B is for Black Lives Matter: The ongoing fight against systemic racism

The second letter in the New Statesman's A-Z of the decade.

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On the night of 26 February 2012, George Zimmerman, the head of his local neighbourhood watch, shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager. He claimed self-defence and was acquitted of second-degree murder.

In the wake of Martin’s shooting, the hashtag “Black Lives Matter” appeared on Twitter: a small howl of protest against the sense that in the American justice system, black lives mattered less than white ones, and that the United States’s heavily armed law enforcement was free to kill at will.

Those protests were supercharged following the killings of two more unarmed African-American men, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, a month apart in 2014.

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement continued to gain traction throughout the decade, organising hundreds of protests against multiple deaths of black people at the hands of US police. As the movement proliferated, so did the debate around it. During the US presidential election campaign in 2016, Hillary Clinton was criticised for quoting the phrase “All Lives Matter” in a campaign speech in a Missouri church.

“All Lives Matter” had sprung up online in response to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014, and it had missed the point entirely. Donald Trump dismissed the BLM movement in 2016 as “racist”. That there was so much pushback against a movement that attempted to highlight the racism inherent to authorities, and seek justice for innocent people and their families, simply proved its urgency.

Though the racial context in the United States is different from elsewhere, the dominance of English as a international language and the US’s hegemonic role in global politics as well as culture meant that BLM spread worldwide. In Europe, the hashtag is similarly used in connection with day-to-day police brutality, but also in the context of the bodies that wash up on European shores of people seeking to migrate to the continent: bodies that are overwhelmingly brown and black.

It may be that latter manifestation that proves the most enduring. The climate crisis means that the world will be increasingly a world on the move, as climate refugees from the global south flee the repercussions of a warming world.

> This article is part of our A-Z of the 2010s.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.