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Excerpted From: Jamillah Bowman Williams, Naomi Mezey and Lisa Singh, #BLACKLIVESMATTER: from Protest to Policy, 28 William and Mary Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice 103 (Fall, 2021) (306 Footnotes) (Full Document)


JamillahBowmanWilliamsIn summer 2020, mass protests spread across the globe challenging police brutality and racial injustice and demanding change. Fueled by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, these protests drew 15 million to 26 million participants in the United States alone to participate in late May and June of 2020. The sheer scale of these protests made them the largest movement in U.S. history. While there has been some consensus that this unprecedented protest movement pushed social awareness and changed the national conversation around race, existing research has yet to clearly document the extent to which it affected law and policy on the federal, state, and local levels. We begin to fill this gap by documenting the correlation between the online and offline protest activity, and showing the relationship between the location and intensity of protest activity and the initial wave of legal and policy change.

In this Article, we use Twitter conversation and protest data to show how BLM fueled global protests that changed minds, hearts, and the baseline understanding of inequality in ways that could also ultimately drive legal and policy change. We have previously presented a model (see Figure 1) based on use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter that illustrates how modern-day social movements can build social awareness, shift cultural understandings, and make progress toward structural change. This model incorporates both external conditions like the pandemic and anti-movement backlash with four levels of action that attempt to capture the process of how a movement transitions from social media conversation to the ultimate goal of structural change. We return to this model here to examine the link between the second (yellow) and fourth (blue) levels in particular, focusing on the relationship between protest and activism in the summer of 2020 and legal and policy changes occurring across states and cities over the following year. The model shows how protests and allied activism build social awareness and political pressure, which are necessary conditions for building support for more sustainable policy change.

Social media movements tend not to have staying power and the window for the change they advocate is small. BLM has already defied the odds of online movements with its ability to inspire a massive online discussion and then mobilize that social media conversation into significant activism offline. As we noted previously, by linking social media sophistication and traditional organizing work, BLM built “a dynamic model of online and offline activism capable of structural change.” But legal change and broader cultural change take time and tenacity, and empirical research has shown that while empathy shifts after protests and activism, attitudes are likely to revert back. Douglas McAdam, professor emeritus at Stanford University and an expert on social movements, said at the time that the protests seemed to be “achieving what very few do: setting in motion a period of significant, sustained, and widespread social, political change .... We appear to be experiencing a social change tipping point--that is as rare in society as it is potentially consequential.”

We find that the protests of 2020 did indeed begin a paradigm shift in the social awareness of racialized police violence, and this important and significant social change has in turn already inspired political change and some degree of legal and policy change. However, the movement remains in a precarious position and it is uncertain how enduring these changes will be. While many state legislators and local officials have responded to the protests with policy reforms, policy action at the federal level is mostly stalled. In addition, it is unclear whether the state and local policy changes will lead to the deeper and lasting structural changes sought by the movement. We are also observing substantial backlash policy that threatens to not only derail current racial justice efforts, but also exacerbate the underlying inequalities that the movement opposes.

In Part I, we offer an analysis of the 2020 protests, including the critical role of social media in building the protests themselves as well as the policy demands that the protests helped to broadcast. In Part II, we assess the policy activity occurring within the first year following this historic level of activism in the United States, looking specifically at where and when legislators responded to three different kinds of movement demands: individual accountability, institutional changes, and broader systemic reform.

[. . .]

The groundwork laid by the Black Lives Matter movement, the murder of George Floyd, the massive social media response, and the ensuing protests during the summer of 2020 together created a paradigm shift in the social awareness of racialized police violence and in the national conversation about racial injustice. This shift occurred across the political spectrum and created a window of opportunity for legal and policy change. While bipartisan gridlock continues at the federal level, state and local governments have achieved important legislative results that could save Black lives. However, the legal changes have primarily been focused on policing policies and practices, and less on the more transformative change envisioned by activists advocating for the “defund” divest/invest approach. Even just a year out, the window of empathy appears to have narrowed, making it less likely that the 2020 protests will generate the type of lasting and more structural policy changes that would make an enduring difference for the Black community.

Further, the backlash policies that were aided by the partisan fervor around the presidential election may have stifled hope for policy change at the federal level. This backlash has also encouraged retreat from racial justice and reform commitments in many states and has prompted several types of backlash legislation that will exacerbate existing racial inequities.

The most promising policy responses have been at the city level, particularly in locations with heavy protest activity. This suggests the power of cities and counties have to take the lead in responding to racial injustice. It also demonstrates the continuing power of protest activism to generate policy changes, especially at the local level.

Jamillah Bowman Williams, Associate Professor, Georgetown University Law Center. JD, Stanford Law School; PhD (Sociology).

Naomi Mezey , Agnes Williams Sesquicentennial Professor, Georgetown University Law Center. JD, Stanford Law School, MA (American Studies).

Lisa Singh, Professor of Computer Science, Research Professor in the Massive Data Institute, Georgetown University. PhD (Computer Engineering).

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