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Black Lives Matter as Resistance to Systemic Anti-Black Violence



Black Lives Matter (BLM) has emerged within the last five years as a significant movement for social change. Serving as an ideological and political intervention, BLM organizes to protect and advocate for Black lives and Black communities. This article will outline BLM as a movement and how it is a form of resistance as against systemic anti-Black violence. Centuries of Black resistance against epistemic, structural, and physical violence is the historical context of BLM. Two prominent aspects of the movement are intersectionality and decentralized leadership. The implications for resistance are that BLM is a new form of activism and social movement and there is a need for properly documenting resistance in the moment to inform future movements and to prevent future epistemic violence.
Journal of critical
Thought and Praxis
Iowa state university digital press & School of education
Volume 8
Issue 1 Resisting Structures of Violence Article 4
Black Lives Matter as Resistance to Systemic
Anti-Black Violence
Dominique Thomas
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Journal of Critical Thought and Praxis
2019, Vol. 8, No. 1, 30-45
Black Lives Matter as Resistance to Systemic Anti-Black Violence
Dominique Thomas
University of Michigan
Black Lives Matter (BLM) has emerged within the last five years as a significant movement for
social change. Serving as an ideological and political intervention, BLM organizes to protect
and advocate for Black lives and Black communities. This article will outline BLM as a
movement and how it is a form of resistance as against systemic anti-Black violence. Centuries
of Black resistance against epistemic, structural, and physical violence is the historical context
of BLM. Two prominent aspects of the movement are intersectionality and decentralized
leadership. The implications for resistance are that BLM is a new form of activism and social
movement and there is a need for properly documenting resistance in the moment to inform
future movements and to prevent future epistemic violence.
Keywords: Black Lives Matter | resistance activism | African Americans
The African American experience is one that is characterized by persistent resistance to
systemic and state-sanctioned anti-Black violence. State-sanctioned violence is defined as
legitimate because it is in the national interest; violence is prohibited except when used by state
agents (Cairns & Sears, 2012). Black people face this violence on multiple fronts as various
forms of racism. Critical race psychology is an important tool for understanding how African
Americans experience and resist myriad forms of violence. Critical race psychology approaches
racism as systemic, illuminates how neoliberalism perpetuates and reproduces racial hierarchies,
emphasizes Whiteness (and other privileged identities) as property, and proposes counter-
storytelling as a way pushing against dominant narratives (Salter & Adams, 2013). Influenced by
Black liberation psychology and critical race theory, this perspective is more than appropriate for
understanding Black liberation movements in response to systemic anti-Black violence. This
perspective also broadens the scope to view race as systemic, not just individual prejudice or bias
and to properly center Black people’s perspectives.
Jones (1997) describes racism as consisting of a cumulative unfolding and developing of
structures and processes throughout time. Racism is embedded within institutions, culture, and
individuals. Culture both conditions and is a product of human action. These cultural views
manifest as institutions that in turn produce values to socialized into individuals who integrate
their values while developing competence in that space. These levels do not exist in a
hierarchical form but are embedded within one another. Cultural racism deems a group’s culture
inferior (language, dialect, values, beliefs, worldviews, and cultural artifacts). This is probably
the most pervasive form given that culture by its very nature is institutionalized. Institutional
racism refers to policies and practices that contribute to discrimination. This structural or
systematic racism continuously leads to negative outcomes for African Americans, and it is the
primary reason for racial inequalities. Individual racism manifests as racial prejudice as
witnessed and experienced in interpersonal interactions. This assumes the superiority of one’s
acial group and rationalizes the dominance and power over African Americans (Jones, 1997). On
multiple fronts, the existence of African Americans is violently challenged; yet there has always
Thomas Black Lives Matter as Resistance to Systemic Anti-Black Violence
been resistance. From slave revolts to the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Power Movement,
African Americans have resisted.
The Black History Knowledge Framework (Chapman-Hilliard & Adams-Bass, 2016)
provides an outline for how Black people cope with and liberate themselves in the context of this
systemic anti-Black violence. Collective histories play a more vital role than individual histories.
People of the African diaspora experience a vulnerability based on displacement segregation,
institutionalized oppression, deculturation, and destruction of capital. In the face of these
oppressive forces, the framework proposes several Black liberation tasks including having an
awareness of the structure of race and racism, contributions and achievements of Black people,
their position in society (social, political, economic), and cultural strengths that foster
empowered action. Completing these tasks through gaining awareness positively impacts mental
health, protecting Black people from the deleterious psychological effects of racism. As coined
by scholar Cedric Robinson (2000), this Black Radical Tradition serves as a collection of
cultural, intellectual, and action-oriented labor aimed at disrupting social, political, economic,
and cultural norms that denigrate Blackness and Black people. The Black Lives Matter
movement is a continuation of this long tradition of resistance.
Using a critical race psychology perspective and the Black History Knowledge Framework, I
will discuss how BLM engages in liberation tasks in resistance against systemic anti-Black
violence. First, I will discuss epistemic, structural, and physical violence based in historical anti-
Black racism. Second, I will give a brief history of the movement and discuss projects within the
movement. Third, I will discuss four prominent aspects of the movement: intersectionality,
decentralized leadership, youth participation, and documenting resistance.
A History of Systemic Anti-Black Violence
Frantz Fanon (1961) discussed violence as a process through which the physical, social, and/or
psychological integrity of another person or group is harmed. Given the individual, cultural, and
institutional nature of anti-Black racism, it becomes important to understand how this violence
can occur physically, through structures and policies, and the exclusion of voices and
perspectives. The purpose of this discussion is to provide historical context for the conditions
that birthed BLM.
