Boiling Point

Some journalists attribute the revitalization of Black Lives Matter (BLM) in 2020 to dissent against Donald Trump and white participation.

But, not everything has to do with Trump.

This summer the world saw the rebirth of the BLM movement. After the death of George Floyd, the rallying cry was responded to globally. The protests were accompanied by a palpable shift in atmosphere. There was a greater sense of urgency, greater numbers, and greater support than BLM has seen in years. On May 28th, there were "more than eight million tweets tagged with #BlackLivesMatter […] posted on the platform. By comparison, on December 4, 2014, nearly five months after Eric Garner died at the hands of a police officer on Staten Island, the number of tweets tagged with #BlackLivesMatter peaked at 146,000." But why now? What makes 2020 different from 2014 for the BLM movement? I'd argue that the pandemic's effect of a broadening lack of faith in the US government and more people having time to dissent because they aren't constrained by a 9-5 job has been the most influential factor.

Frantz Fanon said that "we revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe." Fanon's explanation of revolution is echoed in Eric Garner's repetition of "I can't breathe!" during his murder and its adoption as a rallying cry at BLM protests. 2020 is a moment in which oppression has become so palpable that action must be taken. Theodore Richards explains the sensation of suffocation under oppression as "a confluence, at this moment in history, of this inability to breathe, whether it is because a cop is choking you or because your air is polluted," or because your lungs are being wracked by Covid-19. We're living in a moment in which we are hyper aware of death. So how dare a state, which is already failing to protect its people from the pandemic, add to the long list of dead through police brutality. The pandemic, through suffering and time, has caused people to reach their boiling points.

Political action emerges out of a convergence of opportunity. Roberta Rice suggests that "timing influences a movement's outcome: Protests are more likely to succeed when they are part of a global cycle of mobilization. Institutional conditions are also important: Protesters are more effective when they take advantage of 'political opportunity structures'." Social movements align themselves most closely with the concept of punctuated equilibrium. They emerge out of ruptures in peoples normal everyday lives. The events preceding the BLM protests in 2014 and 2020 are examples of this. The videos of Eric Garner and George Floyd's deaths disrupted the equilibrium. However, the BLM movement of 2020 was able to more successfully take advantage of political opportunity structures and an emerging protest cycle. Sidney Tarrow defines a protest cycle as "a phase of heightened conflict across the social system: with a rapid diffusion of collective action from more mobilized to less mobilized sectors; [..] and sequences of intensified information flow and interaction between challengers and authorities." They are a seemingly collective decision to revolt exemplified in movements such as the Arab Spring or the African Independence Movements of the 1950s and 60s. Alicia Garcia suggests that "seven years ago, [BLM] were treated like we were too radical, too out of the bounds of what is possible and now, countless lives later, it's finally seen as relevant." In 2020 BLM had its own protest cycle.

The Covid-19 pandemic created an environment that allowed BLM to gain greater traction than in previous years. People, particularly people of color, are facing a deadly virus and economic disenfranchisement on mass. They are angry with the US government's failure to contain Covid-19 and, due to unemployment and social distancing measures, have time to express that anger. However, Gene Demby attributes the success of BLM in 2020 to discontent with the Trump administration and white peer pressure. Similarly, Rice suggests that "institutions also influence methods of protest. Disruptive, confrontational tactics and strategies are more likely to emerge in weak or non institutionalized party systems that suffer from a 'representation gap'," which can be applied to dissent against the Trump administration as well. However, Trump and white peer pressure are factors that existed in 2019 and 2018, yet BLM did not have the level of support then that it does now. The environment of the pandemic, on the other hand, has allowed more people to be mobilized. Indianapolis, for example, saw the highest attendance for a demonstration on racial inequality in 30 years this June. What makes 2020 unique from prior years is the pandemic and how it resulted in large portions of the population having more time to participate in civil disobedience. Covid-19 has given us the opportunity and time to support BLM. I suggest we take advantage of it.

My name is Isabella Roberts. I'm a Master's Student of International Relations - Political Science at IHEID and am finishing a BA in Africana Studies and International Relations - Political Science through a joint-program with Wellesley College. My area of interest is political action and dissent within the African diaspora. In my free time, I like to play guitar and read fantasy novels.

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