To many, the Black Lives Matter movement started in August 2014, when protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. But while the movement coalesced around the street marches in Ferguson and then spread to places like Baltimore, Cleveland, and Chicago, the declaration that supplied its name was coined considerably earlier: in 2013, shortly after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in the death of Trayvon Martin.
On the day of Zimmerman’s acquittal, a Bay Area activist by the name of Alicia Garza took to Facebook. “I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter,” she wrote. “And I will continue that. [S]top giving up on black life.” The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson may have been the national tipping point, the moment when Americans were jolted awake by this new rallying cry. But it was Garza and her fellow activists, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors, who helped popularize the phrase as a hashtag on Twitter and Tumblr one year earlier. Movements often have these kinds of indeterminate beginnings—several, at different moments in time, until they get everyone’s attention—and today, in fact, there are so many iterations of Black Lives Matter that it is perhaps most accurate to describe the protests not as a movement but as a set of movements, each with different locally based groups, and without a clear leader or group of leaders.
In his new book “They Can’t Kill Us All,” Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery sets out not only to track the latest developments in Black Lives Matter, but also to search for the movement’s deeper roots. For Lowery, although BLM protests originated with the recent police killings in the United States—his book takes its title from a sign spotted in Ferguson—he also wants us to recognize that the politics animating these protests have long been around. Lowery traces the movement’s origins to the hope of a “postracial” America that was symbolized by Barack Obama’s election, and which has now proved to be little more than a phantasm of campaign rhetoric and political punditry. Having once hoped that the election of the first black president meant that the tide of race relations in America might begin to turn, many young black Americans were forced to face the reality—by one high-profile police shooting after another—that living in a world in which they’re treated like their white contemporaries remains an impossibility.
The persistence of police violence against young black people, and the often-racist backlash that followed Obama’s election, initiated this new generation into a cycle that has characterized America’s fraught racial history: A period of optimism born out of a spectacular political moment—the Emancipation Proclamation; Reconstruction; the civil-rights movement of the 1960s—is then followed by a period of reaction and retrenchment. This narrative of youthful idealism followed by frustration and despair is the crux of Lowery’s book, and he believes that the second half of this cycle is now in full swing. But while Black Lives Matter arose in a moment of disappointment and grief, it has for the past four years also helped to inaugurate a new era in the struggle for racial justice.