is black lives matter a social movement?

People often ask if a political group is a “movement.” In what sense is Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter a movement? In the social sciences, protest movements are often defined by the following:

  • A collective action (not a single person, or a group of people acting at once by coincidence)
  • Aimed at structural change in society
  • Using contentious or non-institutionalized means.

Then, yes, Occupy and Black Lives Matter (and the Tea Party and many others) are clearly protest movements. BLM is, I think, mainly defined by a desire to see a complete overhaul of how police interact with Black communities. And not in a reformist way either. They are willing to be disruptive.

Some people balk at this answer because they have other movements in mind, like the Civil Rights movement. The issue, I think, is that BLM is a very young movement that has not developed the infrastructure of other movements. The CRM took decades to evolve from the early days of the Niagra movement of 1905 to its height in the 1960s. Occupy and the Tea Party are atypical in that they popped up relatively quickly. Normally, movements take years to get off the ground. It is fair, then to say that BLM is a young movement, or an early stage movement, but it is definitely not a mature movement analogous to CRM in the 1960s.  Bottom line: BLM is real, but it has a long way to go. Let’s see where it goes.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 2, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in fabio, social movements

6 Responses

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  1. God damn it. Do we really have to relive this again? McCarthy and Zald, for fuck’s sake. Social movements are preference structures for change, social movement organizations are mobilized entities seeking to garner the collective goods sought by social movements. Yes. BLM is a social movement, certainly, and it is apparently also a social movement organization, eh?



    September 2, 2015 at 12:31 am

  2. In my community the BLM movement is a coalition, actually two coalitions that are in a loose coalition with each other. Their Madison names are the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition (the radical edge dominated by younger people) and the Justified Anger Coalition (the less radical but still assertive formation dominated by Black ministers and professionals). Each of these coalitions has various kinds of organizations in it, as well as a lot of participants who are not necessarily members of the organizations. And there are several majority-white organizations that operate in a looser form of cooperation with the Black groups. I’m pretty sure BLM nationwide is a network or federation, although I don’t have first-hand knowledge of exactly how it is structured. None of this would be remotely surprising to anybody who knows anything at all about social movements, as Sherkat said using more profanity.

    Liked by 1 person


    September 2, 2015 at 2:33 am

  3. I should have reminded people about Aldon Morris’s “local movement centers” as the basic structure of the Southern Civil Rights Movement. Similar kinds of structures.

    Liked by 1 person


    September 2, 2015 at 2:35 am

  4. Good comments – the questions are usually from non academics. I adhere to the mccarthy/Zald view, but most people haven’t read m&z.



    September 2, 2015 at 2:49 am

  5. As a layman unfamiliar with these terms in your profession, I’d call it a ‘protest movement’ instead.

    I wish it were a social movement, because these have a program for change and a roadmap for how to get there. But BLM is right now stuck in the confrontation stage. Not even, because it isn’t really confronting its opponents yet, like at Pettus Bridge. Social movements are open to support, and tell us what we have to do. So far, all this one tells me to not shoot. Done! And my city and state are quite good at preventing this kind of a police culture from taking hold. The real shooters are almost always in places where a repressive police culture has the support of the local power structure and, often, from its citizens in power as well.

    Fixing this would require a Little Rock schools moment, where the US takes over and forces change. BLM apparently envisions this. But that would take a campaign, a ‘social movement’, that people like me can join. So far, sadly, just don’t see it.


    Don Frazier

    September 2, 2015 at 3:53 am

  6. Don Frazier: as a lay person [truly] unfamiliar with physics I would like to tell physicists that I don’t think their use of the term neutrino is correct and I believe they should use the term nanonito instead because I like it better. Well, no, I don’t do that because I assume the name physicists gave to the neutrino is the “right” one. As an expert in social movements I will tell you that you don’t know what you are talking about, neither about the complexity of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s nor about what is actually happening today nor about the accepted meaning of term social movement in the academic field of social movement studies.

    If you think the only thing that is happening in this movement is telling people not to shoot, then you are just revealing the superficiality with which you have approached the topic and the narrowness of your sources of information.

    It is my impression that the movement varies from locale to locale which, as I said, is consistent with prior academic research on what really happened in the Civil Rights Movement. I don’t know what Eden of racial justice you are living in, but in my community where [mostly] the police eschew violence, there are still huge racial disparities in policing and other things that have been the target of sustained mobilization for quite a while involving lots of specific proposals, a wide variety specific forms of political pressure ranging from street protests to political campaigns, and lots of well-organized intentional planning.

    Liked by 1 person


    September 2, 2015 at 3:40 pm

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