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In the final episode of Crash Course Black American History, Clint Smith teaches you about the Black Lives Matter movement. We'll discuss some of the major events that contributed to the rise of BLM, including the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and George Floyd, and the way that social media was utilized by Black organizers to gain support for the movement.

Clint's book, How the Word is Passed is available now!

Barbara Ransby, Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First Century (Berkeley, C.A.: University of California Press 2018).
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016).
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CC Kids:
Hi, I’m Clint Smith, and this is Crash Course Black American History.

Today we’re learning about the origins of the Black Lives Matter movement. On February 26, 2012 Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black American teen, was walking home from a convenience store in Sanford, Florida when he was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer.

After police in Florida decided not to arrest Zimmerman, the case sparked international protests and debates about racial profiling, racial violence, and self-defense laws. Zimmerman was later charged with second-degree murder in the killing of Martin, but he was also later acquitted of the charges. In the subsequent weeks after the acquittal there were nationwide protests honoring Martin’s life and legacy.

In 2013, three Black organizers Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Ayo Tometi created a racial justice organization building on what had become the popular social media hashtag #BlackLivesMatter in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman. Their work, alongside the work of Black activists across the country—some of whom were formally affiliated with the organization and some of whom had been doing racial justice work in their communities for years—helped spur a social movement that spread across the world and has shaped the fight for racial justice, economic equality, and gender equity over the past decade. Today we’re going to dive into how the #BlackLivesMatter movement spread worldwide and inspired a generational swell of activism that continues to this day.

Let’s start the show. INTRO About two years after the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, another episode of anti-Black violence gained national and international attention. On August 9, 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.

The details of Brown’s death and the aftermath were hotly disputed with some claiming that Wilson had used unnecessary force on Brown and others defending Wilson as just “doing his job.” There were also allegations that Brown had potentially participated in a robbery shortly before the shooting occurred. What isn’t under dispute though is that Michael Brown’s body was left in the street after he was killed for more than four hours. Something many in the community and across the world saw as further compounding the injustice of the tragedy.

In Ferguson, protests following Brown’s death began peacefully and the became progressively more intense, and included a militarized response from law enforcement. Journalists, residents, protesters, and bystanders were often swept up in the response. Demonstrators resumed with fresh intensity in November 2014 when a grand jury decided not to indict Officer Wilson in the shooting and then again in 2015 when the United States Department of Justice announced they would not charge Wilson for violating federal civil rights law.

These protests weren’t just limited to Ferguson, but spread across the country, and across the world. In the wake of Wilson’s hearing, activists organized a national action which became known as the “The Black Life Matters Ride” to support local protesters and also to build coalitions that would continue racial justice work in their hometowns once they returned. This effort was part of a tradition of Black activism that built on the famous Freedom rides of the 1960s, when young activists from across the country rode buses into the South to protest segregation.

Over 600 people participated in the Black Life Matters Ride. Following the death of Michael Brown, #BlackLivesMatter continued to grow and spread across social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The hashtag was used as an organizing tool meant to both defend the Black community against state-sanctioned violence and also to affirm the dignity, beauty, and humanity of Black people in a world that so often seemed to do the opposite.

Another case that gained a lot of attention came in July 2014, when several bystanders used their cellphones to capture footage of officer Daniel Pantaleo murdering 43-year-old Eric Garner by choking him to death, despite Garner’s repeated pleas of “I can’t breathe." Garner’s killing gained particular notoriety because 1) the offense he was being held for (selling loose cigarettes) was so minor and not at all commensurate with the police response 2) he had been previously harassed by NYPD, and 3) because Pantaleo used an illegal choke hold to detain him while other officers watched or held Garner down. This led to another round of protests in New York and across the country which further ignited the fervor of the Black Lives Matter movement. The names of Black men and women who were victims of extrajudicial killings and police violence soon became synonymous with the movement.

Names like Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Mya Hall, Walter Scott, Renisha McBride, Alton Sterling, and Sandra Bland became linked to the Black Lives Matter movement, and their names became rallying cries for justice. The Black Lives Matter hashtag and on the ground organizing work that emerged from it, helped move the conversation forward about multiple forms of violence, both systemic and interpersonal, that impacted Black people. Organizers and activists were quick to point out that the violence people were seeing on their phones and television screens wasn’t new, but was simply being captured more often because of the prevalence of camera phones and social media platforms where those videos could be shared.

Put differently, the violence wasn’t novel, but the technology to amplify the violence was. Black people had witnessed police brutality and violence in their communities for generations. For many, like my parents and grandparents, the images they saw emerging out of Ferguson, and New York, and Baltimore were reminiscent of what they had seen during the Civil Rights Movement in cities like Birmingham, Greensboro, and Selma.

