990s organizations. The April 2001 Cincinnati riot following the police killing of Timothy Thomas was a major event. Black militancy was on the rise. This mobilization wave was cut short by the terror attacks of 9/11, but mobilizations rose again in the latter half of the 2000s.

Working backward from the huge 2014-16 protest wave ignited by the police killings of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, it is clear that the protest wave began in 2012 with the protests around George Zimmerman’s vigilante killing of Trayvon Martin and Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict in 2013. The underpinnings of the mobilization were longstanding community groups that had been addressing issues of aggressive policing and police violence for years. As the protest wave built, external donors offered funding. Organizations worked to translate the enthusiasm and momentum of anti-police mobilization into a broader agenda. The election of Donald Trump shifted public attention away from the Black Lives movement to other issues, but the organizations continued their work.

The chapter describing this background was largely written In 2018 with some revisions in 2019 and is forthcoming later this year as a chapter in Racialized Protest and the State, edited by Hank Johnston and myself in the Routledge Mobilization Series on Social Movements, Protest, and Culture. This paper draws heavily on other people’s works for its account of the predecessors of the Black Lives Movement, especially Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s 2016 From #Blacklivesmatter to Black Liberation, Beth Richie’s 2012 Arrested Justice Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation and Barbara Ransby’s 2018 Making All Black Lives Matter : Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First Century but also involves my pulling together a variety sources and a discussion of my own observations of public events in my own community.

Quoting the abstract: Although some naïve observers saw Black Lives Matter protests as coming from nowhere in response to a new problem of publicity about police violence, the insurgency of 2014-2016 was continuous with and built on longstanding movements of resistance against repression and unequal treatment in the criminal justice system. Black activists in the US have long protested racially disparate policing and the repression of Black political action. These actions have meshed with efforts by other reform movements. This chapter reviews Black and non-Black movements addressing racial disparities or biases in US criminal justice with an emphasis on the movements between the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the emergence of the Black Lives mobilization in 2014. The author’s experiences in a local movement around racial disparities in criminal justice are shown to be consistent with what happened elsewhere. Prior to 2012, both radicals and moderates engaged in similar tactics of writing reports and seeking to influence criminal justice policy and there were periodic eruptions of protest about police violence or discrimination. Protests built upon longstanding organizations and networks and received external support as they grew. 

In light of the relevance of that paper to the renewed protests around aggressive and repressive policing, I’ve posted an unedited preprint on SocArXiv. The forthcoming published version contains some edits and revisions not in this preprint.

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