How Black Lives Matter has changed US politics

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How Black Lives Matter has changed US politics

Jamilah King writes about the fight for black and gender rights in the US.


Flowers for Michael Brown in Ferguson, where a police officer shot him dead in 2015. Scott Olson/Getty Images

What part should identity have in our fight for freedom? After the election of Donald Trump as president of the US, many say the answer is simple: none. This is especially sad since in the 2016 election people thought wrongly that black activism took attention away from stopping Trump, who is sympathetic to white nationalists.

People have different opinions but some think that black people did not use democracy well when they refused to support candidates, or when they did not vote with the same interest that brought Barack Obama into the White House. The day after the election, US News World Reports had a story with the headline ‘Why didn’t they hear her? After Clinton explained her policies to black voters.’

Alicia Garza is a co-founder of the Movement for Black Lives, Black Lives Matter, and an organizer in black and Latino communities, She sees blaming black people as part of a long history of wrongly blaming them for the failings of politics ‘…white liberals and white moderates are saying, “Man, we lost the election because black people didn’t vote. So we are not interested in BLM”, and “We lost the election because we spent too much time on identity politics, but let’s do everything we can to involve white working class people”.’ These two ideas do not work together.

US media seem to think politicians ignore white working-class voters and pay attention to protesters who are calling for justice based on who they love, their gender identity, their class background, and their racial identity. There is a strong belief that being white is and should be the normal situation and that white supremacy is the only way to make slow changes. The Movement for Black Lives says that this is not the way to freedom.

BLM is so important

Black Lives Matter is a continuing story. Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Opal Tometi were of course angry after the courts freed George Zimmerman after he killed Trayvon Martin in July 2013. But they took action.

Garza, Khan-Cullors and Tometi were also some of the protesters and organizers who went to Ferguson, Missouri, and stayed for weeks. This was after a white police officer shot dead Michael Brown in August 2014. Brown’s body was in the hot Missouri sun for hours. The shock of Brown’s death made people think about what makes the lives and deaths of black people in places like Ferguson. The Department of Justice reported that Ferguson’s courts and police force targeted black people and arrested them and fined them to make millions of dollars for the city.

Organizers around the country joined Garza, Khan-Cullors, and Tometi and started the Black Lives Matter Network and the Movement for Black Lives.

In April 2016, after the Republican and Democratic Conventions, the Movement for Black Lives shared its ideas. This was after a year’s work - ‘A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice’. It had six main demands and 40 policy recommendations. These included demilitarizing law enforcement, ending money bail, and ending the privatization of public grammar school education in the US. It showed that there is a big and well organized movement in the US that wants to fight for black freedom.

But it also showed that they are not all working together. One of the bigger disagreements is between Movement for Black Lives co-founders and another group called We The Protesters, led by activist DeRay McKesson, McKesson live tweeted events in Ferguson, gave interviews on cable news, and hundreds of thousands of people followed him, including Beyoncé.

A challenge to power

Many of the differences between the two groups are about ideas. Very often the Movement for Black Lives does not want to work within law enforcement or electoral politics. They say that policy reform is only one part of the fight; But We The Protesters welcomes the chance to work with politicians, such as Senator Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election.

The Movement for Black Lives is not interested in working with politicians. They protested against presidential candidates like Clinton and Sanders at meetings. They called for an end to the illegal killings of black men and boys like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. They also asked that the general public, especially black communities, understand the violence aimed at transgender women of colour. They are murdered in the US more often than other groups. Organizers like Elle Hearns, in Cleveland, helped develop a policy that made these lives and deaths very important in the move to black freedom.

Hearns co-founded the Marsha P Johnson Institute. It is named after the murdered transgender person, who helped start the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion. She says, ‘In my work I always try to understand the many experiences that make me who I am as a black person and the experiences of those in my community. Sexuality and gender are important because that’s who we are.’

Garza and Khan-Cullors both identify as gay. They demand that people understand that race, sexual identity, and gender are all connected.

Today, the fight continues. The US is one of many countries that is seeing the rise of white nationalist movements – identity politics, but it isn’t often called that. Women and people of colour are using their identities as a way into elected office and to challenge the policies that threaten them. And Black Lives Matter is still organizing and protesting in a city near you.

Jamilah King lives in New York City and is a writer at


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).