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Black Lives Matter: the largest and most effective US social movement in history?

The sheer scale of the ongoing protests in the US is matched by a drastic shift in public opinion: in a 2014 poll only 33 per cent acknowledged police racism — that same poll today has a majority of 57 per cent. The US is changing, writes IAN SINCLAIR

LIKE many people I’ve followed and been inspired by the extensive news coverage of the Black Lives Matter protests in the US. But I really didn’t understand their extraordinary size until I read a recent New York Times analysis.

The women-founded movement began in 2013 with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media after George Zimmerman was acquitted when he shot and killed 17-year old African-American Trayvon Martin in Florida. Since them BLM has highlighted and opposed the brutality, injustice and unaccountability that black people experience in the US, especially from the police and legal system.

BLM activists played a leading role in the demonstrations sparked by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and have led the protests in response to the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on May 2020.

According to the July 3 New York Times analysis the recent demonstrations peaked on June 6, with half a million people on the streets in nearly 550 locations across the US. Overall, there have been more than 4,700 demonstrations, or an average of 140 per day, since the first protests began in Minneapolis on May 26.

“Four recent polls… suggest that about 15 million to 26 million people in the United States have participated in demonstrations over the death of George Floyd and others in recent weeks,” the report notes.

After interviewing academics and crowd-counting experts the New York Times states “These figures would make the recent protests the largest movement in the country’s history” — bigger than the civil rights marches of the 1960s and the Women’s March of 2017.

“Really, it’s hard to overstate the scale of this movement,” Deva Woodly, an associate professor of politics at the New School, comments.

Once one comprehends the immense size of the protests, their wide-ranging and deep impacts are less surprising.

Across the US cities and police forces have responded by instituting a series of reforms — highlighting how BLM has mainstreamed the concept of “defund the police.” In New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to reallocate police funding.

“We’re committed to seeing a shift of funding to youth services, to social services, that will happen literally in the course of the next three weeks, but I’m not going to go into detail because it is subject to negotiation, and we want to figure out what makes sense,” de Blasio said, according to the New York Times.

Similarly, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced he would be redirecting $250 million from the police budget into healthcare, jobs and “healing” programmes for the city’s communities of colour, the Los Angeles Times reported in June.

The state of Iowa, Dallas and Denver have banned the use of chokeholds, with the Mile-High City introducing a new policy meaning police officers will have “to alert supervisors any time they point a gun at someone,” according to the Denver Post.

Speaking to the BBC Today Programme on June 29, Melina Abdullah, professor of Pan-African Studies at Cal State LA and BLM activist, noted “The number of killings at the hands of police has remained relatively stable” in the US. “However… in cities with strong Black Lives Matter chapters the numbers have dropped dramatically.”

On the national political stage, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has pledged to establish a police oversight board within his first 100 days in office and address institutional racism. And globally, BLM in the US has inspired protests in many countries, including Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Brazil, Japan, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa.

Crucial though these changes are, perhaps the most exciting and important influence of BLM is the impact it has had on US public opinion.

“In my 35 years of polling, I’ve never seen opinion shift this fast or deeply. We are a different country today than just 30 days ago,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz tweeted on June 8.

He was referring to a June 2 Monmouth poll that showed 57 per cent of Americans agreed that police are more likely to use excessive force against African Americans, compared to 33 per cent when asked the same question after the killing of Eric Garner by New York City police in 2014.

In the same survey 76 per cent of Americans, including 71 per cent of white people, said racism and discrimination were “a big problem” in the United States — a 26 percentage-point increase since 2015.

The New York Times notes: “Public opinion on race and criminal justice issues has been steadily moving left since the first [BLM-led] protests ignited over the fatal shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.” However, according to the New York Times data from online survey firm Civiqs shows that since the death of Floyd support for Black Lives Matter increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years: a majority of Americans support the movement by a 25-point margin, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began.

As the Monmouth poll above highlights, there has been a significant shift in opinion amongst white Americans. This includes views of the police, with the percentage of white Americans who have a very favourable or somewhat favourable impression of police officers dropping from 72 to 61 per cent within a week, according to a survey in early June organised by the Democracy Fund, UCLA and USA Today newspaper.

White people have been a significant part of the recent BLM protests. Explaining that a recent BLM protest in her predominantly black Brooklyn neighbourhood was attended by mostly white people, African-American novelist Brit Bennett told BBC’s Start The Week programme last month that this “mainstream white support” gives her hope for the future of the movement.

The protests are continuing, though with much less media attention. And while they remain popular, the New York Times notes “events could move public opinion the other way,” suggesting “a sense that protests were getting out of control, with looting and violence, could… harm the public image of the movement.”

Polling suggests this is a danger, with a June 2 Reuters/Ipsos poll finding 73 per cent of respondents support “peaceful protest and demonstrations,” but only 22 per cent back violent protests, with 79 per cent believing looting and vandalism “undermine the original protest’s case for justice.”

Let’s hope BLM continues to thrive and force the change that is so desperately needed in the US and beyond.

As Professor Douglas McAdam, an Emeritus Professor at Stanford University who studies social movements, commented in the New York Times: “It looks… like these protests are achieving what very few do: setting in motion a period of significant, sustained, and widespread social, political change. We appear to be experiencing a social change tipping point — that is as rare in society as it is potentially consequential.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

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