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#Black Lives Matter – one year on

Dr Shaminder Takhar, Associate Professor of Sociology, Co-Lead Race, Gender and Sexualities Research Group and Chair of EquiNet

In January 2021, it was reported that the Black Lives Matter movement had been nominated for the 2021 Nobel peace prize citing its multiracial composition and its global reach to mobilise people calling for systemic change particularly with reference to racial injustice. The nomination came from the Norwegian Prime Minister who was criticised by right wing groups for backing a violent movement despite evidence showing that 93% of the #BLM demonstrations were peaceful. Simultaneously, former President Trump was nominated by Norwegian far right MP, Christian Tybring-Gjedde for improving relations between Israel and the UAE.

Since the protests of 2020, #BLM has now become synonymous with calls for systemic change across the globe. In the United States alone, the estimated number of people participating in demonstrations was between 15-26 million in the first few weeks after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer on 25 May 2020. The global reach of #BLM was felt in Britain through protests, and calls for the removal of statues, decolonising the curriculum and antiracism training. The UK government’s response was the much criticised Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities which denied institutional racism and the rushing through of the notorious Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (2021) which imposes restrictions on public protests and a maximum penalty of ten years for criminal damage to a statue. The Black Lives Matter Report (November 2020) by Opinium showed that 66% of those aware of the #BLM movement believe the movement advocates that the lives of black people are of equal importance to other people’s lives. However, it also shows that 55% of Conservative voters think the #BLM movement has increased racial tensions in the UK which chimes with Conservative ministers such as Sajid Javid who has called the movement ‘neo-Marxist’ and ‘not a force for good’

In response to the poll findings, Adam Elliott-Cooper, a spokesman for BLM states, ‘Black Lives Matter hasn’t increased racial tension in the same way as the civil rights movement in the US didn’t or the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa didn’t […] but they might have made it more apparent and exposed what is there.’ Kalwant Bhopal, author of White Privilege has commented that it had made some white people ‘feel their privilege is being threatened and questioned.’ So why are people so afraid of the Black Lives Matter movement when it has captured the attention of many as a vehicle for progress on race related issues and is it a movement for social change?

Is the #BLM a movement for change?

In the literature on social movements, there are many arguments regarding their purpose, boundaries and objectives. These movements are mostly associated with oppositional ‘left wing’ activism and contentious politics however, the same strategies have also been observed amongst right wing groups (McVeigh, 2020). The Black Lives Matter movement has been hailed as a new civil rights movement through demonstrations and social media use, bringing global attention to the deaths of black people at the hands of white police officers in the US. Described as a black liberation movement it is also concerned with issues of justice, dignity, freedom and inequality related to gender, disability and sexuality.

Despite describing social media as a platform for social justice gains, the Black Lives Matter movement has moved beyond ‘hashtag activism’ (Whang and Zhou, 2021) to use the hashtag as a tool to carry a message and sustain the attention of millions of people on the issue of racial inequality through visible protest. What a hashtag does is to challenge dominant understandings of power and privilege and creates a collective identity which is crucial for a social movement to open up a space for collective action because political agency is located in social actors. #BLM has displayed fluidity in the digital domain to an actual physical movement via social media. The online and offline spheres of #BLM are intertwined with protest being a necessary part. Social movements operate to bring about change, equality and justice usually through collective action. The trending worldwide of hashtag movements reflect interest in matters of racial injustice, sexual harassment and misogyny (#wearethe99percent #ReclaimTheStreets #MeToo) with people’s involvement in such political matters challenging the perceived apathy or de-politicisation of societies and individuals by a neo-liberal agenda. #BLM has appealed to a cross section of society demonstrated by its multiracial composition against racism for example in the Euro 2020 football final, the racist abuse dealt by Hungarian supporters towards Black footballers and hostility towards taking the knee.

Yet the #BLM protests could not continue on the same scale indefinitely. The challenge posed by the movement was to do something about deep set racial inequality (albeit sometimes reluctantly), which has entered the psyche of people globally and it is something that governments have had to grapple with particularly in the context of populism and nationalism. We have witnessed a nationalist discourse clothed in populism across the globe in countries such as US, India, Hungary and Brazil (May et al, 2020). At the centre of this populism is the threat to the nation, national values and culture by ‘others’ such as migrants and sexual and religious minorities. British populism is spoken through the language of liberalism, British values and free speech with populist parties influencing political opinion and leaders arguing that they represent the unforgotten - usually white working class who have experienced unemployment, precarity and poverty. Mainstream parties have taken on an agenda usually associated with right wing politics and language which is difficult to argue against and poses another ideological battle.

However, it is important to recognise the capability of human political agency shown by protests against racism, climate change, sexual harassment, and misogyny because, as Angela Davis (2016:35) comments, ‘we can[not] rely on governments, regardless of who is in power, to do the work that only mass movements can do’.

Bhopal, K. (2018) White Privilege: The myth of a post-racial society, Bristol: Policy Press.
Davis, Angela (2016) Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of a Movement, Chicago: Haymarket Books.
May, V; Byrne, B; Holmes, H; Takhar. S. (2020) ‘Introduction’, Special Issue, ‘Nationalism’s Futures’, Sociology, 54(6): 1055-1071.