Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to #BlackLivesMatter

By Bernard E. Harcourt

“Strong people don’t need strong leaders.”

— Ella Baker, NAACP field secretary, quoted by Professor Barbara Ransby in “Black Lives Matter is Democracy in Action” in The New York Times

“The model of the black preacher leading people to the promised land isn’t working right now.”

— Alicia Garza, activist, quoted by Professor Jelani Cobb in “The Matter of Black Lives” in The New Yorker.

“Two down, one to go!” The chant started quietly, and then caught on, resonating across the victory ballroom at the Downtown Holiday Inn in Chicago. The Democratic state’s attorney candidate, Kim Foxx, had just unseated Anita Alvarez in the March 2016 primaries. Alvarez, the sitting county prosecutor, had infamously waited almost 400 days to indict police officer Jason Van Dyke in the fatal shooting and cover-up of Laquan McDonald. At the time of the indictment four months earlier in November 2015, Alvarez and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel were hounded by another chant—“16 shots and a cover-up!”—but now, the movement had a new slogan, “Two down, one to Go!” along with its new hashtag “#Bye Anita,” two catchy memes that it was chanting and posting over social media.

Photo by Sarah Jane Rhee/

The first down was former Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy, who was quickly sacrificed by mayor Rahm Emanuel as soon as the cover-up began to get exposed and the political heat turned on—fired on December 1, 2015. Anita Alvarez was the second, with Foxx taking 58 percent of the primary vote, against Alvarez’s 29 percent, pushing her into the generals in the fall of 2016 and today into the State’s Attorney’s office for Cook County. The one to go: Rahm Emanuel, still today mayor of Chicago.

With T-shirts bearing “Adios Anita” and a flurry of social media carrying the hashtag #ByeAnita, a group of young activists, mobilized by the Laquan McDonald cover-up, rallied against Alvarez and are probably responsible for taking down the prosecutor. Alvarez had been leading her challengers in the polls well into February 2016; but the concerted efforts of these activists, on the streets and on the Internet, shifted the tide.

Organized in new collective groups and organizations like Black Youth Project 100, Assata’s Daughters, We Charge Genocide, Black Lives Matter–Chicago, and Peoples Response Team, to name a few, these Chicago activists represent a new, young, and dynamic set of community actors with a unique ethical and political stance and a strong digital presence on social media—deploying FB, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, and every other digital medium. They are a set of popular-based, bottom-up, militant organizations and associations. The self-presentation of the People’s Response Team on their Facebook page is characteristic:

The People’s Response Team is a team of concerned community members committed to supporting efforts to end police violence in Chicago. We do not collaborate with law enforcement. We aim to respond to, document, and investigate fatal police shootings in Chicago and connect family members and loved ones with emotional, social, and legal support. Many of us are members of We Charge Genocide, Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR), Black Lives Matter – Chicago, and other grassroots organizations challenging police violence.

Despite some variations, these organizations share a number of key features: for the most part, they do not endorse political parties or political actors. They maintain themselves outside of mainstream politics. And both in Chicago and at the national level, they have confronted and challenged—and intensified—relations to older, more established civil rights figures, such as Jesse Jackson, Sr., and the Democratic establishment, both Hillary and Bill Clinton, as well as Bernie Sanders. Some of this is not unusual and can be chalked to generational shifts and more radical politics. The organization BYP100, for instance—an outgrowth of Professor Cathy Cohen’s Black Youth Project at the University of Chicago—advocates in the long term for the “outright abolition of the police department and the prison system,” as well as “reparations, universal childcare, a higher minimum wage, the decriminalization of marijuana,” and more. But there is also a different political sensibility at play, especially in relation to the political establishment.

So, for instance, the young activists did not explicitly endorse the other candidate, Foxx. They mobilized against Alvarez, and succeeded in getting her out of office; but they did not actively campaign for Foxx. In fact, not only did they not endorse Foxx, some of the groups made it clear that they too had their eye on her. @AssataDuaghters stated this explicitly in their “collective victory” statement they posted on-line:

Chicago Black youth kicked Anita Alvarez out of office. Just a month ago, Anita Alvarez was winning in the polls. Communities who refuse to be killed and jailed and abused without any chance at justice refused to allow that to happen. We did this for Rekia. We did this for Laquan. We won’t stop until we’re free and Kim Foxx should know that well.

“Kim Foxx should know that well”:  An ominous statement to the candidate who unseated Alvarez—reflecting the particular strategy of these new movements.