Structural Violence
Much of the systemic anti-Blackness is attributed to racial capitalism (Robinson, 2000). Racial
capitalism exploited people through the intersections of slavery, imperialism, and genocide; this
produced a global economic system in which private individuals and corporations control the
means of production, access to goods, and the value of goods. The transatlantic slave trade
ripped millions of Africans from their homelands and dispersed throughout them what is now
referred to as the African diaspora. This historically violent occurrence led Afrofuturist scholar
Tobias van Veen (Anderson & Jones, 2016) to refer to the aftermath as “The Armageddon
Effect” referencing the apocalyptic conditions in which diasporic Africans found themselves. As
stated by rap group Public Enemy, “Armageddon Been in Effect” indicating an experience that is
not in the future of African Americans, but one that has shaped and characterized the history of
African Americans (Anderson & Jones, 2016). Once arriving in the Americas and the Caribbean
they were stripped of their identities and cultures and forced into dehumanizing and tortuous
labor. Slavery as a practice could only exist by nullifying Black parents’ moral claim to their
Thomas Black Lives Matter as Resistance to Systemic Anti-Black Violence
children. These policies and practices pit the interests of pregnant women and the interests of
their children against one another, restricting their autonomy. Such practices forced Black
women to bear children at younger ages and more frequently to “produce” more labor (Roberts,
African Americans’ second-class status was codified in law. Many of the founding fathers
(including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson) were slaveowners who drafted a
constitution in which only property-owning (property including both land and people) White
men were eligible for citizenship and the right to vote (Robinson, 1997). Slave states often had
large populations of non-citizens; the resulting 3/5 compromise counted each enslaved African as
3/5 person toward the population to determine elector votes in the Electoral College. This
heavily tilted power towards slave states to drive policy. After the abolishment of slavery in 1865
and the passing of the Equal Rights (13th, 14th, & 15th) Amendments, the government began an
effort to rebuild the south and provide services for newly freed African Americans. The
establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau was intended to help newly freed African American to
integrate into society and to provide them with resources. However, these new gains would not
last as the reconstruction effort was halted in 1872. With the end of Reconstruction came the
beginning of Jim Crow as southern legislatures passed laws that further suppressed and
oppressed African Americans (Alexander, 2012, Bell, 2004; Du Bois, 1903, 1924; Glaude, 2017;
Taylor, 2016).
One thing that had not been changed was the value gap as articulated by Eddie Glaude
(2017): Racism is in the national DNA, White people are valued more than others. Because the
value gap between African Americans and White Americans was not adequately addressed, it
will always inform how institutions and policies treat African Americans. Slave codes regulating
enslaved Africans became Black codes regulating free African Americans. For example,
Mississippi (my home state) declared vagrant “anyone/who was guilty of theft, had run away
[from a job, apparently], was drunk, was wanton in conduct or speech, had neglected job or
family, handled money carelessly, and…all other idle disorderly persons,” (Davis, 2003, p. 29).
Such violations were punishable by incarceration which was the only legal form of enslavement
as stated by the 13th Amendment. In combination with the convict leasing program (groups of
prisoners were leased out to provide labor), this became “slavery by another name,” viewed by
some as worse than the original incarnation (Alexander, 2012; Davis, 2003). The structural
violence enacted by policy justified physical violence towards Black people to keep them in their
Physical Violence
Physical violence is relatively self-explanatory and is typically indicative of individual-level
racism and/or institutional and cultural racism playing out in individuals. The structural
devaluing of Black lives leaves them vulnerable to racist physical violence. This can occur at the
hands of law enforcement officers, but also citizens. As illustrated by laws such as the Fugitive
Slave Law of 1850 (Davis, 2003; Robinson, 2000), Black people were targeted as a population to
be managed and controlled by White society.
One type of physical violence particularly relevant to Black communities is police brutality.
Police violence may include fatalities from physical injury or negligence as well as excessive
nonlethal physical and psychological injury and maltreatment (Dukes & Kahn, 2017). Note how
this description almost perfectly aligns with how Fanon (1961) defines violence; this shows the
coloniality that remains beyond the formal colonial structure (Adams, 2017). There have been a
Thomas Black Lives Matter as Resistance to Systemic Anti-Black Violence
number of high profile cases that have brought public awareness to this issue such as the beating
of Rodney King in 1991, the shooting of unarmed Black people such as Tamir Rice and Mike
Brown, the mysterious death of Sandra Bland in a Texas jail, and the wrongful incarceration of
Kalief Browder for a crime he did not commit nor was charged for (Jones, 2016; Taylor, 2016).
Unfortunately, these cases also demonstrate how Black lives can be taken with little consequence
as many of these officers have not been indicted by grand juries or significantly reprimanded by
their departments.
Racism in its various forms has been associated with poorer mental health and poorer
physical health (Brown & Tylka, 2011; Bynum, Burton, & Best, 2007; Paradies et al., 2015;
Solórzano, Ceja, Yosso, 2000; Torres, Driscoll, & Burrow, 2010), but police violence
exacerbates this: African Americans are overrepresented in cases involving the use of force such
as tasers, canines, spray, hands and body use, and weapon use (Goff, Lloyd, Geller, Raphael, &
Glaser, 2016). According to The Guardian, in 2015-16 African Americans made up 12-15% of
the U.S. population, but accounted for almost 30% of unarmed individuals killed by police
officers (Swaine & McCarthy, 2017). Such violence does not only happen at the individual level,
but at the community level as well such as the case of the Tulsa Race Riots in 1921 and the
centuries-long violence inflicted on Black communities rooted in the structures and policies of
Sewell, Horsford, Coleman, and Watkins (2016) discuss the hyper-surveillance of Black
communities and the immediate and long-term effects on individuals and their families. This
hyper-surveillance perpetuates the breakdown of social cohesion in Black communities and is an
environmental stressor that harms the psychological and physical health of Black people. Once
again, we see the connections to Fanon’s (and others’) conceptualization of violence as being
both physical and psychological; the threat of police brutality places Black communities under a
state of psychological stress, which in turn leads to worse physical health. Hyper-surveillance
becomes a public health concern for Black communities (Sewell et al., 2016).
The hyper-surveillance and threat of physical violence toward Black communities is also
rooted in structural policies that further political and economically exploit Black communities.
