Google searches for 'police brutality' and 'Black Lives Matter' are at an all-time high

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In the weeks since Freddie Gray was arrested in Baltimore, search volumes for the terms "police brutality" and "Black Lives Matter" have hit all-time highs, according to results from Google Trends.

Gray was arrested in Baltimore on April 12, and died of injuries he suffered in police custody a week later, on April 19.  The search volume for "police brutality" peaked between April 26 and May 2, a week notable for the mass protests inspired by Gray's death in Baltimore and elsewhere.

Screen shot of a Google Trends chart showing interest in the search term "police brutality" from Jan. 2004 to the present.

The former peak of that search term (B, in the graph above) came in in December 2014, when a grand jury decided not to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner. Before that, the peak was March 2004, when the parents of Amadou Diallo accepted a $3,000,000 settlement from the NYPD over the wrongful shooting death of their son five years prior.


Like "police brutality," the phrase "Black Lives Matter" also saw its greatest volume of Google searches during the week of April 26.

Screen shot of a Google Trends chart showing interest in the search term "Black Lives Matter" from May 2014 to the present.

The rallying cry-turned-movement, which sprang up in 2013 as a response to George Zimmerman's acquittal in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, also saw a high amount of interest in mid-December of last year. That high search volume aligns with the nationwide demonstrations following the Eric Garner decision.

While not at an all-time high, the search volume for the phrase "excessive force" is still pretty significant now.

Screen shot of a Google Trends chart showing interest in the search term "excessive force" from Jan. 2004 to the present.

(That super high spike in May 2012 resulted from an incident in which an Illinois police officer fatally tasered a dog.)


So, what can we gather from all of this data? Well, that people are Googling "police brutality" and "Black Lives Matter" a whole bunch. But to at least some degree, search trends are an indicator of public consciousness, and these trends can be traced to the work of activists like  DeRay McKesson and Johnetta Elzie.

Does online interest translate into offline action? Only time will tell. But in a recent Fusion poll, nearly half of young adults (45 percent) said social-media activism has a greater effect on change than civil demonstration.


We can also consider the case of Occupy Wall Street and its frequent talk of income inequality.

Google Trends indicates that interest in the search term "income inequality" peaked in November 2011, likely coinciding with the eviction of protesters from New York's Zuccotti Park following months of protests around the world. Note how the phrase's search volume has remained high since that date, especially when compared to pre-2011 interest.

Screen shot of a Google Trends chart showing interest in the search term "income inequality" from Jan. 2004 to the present.

While the Occupy movement wasn't able to achieve all of its aims (spoiler alert: the 1 percent are still doing fine), they were able to increase public interest in the notion of income inequality, if Google Trends is any indication. And in the years since 2011, populist politicians —like Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio—have been elected to local, state, and federal government. By the transitive property of something math-sounding, you could argue that the Occupy movement was responsible for such rhetoric entering mainstream political consciousness.


The Black Lives Matter movement might be able to inject the concepts of police brutality and institutionalized racism into mainstream political discourse in a similar way—in fact, it may have done so already.

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