The Future of Leadership Symposium

Changing the World in 2020 and Beyond

How Black Lives Matter Demonstrates the Power of Community-led Activism

Shahrina Mahmood

The death of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer has sparked demonstrations across the nation led by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. In response to the growing protests against racism and police violence, many reforms have already been proposed or passed across the country. These sweeping changes support my firm belief that although political leaders play an important role in enacting reform, meaningful changes will not occur without community participation. Community-led social movements like BLM are fundamental in implementing long-term and substantial societal and political change.

Social movements begin once members of a community mobilize together to fight against injustice. As their voices gain traction, so too does public awareness of the issue. Collective action can sway the public’s opinion, can put pressure on local or state leaders to enact change, and eventually, with enough momentum, can bring structural and legislative change at the state or national level. The BLM movement is an excellent example of this phenomenon. First, communities across the nation, outraged at Floyd’s death, rallied together in record breaking numbers. Recent polls show a range of approximately 15 to 26 million people in the U.S attended BLM protests, making this recent wave of protests one of the largest social movements in US history (Buchanan et al., 2020). Furthermore, public approval for BLM is currently at an all time high. Civiqs (2020), an online survey research company, began monitoring public support for BLM in April of 2017. Civiqs data shows that for the first time in the past three years, public support has now surpassed 50%, and this increase in support was observed immediately after Floyd’s death (Civiqs, 2020). From April 2017 through April 2020, support among voters remained relatively steady around 40%. Then, in early May of this year, support began gradually rising after the video of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder was released. Weeks later, the movement saw a sharp increase in support the week of Floyd’s death, peaking at 53% (Civiqs, 2020).

One important factor that may explain this shift in public opinion is the use of social media. Popular platforms like Twitter and Instagram make advocating for change much simpler, as messages can be spread quicker and to a wider range of audiences across the globe. Local protests and rallies were organized through Facebook pages. Donations, petitions, and bail funds were quickly spread through Twitter, ensuring that the ability to help was always just a few clicks away. Furthermore, the viral nature of hashtags like #ICantBreath and #SayTheirNames were also effective in spreading awareness of these injustices. Social media also provides a platform where black men and women can connect and share their voices, while giving white and non-black people of color the opportunity to amplify their voices.

Besides social media, protestors’ voices and demands continued to gain momentum with the help of elected officials. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, sponsored by Congresswoman Karen Bass, was introduced to the House of Representatives early June (Congress, 2020). The act calls for sweeping changes in current law enforcement strategies, including the suspension of racial profiling, bans on chokeholds, no-knock warrants in drug cases, and excessive use of military equipment, and the reformation of qualified immunity. This bill passed the House of Representatives in late June. Furthermore, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley recently joined in a panel discussion called #SayHerName: Justice for Breonna Taylor, in which she spoke about our country’s failure to protect black women (Betancourt, 2020). In response to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s deaths, Congresswoman Pressley and Congressman Justin Amash introduced the Ending Qualified Immunity Act, created to better ensure police are held accountable for their actions (Betancourt, 2020). These strong leaders have used their high-ranking platforms to listen to the demands of protestors, then worked to make these demands a potential reality.

As a woman of color, I have always been hyper-aware of the racial disparities in America. In my studies as a criminal justice major, I’ve gained a far greater understanding of how heavily racism is embedded into our country’s history, and specifically, the anti-blackness built within our current policing and justice system. This inequity is disheartening to see, but I am passionate about enacting change. Where I am now, I can pursue change by being an activist in my community, by volunteering for local progressive officials and candidates, and using the privilege that I have to amplify the voices of minorities around me, both through attending protests and rallies, or through social media. Dismantling years of racial inequity feels daunting, but by working alongside my community and the elected official’s in my area, change will be possible.

Shahrina Mahmood was born and raised in Albany, New York. She is a rising junior at SUNY Albany where she majors in criminal justice with a double minor in psychology and sociology.

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