The 2014 killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri took place within a
broader context of hyper-surveillance and economic exploitation of the predominantly Black
community of Ferguson. Wang (2018) cites this and similar cases as examples of carceral
capitalism, another form of racial capitalism that is characterized by predatory lending and
parasitic governance. Unfortunately, violent policing of Black people was not solely the domain
of official state agents. The Fugitive Slave Act called on all White citizens to do their part in
recovering fugitives and returning them to the plantations from which they escaped. Vigilante
terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan were informally deputized to keep Black populations
disempowered and in terror. In many cases, their ranks consisted of citizens, ministers, and
lawyers (Davis, 2003). This form of violence toward African Americans demonstrated the
devaluing of Black lives.
Epistemic Violence
Epistemic violence erases, excludes, marginalizes, and delegitimizes voices and perspectives of
already marginalized groups. One of the most dominating forms of this violence is colonialism.
During the 19th century, as much as 90% of the world was controlled or colonized by western
nations (Young, 2003). This subjugation and domination was justified using the construct of
race, using “theories” that portrayed non-white populations as infantile, incompetent, primitive,
Thomas Black Lives Matter as Resistance to Systemic Anti-Black Violence
savage, and needing the Western power to civilize them and bring them into modernity (Cairns
& Sears, 2012). White/European culture remains regarded as the standard of civilization:
science, arts, literature, economics, etc. Although the formal empire ended when African, Asian,
and Latin American countries gained their independence, many nations remained dependent on
their former colonizers (Young, 2003). The result is the destruction of viable ways of thinking
that are rooted in their natural context with ways of thinking that are maladaptive for their native
contexts (Adams, 2017).
A more specific form of epistemic violence is known as epistemological violence.
Epistemological violence involves interpretations of social science on “the Other” that
problematizes them or proposes their inferiority to the exclusion of other equally viable
interpretations. These actions are epistemologically violent because the academic context
legitimizes these interpretations as knowledge (Teo, 2010). Many of the dominant psychological
theories and frameworks have been and are normed on college-educated White Americans
(Henrich, Heine & Norenzayan, 2010). Many theories or frameworks that mentioned African
Americans were comparative and deficit-based, framing Black people as having little cognitive
ability and low mental functioning (Terman, 1916). Individuals who believed in the inherent
inferiority of African Americans pushed “science” that supported their pre-conceived notions.
The intellectual inferiority of African Americans would be justified through knowledge
production rooted in racial biases.
Systems of domination often through language as well. A group’s social and political power
typically coincides with the status of their language within the society (Baldwin, 1979). A
byproduct of colonialism is the fact that millions of people around the world speak languages not
indigenous to their lands, but former colonial powers (England, France, Spain, Portugal, etc.).
Native cultures and languages were supplanted by the culture and language of the colonizers.
Translation works both as a language tool and as an instrument of power. Power is used when
languages are translated and when people are transformed (or translated) by changing their sense
of their place in society (Young, 2003). When a group is disconnected from their culture and
language, they are disconnected from their history, knowledge of themselves, and their own
sense of reality. An alien reality is imposed on them.
For French theorist Foucault (1980), this type of control over language and information is
referred to as power/knowledge. In his view, power is inherently tied to control over and access
to information and vice versa. Baldwin similarly refers (1979) refers to language as a political
instrument. The language a person uses communicates their status within that society.
According to Baldwin, the development of Black English is a result of particular relationships of
Control of information is an issue as well with the negative stereotypes of African Americans
that perpetuated by media; media that is often not controlled by them or produced for them. The
media has a monopoly has over the means to project cultural symbols. Many televisionimages on
television portray African Americans as either entertainers or criminals and not enough that
show African Americans as lawyers, doctors, or any other profession. Because the major media
are owned by transnational corporations, the bottom line/ratings become a determining factor as
to what is put out there (Pilisuk, 1996). Social identifications can be manipulated by the
individuals in power, too often signaling the end of grassroots organizations that attempt to
change the status quo or improve conditions (Bettencourt, 1996).
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The Black Radical Tradition: Historical Examples of Black Resistance
What must be stated is that even with these forces conspiring against them Black people resisted
and continue to resist. Resistance came in many forms and were each under particularly
sociohistorical contexts. While many Black people could not rely on electoral politics and voting
to save them; they turned to other forms of resistance. Many of the changes toward progress have
been pushed forward by the protest and resistance of everyday Black people, not only the great
male leaders. Enslaved Africans revolted through rebellions such as those led by Nat Turner or
removed themselves from the colonial systems by setting up Maroon societies, some times with
poor White people and Indigenous peoples (Du Bois, 1924; Robinson, 1997, 2000). These
societies were endangered as they constituted a threat to the colonial order; at times these
societies were violently wiped out by colonial powers (Robinson, 1997, 2000). Haiti became an
independent nation after more than a decade of revolt and revolution (Du Bois, 1924; James,
2001). Frederick Douglass and others were in the forefront of abolition efforts. Others decided to
use their intellectual gifts: Radical intellectuals spoke out against the physical violence inflicted
on Black people and conducted research that pushed back against the structural and epistemic
violence inflicted on Black communities (Robinson, 2000).
Radical Intellectuals
Black radical intellectuals have historically produced scholarship and engaged in activism on
behalf of Black people (Johnson & Lubin, 2017; Robinson, 2000). Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s
investigative journalism and activism highlighted and documented the rampant lynching of
Black men in the south. She started the first Black women’s organizations and help found other
organizations including the National Association for Colored Women and the NAACP (Davis,
2003; Wells, 1970). One of her NAACP co-founders was W.E.B. Du Bois. He argued that race
was socially constructed and that social conditions cause inequality. His multidisciplinary talents
were put on display in his seminal work The Souls of Black Folk (Du Bois, 1903). Similarly,
Fanon’s (1970) Black Skin, White Masks posits that racism creates harmful psychological
constructs that inhibit psychological health. In The Wretched of the Earth, he states that a new
world must constructed that destroys the Black-White binary and that an African revolution must
come from the people (Fanon, 1961). His work has been instrumental in understanding the
psychological consequences of oppression and the plight of oppressed people. Continuing in this
tradition, Angela Davis has been a decades-long advocate for the oppressed and exploited,
writing on Black liberation, women’s liberation, prison abolition, and international solidarity
with Palestine (Davis, 2003, 2005, 2016).
