BLM Lesson Series Part 1:
It’s been almost two years since Black Lives Matter, the social protest movement against "the disproportionate impact of state violence on Black lives" emerged to develop into an influential social and political force. (The quote from the Black Lives Matter website.)
From its inception, the movement has been a prominent force on social media, disseminating information that had previously been deemed un-newsworthy by traditional news outlets. It has since found inroads in the traditional mainstream media and has even become a force to be reckoned with in the 2016 presidential race, as candidates have been adjusting to a changing political landscape that has to take into account the needs and demands of minority communities in unprecedented ways.
In the lesson below, and two others to follow, we’ll take a close look at the Black Lives Matter movement, why and how it came into being, and what it has evolved into. We’ll also look at some of the criticism it has received and the movement’s next steps. Before beginning these lessons, you may want to review these guidelines for teaching about difficult or controversial issues.
- Lesson 1: Black Lives Matter: Introduction
- Lesson 2: "All Lives Matter" versus "Black Lives Matter"
- Lesson 3: What Is "Black Lives Matter" Working Towards?
Background for the Teacher:
The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was created around the time of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in July 2013. It lay somewhat dormant until the shooting death of Michael Brown in early August of 2014—a young man of color, shot and killed by a white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO.
But it wasn’t till November 25, 2014, when the news not to indict Darren Wilson came out, that the hashtag gained real traction and went mainstream. In the first 20 hours of that day, #BlackLivesMatter was used to send around 10,000 tweets. But in the four hours that followed the verdict, the twittersphere lit up: 92,784 tweets were sent using the hashtag. #BlackLivesMatter was to become a force to be reckoned with. (See this NPR Codeswitch article for more.)
Since those early days of online activism, Black Lives Matter has evolved into a movement that is now as much physical as it is digital. It is not a traditional movement with a centralized system of leaders, headquarters or appointed spokespeople. It sees itself more as a diffuse ideological and political intervention in a world where systemic racism and structural inequality fail to be sufficiently acknowledged or addressed. The vast inequalities left by a legacy of slavery are once again brought into the public eye by a social movement that is fighting inequality and injustice while also affirming "Black folks’ humanity, our contributions to this society, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression." (https://blacklivesmatter.com/herstory/)
Though the hashtag is separate from the Black Lives Matter organization and movement, it is often used in in the organizing, mobilizing, momentum building and reporting of events and interventions.
On August 1, 2016, a coalition or organizations with affiliations to Black Lives Matter called the Movement for Black Lives released a detailed platform of demands. These were soon tweeted on social media using the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. #BlackLivesMatter has connected people from around the U.S. (and beyond) with the goal of ending various forms of racial injustice, while also seeking to celebrate and humanize Black lives.
This lesson uses tweets to introduce students to the origin and motivations behind Black Lives Matter. Print out several copies of these tweets (#BLM tweets pdf here) - enough for several small groups in your classroom to consider.
Also print out the quotes that follow the tweets, which students will read out loud.
An additional activity has students consider the movement’s core principles by posting them around the room, with explanations of each principle hidden underneath. This requires preparation. The principles and descriptions are reproduced in this pdf. Print out the pdf and cut the pages to separate the different principles. When the time comes, you’ll post these around the room with the heading on top and in view, with the corresponding description folded underneath.
Gathering: Black Lives Matter web
Invite students to share any associations they have with the phrase "Black Lives Matter." Chart their associations in a web (or other visual representation). Elicit associations while interest remains high, then invite students to look over the web and discuss it using some or all of the following questions:
- What do you notice about what’s written on the chart?
- Are there any similarities? Differences?
- Is there anything on here that surprises you?
- Is there anything on here that you have questions about?
Explain that in today’s lesson you’ll be looking more closely at the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and the movement that sprang from it.
Elicit and explain that over the past few years, police violence against mostly young men of color has entered the mainstream news cycle with great immediacy. Video footage, shot mostly on private cellphones and broadcast on social media, has helped bring to light what communities of color have long been trying to expose - what Black Lives Matter calls "the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society" (http://blacklivesmatter.com/about/).
Through Twitter and the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, activists were able to disseminate information directly to millions of people, bypassing the traditional mainstream media, which, until Black Lives Matter, had mostly ignored police violence in black communities.
