In your own way

Black Lives Matter – Unpacking a Social Movement

Chimwemwe Manyozo*


People mobilisation is a common tool used to challenge state authority. In the United States (U.S.), since 2013, people have joined Black Lives Matter marches in different states to challenge police brutality. More than 1,030 protest actions have been held in the name of Black Lives Matter. Following Jesse Williams’ speech at the 2016 BET awards, and the recent death of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, Black Lives Matter has taken centre stage again, reviving the conversation on mainstream and social media. This paper unpacks Black Lives Matter as a social movement by tracing back the definitions of people’s mobilisation and social movements.

First, this paper provides an overview of people’s mobilisation. Secondly, it defines social movements, highlighting the elements that make a social movement. Thirdly, the paper provides a basic history of social movements in the U.S. Finally, the representation of Black Lives Matter as a social movement is explained.

People Mobilisation

People mobilisation works as a tool as citizens challenge authority. Citizen mobilisation has moved from focusing on the state to non-state actors. Before, people mobilisation took place in transitional states, from colonialism to independence. Now it reflects a broad array of social, political and economic concerns expressed at local, national and global levels (Thompson and Tapscott, 2010, 1). Over the past three decades, changes in economic, political, and associations have given rise to new forms of contestation (Keck, 2015, 215). Similarly, the development of ICT has opened new spaces of engagement (Thigo, 2013, 255) for national and transnational collective action (Edelman, 2001, 299). For example, the ‘Put People First’ campaign saw people demonstrating in Washington, London, St. Andrews, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Seoul (Bennett and Segerberg, 2012, 740). This is a demonstration that people mobilisation is not only confined to national boundaries.

People in democratic and repressive states (Naim, 2015, 217) mobilise to challenge states despotic power (Keck, 2015, 217). States oppression varies from soft repression of stigma and ridicule, to intimidation, arrests, martial law, torture, mass killings and genocide (Almeida, 2007, 107). To resist the oppression from the state, people mobilise through strikes, terrorism, civil wars, revolutions and social movements among others. Doug et. al (2007) argues that social movements and civil wars dovetail with different types of regimes. Civil wars and social movements both mobilise people into collective action, although they differ in the mechanisms and processes that drive them into action

Social Movements

Social movements is a people mobilisation that involves sustained challenges to authority (Doug et. al, 2007, 19) or adversary’s (Castells, 2004, 74) despotic power (Keck, 2015, 217). They use concerted public displays of a population’s worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment (Doug et. al, 2007, 19). Social movements are created by different individuals, networks, and organisations/social institutions that use collective action and identity (Porta and Diani, 2006; Castells, 2004).They combine sustained campaigns of claim-making, an array of public performances, and repeated display of worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment (Doug et. al, 2007, 19).

Social movements are struggles over the distribution and deployment of power (Keck 2015, .217). They begin with a rapture of some kind, and result in intended or unintended, cultural, political and social change (Fenollosa, 2015, 133). They use mass demonstrations (Doug, et. al, 2007; Keck, 2015), nonviolent protests, civil disobedience and unlicensed public rallies (Thigo, 2013,265) to challenge actions and inactions of government. Social Movements target particular state agencies or subnational units (Keck 2015, 217). With the development of new technologies, social movements have embraced digital media to influence social change. The Arab Spring demonstrated that technology can be used to galvanise actions towards change objectives (Thigo, 2013, 261).

There are no ‘bad’ and ‘good’ social movements (Castells, 2004, 73). Social movements are used by both governments and citizens to champion a cause. On one hand, social movements can be used to bolster weak governments in moments of crisis, for instance, in Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina and Ecuador (Keck, 2015, 218). On the other hand, they can be used to challenge state authority or institutions linked to the state (Almeida, 2007, 107). The latter is a common area that researchers have focused on in the study of social movements.

This paper uses classification of social movements by three elements: sustained campaigns of claim-making, an array of public performances, and repeated display of worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitments, to decipher the representation of Black Lives Matter as a social movement.

