Has Black Lives Matter Had an Impact?

What are the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement, and what progress has it made in bringing social change? Students explore these questions with readings and discussion.  

To the Teacher:

Over the past two years a national movement has developed in response to police violence in African-American communities. Especially prominent protests have flared up following the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. Across the country, concerned citizens have taken up the slogan #BlackLivesMatter and have demanded change.

But what impact have the protests had?

This lesson consists of two readings that encourage students to think critically about the impact of Black Lives Matter. The first reading examines the argument that the movement’s demands for social change need to be more specific. The second reading looks at some of the things the Movement for Black Lives has accomplished in the last two years. Questions for discussion follow each reading.



Reading 1:
What are the Demands of Black Lives Matter?

Over the past two years a national movement has developed in response to police violence in African-American communities. Especially prominent protests have flared up following the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. Across the country, concerned citizens have taken up the slogan #BlackLivesMatter and have demanded change.

Yet, from the movement's start, some people have criticized Black Lives Matter activists for not having specific enough demands. In August 2014, Barbara Reynolds, an ordained minister and former civil-rights activist, expressed this concern in an op-ed in the Washington Post:

The baby boomers who drove the success of the civil rights movement [of the 1960s] want to get behind Black Lives Matter, but the group’s confrontational and divisive tactics make it difficult....

For months, it seemed that BLM hadn’t thought beyond that raw emotion, hadn’t questioned where it would all lead. I and other elders openly worried that, without a clear strategy and well-defined goals, BLM could soon crash and burn out. Oprah Winfrey voiced that concern earlier this year, saying, "What I’m looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say, ‘This is what we want. This is what has to change, and these are the steps that we need to take to make these changes, and this is what we’re willing to do to get it."

In response to such criticisms, a number of activists and scholars have argued that, in fact, the movement has been effective precisely because it has not become mired in overly specific policy proposals, but instead has galvanized public outrage over police killings. Philadelphia-based activist and writer Waleed Shahid argued this position in Dissent magazine, writing about how the movement has made an impact by shifting public opinion: 

Some observers claim that if we want to create a world in which black life truly matters, activists will need more specific demands that will have a greater impact. But the movement for black lives has repeatedly shown the strengths of a different kind of strategy.

The demands of the movement so far have been diverse and not necessarily unified. On the one hand, the demand chanted on the streets of Ferguson and New York was "simple," as Johnetta Elzie put it in the New York Times"Stop killing us." In late August 2014, the social movement organization Ferguson Action released a long list of demands that went widely unnoticed. Nonetheless Oprah Winfrey and Al Sharpton criticized the movement for failing to articulate clear demands....

On the whole, the primary demand of Black Lives Matter has been a moral one, as put by both [BLM co-founder Alicia] Garza and Elzie: justice for those killed by police officers and an end to police violence in black communities. This is how the media and the public have generally understood the goal of Black Lives Matter. Thousands of people across the country have rallied around this simple idea, causing a dramatic shift in the political climate and public consciousness regarding racial inequality in our country. Before events in Ferguson, 46 percent of Americans believed that more changes were necessary to ensure that blacks and whites had equal rights. After a year of protests, the Washington Post found that 60 percent of Americans think the country needs to change to address racial inequality. Today 53 percent of whites believe changes must be made, compared to just 39 percent in 2014....

[H]igh-profile actions have not necessarily focused on receiving a concession from a particular decision-maker, but have instead tried to draw public attention to the issue of racism and compel ordinary people to take action—or at least choose sides.

While some advocates have avoided detailed policy proposals, other branches of the Movement for Black Lives have in fact presented clear ideas for reforms. In one representative effort, prominent activists DeRay McKesson, Johnetta Elzie, and Brittany Packnett launched Campaign Zero. As Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Pearce wrote in August 2015:

"Campaign Zero," marks the most sweeping and detailed policy platform to emerge along with the Black Lives Matter movement. On a slickly produced website, it proposes 10 reform tenets, many backed with specific policy proposals to end the hundreds of police killings that happen annually in the U.S.

The campaign's pillars include limiting police use of force, beefing up oversight of police departments with civilian review boards and equipping officers with body cameras. The activists call for an end to aggressive police tactics and heavy fines when it comes to minor infractions that tend to fall disproportionately on black Americans.

The group also adopted model police programs and proposals from around the country. A call to end police ticket quotas points to Illinois law as a reference. A proposal to restrict the use of SWAT teams except for crisis situations cites Cincinnati police policy. One proposal to strengthen oversight suggests supporting an existing congressional bill that would incentivize independent investigations of police misconduct....

"We’ve always had demands," said McKesson, who shared the proposals with the hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers he has amassed since the protests in Ferguson. He said Campaign Zero has collected those demands made by various activists around the U.S. as police use of force has become a fixture of public debate.