#BlackLivesMatter turned names like Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and Philando Castile into household names while raising awareness beyond communities of color about the systemic racism and structural inequality that black and brown Americans experience on a daily basis. As the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag gained momentum, it soon turned into a movement that continues to grow and evolve to face and address real world needs, beyond the digital world it sprang from.
What is Black Lives Matter? Why was it created?
Break students into small groups and give each group a copy of the these #BLM tweets. Ask them to discuss these questions in their groups:
- What are your thoughts and feelings about these tweets?
- What do you think they are in reference to?
- What do you know about #BlackLivesMatter and why it was created?
The following quotes about the background and goals of #BlackLivesMatter are taken from the Black Lives Matter website.
Print out the following quotes and invite volunteers to read them loud.
- #BlackLivesMatter was created in 2012 after Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted for his crime, and dead 17-year old Trayvon was ... placed on trial for his own murder. http://blacklivesmatter.com/about/
- #BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the ... anti-Black racism that permeates our society. http://blacklivesmatter.com/about/
- #BlackLivesMatter is working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted [and killed] .... http://blacklivesmatter.com/about/
- [#BlackLivesMatter] affirm[s Black] contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression. http://blacklivesmatter.com/about/
- [Beyond the hashtag, founders of #BlackLivesMatter] created the infrastructure for this movement ...—moving the hashtag from social media to the streets. http://blacklivesmatter.com/herstory/
- [Black Lives Matter, is trying to] broaden... the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state. We are talking about the ways in which Black lives are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. http://blacklivesmatter.com/about/
- The call for Black lives to matter is a rallying cry for ALL Black lives striving for liberation. http://blacklivesmatter.com/about/
- #BlackLivesMatter has connected people across the country working to end the various forms of injustice impacting our people. We’ve created space for the celebration and humanization of Black lives. http://www.thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2/
Divide students into small groups to discuss the following questions:
- What are your thoughts and feelings about Black Lives Matter, based on this information?
- What did you learn about Black Lives Matter that you didn’t know before?
- What questions do you have about #BlackLivesMatter, the hashtag, and Black Lives Matter, the movement?
Back in the large group invite students to share out some of the points that were made in their small groups and facilitate a large group discussion around the issues raised. Invite students to come up with any questions they have about Black Lives Matter.
Additional activity if time allows
Black Lives Matter guiding principles
Note: Depending on the work you’ve done with your group, you may consider reviewing the meaning of the words used in the principles (or only use the principles you think students will already understand.) Alternatively, let students experience the activity without this advance preparation, but encourage them to share their questions (as the activity suggests). Make sure you return to these questions as the group continues to convene.
Print out a copy of these Black Lives Matter principles. Post the principles around the room, with the descriptions folded underneath so that students will only see the principles at first, not the descriptions.
Explain that these principles are at the core of the BLM movement. Ask students to define what a principle is. Elicit and explain that a principle, according to Merriam-Webster, is
- a moral rule or belief that helps you know what is right and wrong and that influences your actions
- a basic truth or theory : an idea that forms the basis of something
Ask students to think about a particular community, whether it’s their own school community, the neighborhood or city they live in or the U.S. at large. In this context, ask them what principle are they most drawn to, for whatever reason. It could be because they have questions about it, because they feel this is the most important principle in the given context, or because they think that the school, neighborhood, city or country should do a better job upholding this principle.
Invite students to stand by the principle they feel most drawn to. In the small groups now standing by different principles, invite students to open up the description of the principle posted below, read it, then discuss among themselves some or all of the following questions:
- Why were they drawn to this principle?
- What is it about this principle that spoke to them?
- What questions do they have about this principle?
- How do they see it relating to other principles around the room?
- Why do they think Black Lives Matter felt the need to explicitly create a page on their website that outlines these principles?
Invite each small group to share out, in no more than a minute, the key points of what they discussed. Then convene the whole group to discuss the principles as a set, going back to the last two questions on the list above. Link the discussion back to the community you had students relate these principles to.
Ask students to share one thing that stood out for them today - one thing that if they were to forget everything else they discussed today, they’d want to hold on to.