Social Movements in the United States

Movements that challenge structures and ideologies of domination, and oppression by racism (Fredrickson, 1997, 189) can be traced back to the early 1900s. During this time, Black people were facing segregation, discrimination, racial injustice, police brutality and suspension of civil and political rights (King, 1963). In 1940s, there was a manifestation of pockets of resistance through sit-in-tactics- staged by Black college students to physically occupy spaces reserved for Whites (Biggs and Andrews, 2010, 191). Later, protests, marches and rallies were conducted. More than 60 protests in every southern state except Mississippi (ibid) were conducted. This became the Launchpad for the Civil Rights movement, Black Power movement in the United States, Black consciousness in South Africa, and Pan-Africanism across Africa. These movements’ used slogans like ‘Black Power’ and ‘Blackman, you are on your own’ (Fredrickson, 1997, 189).

Through alliances, coalitions and networks, the movements managed to raise Black consciousness, challenge racist’s policies (Fredrickson, 1997, 195), and develop new sets of rights. The Black Power movement has made a significant difference in the attitudes of Black people (ibid). It is this impact that has set ground for Black Lives Matter in the U.S. 

Black Lives Matter Movement

Black Lives Matter is a mobilisation of people (Solomon, 2015) working for the validity of Black lives in the United States of America (Black Lives Matter, 2015). It focuses on the racial justice issues (Osterweil, 2015). The movement began with a social media hashtag “#BlackLivesMatter” in 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the alleged murder of Trayvon Martin.

#BlackLivesMatter was created with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, as a call to action for Black people after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was posthumously placed on trial for his own murder and the killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for the crime he committed. It was a response to the anti-Black racism that permeates our society and also, unfortunately, our movements (Black Lives Matter, 2015).

Over the years, Black Lives Matter has grown to be a multi-racial mobilisation, comprising activists, journalists, lawyers, medical professionals, organisers, pastors, students, (Solomon 2014), politicians (CBS News ,2015), cultural workers, artist, and designers (Black Lives Matter, 2015). For example, in August 2014, Rev. Starsky D. Wilson delivered a sermon “the politics of Jesus” (Solomon, 2015) to confirm the role of the church in the fight for racial justice. In addition to that, Black award-winning music artists, have also composed songs for instance Lauren Hill’s Black Rage, and Common and John Legend’s Glory (Barnett, 2015) to express their stand on racial injustice in the U.S.

Since 2013, Black Lives Matter has raised awareness about the number of Black people that are abused or killed by the police. It has used online and offline activities. Over the years, the movement expanded its focus to cover issues that affect Black queer and transgender community, immigration, Black women and girls, and Black people living with disabilities.

Black Lives Matter uses freedom rides, marches, songs, poetry, demonstrations, rallies, petitions, sermons (Solomon, 2014) and digital media (Stuckey, 2015) to voice out their concerns. Since August 2014, more than 1,030 protest actions have been held in the name of Black Lives Matter (2015).

Following Jesse Williams’ speech at the 2016 BET awards, and the death of Philando Castile and Arlon Sterling, Black Lives Matter has came into the picture even more prominently. On 8 July 2016, hundreds join Black Lives Matter march in London in protest at the shooting of Castile and Sterling by police in the U.S. (BBC, 2016). 

Black Lives Matter as a Social Movement

Black Lives Matter is indeed a social movement in accordance to the following elements

Sustained Campaigns of Claim-making

Sustained campaigns of claim-making involve using repeated performances that advertise the claim, based on organisation and networks, and solidarity (Tilly and Tarrow, 2006, 11).Black Lives Matter makes sustained campaigns of claim-making by using online and offline activities to sustain campaigns of claiming for racial justice.

To begin with, the movement uses T-shirts, badges and mugs to raise awareness. It also uses banners with the inscription ‘Black Lives Matter’ that are put on windows in shops. In addition, it uses subthemes that captures current events. For example, after the death of Eric Gardner, the sub-theme of ‘I/we can’t breathe’ (the last words Gardner uttered before his death)was used in chants and displays (Day, 2015). The use of recent incidents as sub-themes makes the campaign to remain relevant.