Civil Rights Movement
This resistance continued into what we now refer to as the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil
Rights Movement, as most know it, emerged from events such as the murder of Emmett Till, the
Montgomery bus boycotts, and the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. The
landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954) case involved the citation of Mamie and Kenneth
Clark’s famous doll studies to demonstrate the psychological harm that segregation inflicted on
African American children (Belgrave & Allison, 2018). Centered at this movement was the
attainment of civil rights, especially voting rights. Resistance came in the form of protests,
marches, sit-ins, speeches, and boycotts. This mass movement of resistance resulted in gains,
Thomas Black Lives Matter as Resistance to Systemic Anti-Black Violence
such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which supposedly
ensured formal political equality (Taylor, 2016). Many of these gains would receive a backlash.
The FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) sought to eliminate, delegitimize, and
subvert (structural, epistemic, and physical violence) Black organizations such as the Black
Panthers and members of the Civil Rights Movement such as Martin Luther King, Jr. (Taylor,
2016) and even surveilled Black student unions at universities (Rogers, 2012). King’s
assassination in 1968 proved a turning point; riots broke out as anger, frustration, and grief
poured out into the streets. King himself would refer to such emotional outbursts as the
“language of the unheard,” (King, 1966). The response to urban rebellions of the time period was
to frame them as being the cause of crime, which would require additional and more forceful
policing (Alexander, 2012). The use of racially coded language (epistemic violence) by
politicians promoted systemic anti-Black violence under the guise of “law and order”
(Alexander, 2012). Republican party strategist Lee Atwater outlined this “southern strategy” in a
1981 recording: “Now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking
about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than
whites…‘We want to cut this’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing…and a hell of a
lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger,’” (Perlstein, 2012).
The use of coded language allowed politicians to promote racist agendas under plausible
deniability that their actions were intentionally racist (structural and epistemic). This also served
to discipline rebelling African Americans and to stamp out protests and demonstrations as a
means of lodging complaints at the state (Brown, 2016; Taylor, 2016). Such increasingly
punitive and disempowering policies led many to question the utility of electoral politics and
voting. African American communities would vote for Black politicians who would presumably
serve in the community’s interest, only to see those elected officials’ efforts stymied by White-
dominated committee and legislatures. Alexander (2012) points out that in 1870 (five years after
the Civil War), 15% of southern representatives were Black while in 1980 (15 years after the
Voting Rights Act of 1965), only 8% of southern representatives were Black. This made it much
more difficult for Black communities to resist this systemic violence given how much the burden
of proof lies on victims of discrimination to prove in court that it happened. Police units became
much more militarized and many Black communities began to resemble places of military
occupation and surveillance (Alexander, 2012). The rise of mass incarceration and the War on
Drugs (structural and physical violence) devastated countless African American communities
and families, the effects of which are still felt to this day. Morsy & Rothstein (2016) found that
African American children were six times more likely to have/had an incarcerated parent even
though African Americans were no more likely to use drugs; yet, they still were more likely to be
arrested. Imprisonment creates a host of additional problems and barriers for families and
communities such as more economic instability and worse health outcomes (Morsy & Rothstein,
The 21st century has brought a host of new issues to consider for African Americans. Police
brutality and shootings of unarmed African Americans have gained more attention in the media
due to cell phone videos and the internet. While such evidence may be necessary to convince
others to enact change, one has to wonder the effect on African Americans of consuming
numerous stories such as these. Many believed, despite the warnings from many Black people,
that the election of Barack Obama in 2008 signaled the dawn of a post-racial society (Taylor,
Thomas Black Lives Matter as Resistance to Systemic Anti-Black Violence
2016). Although his election galvanized young voters and African Americans, disillusionment
settled in after high-profiled cases of police brutality, shootings of unarmed Black people, and an
increasing awareness of mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex. Given the present-
day political climate, African Americans feel especially vulnerable, and there has been an
increasingly frequent string of police calls on African Americans minding their own business,
leading to a new hashtag #livingwhileBlack. African American communities are over-policed
and over-surveilled, producing negative effects on the health and well-being of African
American communities (Sewell et al., 2016). The intersection of physical, structural, and
epistemic forms of anti-Black violence required a response that was radically intersectional.
Black Lives Matter
Brief History
BLM is “an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically
and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this
society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression,” (Garza, 2014, p. 23;
Herstory, n.d.). In this statement, BLM is positioned as resistance against systemic anti-Black
violence. Their mission also invokes the liberation tasks of the BHK Framework. These tasks are
characterized by intersectionality (awareness of position in society), decentralized leadership
(cultural strengths that foster empowered action), participation of youth (BHK framework
focuses on Black youth; explains how youth may get involved at an early age), and documenting
resistance (awareness of the structure of racism and race; contributions and achievements of
Black people), (Chapman-Hilliard & Adams-Bass, 2016). Framing BLM as both an ideological
and political intervention highlights the cultural, institutional, and individual levels of anti-Black
systemic violence and the need to address it on multiple fronts. This stance asserts the
intersectional praxis of BLM working to end all violence against Black people: “Black Lives
Matter, all Black lives, regardless of actual or perceived sexual identity, gender identity, gender
expression, economic status, ability, disability, religious belief or disbeliefs, immigration status
or location,” (Khan-Cullors & Bandele, 2018, pp. 202-203).
In 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed in an altercation with George Zimmerman, a
neighborhood watchman (Alvarez & Buckley, 2013). Questions quickly surfaced about the
events when Zimmerman was not immediately arrested and charged with a crime (Ransby,
2018). After much media attention and protest, charges would be brought forth, and a trial would
ensue. Through the proceedings, it became clear to many Trayvon Martin was on trial for his
murder as much if not more than George Zimmerman (Ransby, 2018). On July 13, 2013, the jury
returned a not-guilty verdict citing Zimmerman’s right to stand his ground (Alvarez & Buckley,
2013). Outrage and protests were immediate (Ransby, 2018). This would be another example
(and not the last) of unarmed Black people being gunned down with the perpetrator not being
held responsible.
