Black Lives Matter – a human rights movement spreading across the world

The Black Lives Matter movement is an international human rights movement that has existed since 2013. In late spring 2020 the movement spread across the USA and to countries all over the globe. LiU PhD candidate Mavis Hooi answers four questions about the movement.

Black lives matter protest. vivalapenler

Mavis Hooi is a PhD candidate at REMESO, Division of Migration, Ethnicity and Society. Her PhD research project explores how intersectional antiracism is done on social media.

The Black Lives Matter movement has spread across the world after the murder of George Floyd. Why is this the case now, when there have been numerous cases of police brutality?

It is a gross oversimplification to consider George Floyd’s murder by the police in the US the sole or even main reason for the current protest movement. Instead, Floyd’s case can be seen more as the figurative straw that broke the camel’s back. Quite closely preceding Floyd’s murder were several other cases of black people being killed by the police that have been highlighted by activists on social media. It is also important to remember that Black Lives Matter is an international human rights movement that has existed since 2013.

Analyses of what is happening right now must be done with the view that these killings occurred against the background of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately afflicted mainly black and indigenous people, as well as other people of colour. The already high and sharply rising levels of socioeconomic inequality have been thrown into sharp relief during this global crisis. Among the reasons why a higher proportion of black people and other people of colour are losing their lives to the virus in the US and UK, for example, is that much of the work deemed essential for society to function are done by people of colour. People are sickening and dying due to the virus, access to healthcare is severely reduced for many, and many are losing their jobs and their homes. And on top of all this, black people continue to be subjected to racial profiling as well as police brutality and use of deadly force.

Research has shown that while police brutality is an everyday phenomenon in societies in which racism is a structural problem, strong protest movements like what we are seeing today is uncommon. There seems to be a number of factors that must coincide for this to happen.

The last weeks have been described as historical. What is new or different from previous protests?

Protests have spread to all 50 states in the USA, as well as in countries across the world. Besides very strong and continuous turnout in and outside the USA, there seems to be some novelties in how the movement is growing and the reaction of the state. 

What is new or different this time is that there is widespread support by white people. Established figures in sports and culture of different backgrounds are showing support in significant numbers. Furthermore, companies ranging from small to large, that often at best stay neutral in these conflicts have taken strong positions in support of Black Lives Matter. There are also large numbers of local, state and federal politicians supporting the movement. Concerning the reaction by the repressive institutions—including the police, the military, and the army, we see an increase in action to bring the police who commit murder to justice, bringing about their dismissals, and prosecutors and police responsible renouncing their positions – this is quite unusual and is happening in substantial numbers. 

Are there any examples of social movements that have changed Swedish policy or formal structures, American policy or formal structures? 
 
One central contribution from sociology in particular, and social science more generally, is that social change often has been linked to direct or indirect effects of social movements. Social movements can have a deep and widespread effect on policies and formal structures.

The Swedish welfare state was built as a result of, and through, social movements headed by the labour movement.Gender equality reforms are easily linked to the feminist movements. Increasing awareness of the threat to the environment and the climate has to a substantial part been brought forward by the green movement. The civil rights movement in the USA, for example, resulted in the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1964, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, among others.
 
However, this is also seen concerning restrictionist (radical right-wing) movements against women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, migrant and refugee rights, and the rights of people of colour.
 
From a university perspective, it is important to recognise that social movements also open the universities up for new research projects.The connection between social movements and the institutionalisation of reforms and the development of new research fields is generally mediated by political parties and state intervention. 
 
What is your perspective as a researcher on Black Lives Matter? What do you believe this strong movement can lead to?

This movement can perhaps also be seen as part of the pushback, of resistance against the growing wave of authoritarianism and restrictionist movements in many countries and the accompanying rollbacks in human rights, worker’s rights, women’s rights and LGBTQ rights. At REMESO we are researching both restrictionist movements as well as social movements for expanding rights. The Black Lives Matter movement, alongside the #FridaysForFuture climate movement, the Women’s March movement and other social justice movements can be seen as different approaches towards the dismantling of systems of oppression and towards transformations from the current exploitative and extractive economy to a sustainable and egalitarian one.

At the same time, the future is still to be written. While research is excellent for understanding what has already happened, it is far less capable of predicting what will happen. We see in the USA as well as in Sweden an ongoing struggle between social movements that aim at expanding rights, and restrictionist movements aiming at rolling back rights. How these conflicts and social struggles will be codified in the parliamentary system, we cannot say in advance.

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Ongoing research projects at REMESO

Beyond Racism: ethnographies of anti-racism and conviviality

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Dilemmas of representation and solidarity: Trade unions and extreme right-wing parties

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A Contradiction in Terms? The activity of Women and Migrants in Extreme Right-wing Populist Parties: a case study of Sweden Democrats

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