The peaceful march in Hoboken, New Jersey on June 6, 2020 was organized by a chapter of the Black Lives Matter network to protest the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was one of numerous protests held around the United States, and the world, to protest Floyd’s death. But organizers also insisted on not treating this one murder as an isolated incident. Instead, it was another chapter in the daily violence against Black people that has not ceased since human beings were first exported from the African continent, sold, and consigned to forced labor over 500 years ago.

Let’s be clear: Black Lives Matter is a slogan, it’s a hashtag, it’s a way to organize in communities. But scholars refer to this latest incarnation of the Black freedom struggle as the Movement for Black Lives. And it’s not a new civil rights movement, although the tools of civil rights—the right to walk across a university quad without being stopped by campus police, the right not to be murdered for a minor traffic infraction, the right not to be killed in your own home during the execution of a no-knock warrant, the right not to be suffocated during an unnecessary arrest—all of these rights are certainly relevant.

Instead, the Movement for Black Lives seeks to transform a society that has always been lethal for Black people. And in our gun-saturated American culture where white nationalism plays an increasing role in unleashing violence, it isn’t always the police that take Black lives. This new phase of the freedom struggle was inaugurated in 2012 when neighborhood vigilante George Zimmerman saw African American teenager Trayvon Martin walking down the street in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman stalked the younger man, and in the course of an illegal attempt to apprehend and question him, shot Martin. Why? Because, as Zimmerman explained, the young man was wearing a hoodie and looked suspicious.

Not only did the Department of Justice decline to prosecute Zimmerman under federal hate crimes statutes, but on June 10, 2013, a jury also acquitted him of all charges. Stunned at the verdict, Los Angeles community organizer Patrisse Cullors wrote on her Facebook: #BlackLIvesMatter. In subsequent days, Cullors, Opal Tometti, and Alicia Garza created what they called the Black Lives Matter network, a collection of organizations around the country that reignited the freedom struggle by organizing to stop police violence through community-based direct action and imagining a future where the most vulnerable among us—women, queers, immigrants, trans and disabled people—were at the center of the Movement’s concerns.

The Movement for Black Lives makes demands on municipalities; the decriminalization of society and redirecting police budgets to humanitarian needs are among them. Like some earlier social justice movements, organizers are deeply embedded in their own communities and committed to a democratic praxis, this time informed by Black feminism. But unlike prior movements, which often centered the entry of Black people into existing institutions such as education, politics, and business, the movement centers a broader critique of capitalist society, and demands transformation. As movement scholar Deva Woodly has argued, “What democratic education should do and what social movements must do is to help people connect the dots between the problems that they are experiencing in their own lives, their values, and possible and desirable solutions.”

Because of its decentralized nature, the movement isn’t easy to study. Scholars have to be agile and commit to the small community groups that spend less of their time marching and protesting over the high-profile murders that make the national news than in working through the daily forms of violence that don’t make the news, practicing care in community, processing trauma, and making sure that Black lives are not only mourned, but celebrated, honored, and committed to joy.

This is why I asked Christopher Paul Harris, a graduate of the New School for Social Research in political and historical studies, and now an assistant professor in Global Black Studies at the University of California, Irvine, to join us to talk about his new book, To Build a Black Future: The Radical Politics of Joy, Pain, and Care (Princeton University Press, 2023) draws on Harris’s own experiences as an activist and organizer to analyze contemporary Black struggle and places that struggle in the long history of Black oppression, resistance, community making and joy.

Program notes:

  • The opening clip is from a rally in Hoboken, New Jersey, on June 5, 2020. It was one of a series of protests organized in communities across the nation to protest the murder of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis, MN, police department, and published by the Hudson County News.
  • You can read a first-person account of the origins of #BlackLives Matter in Patrisse Cullors and Asha Bandele, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter (St. Martins Press, 2018.)
  • Claire mentions scholar Deva Woodly, who has also written extensively about The Movement for Black Lives. Her most recent book is Reckoning: Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements
  • You can see the traffic stop which ended in Philando Castile’s murder by by police officer Jeronimo Yanez of the St. Anthony police department in the Minneapolis–Saint Paul metropolitan area, along with Diamond Reynolds’ Facebook live broadcast of the shooting, hereWarning: this video is graphic and violent.
  • The importance of Black women in the civil rights movement has been written about extensively: you might want to start with Bettye Collier-Thomas and V. P. Frankin, Sisters in the Struggle: African-American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement (New York University Press, 2001.)
  • Chris name-checks Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 1997.)

Read an excerpt from TO BUILD A BLACK FUTURE: The Radical Politics of Joy, Pain, and Care by Christopher Paul Harris (Princeton University Press) at Public Seminar.