In response to this, Alicia Garza wrote these words in a Facebook post: “btw stop saying that
we are not surprised. That’s a damn shame in itself. I continue to be surprised at how little Black
lives matter. And I will continue that. Stop giving up on black life. Black people, I will NEVER
give up us. NEVER (Khan-Cullors & Bandele, 2018, p. 180).” Her friend and fellow organizer
Patrisse Cullors responds with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter (Khan-Cullors & Bandele, 2018).
For the next several days, the two discuss their ideas and begin planning an online platform
(Khan-Cullors & Bandele, 2018). They reached out to Alicia’s friend Opal Tometi, another
Thomas Black Lives Matter as Resistance to Systemic Anti-Black Violence
organizer who runs Black Alliance for Just Immigration (Khan-Cullors & Bandele, 2018). The
three agreed that it should be a political project with the goal to build power and build a
movement (Khan-Cullors & Bandele, 2018). From that point, BLM began to spread and grow.
BLM Work and Projects
Scholars such as Roberts (1997) and Hill Collins (2004) discuss how African American women
and LGBTQ African Americans face systemic anti-Black violence. In
Roberts’ (1997) Killing the Black Body, she examined the relationship between reproductive
liberties and racial politics. She found that African American women experiences with the
criminal justice system were substantially different from those of African American men because
of their gender and their experiences with reproductive rights were substantially different from
those of White women because of their race.
Collins’ (2004) Black Sexual Politics posits that Black sexual politics of a set of ideas and
social practices shaped by gender, race, and sexuality that frame Black men’s and women’s
treatment of one another. They also shape how African Americans are viewed and treated by
others. These politics are at the center of beliefs about Black masculinities and Black
femininities, gender-specific experiences of African Americans, and forms that racism takes in
the post-civil rights area. One of her arguments is that institutionalized rape (women) and
institutionalized lynching (men) are gendered expressions of the same type of social control over
African Americans (Collins, 2004). She also points out that heterosexism is a system of power
that suppresses heterosexual and homosexual African American men and women in ways that
perpetuate Black subordination (Collins, 2004). Such politics serve to inform those socializing
agents, in turn influencing African Americans in gendered and sexualized ways. Much of the
discourse centers on the state-sanctioned violence experienced by African American men, but
BLM highlights the need to consider the experiences of African American women and African
American LGBTQ communities and how they, too, experience state-sanctioned anti-Black
violence (Furman, Singh, Darko, & Wilson, 2018; Matthews & Noor, 2017).
Expansion continued when BLM along with several racial and social justice organizations
created the Movement for Black Lives platform. The coalition is aimed at racial justice for Black
people and released a policy brief that outlines demands such as “the end to the named and
unnamed wars on Black people including the criminalization, incarceration, and killing of our
people,” (Movement for Black Lives, 2016, End the War on Black People, 1).
BLM as an organization has engaged in several projects over their short history. The Mama’s
Day National Bailout raised more than $500,000, bailing out more than 100 Black mothers to be
reunited with their families on Mother’s Day (Matthew & Moor, 2017). In a similar vein, BLM-
Toronto staged an intervention at Toronto Pride to re-center Black queer and trans experiences.
They demanded police officers be barred from future Pride events and that pride increase its
Black staff and commit to actively supporting Black events (Furman et al., 2018; Matthews &
Moor, 2017). This intervention causes a ripple effect that resulted in other BLM chapters
shutting their local Pride marches and making similar demands. These two interventions
illustrate resistance against physical and epistemic violence inflicted on African American
women and LGBTQ African Americans (Matthews & Moor, 2017).
Their Channel Black program trains future Black leadership to “construct, optimize, and
implement strategic interventions on race,” (Matthews & Noor, 2017, Other Work and
Campaigns, 1). In the short term, their goal is to diversify the faces of people identified as
experts and featured in media discussing and intervening in vital issues that impact Black
Thomas Black Lives Matter as Resistance to Systemic Anti-Black Violence
communities. Their long-term goals are to overcome barriers to emphasizing with and
understanding Black communities, developing the skills of Black millennial leaders, and
supporting organizing tactics with empirically backed interventions leading to a reduction in
implicit racial bias and prejudicial treatment (Matthews & Noor, 2017). Through increasing the
number of Black experts called upon to discuss Black communities, BLM is resisting against the
epistemic/epistemological violence inflicted on African American communities that silences and
erases the Black experience.
Themes of Resistance
These programs demonstrate the ways in which BLM resists the various forms of violence
experienced by Black communities. Through recentering marginalized groups in the discourse of
social justice, BLM engages in resistance against epistemic violence. Their organizing efforts
also serve as resistance against structural and physical forms of violence. Given that BLM resists
on multiple fronts, what are the broader implications for resistance against violence, specifically
systemic anti-Black violence? How do the projects of the organization reflect broader trends of
Black activism?
BLM represents a new form of activism and social movement. There has been a resurgence
of activism by African Americans demonstrating BLM as a contemporary strategy for mass
protest and struggle (Rickford, 2016). Livingston and colleagues (2017) found that 41% of
participants considered themselves activist, 52% were involved in organizations within the
African American community, and 53% held leadership positions in their respective
organizations. Psychological empowerment and racial centrality predicted increased activism
(Livingston et al., 2017). This is consistent with the findings of Godsay and Brodsky (2018) in
which they found BLM influenced resilience and empowerment in young Black men by
providing awareness of racism, promoting racial pride, offering resources, and providing an
opportunitiy to enact change within their local context. This indicates that the resurgence may be
in part due to increased attention brought on by movements such as BLM and the current
political climate (Godsay & Brodsky, 2018). Based on the BHK framework (Chapman-Hilliard
& Adams-Bass, 2016), four important characteristics of the broader movement are evident in
their work: intersectionality, decentralized leadership, the participation of youth, and
documenting resistance.
