People take part in a rally for the Black Lives Matter movement at Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco, California Image Credit: AFP

Black Lives Matter (BLM) in the US has become one of the successful social movements of our time. In the last seven years, it has become bigger, stronger, and even global. The movement had originated with a Twitter hashtag but has developed into a powerful multi-issue protesting juggernaut.

It has not only brought several major changes in the US across law enforcement, public administration, school system, and entertainment but it has also arguably influenced the results of the election in several key states in the last Presidential election. The success of the movement can be seen from the US President-elect Joe Biden committing to select the most diverse cabinet to truly represent the multiracial United States.

The BLM movement was born on July 13, 2013, when three African-American civil-right women activists created #BlackLivesMatter on Twitter to protest George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of an unarmed African American teenager, Trayvon Martin. Hundreds of street protests in different cities in the US have taken place under the BLM banner since then.

The key to BLM’s successful mobilisation of a wider support base is its conscious attempt to grow from a single-issue protest to a multi-issue one to enlarge its support constituency

- Professor Ashok Swain

The election of Donald Trump as the US President in 2016 made this movement stronger. The movement reached its peak in Summer 2020 with the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man being killed in police custody. As several polls suggest, about 15 million to 26 million people participated in June 2020 in the street protests in the US.

Stats show that nearly 1000 civilians get killed each year by American law enforcement agencies. It is important to understand why this issue only recently brought Americans together and created a movement, which even spread around the globe and led to a serious and defining public debate over police brutality and racism. Discrimination against racial, religious, and linguistic minorities is not confined to the US.

Unable to wage powerful movement

Many minority groups in different parts of the world are institutionally and culturally being discriminated against by the powerful majority. Discrimination has become much worse particularly under right-wing populists, and minority and disadvantageous groups protest sometimes but why are they unable to wage a powerful movement like the BLM?

Grievance alone cannot lead to a social movement. It is how the discriminated groups interact with their social and political environment in the pursuit of their interests that matters. More than the issues and grievances, the mechanisms adopted by discriminated groups and availing opportunities play critical roles in achieving larger and sustained popular mobilisation.

The size of the social movement matters. The diffusion of the support base for the movement is necessary to keep the movement alive when its initial spark begins to sputter. Many times, other countries have also witnessed protests by the minority disadvantageous groups, but most of them fail to achieve success in mobilising sustained support to achieve their goals. To be successful, movements need to transcend the “volcanic” stage of their initial collective action. Thus, it is important to understand the process of a deferential support base to comprehend the spread and growth of social movements.

Drawing larger popular support

The formula of the success of the BLM lies in its ability to draw larger popular support. The Black Lives Matter movement didn’t restrict itself to Blacks in America only. As a University of Maryland study finds out 54% of protesters in the cities of Los Angeles, New York City and Washington DC were Whites and only 21% were African Americans.

A survey of Pew Research also confirms that two-thirds of adults in the US supported the BLM movement, including 60% of all White adults, 77% Hispanic, and 75% Asians. The protest was also not limited to a few cities only, as nearly 2,500 small towns and large cities hosted street protests in the summer. The protests were openly backed by NFL, NASCAR, Hollywood, and many others. The racial and geographical spread of protest shows the depth and breadth of the support for a movement, which the BLM has been able to achieve.

The key to BLM’s successful mobilisation of a wider support base is its conscious attempt to grow from a single-issue protest to a multi-issue one to enlarge its support constituency. The movement has not confined itself to minority rights only but focuses on individual rights, which has helped it to connect with other racial groups and their cultural organisations.

This leaderless social movement receives support from several other activist organisations. They emphasise cultural, gender, or sexual orientation identities and more such issues which resonate with the liberal value of individual rights and freedom. They also urge their supporters to make alliances with other like-minded groups rather than limiting only on African-American community issues or engaging in disruptive protest activities.

The remarkable success of the Black Lives Matter movement shows the utility of sustained mobilisation for disadvantaged minority groups in a democracy. Minority groups cannot and should not wait for all their rights and honours being gobbled up gradually by majoritarian leaders but need to develop a successful and inclusive movement like the BLM and powerfully resist the further slide of their civil rights.

Ashok Swain is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden.