Where did this powerful term, this hashtag that has galvanized a nation, and become the rallying cry for a generation – where did it come from?
The year was 2013, and George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of 17 year old Trayvon Martin. Alicia Garza was shocked, saddened, and frustrated to hear the verdict, and immediately wrote a series of Facebook posts – what she later called a Love Letter to all Black People, “stop saying we are not surprised. That’s a damn shame in itself. I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter.” Followed by another simple, yet powerful message,“black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.”
The Facebook messages were then shared by her friend and activist Patrisse Cullors who used her message to form the powerful hashtag, “declaration: black bodies will no longer be sacrificed for the rest of the world’s enlightenment. I am done. Trayvon, you are loved infinitely. #blacklivesmatter.”
This was followed by another Facebook post that was a call to action, and was the first time the hashtag was characterized as a movement,
“Alicia Garza myself, and hopefully more black people than we can imagine are embarking on a project. we are calling it BLACKLIVESMATTER”
“#blacklivesmatter is a movement attempting to visiblize what it means to be black in this country. Provide hope and inspiration for collective action to build collective power to achieve collective transformation. Rooted in grief and rage but pointed towards vision and dreams.”
Another civil rights activist Opal Tometi recognized the potential of the hashtag and the three of them created an online space for this movement to grow – somewhere where others could join and spread awareness.
For most of 2013, the hashtag gained traction on social media as a rallying cry for a civil rights movement, but remained within the confines of social media. It was not until 2014, when Eric Garner was killed in Staten Island by a police chokehold, followed by the August 2014 killing of teenager Michael Brown by a police office in Ferguson, Missouri, and race relations came to a boiling point with demonstrations and protests continuing for weeks that #blacklivesmatter came to be used both offline and online for a movement.
According to the Pew Research Group, #blacklivesmatter appeared on Twitter a total of 11.8 million times between July 2013 and March 2016. I am sure when the word is analyzed for 2020 it will easily cross the billion mark.
With its civil rights roots, its longevity in this short attention span world, and its phenomenal spread across the world, it is clear that this powerful and meaninful term is not just the rallying cry of 2020, but of an entire generation unwilling to accept racial inequality. The hashtag has created a new mechanism for confronting this racial inequality and has become synonymous with the fight against systematic and structural racism.