Their radical intersectionality is a defining characteristic that is prevalent throughout their
various projects (Ransby, 2018). BLM activists engage in Black feminism through social media
and other online platforms. Jackson (2016) points out lessons of radical intersectionality that can
be learned from BLM activists. It is a continuation of the larger Black resistance that also learned
lessons from previous iterations. They have insisted on introducing intersectionality into
mainstreams discourse in a way that values and centers all Black lives. This is contrasted with
many traditional movements that historically have centered the experiences of and been led by
cisgender Black men, leaving out the experiences and concerns of women and LGBTQ
individuals within Black communities. Furman et al. (2018) discuss these tensions and
intersections between the BLM and LGBTQ movements. BLM-Toronto protested the 2016
Toronto LGBTQ Pride to demand more resources, access to space and removal of police
presence at future pride events. Even with this tension, they point out there is promise for racial
Thomas Black Lives Matter as Resistance to Systemic Anti-Black Violence
justice coalitions with BLM and LGBTQ groups to engage in radical activism for social
transformation (Furman et al., 2018).
Activists have learned from the radical Black feminist tradition including Audre Lorde,
Kimberle Crenshaw, bell hooks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and Marsha P. Johnson,
engaging in an intersectional praxis (Carruthers, 2018; Collins and Birge, 2016; Ransby, 2018).
Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100) founder Charlene Carruthers (2018) defines a Black queer
feminist lens as a praxis in which people bring their full selves into dismantling all oppressive
systems. She cites influences from the Black Radical Tradition such as the Combahee River
Collective, the Haitian revolution, Caribbean Maroon societies, quilombos of Brazil, and the
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (Carruthers, 2018). The founders of BLM (Garza,
Tometi, & Cullors) each engaged in intersectional activism before BLM became a named
movement. This intersectional approach allows for collaboration with other social justice
organizations. For example, BLM directly coordinated with Standing Rock organizers to stand in
solidarity with and generate resources for water protectors; they engaged in conversations about
anti-Blackness, defending Indigenous sovereignty, and their shared struggles for liberation
(Matthews & Noor, 2017). Their intersectional approach ensures that all lives matter when Black
lives matter and Black lives matter when all Black lives matter.
Decentralized Leadership
The movement also emphasizes decentralized leadership. While Garza, Tometi, and Cullors are
founders of the movement and BLM exists as an organization, the movement spreads much
wider. The organization is chapter-based and member-led, meaning that individual chapters can
tailor their strategies to their specific context. There are also other organizations part of the larger
BLM movement such Dream Defenders, BYP 100, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice
(Carruthers, 2018; Ransby, 2018; Taylor, 2016). By having a decentralized leadership structure,
this helps to ensure that everyone is brought to the front of the movement. Historically, such
organizations have been led by a charismatic leader and have faltered when that leader has left or
been replaced (Carruthers, 2018). Robinson (2016) points out that too often organizations are
presumed to succeed because of good leadership or in spite of bad leadership, but failures are
never attributed to the possession of leadership. Carruthers (2018) reiterates a warning from Ella
Baker on the dangers of building movements around and valorizing charismatic leaders,
especially those who may not be rooted in the communities they serve (Carruthers, 2018;
Mueller, 2004). Decentralized leadership allows for everyone involved to have a voice and to be
a leader.
Youth Participation
Like any other iteration of the Black Radical Tradition, the youth participation within BLM takes
place within a broader ecosystem of Black youth activism. Hope, Keels, and Durkee (2016)
found that engagement with BLM was accompanied by participation in several kinds of political
activism. One could assume that being introduced to the radical intersectionality of BLM
illuminates the interconnectedness of multiple forms of oppression and marginalization, leading
activists to attach themselves to multiple interconnected causes. Young people have traditionally
played vital roles in Black social movements, particularly students.
College campuses have consistently been sites of resistance for Black college students
(Anderson & Span, 2016; Rogers, 2012). The Black Panther party was founded because Huey
Thomas Black Lives Matter as Resistance to Systemic Anti-Black Violence
Newton and Bobby Seale’s campus Black student union (BSU) did not follow the vision of
Malcolm X; many future BSUs would be modeled after the Black Panther Party (Rogers, 2012).
Students became radicalized partially due to radicals and militants such as Fannie Lou Hamer,
Stokely Carmichael, and Dick Gregory frequently speaking at campuses (Rogers, 2012).
Students paid severe prices for their activism: suspension, jail, and even death (Rogers, 2012).
This activist spirit has continued into the 21st century with BLM (Anderson & Span, 2016). For
example, in 2015, University of Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler performed a hunger
strike to protest the campus racial climate at the school (Johnson, 2017). Soon after, the football
team boycotted a game and students pressured forced the president of the university to step
down. Decades of research has supported the protests of Black students, citing negative campus
climates (Ancis, Sedlacek, & Mohr, 2000; Cabrera, Nora, Terenzini, Pascarella, & Hagedorn, 1999;
Chavous, 2005; Rankin & Reason, 2005; Tynes, Rose, & Markoe, 2013). These negative racial
climates provide another arena in which Black students inspired by BLM engage in activism.
Besides the formal BLM organization, other Black youth organizations under the umbrella of
BLM have engaged in activism. BYP 100 is an organization of 18-35 year old organizers who
work from a Black queer feminist lens. Dream Defenders was founded in 2012 by youth of color
after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin (Carruthers, 2018; Ransby, 2018; Taylor, 2016).