It’s also important to note that the deaths that get the most attention, and the names that served as the rallying cries for the movement over the years, were only a small fraction of the total number of Black people subjected to police violence. Between January 2015 and April 2022, 1,593 Black Americans were shot and killed by on-duty police officers. Black Americans make up less than 13% of the US population, but the rate at which they are shot and killed by police is double the rate of white Americans.

The protests across the country pushed cities and the Department of Justice to begin various investigations into state sanctioned violence, police misconduct, mass incarceration, and other forms of violence inflicted upon the Black community that are entangled within the criminal legal system. Investigations by the Department of Justice and others revealed horrifying and widespread patterns of police harassment and abuse of power. For example, the DOJ investigation of the police department and court system of Ferguson, Missouri revealed that although the population of Ferguson was 67 percent Black, almost 90 percent of the documented cases where police officers used force were against Black people.

Their report demonstrated how Black people in Ferguson were being disproportionately targeted and subjected to police violence. This report also showed that the police and court system in Ferguson often worked together to use traffic arrests and subsequent imprisonment of African Americans to raise revenue for the city, often in direct violation of those citizens' 14th amendment rights. To put it more directly, police officers were incentivized to pull over Black people because this is one of the ways that the city could make money.

And this targeting has significant consequences in the instances that don’t even lead to death. To give you an example of what the DOJ found, in the summer of 2012, a 32-year-old Black man was cooling off in his car after playing basketball in the park. An officer pulled up behind the man and demanded identification.

The officer accused the man of being a pedophile, simply because there were children in the park, and ordered the man out of the car although there was no indication that he was armed or served as any sort of threat. These investigations added further fuel to the fire of the movement and gave empirical, quantifiable evidence of the systemic harm that had been inflicted on the Black community in Ferguson for years. Today a coalition of more than 50 organizations make up what is known as the Movement for Black Lives.

This coalition looks to eradicate white supremacy and build local organizational power in order to intervene in the violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes. In explaining how they came to be, the organization says it: “Was created as a space for Black organizations across the country to debate and discuss the current political conditions, develop shared assessments of what political interventions were necessary in order to achieve key policy, cultural and political wins, convene organizational leadership in order to debate and co-create a shared movement wide strategy. Under the fundamental idea that we can achieve more together than we can separately.” Sometimes, Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives can be used interchangeably.

Sometimes in reference to the specific organizations, and sometimes in reference to the larger movement. Either way, what’s true is that the movement for Black Lives has consistently increased general awareness of the state sanctioned and extrajudicial violence inflicted on Black communities every day. Another thing this coalition does that is especially important is making sure that in the fight for racial justice, they are fighting for communities—within the larger Black community— that have historically been pushed to the side, or completely ignored, in the fight for Black liberation.

That means it often centers and uplifts the lives of Black women and folks along the gender spectrum, Black queer and trans communities, Black disabled people, Black people with criminal records, and Black people who are undocumented. The movement operates from the belief that none of us are free, until all of us are free. In 2020, following the death of George Floyd, an estimated 15 to 26 million people participated in Black Lives Matter protests in the United States alone.

And the movement has gained international traction as well, with protests organized in places like Australia, Denmark, Canada, Japan, England, Brazil, just to name a few. There is no doubt that over the course of the past decade, the Black Lives Matter movement has contributed to a shift in public consciousness around issues of race in the United States and around the world. More people—not all, but more—now understand that racism is not just an interpersonal phenomenon like a racial slur or a KKK rally, but recognize racism as something that is embedded within structures and systems and institutions.

While there is still a long way to go, because of the movement for Black Lives, a more nuanced, sophisticated, historically accurate conversation about race is possible in ways that weren’t prior to the evolution of the movement. Another thing we want to be clear on is that the movement for Black Lives is not just about what organization you are or are not formally affiliated with. There have been people in communities across the country, who are not formal members of any particular group, but who have been fighting for justice in their hometowns for generations.

As we’ve said before, the work of building a better world is not just done by any one person, or one organization, but is built by the actions of millions and millions of people doing their part in the ways they know best. And on a personal note, this is the last episode of the series! Making this series with the Crash Course team has been a joy and an honor.

I appreciate you all sticking with us through all 51 episodes. I also just want to just emphasize one more thing that I said at the very beginning of this series: I hope that you understand that these episodes are only an entry point into learning about Black American history. There are so many incredible books, films, scholars, and documentaries that can give you even more insight into Black American history, and I hope you take the time to read them, or to watch them, or to listen to them and keep learning.

I know that I will. Thanks for watching, it’s been a blast. Crash Course is made possible by all our viewers and supporters.

Thank you to all our Patrons who support the show on Patreon, and thank you to all of those who participated in the 2022 Crash Course Learner Coin campaign. Your contributions support millions of learners.