Excerpted From: Isabelle MacLean, Racing Emotions: The Effect of the 2020 Black Lives Matter Protests on Legislative Reform in the United States and Canada, 86 Saskatchewan Law Review 83 (2023) (230 Footnotes) (Full Document)


IsabelleMacLeanEmotions are overtly personal, contextual, and ubiquitous. They inform our everyday actions and seep through the cracks of any attempt to stifle them. Historically, emotions have been characterized as a feminine plight: a weakness compared to hetero-masculine, apathetic ideals. Such a characterization is erroneous and deeply rooted in misogynistic rhetoric. In reality, emotions are invaluable. Emotions withstand wear and tear, and-- sometimes--they are so strong they hold up the pillars of law reform.

The Black Lives Matter (“BLM”) Movement first emerged in the United States in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of a Black teenager named Trayvon Martin. The movement was initiated by Black feminist and queer activists, protesting “how [B]lack lives do not matter, how [B]lack deaths are not mourned, [and] how injustices against [B]lack people are not recognized.” Given the movement's origins, I reinforce now, and throughout the subsequent analysis, that the BLM Movement is intersectional. It seeks to affirm the lives of “[B]lack queer and trans folks, disabled folks, [B]lack undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all [B]lack lives along the gender spectrum.” As a result, the BLM Movement is expansive and exceptionally inclusive.

Following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, the movement grew in strength. George Floyd was originally detained by police on the streets of Minneapolis for attempting to use a counterfeit bill in a corner store. After a short period of unnecessary police escalation, police officer Derek Chauvin dug his knee into George Floyd's neck for eight minutes and fifteen seconds while George Floyd gasped, “[p]lease, I can't breathe.” As a result of this detention technique and escalation, George Floyd was suffocated to death by chokehold. Bystander videos of the murder led to widespread outcry. In particular, the murder of George Floyd sparked both national and international protest condemning police brutality and violence (“BLM Protests”). The movement would go on to seek justice for wrongs against marginalized peoples, stretching beyond policing and into the lack of substantive equality in various areas.

The protests emanating from the BLM Movement are present-based initiatives with concurrent expressions of juxtaposed emotions, as defenders of Black lives “do not vacillate between anger and tenderness so much as they express each simultaneously.” In garnering the power of these simultaneous expressions of emotion, the BLM Movement quickly gathered momentum from both the streets, as bystanders observed the collective action, and the comfort of media consumers' own living rooms, where mass dissemination of the evidence of racial injustice took place. The reform-based objectives of the BLM Protests, herein limited to the calls for legislative reform from the BLM Foundation and the Parliamentary Black Caucus (“PBC”), became clear as emotions were in a heightened state. Where such changes were implemented throughout the movement, it would be myopic to assume that the emotional protests that took place played no role in these changes.

I advance that the BLM Protests relied on the effect and power of emotion, and this emotion directly impacted the implementation of legislation addressing the central issues of the movement--per the BLM Foundation and the PBC--in the United States and Canada. To explore this relationship, I take up the following analyses: (1) the role of emotion in protests; (2) the effect of the BLM Protests on American legislation; and (3) the effect of the BLM Protests on Canadian legislation. The first section details the theoretical basis that establishes protests, specifically the BLM Protests, as being emotionally driven. The latter two sections establish the effect of the BLM Protests on legislative change. It is through this process that the issues that are central to the inciting events of the BLM Protests are addressed, leading to long-term catharsis in the form of emotional and cognitive relief for those aligned with the requests of the BLM Foundation and the PBC.

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Through this discussion of the emotional undertow of protest movements, including its relationship with legislative reform, it becomes clear that the emotional protests stemming from the BLM Movement affected legislative development in the United States and Canada. At its core, the BLM Protests were incited by emotional expressions within the SIMCA. This collective action model, while claiming to be solely reliant on expressions of anger, is a vessel of a simultaneous multiplicity of reactive and affective emotional expressions. Expressions of emotions such as anger, sympathy, disgust, and Black love lie at the heart of the BLM Movement. These emotions were heightened by the visual nature of many aspects of the BLM Protests, including both media replays of the death of George Floyd and the graffiti movement supporting #SayTheirNames. After eliciting many and varied emotions, some protesters are in search of long-term emo-cognitive catharsis and place the remedial onus on legislatures. This request for legislative action is likely to persist despite temporary and conditional individual emotional catharsis achieved through protest participation.

This article explains how relative emo-cognitive catharsis may have been achieved through legislative reform in both the United States and Canada due to the BLM Protests. In the United States, such reform includes the proposal of bills at the federal level, as well as both positive and regressive legislative action within state governments. Some state-level legislation aligned with the requests of the BLM Foundation. In Canada, legislative reform has made considerable headway in the areas of disaggregated data and justice, as was called for by the PBC. In both the United States and Canada, BLM protesters who identify with the goals advanced by the BLM Foundation and the PBC that were met by their respective legislatures are likely to experience some degree of long-term emo-cognitive catharsis.

Given the results outlined in this article, it is clear that the BLM Protests were effective in getting the attention of those with legislative will and played an important role in advancing legislative reform in both the United States and Canada. In this sense, emotions, like those in the BLM Movement, “can be beacons, not barriers, helping us identify what we most care about and motivating us to make positive changes.” While they inform every aspect of human life, emotions played a particular role in the BLM Protests, and it is clear that their outward expression was not done in vain.

LL.M. Candidate (University of Toronto), J.D. (University of Saskatchewan), Honours B.Soc.Sc. (University of Ottawa). Pronouns: she/her/elle. In the name of transparency, I disclose that I do not identify as a member of the Black community. I put forward the discussions herein with no intention to offend or misrepresent the interests, beliefs, and experiences of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour) community.