From Black Panthers to #blacklivesmatter: race in America

Saturday 22 October, 16.00 - 17.15 , Cinema 3 Battle for America

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In the summer of 2014, anti-police protests, demonstrations and riots broke out in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, following the fatal shooting of black teenager Michael Brown. Since Ferguson, the unjust and often brutal treatment of African Americans at the hands of the authorities has rarely been out of the public eye. Police shootings of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, 12-year old Tamir Rice and others grabbed the headlines. But if Ferguson catalysed the explosion, the fuse had been burning for some time. The #blacklivesmatter hashtag emerged early in Obama’s second administration in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer in 2012. Obama’s interventions in the Gates-gate fiasco the year before highlighted concern over issues of racial profiling and black incarceration rates. His conciliatory beer on the White House lawn signalled his view of the problem as relatively trivial and largely symbolic.

But America is not the post-racial nation some commentators claimed, and Obama hoped, when he took up office in 2008. Rather, racial division is more keenly felt than ever. #blacklivesmatter campaigners point to police brutality and the mass incarceration of young black men - in prison or in the alienating ‘hyperghetto’ - as cause for a new civil rights movement. Yet the nature of that movement has proven controversial amid claims that it heightens racial consciousness and fuels divisions among Americans. #blacklivesmatter does not take Martin Luther King’s universal ‘colour-blind’ ideal as its goal but, rather, references the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 70s. A recent documentary film hails the community activism of the Black Panthers, reclaiming their image and their message of affirmative identity 50 years after the party’s founding. Pop megastar Beyoncé caused a stir with her ‘Formation’ video and Superbowl performance using Black Panther iconography. From college campuses to Oscar ceremonies, the United States is alight with anti-racist protest.

Does #blacklivesmatter retain any similarities with the civil rights movement or even the Black Panthers, beyond the choreographed donning of black berets? Does the widespread cultural promotion of the hashtag merely suggest technological enhancement, with social media allowing activists to increase their global reach? Or does the broad cultural approach ultimately trivialise the cause of racial equality? When #blacklivesmatterUK launched in August this year on the fifth anniversary of Michael Duggan’s shooting, did it represent a political intervention gone global? Or might it be understood as a badge of worthiness for protestors that does little but celebrate the victim status of black people? From the Black Panthers to #blacklivesmatter, how effective is the celebration of black identity as a means of challenging racism?