In addition, most of these groups position themselves against a politics of respectability. BYP100 specifically claims to speak on behalf of “ALL black people” including the most marginalized LGBTQ folks. Their agenda, they write, is “not meant to advance politics of respectability—we want ALL Black people to be able to live in their dignity.” With a strong national coordinator, Charlene A. Carruthers, they do not present as leaderless or starry-eyed. They set out their positions and their demands clearly, backed up with research and community sentiment, in a 24-page “Agenda To Keep Us Safe,” that includes lengthy “References and Additional Resources.”

In this sense, they almost flip the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street on its head. BYP100, in their self-presentation, associate themselves more closely with the bottom 1%, thereby reversing the famous Occupy slogan about the bottom 99% and the top 1%. As they write on their webpage: “We envision a more economically just society that values the lives and well-being of ALL Black people, including women, queer, and transgender folks, the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated as well as those who languish in the bottom 1% of the economic hierarchy.”

For the most part, the groups are militantly leaderless and relatively ideologically open. That is, perhaps, a central component of the larger #BlackLivesMatter movement. But here too, there is some variation. Some of these movements have been more organized and attentive to membership and representation issues than others. So, for instance, BYP100 restricts membership to persons who are between 18 and 35, and it is by definition black and young. Beyond that, to become a member of BYP100, one has to attend an orientation meeting, participate in two chapter meetings, and attend a public event. And BYP100 does have elected leadership positions, though it remains wedded to democratic principles: “Leaders are nominated, elected, and constantly rotated; the bulk of decisions must be ratified by a majority vote.” But again, it has designated leaders, which is not true of other coalitions in the movement for Black lives.

What is most remarkable perhaps about these new organizations is their digital militancy: Practically all of these youth activist organizations are deploying social media in an extremely savvy way. BYP100 has seized on their digital presence and, in the words of Chicago Magazine, “is fast emerging in the wake of the McDonald firestorm as the most vocal and arguably most effective activist group in town.” BYP100 is not the only digital game in town. As reported, “Other Chicago-based activist groups, many of which have overlapping memberships with BYP100, were also coming into their own, including Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY), We Charge Genocide, Project Nia, #LetUsBreathe Collective, the People’s Response Team, and Assata’s Daughters, which caters to black girls ages 6 to 17 and acts as a de facto feeder program to BYP100.”

Of course, these new militant organizations are not the only ones who are deploying social media aggresively. As in New York City, where the NYPD has an extensive 500+ officers social media unit that follows suspects and protesters, the administration of Rahm Emanuel has been spying on these youth movements by following their physical and digital traces—and using their digital traces to follow their physical traces. Starting at least in October 2015, the CPD began sending undercover investigators to monitor the activities of the #BlackLivesMatters movement in Chicago. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, based on official documents, “a top Emanuel aide went to the command center of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications to keep tabs on protests organized by the Black Youth Project 100.” None of this should come as a surprise. In our new expository society, politics now turn essentially on the control of the digital traces—of data. Today, everything political turns on who gets to know, expose, suppress or delay the publicity of the digital traces. Political struggle in the expository society is now a deployment of and a battle over the digital traces. It is a question of digital disobedience—on every side.


As Jelani Cobb details in his article in the New Yorker, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was born of a Facebook post by Alicia Garza that went viral in July 2013, right after George Zimmerman’s acquittal at his trial in Florida for the homicide of Trayvon Martin. Garza’s partner, Patrisse Cullors, took a snippet from that post, added the hashtag, and thereby created one of the most important political memes of the 21st century: #BlackLivesMatter. Another acquaintance, Opal Tometi in Brooklyn, developed a social media platform to deploy the term and connect the emerging networks of activists.

It was at about that time that the U.S. exploded with incident after incident of video-taped police shootings or killings of unarmed black men and women. The wave of police killings continued on and off camera, around the country, with the police shooting deaths of twenty-eight-year-old Akai Gurley in a Brooklyn stairwell on November 20, 2014; of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice in a Cleveland park on November 22, 2014; of fifty-year-old Walter Scott, shot in the back five times on April 4, 2015 in North Charleston, South Carolina; of thirty-two-year-old Philando Castile, pulled over in a suburb of Saint Paul, Minnesota, and shot seven times on July 6, 2016; of thirty-year-old Charleena Lyles, shot in front of her four children in Seattle, Washington, on June 18, 2017; and of the deaths in police custody of thirty-seven-year-old Tanisha Anderson in Cleveland, slammed on the pavement while being arrested, and of twenty-eight-year-old Sandra Bland found hanging in her jail cell in Waller County, Texas, on July 13, 2015—all African American men and women.