"Now that there’s this awareness, we have an opportunity to end police violence, and this is a blueprint for how we can do it," McKesson said.

The Movement for Black Lives has generated both a moral call to action and a suggestion of needed policy changes. How much of this agenda becomes a reality may depend on future activism.



For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in these readings was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. The Dissent article argues that the Black Lives Matter movement has already had a major impact by raising public awareness about racial injustice and police violence.  Do you agree?  Why or why not?  
  3. How important do you think it is for BLM activists to have specific policy demands?
  4. What is the relationship between raising public awareness about a problem and formulating specific demands to address that problem?
  5. According to the reading, what are some of the demands that Black Lives Matter activists have made?
  6. Based on your experience or knowledge, what are some policy changes that might help to address racial disparities in policing?
  7. What broader policy changes might address the systemic problems highlighted by the Black Live Matter Movement?



Reading 2:
What BLM Has Accomplished So Far


Even as debate has swirled around the question of Black Lives Matter's agenda, the movement has started to generate concrete policy changes.

In September 2015, reporter Cassandra Fairbanks, writing for the website US Uncut, pointed to gains that Black Lives Matter has already won in areas including community oversight of policing, the use of grand juries on cases involving deadly force by police, and the use of military-grade equipment by local police forces. Outlining movement "wins," Fairbanks wrote:

  • As of September, 2015, over 120 communities nationwide have some form of civilian review board, according to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. In May, it was announced that Cleveland Police will have a civilian head the department’s internal affairs division....
  • We have also seen a sharp rise in police officers being charged for their crimes. The rate of indictments has increased by 5 times over the course of the last 5 months, according to data compiled by criminal justice professor Philip Stinson....
  • In April, Montana Governor Steve Bullock signed the strongest reform on police militarization of any state yet. The law prohibits any department in the state from receiving drones that are armored or weaponized (or both), military aircraft, grenades or grenade launchers, silencers and militarized armored vehicles....
  • In May, President Barack Obama banned police departments from obtaining certain military equipment from the program, such as tracked armored vehicles.


Perhaps a most notable change that Black Lives Matter has helped bring about is the increased use of body cameras by police, a technology that could have an important role in fostering greater accountability by law enforcement agencies. When the Obama administration made federal funding available to expand body camera programs in 2015, more than 70 police departments applied.

Martin Kaste, a reporter following law enforcement around the country, explained in an August 2015 interview with National Public Radio that protests that erupted after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, have accelerated the use of these cameras:

I think you can point to one concrete verifiable change, and that's the embrace of body cameras. Before Ferguson, adoption had started. It was rolling along, but there was still a lot of skepticism. But after Ferguson, a lot of that skepticism changed, especially on the part of officers. When their departments don't buy them, they often buy them themselves. They buy their own personal body cameras. And it's because when they looked at Ferguson, they started to worry about what would happen if there was an incident and there wasn't video to prove their side. And they started feeling vulnerable not having the cameras. And departments, as we've all seen, feel a lot of pressure to adopt them.

Before Black Lives Matter ever captured the public spotlight, a variety of groups had issued thoughtful reports with detailed policy recommendations on how to reduce police violence in African American communities, curb racially discriminatory policing, and challenge the increased militarization of local law enforcement. These recommendations, however, were routinely ignored by those in power. Jay Caspian Kang writes in the New York Times Magazine that vocal demonstrations have created "an atmosphere of awareness and constant urgency around an issue that was previously ignored."  He writes:

Perhaps the most telling evidence of change was the charges filed on May 1 against six Baltimore police officers related to the death of Freddie Gray, which ranged from misconduct in office to second-degree depraved-heart murder. While making the announcement, Marilyn Mosby, the Baltimore state’s attorney, said: "To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America, I heard your call for ‘no justice, no peace.’ Your peace is sincerely needed as I work to deliver justice on behalf of this young man."....

In talking about the problem of police violence at all, [national] political figures are reversing a three-decade presumption within the Democratic Party, one established by Bill Clinton himself in 1994, that there is zero incentive to advocate for the rights of criminal suspects. "The narrative used to be: ‘We support the police and whatever police unions say,’?" James said. "That has changed."

The vision of Black Lives Matter was always far wider than calling for more police body cameras. And yet, this now-popular reform is an example of an early concrete change that the movement has helped to secure, even as it pushes for more.

For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in these readings was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, what are some of the victories that Black Lives Matter has helped secure?
  3. Why do you think the support for body cameras surged following Black Lives Matter protests? Is this technology important? Is it enough to address the problem?
  4. What other reforms do you think might be necessary for more just policing?
  5. Can the issues and problems raised by Black Lives Matter be addressed by police reforms alone? Why or why not?


Research assistance provided by Lina Blount.