These organizations maintain the tradition of young Black people engaging in activism for
transformative social change, yet this resistance has to be documented and passed on to future
Documenting Resistance
Finally, there is a need to properly document the current resistance to inform future movements
and to prevent future epistemic violence. BLM has to fight against negative narratives (Ray,
Brown, Fraistat, & Summers, 2017) and does not seems to enjoy the same academic attention as
other movements such as Occupy Wall Street (Hunter & Polk, 2016). Hunter and Polk (2016)
discuss the differences in academic responses to BLM and Occupy. While Occupy received
public and vocal academic support, the same cannot be said for the BLM movement. Taylor
(2016) makes the point that Occupy gained momentum from Black activists protesting the
execution of Troy Davis, a Black man executed for killing a police officer even though several
witnesses recanted their statements. The momentum from that movement fed into Occupy and
garnered it more attention. Without these facts being known, there is the risk of BLM ending up
like many historical movements: either forgotten/erased or white-washed. In their call to action:
BLM asks supporters to amplify messages of the organization to be “ambassadors” to push back
against false narrative in their own circles (Matthews & Noor, 2017).
Social media has served as a significant site for this epistemic intervention. Much of
mainstream media perpetuates anti-Black violence through harmful practices such as
individualizing racism, falsely equating incomparable acts, diverting from race, portraying the
government as overreaching, prioritizing intent over impact, condemning through coded
language, and silencing history (Apollon, Keheler, Medeiros, Ortega, Sebastian, & Sen, 2014).
Many of these narratives reflect the narratives passed along by politicians and mainstream
educational spaces. Social media provides a democratized space in which marginalized voices
typically ignored by mainstream narratives to provide their own commentary, critique, and
activism (Bonilla & Rosa, 2015). This hashtag activism serves as resistance against epistemic,
structural, and physical violence in an age in which marginalized people have more access to
tools to use for documenting state-sanctioned violence and contesting negative media
Thomas Black Lives Matter as Resistance to Systemic Anti-Black Violence
representations (Ray et al., 2017; Yang, 2016). BLM uses social media much like the Civil
Rights Movement used television (Bonilla & Rosa, 2015; De Choudhury, Jhaver, Sugar, Weber,
2016). It is no surprise that many those whose bodies are constantly targeted as criminal, violent
looters and rioters in the media take to other platforms to resist these narratives.
This epistemic resistance does not only occur in organizing and activist spaces. Activists,
organizers, and scholars in the Black Radical Tradition have historically documented the work to
pass along information: books, research, social documentaries, archival records, auto-
biographies/memoirs, manifestos, and other literary forms. This is no different for BLM. Several
key organizers and activists have written memoirs, autobiographies, and anthologies to educate
people on systemic anti-Black violence and to provide case studies and strategies for resistance
(Carruthers, 2018; Khan-Cullors & Bandele, 2018; Ransby, 2018; Schenwar, Macare, & Price,
2016; Taylor, 2016). Black parents have also participated in this resistance through the racial
socialization of their children. This racial socialization can serve as a counternarrative to
mainstream representaions. Parents may engage in cultural socialization that educates youth on
the history, culture, and heritage of Black people. Parents may also prepare their children for
future racial barriers and bias. Parents attempt to prepare their children for an anti-Black world
(Hughes et al., 2006). Black parents have to shift and adjust their socialization in response to
killings of unarmed Black people (Threlfall, 2016; Thomas & Blackmon, 2014). The way to
ensure that is to adequately document this resistance against systemic anti-Black violence so that
the problem can eventually be eradicated at its root.
The Black Lives Matter movement emerged as a political and ideological intervention for
resistance against systemic anti-Black racism. Based on critical race psychology and the BHK
Framework, BLM engages in liberatory tasks that are characterized by radical intersectionality,
decentralized leadership, youth involvement, and documenting resistance. These characteristics
allow for BLM to partner with many different organizations and groups towards transformative
social change. Interracial soclidarity is vital. Tran, Nakamura, Kim, Khera, and AhnAllen,
(2018) discuss the multilayered relationship between Black and Asian American and Pacific
Islander communities. They call to challenge the miseducation of Black and AAPI histories and
communities and to prioritize the preservation and healing of communities of color, especially
Black lives (Tran, Nakamura, Kim, Khera, & Ahnallen, 2018). BLM has garnered support form
many corners of the world. Feguson activists and Palestinian activists shared strategies and tips
with each other through social media (Bonilla & Rosa, 2015). Through these liberation tasks,
BLM provides a strategy or platform for Black people to seek liberation while ensuring that they
are psychologically and physically healthy. The promotion of healing justice by BLM and
similar movements reminds those involved in activism and social change that their health has to
be attended to both during organizing and after.
Author Note
Dominique Thomas is a Scholarship to Practice Fellow at the University of Michigan in the
National Center for Institutional Diversity. He is interested in Black sociopolitical development
Thomas Black Lives Matter as Resistance to Systemic Anti-Black Violence
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... 3 When classroom discussions expand to the community and larger society, CRT can help students to be historical versus ahistorical in their analyses, critically querying how communities came to be where they are. The students who share racial identity with many of the communities being discussed in the classroom are then better positioned to join in vibrant discussion of the multi-faceted ways in which inequality is perpetuated, and are not subjected to another space of epistemic violence (Thomas, 2019), where their communities are discussed in mostly pathologizing terms. The use of this framework offers Black SW students, and other SW students from oppressed groups, the opportunity to participate in a learning space where their lived experiences are validated and given serious pedagogical consideration. ...
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Social work’s (SW) goal of preparing a workforce more representative of the diversity of people served by the profession requires the use of theories that actively confront long-held assumption of White hegemony. This paper centers the discussion of race for its simultaneous invisibility and its power to transform SW educational spaces in the United States (US) context. An overview of the cultural competence (CC) model, a theoretical framework often used to prepare SW practitioners, is provided with a critique of its avoidance of any analysis of race and racism. The ways in which this “color-blind” approach severely limits the CC model’s ability to both recognize and meet the needs of Black SW students as they navigate their dual-identities as professionals-in-training and members of a racial group who has endured historical oppression are explored. Critical race theory (CRT) is offered as an alternative conceptual framework which centers discussions of race and racism, offering opportunities to both recognize and support the learning needs and experiences of Black SW students. Guidelines for adapting SW curricula and assignments to utilize CRT in ways that support the development of critical analytic skills for SW practice are provided. Global implications for this work beyond the American context are discussed throughout.
