What is Black Lives Matter? A Short Explainer

There’s a lot of misinformation about what the phrase means. Here are some answers

black lives matter
ST. PAUL, MN – JULY 07: A couple hold a sign protesting the killing of Philando Castile outside the Governor's Mansion on July 7, 2016 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Castile was shot and killed the previous night by a police officer in Falcon Heights, MN. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

What is “Black Lives Matter”?

The movement has existed for three years, but the first some people heard of it was last week, after the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile sparked demonstrations against the killings of African-American men. At one of those demonstrations in Dallas, a lone gunman killed five police officers — and that led some people and media outlets to claim the group advocates violence against police.

It does not. The group said in a statement last week: 

There are some who would use these events to stifle a movement for change and quicken the demise of a vibrant discourse on the human rights of Black Americans. We should reject all of this. Black activists have raised the call for an end to violence, not an escalation of it. Yesterday’s attack was the result of the actions of a lone gunman. To assign the actions of one person to an entire movement is dangerous and irresponsible. We continue our efforts to bring about a better world for all of us.

So what does Black Lives Matter stand for? Here’s a short explanation, with some frequently asked questions and the responses.

It’s about police shootings, right?

That’s part of it, but not all of it. After Trayvon Martin’s death in 2013, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors founded Black Lives Matter as a call to action. The women, along with many others across the United States, were angry that George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the death of the 17-year-old. The group has also called for protecting black lives after police shootings like the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

After the deaths of Sterling and Castile, people across the country began marching the streets in protest — many of them declaring solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. After the five officers were killed in Texas, critics including Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani criticized the movement.

What does Black Lives Matter believe in?

Here’s an explanation from the group’s Guiding Principles:

“Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.  It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”

Black Lives Matter is a national organization that has local chapters. The movement is based on the experiences of black people in the United States — not just recently, but throughout history. The movement recognizes a long history of institutional racism and white privilege, and how it results in anti-black racism. Black Lives Matter goes beyond demanding justice for police brutality, but it also aims to recognize the significant contributions of the black community.

Does it promote violence?

No, the Black Lives Matter organization does not promote violence. Two of the Guiding Principles are empathy and loving engagement.

Empathy: “We are committed to practicing empathy; we engage comrades with the intent to learn about and connect with their contexts.”

Loving engagement: “We are committed to embodying and practicing justice, liberation, and peace in our engagements with one another.”

Okay, but why not All Lives Matter?

From Garza:

#BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean your life isn’t important — it means that Black lives, which are seen as without value within White supremacy, are important to your liberation. Given the disproportionate impact state violence has on Black lives, we understand that when Black people in this country get free, the benefits will be wide reaching and transformative for society as a whole.

Black Lives Matter says it does not take away from the importance of Hispanic, Native American, Latino, Asian, white or any other race’s lives. But it wants to remind people that not all races have the same deep-rooted tumultuous history with law enforcement that black people do in the U.S.

Recent studies have revealed that police fatally shoot black men at an alarmingly disproportionate rate. And out of 2.3 million incarcerated people, black people make up 1 million, which is almost half of the prison population — even though they only make up 13.3 percent of the United States population.

I still don’t get it.

In short, Black Lives Matter is an organization that is tired of seeing the constant demise of the black community in our society whether it be from police brutality or cultural appropriation, and is taking a stance against it. It is celebrating the magic of the black community all the while demanding that the state acknowledge our humanity.