Black Lives Matter does a lot with a little

When the mayor of Washington recently painted “Black Lives Matter” on a street near the White House, it drew the ire of local civil rights activists operating under the name.

Muriel Bowser had intended the outsized yellow letters as a rebuke to President Donald Trump. But the small group of campaigners operating under the BLM name in the nation’s capital joined with others to add a riposte targeted at the mayor and her police chief: “Defund the Police.”

The exchange highlighted the dynamics of the decentralised protest movement that has swept the US since the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, in what has been the most significant civil unrest in the country for decades. 

Tens of thousands of people have marched under the Black Lives Matter banner, but they include a myriad of activist and community groups and local officials, all responding to a highly fragmented system of policing in a country with 18,000 different police departments.

The number of actual Black Lives Matter representatives at any particular protest can be quite small. NeeNee Taylor, an organiser with the Washington chapter of Black Lives Matter, said her group was made up of “literally five black women and one black male”.

“That’s what we have that does this powerful work,” Ms Taylor said, adding that she hoped the momentum would last: “Don’t make it a moment. Make it a movement.”

A broad coalition of antiracism activist groups emerged in the US since 2013 in response to a spate of killings of black Americans that drew national attention, including the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida by George Zimmerman, who was acquitted on murder charges.

Black Lives Matter was the most prominent, with largely autonomous branches across the US and overseas that often worked with local community groups and other organisations. In 2014, activists including BLM formed an umbrella group called the Movement for Black Lives.

After Floyd’s killing, these networks have provided a language of radical change, social media platforms for organising, and logistics for the protests. They liaise with volunteer medics, legal observers and scouts who watch out for trouble from the police, troublemakers in their ranks or far-right opponents.

The influence of BLM has its limits. Ms Taylor for example, said her organisation opposed such widely used US protest tactics as “die-ins” — sit-ins that mimic prone bodies — and the chant: “Hands up, don’t shoot.” To BLM, they are unduly submissive.

Another variable in the protests is the fragmented nature of US policing. Cities and other local authorities determine budgets, rules of conduct, and accountability for their departments. Though Floyd’s name has become known worldwide, activists in every corner of the US also carry the names of lesser-known victims for whom they seek justice. 

“Policing is very local. It is either happening on the state, or happening on the city or county level,” said Dominique Hazzard, an organiser in Washington with BYP100, a youth activist group that works alongside Black Lives Matter.

“That is also the level where I think we are seeing real change and where we are going to continue to see real change,” she added. “Nobody is coming to save us on the federal level.”

In Washington, Ms Taylor and her fellow organisers have spread the names of black people killed in the city to raise awareness among street protesters and offered to mentor new groups of young activists — such as DC Freedom Fighters — urging them to build an organisation that will include local people in their leadership and take on local issues.

Ms Taylor said such groups should lead marches not on Congress, but on the city council and the Metropolitan Police Department, overseen by Ms Bowser, the district’s African-American mayor.

“Trump is not [Washington] DC’s problem,” Ms Taylor said. “Our problem is Muriel Bowser and Chief [Peter] Newsham.”

Similarly, local concerns have also played out in other cities. In Flint, Michigan, infamous for its long-running water crisis, public health is a critical focus for BLM’s activism. The group and other organisers handle logistics for protesters, such as arranging permits, liaising with police in advance, and providing water to marchers.

“In this climate of America right now, we are doing something righteous to be on the right side of history,” said DeWaun Robinson, who leads the Flint chapter of Black Lives Matter. “There are people who really don’t want to see that happen, so they’ll do anything to sabotage Black Lives.”

In Chicago, the protests have involved organisations such as Assata’s Daughters, which runs a political education programme for children and youth, while also helping them with concrete needs, such as expunging criminal records or finding housing.

Another group — My Hood, My Block, My City — recently raised $1m for small businesses hit by the looting seen in the early days of the protests.

“There is a big difference between force and violence,” said Jahmal Cole, the group’s founder, adding that some areas of Chicago had still not fully recovered from the riots of decades past. “These communities were already divested from for so long already.”

Local action has accompanied a national debate on how best to fix policing. Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader, said a national march on Washington was planned for August 28, the anniversary of the 1963 march where Martin Luther King Jr gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

“We are in a moment of a bit of a whirlwind,” said D’atra Jackson, BYP100’s national director, who lives in North Carolina. “It is a moment that is calling into question how everybody’s feeling about the police.”