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Psychology is grounded in the ethical principles of beneficence and nonmaleficence, that is, "do no harm." Yet many have argued that psychology as a field is attached to carceral systems and ideologies that uphold the prison industrial complex (PIC), including the field of community psychology (CP). There have been recent calls in other areas of psychology to transform the discipline into an abolitionist social science, but this discourse is nascent in CP. This paper uses the semantic device of "algorithms" (e.g., conventions to guide thinking and decision-making) to identify the areas of alignment and misalignment between abolition and CP in the service of moving us toward greater alignment. The authors propose that many in CP are already oriented to abolition because of our values and theories of empowerment, promotion, and systems change; our areas of misalignment between abolition and CP hold the potential to evolve. We conclude with proposing implications for the field of CP, including commitments to the belief that (1) the PIC cannot be reformed, and (2) abolition must be aligned with other transnational liberation efforts (e.g., decolonization).
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Youth in Windsor (POWER) project to take part in focus group interviews. Interview transcripts were analyzed using a thematic analysis in NVIVO 10 software. Themes included a belief that police have positive effects on society, and that only a certain minority of officers are responsible for misconduct; many interactions with youth are not the fault of the officer(s) involved and that police institutions play an important role in society. However, youth also expressed reasons for their displeasure with these institutions, such as: the lack of diversity within the police force, and that police sometimes abuse power and can be aggressive. Moreover, police have obstructed justice, profiled, and treated ACB people differently, according to participants. These results come at a time when community advocacy groups, such as Black Lives Matter, are mobilizing to improve the experiences of African diasporic people in Canadian society.
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In this paper we use the Ecological Metaphor to illustrate a complex and multilayered picture of the relationship between Black and Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities, exploring how different forces operate when two marginalized communities interact within an oppressive system. This frame highlights the impact of history and systems/community level adaptations that produced the current day interracial dynamics we see within the #BlackLivesMatter movement. More specifically, we shed light on a shared history of solidarity, the intentional puppeteering of AAPIs to uphold White supremacy and maintain a divide between racialized oppressed communities, and the internalized racialized images that inhibit community coalition building. Lastly, (1) we call to challenge the miseducation of our histories and one another's communities, lest we continue to perpetuate this history, (2) to prioritize the preservation and healing of communities and bodies of color, especially Black Lives, and (3) to stand in solidarity.
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Police violence against racial and ethnic minorities by law enforcement is an international social justice issue that has elicited substantial societal attention, both historically and more recently since the death of Michael Brown in 2014 in the United States. This volume of the Journal of Social Issues integrates theoretical and empirical research to examine police violence (i.e., disproportionate physical and psychological injury and maltreatment) against racial and ethnic minorities and provides policy recommendations directed at reducing this violence from a multidisciplinary perspective. Organized across two substantive sections, one section is devoted to evidence of and factors contributing to police violence against racial and ethnic minorities, including racial stereotyping, implicit bias, and contextual factors. The other section focuses on societal-level, downstream consequences of exposure to this violence for both individual targets and their community, including attitudinal, physical, and mental health consequences. A concluding chapter integrates the special issue articles’ findings and provides new perspectives on policing and race. This opening article to the special issue reviews existing literature and outlines the unique contributions of the included articles on this topic. © 2017 The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues
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A considerable amount of the literature on African American activism has been focused on the mainstream political participation and the civil rights and Black Power movements. Subsequent research in this era has primarily focused on the church and post–civil war reconstruction efforts. Few contemporary studies have assessed activist efforts among African Americans and the factors that may influence their involvement. The current study investigates what factors are related to activism among African American church members. To better understand the factors that influence activism, 187 African American church members from two Midwestern cities were sampled. Employing Pearson correlations and hierarchical regression analysis revealed that racial centrality, psychological empowerment, and activism each significantly influence activist behavior among African Americans. Given the zeitgeist of the times (i.e., Ferguson, Eric Garner, and the Black Lives Matter movement), further research is needed to understand what factors may encourage African Americans to become involved and effectuate change in their respective communities.
When the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education was handed down in 1954, many civil rights advocates believed that the decision, which declared public school segregation unconstitutional, would become the Holy Grail of racial justice. Fifty years later, despite its legal irrelevance and the racially separate and educationally ineffective state of public schooling for most black children, Brown is still viewed by many as the perfect precedent. Here, Derrick Bell shatters the shining image of this celebrated ruling. He notes that, despite the onerous burdens of segregation, many black schools functioned well and racial bigotry had not rendered blacks a damaged race. He maintains that, given what we now know about the pervasive nature of racism, the Court should have determined instead to rigorously enforce the "equal" component of the "separate but equal" standard. Racial policy, Bell maintains, is made through silent covenants--unspoken convergences of interest and involuntary sacrifices of rights--that ensure that policies conform to priorities set by policy-makers. Blacks and whites are the fortuitous winners or losers in these unspoken agreements. The experience with Brown, Bell urges, should teach us that meaningful progress in the quest for racial justice requires more than the assertion of harms. Strategies must recognize and utilize the interest-convergence factors that strongly influence racial policy decisions. In Silent Covenants, Bell condenses more than four decades of thought and action into a powerful and eye-opening book.
Recent events related to police brutality and the evolution of #BlackLivesMatter provides an empirical case to explore the vitality of social media data for social movements and the evolution of collective identities. Social media data provide a portal into how organizing and communicating generate narratives that survive over time. We analyse 31.65 million tweets about Ferguson across four meaningful time periods: the death of Michael Brown, the non-indictment of police officer Darren Wilson, the Department of Justice report on Ferguson, and the one year aftermath of Brown’s death. Our analysis shows that #BlackLivesMatter evolved in concert with protests opposing police brutality occurring on the ground. We also show how #TCOT (Top Conservatives on Twitter) has operated as the primary counter narrative to #BlackLivesMatter. We conclude by discussing the implications our research has for the #BlackLivesMatter movement and increased political polarization following the election of Donald Trump.