The movement has further displayed its sustained call for claim, by posting videos and pictures of incidents of police brutality on social media. Since 2013, social media has been used with the hashtag “#BlackLivesMatter” to document incidents of Black people who have suffered violence in the hands of the police. The arrest of Eric Gardner (New York Daily News, 2014), and the McKinney Pool party incident (Channel 4 News,2015), are among the incidents that were recorded and posted on social media. The sustained presence of video, pictures and posts has influenced the mainstream media to start covering cases of police brutality against Black people, and has influenced the guardian to establish The Counted (Day, 2015), an initiative to document the number of people killed by U.S. police

It is this sustained claim of Black Lives Matter that led to the arrest of six Baltimore police officers in May 2015. Black Lives Matter is now a key debate agenda for the US 2016 president campaign.

Array of Public Performances

The Black Lives Matter movement uses an array of public performances. Since its existence, it has used petitions to demand for justice. In 2014, Black Lives Matter developed a petition that demanded the immediate arrest of Officer Darren Wilson (Moore and Cullors 2014) in relation to the shooting and murder of Michael Brown. The movement has also developed a manifesto (Black Lives Matter, 2015) that brings to the fore the challenges that Black communities are facing, and spells out the specific actions that they expect to be taken. As mentioned, the issues affect Black queer and transgender population, immigration, Black women and girls, and Black people living with disabilities.

The movement uses demonstrations, marches and bus rides. There has been over 1000 demonstrations (Lussenhop, 2015) in the U.S. since 2013. In August 2015, the movement marched to Minnesota to bring attention to race issues ranging from policing to underrepresentation of minorities at one of the nation’s biggest state fairs (Helms, 2015). The movement used a bus ride in the spirit of the 1960s interstate freedom rides (Moore and Cullors, 2014).

Advocacy was also used to raise awareness about the cause of the movement.Black Lives Matter events have managed to garner both positive and negative news coverage on BBC News, CNN, FOX, Aljazeera and the guardian among other media outlets. Black Lives Matter has also been mentioned in television shows, for instance, Fox Empire and Law and Order (Day, 2015).

Display of Worthiness, Unity, Numbers and Commitment

Black Lives Matter displays worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment (Doug et. al, 2007, 19) through colours, huge crowds, alliances, multiracialism and a shared slogan. Marches that are organised by the Black Lives Matter have more than 10,000 attendants. For example, in 2014, the Justice for all and Million March crowds varied widely, between 10,000 and 50,000(Gambino, 2014). They are over 26 Black Lives Matter chapters from across the U.S. (Day, 2015). The movement also works with Coalition against police violence, Black youth project 100, Florida based dream centres, (ibid) Organization for Black Struggle (OBS), Hands Up Don’t Shoot, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (Solomon 2014).

A look at the pictures captured by CNN (2015) shows a multi-racial group marching and carrying banners, placards and other displaying signs with one message ‘Black Lives Matter.’ The words are written in bold letters. Some of the displays have names of victims of alleged police brutality, for instance, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. ‘Stop killing us’, ‘Don’t shoot’ (McCormack, 2015), “hands up”, “we can’t breathe” (New York Daily News, 2014) and ‘justice’ (Moody, 2015) are some of the messages that are written on some of the placards.

The worthiness of the Black Lives Matter is endorsed by the United States President Barack Obama (CBS 2015) among other prominent figures. Their unity is reflected in the multi-ethnic members of the movement, and alliances formed. Numbers are shown in the multicultural attendees of the demonstrations that range from 10,000 to 50,000 (Gambino, 2014). Commitment is manifested through the establishment of over 26 chapters of the Black Lives Matter (2015), staging over 1000 demonstrations, and citizen’s drive to raise money utilising online platforms to join the freedom ride(Solomon, 2014). 


This paper has unpacked the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States as a social movement. It provided an overview of people mobilisation, social movements, and history of people mobilisation in U.S. Black Lives Matter fits within the framework of a social movement, using Charles Tilly’s and Sidney Tarrow’s (2006) definitions of social movements. Through examples, the paper analysed that Black Lives Matter displays sustained campaigns of claim-making, an array of public performances, and repeated display of worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment. 


*Chimwemwe Manyozo is a Chevening Scholar and Social Media Ambassador from Malawi studying MA in Development Studies at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK. He is a Public Relations Officer of the Malawi Human Rights Commission, and a National Coordinator of the World Youth Network Malawi.



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Featured Image: Demonstrators march through downtown Atlanta to protest the shootings of two black men by police officers, Friday, July 8, 2016. (Google images:


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