Let's be generous when we measure the impact of Black Lives Matter

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The year that’s passed since Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot Mike Brown dead has not only been punctuated by protest, it’s been defined by it. Upticks of unrest — notably in Ferguson and Baltimore — have been triggered by specific police violences, such as Brown's killing and Freddie Gray's brutal death in custody. But we are witnessing more than a series of acts of police violence and protester counter-violence. The readiness with which thousands of people have taken to the streets in anger and solidarity proves anti-racist resistance is our zeitgeist. This is a historic time.

The metrics by which we judge an era's place in history — especially a present era — are imprecise. We tend, according to the vagaries of the news cycle, to talk in terms of major events — riots, massacres or acts of legislation. There's a temptation to look through a historical lens and get the impression that every day during an era of significant socio-political change was pregnant with action and intensity.

Newsmakers and historians don't note the everyday passage of time. But the years that we think of as significant in civil rights history were no more densely packed with major events than we we see today. This is why we should be generous when we measure the impact of Black Lives Matter action, even though racist police violence continues and Black Lives Matter will slip in and out of headlines and Twitter trends.


There were not mass protests and riots every day — or even most days — during the time now thought of as the height of the civil rights movement. Wikipedia — an imperfect source but a barometer for widely digested facts — lists only 11 dates on its 1965 civil rights timeline. Malcolm X's assassination, the march from Selma, the Voting Rights Act passing, and the Watts Riots, but little more. Thirty-four people died in the Los Angeles riots, but they only lasted five days. That's five fewer days than the first wave of major nightly protests in Ferguson last year.

As Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, Bayard Rustin Fellow of Reconciliation in St. Louis, told Fusion last week in advance of the anniversary of Brown’s death: "Ferguson is the longest rebellion against police brutality in the history of the United States,” noting that, "in terms of impact and duration, it is second only to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. For the first time since the slave insurrections and the subsequent Civil War, the black proletariat have set the terms of the public debate. Ferguson is the moment of Montgomery (an enduring spark), Selma (epic battle), and Birmingham (global images of vicious state violence) combined.”

Of course, duration is only one metric. But time and duration of a social movement demands some specific considerations in our social media age, as we consume and move through news events at an unprecedented pace. On any given day, 500 million tweets are sent, a great universe of topics and voices vying for just seconds of attention. That Black Lives Matter is standing the test of accelerated social media time speaks all the more to its strength and the gravity of the struggle.

Though there are more eyeballs than ever paying attention to events like the Ferguson protests, those are wandering eyes, ready to dart away as Twitter feeds refresh. So while in some ways our modes of newsmaking and news consuming have democratized what sort of things get to be news Events, our media diets are saturated. I recall this time last year, while writing for another publication, the discussions in a morning editorial meeting ready to call time on the Black Lives Matter movement after one quiet day. The following days were marked by rupturous protest.


The continuity of Black Lives Matter action over the last 12 months teaches that this movement can't be dismissed as a fleeting protest moment, as Occupy has perhaps rightly been designated. This too, is the lesson from previous decades of anti-racist resistance, which should be viewed without the romantic assumption that revolutionary times should look and feel insurrectionary every day. The history of black struggle in America deserves better than ill-thought nostalgia. Black Lives Matter has upended any popular historical myth that the book has closed on major structural racism. It's an epoch-making movement that both makes history, and demands we rethink the histories we tell.

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