BLM, once a rallying cry for opposition to racism and police brutality, flounders

Last October, Xahra Saleem, of Romford, east London, pleaded guilty to misappropriation of funds and abuse of power at the magistrate court in Bristol. A director and organiser of a Black Lives Matter protest, she used tens of thousands of pounds in donations from a fundraising page to back her expensive lifestyle. She was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for fraud. While fraud occurs across the political spectrum, stories such as this call into question the organisational structure, oversight, and continued relevance of the BLM campaign that once dominated headlines around the world.

BLM Demonstrators “bend the knee” in solidarity

Black Lives Matter Radicalised a Generation

From its humble beginnings as a “tag” to the colloquial “hash” on social media, the BLM movement has quickly come to define a decade, fashioning disparate activism at the intersection between police violence and racial discrimination into a movement whose cultural impact is undeniable. It has exerted a strong influence on popular culture, politics, academia, and the media. It has served as the catalyst for progressivism within numerous socio-political ideologies, civic constructs, and governing institutions (i.e., the election of the first African American police chief in Ferguson, Missouri, USA) and evolved into a strong lobbyist bloc with immense bargaining power on topical issues.

Its effects have been felt as far away as Africa; arguably a world away from the “west,” which serves as ground zero for the bulk of contention. As stated in an article by Nadia Sayed, “So much so did Black Lives Matter resonate the world over that when the then chairman of the African Union, Moussa Faki Mahamat of Chad, spoke out against the murder of George Floyd he provoked widespread criticism against himself due to the brutality of police forces across the continent.”

In South Africa, for instance, “the movement resonates because of the country’s history of racism,” says Moky Makura, executive director of Africa No Filter, a nonprofit working to shift harmful narratives about the continent. “But it’s surprising how much Black Lives Matter resonates in other African countries that “don’t have that same clear dichotomy of Black and white racism,” she says.

Decentralised Structure of the Movement

These accomplishments are to be admired, especially in light of their informal, decentralised structure. In a society where people often tire of resolve and gradually drift away to other pursuits, the resilience of the BLM is remarkable.

Its makeup is akin to an alliance of smaller grassroots organizations that draw collective strength from the notions and sentiments associated with the movement. It utilizes an array of stratagems to relay its messages; from mass protests and demonstrations at the local and state level, for instance, in the wake of the death of Elijah Mclain in August 2019, all the way up to advocacy before government officials, in a bid to provoke change in policies affecting minorities and racist policing attitudes.

For example, a flare-up of protests in May 2020 in the wake of the murder of George Floyd as well as outrage at historical police brutality, saw Derek Chauvin locked up on a charge of murder. Child Q, a girl who was violated by male police officers in East London in March 2022, triggered a two-day demonstration culminating in a near siege of a police station. The widespread anger at the treatment of Child Q is in part what has forced the Met Police, alongside five other police forces in the UK, to be put under special measures. BLM as a whole has revolutionized the government’s approach to law enforcement, especially in the west.

Demonstrators and activists at a BLM Protest

Failings & Setbacks of the Movement in Recent Years

Despite all of its successes, the popularity of the movement has waned in recent years. In 2023, about 51% of adults in the United States supported the movement; a drop when compared to figures from 2020. It has been suggested that there are two main reasons for this.

The first, ironically, is the ‘structurelessness’ and ‘leaderlessness’ of the BLM, often put forth as strengths but which have severely hampered its potency. The second is the negative, somewhat unfair portrayal of the organization as militant by mainstream media, attributable to certain aggressive voices within BLM. The most militant BLM activists have led occupations and sit-ins, or “direct action tactics,”. The “diversity of tactics” includes the periodic use of force for disruptive purposes, but stops short of outright violence. Civil disobedience as a means of registering frustration with the powers that be is the objective and can be effective at generating publicity.

The leaderless structure of BLM has given rise to some of these tactics, as was observed by Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, who was openly critical of the BLM’s somewhat anomalous leadership structure in her book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. She stated that “strategies that seek to be structureless and non-hierarchical have the limitation of being unable to formulate clear, united demands.”. This, in turn, allows for fragmentation, as had happened to some degree in 2020.”

Getting the BLM Campaign Back on Track

For the BLM to stay relevant, it must mature. More than just its leadership structure, the very way it operates must change. While the fear that the BLM will become so conventional as to become a cliché is legitimate, its current structure isn’t doing it any favors. Its guerrilla-style approach to civil activism, which worked at its inception, must be consolidated into a format that allows it to barter with political power brokers in a credible manner. This could take the form of forming factions within existing political parties or the creation of entire political parties, such as The Taking the Initiative Party (TTIP), a British political party emerging from the Black Lives Matter movement. It was formed in 2016 by Charles Gordon, in a bid to change the system from within.

Admittedly, activism has its uses, but its fickle nature makes it incompatible with political power. Without power, there can be no change. To meet objectives, the BLM Campaign will have to rise to the occasion of “realpolitiks.” It is only then that lasting progress can be made.

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