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Media in Protest: Black Lives Matter

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

Deconstructing themes of white supremacy in the American justice system

In what is being called the third civil rights movement, the protests garnered by the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter have created a new way of seeing white supremacy in America. Millions used the hashtag since the acquittal police officer George Zimmerman in the shooting of Trayvon Martin in January 2013. Social media played an enormous part in gathering groups and gaining traction. As the list of lost lives on the Say Their Names memorial grew longer in the coming years, the role of social media was essential in BLM's organization. The outrage across a free, social network also contributed to some form of "unpredictability" in protest, as The New York Times puts it.

The protests were mostly peaceful manifestations of civil disobedience, but as crowds grew larger and more disruptive, crowds were met with militarized police response. In the earlier protests, groups gathered with their hands raised in response to the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. Despite bystander testimony that he had his hands raised in the air at the time of the shooting, men in uniform responded with deadly force. The #BLM movement responded with the organization of Hands Up, Don't Shoot. Their courageous acts of performative vulnerability, that is, presenting themselves as vulnerable in the face of police, manifested itself in truth as officers nonetheless responded with dogs and riot gear, a familiar image in more recent protests. As Nicholas Mirzeoff puts it, also "apparently indifferent to the parallel with civil rights history."


With video evidence building in the case of violence against unthreatening black bodies, the movement is concerned with seeing less acquittals and more justice. The violence that ensued as a result of these protests spurred the onset of the opposing movement, #BlueLivesMatter. Though overwhelmingly binary in the media, it seems both parties are concerned with who has the right to violence as protection. The discourse should inevitably begin with America's foundation on slavery and the right to bear arms, especially as it concerns patterns of ownership and black visibility.

After the abolishment of slavery in 1865, large communities of black and brown people were onshored into American civil life at a 'safe' distance from white American life. In the years of Jim Crow, even meeting the gaze of a white man was coined as "reckless eyeballing" for the black man. In the next near centennial, until 1960, this segregated divide was not only utilized in favor of the white man on every socio-economic level, but also horribly exploited by dangerous civilian militias to target and execute people of color. Even the slightest perception of danger, a whistle at a white woman, could mean a brutal death for young black men, the most infamous of which is the saddening case of 14-year-old, Emmett Till in 1955.

Lynchings and torture of black 'bodies' was normalized by white folk on such a horrifying scale that no matter how grave the beating, these sick spectacles never saw justice for the black man. The evidence of acquittal after acquittal in the American justice system speaks to how America's visual perception of danger in black men meant their execution was easily justified, a justice simply taken at the hand of the vigilante rather than a fair trial.

Standing just 2 generations removed from Emmett Till's death, the third civil rights movements echoes America's history with white supremacy. Any approach to discrediting the Black Lives Matter movement without a careful analysis of these trends of normalized, acquitted violence against black people is fruitless and idealized. Since their pursuit of freedom, black men have been perceived as threat to the white man and his property. American justice for black folk has only historically painted them guilty before proven innocent, warranting targeted brut force on a level unseen in any other country. America is not far removed enough from its past to wash its hands clean of the affects of the civil war, Jim Crow, and white supremacy.

Jane Elliot is one key player in the movement toward critical race education in the United States. She has dedicated her life's work to educating the American public as to why she finds racism to be a core part of American culture. She exemplifies that we have only just begun reworking our history books in a way that challenges the rhetoric around the white hero --the pioneer, the conqueror --to include voices from marginalized communities.

As seen in previous civil rights movements, the first step to seeing fair justice in systematic violence is education through amplifying oppressed voices. In recent pushback against CRT in schools, what will remain is the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, to be used as a tool to be commonly accessed for informative progress.

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