It was during the protests in Ferguson and throughout the country in response to these events that the #BlackLivesMatter movement was born. The policing crisis gave birth to the movement for Black lives—as Jordan Camp and Christina Heatherton document well in their edited volume on Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter (Verson 2017).

Although the movement is still emerging and young, as a historical matter, it has already undergone change over the past few years and is still today somewhat difficult to delineate exactly. It consists of a range of activism, extending from individual acts of resistance to local collectives to national organizations all self-identifying as part of a broader movement for Black lives, anti-racism, and racial justice. The key element is self identification. There is no authoritative policing, no institutional judge of who can legitimately claim to be part of the movement, and perhaps as a result, the edges and boundaries of the movement remain somewhat fluid.

There is, on the one hand, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter itself that is a unique phenomenon and does an enormous amount of work on its own. It might be worth stopping here for a moment—on the hashtag itself—to explore how this phenomenon represents a new form of uprising and how it challenges the very notion of a movement. The hashtag is a radical new form of politics, in large part because anyone can deploy it. The hashtag resists appropriation. It can spread on its own, and has a certain malleability, so that it can be redeployed in different and new contexts of anti-racist protest. As a result, it can be seen pervasively and has a certain resilience. It does not allow for the identification of leaders. And it resists the organizational form, since the hashtag, almost in its identity, resists appropriation.

On the other hand, there are a number of local organizations (those discussed earlier for instance, such as Assata’s Daughters, We Charge Genocide, Black Lives Matter–Chicago, and Peoples Response Team) and national organizations like the Black Lives Matter Global Network (that traces back to Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi) or BYP100, as well as over 30 chapters of #BlackLivesMatter across the country, that are now coalescing into a larger national Movement for Black Lives with specific policy platforms.

These groups vary somewhat in their organization and leadership. But one thing that seems to united them all is a commitment to avoiding the model of the single heroic male leader that is so common to prior movements and revolutions—from Robespierre and Danton, to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, to Marx and Lenin, to Mao, Ghandi, and Che Guevara, to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. There is hardly a modern revolution or revolutionary project that is not associated with a great man. (Not surprisingly, all of the major counterrevolutions today as well are headed by charismatic male figures).

The thread that ties together all of the different facets of the BLM movement is the direct challenge to that history. And in this, as UIC Professor Barbara Ransby underscores in her essay in the New York Times, we can see the strong influence that black feminist and LGBTQ theorists and practitioners have had on many of the leaders of the Movement for Black Lives. As the website of the Black Lives Matter Global Network recounts, in its herstory:

Black liberation movements in this country have created room, space, and leadership mostly for Black heterosexual, cisgender men—leaving women, queer and transgender people, and others either out of the movement or in the background to move the work forward with little or no recognition. As a network, we have always recognized the need to center the leadership of women and queer and trans people. To maximize our movement muscle, and to be intentional about not replicating harmful practices that excluded so many in past movements for liberation, we made a commitment to placing those at the margins closer to the center.

Eschewing (for the most part) both top-down leadership and local leadership, these new activists are acting out what Ransby calls “group-centered leadership practices.” This does not mean that there are never recognized individuals, even some celebrities in these movements. What is means, according to Ransby, is that everyone in the group responds to the will of its members. “The Movement for Black Lives is distinctive because it defers to the local wisdom of its members and affiliates, rather than trying to dictate from above,” Ransby explains. In Jelani Cobb’s words in the New Yorker, these organizations “eschew hierarchy and centralized leadership.”

This is, in Ransby’s words, a “better model for social movements,” and it represents “a choice, not a deficiency.” The reason that it represents a better model, Ransby argues, is that it turns over the decision making to those people on the ground who have the best understanding of the problems they face and who are in the best position to carry out their own solutions. “People are better prepared to carry out solutions they themselves created, instead of ones handed down by national leaders unfamiliar with realities in local communities,” Ransby writes.

The Movement for Black Lives has now expanded from police killings to much broader issues of racial and gender and trans justice.  And as Jelani Cobb shows, the movement and organizations are pushing in new directions, getting involved in public policy platforms, some even going into the electoral fray, such as DeRay McKesson who ran a mayoral campaign in Baltimore.

If the Arab Spring was a test of the place of social media in an uprising, as we heard in the last seminar Uprising 3/13, then the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and the many local and national organizations in the movement for Black lives represent a whole new way to deploy the digital age to resist and organize.

Our challenge in studying these new forms and organizations will be to do justice to all the different dimensions of the new movement for Black lives.