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«#BlackLivesMatter: Epistemic Positioning, Challenges, and Possibilities Catherine L. Langford Montené Speight The social media campaign ...»

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Journal of Contemporary Rhetoric, Vol. 5, No.3/4, 2015, pp. 78-89.

#BlackLivesMatter: Epistemic Positioning,

Challenges, and Possibilities

Catherine L. Langford

Montené Speight

The social media campaign #BlackLivesMatter presents an ideology counter to the historical and contemporary

framing of African Americans that strips them of social value. The hashtag attempts to alter the epistemic paradigm

that exists in American discursive and material actions by drawing attention to the habitual violence against Blacks in America while infusing a positive message about the individual and communal worth of Black lives. Black citizens are not aggressive, criminal, or inconvenient in the rhetorical construction of #BlackLivesMatter; Black lives should be celebrated and protected. Although multiple counter movements have arisen in an effort to invalidate the social critiques #BlackLivesMatter present, they are not successful. The hashtag teaches auditors the Black persons have a positive presence, that violence against the Black body is news, that white privilege exists, and that colorblind rhetoric does not help bring about equality or justice.

Keywords: #BlackLivesMatter, Epistemology, Movement, Social Media, Violence Black Lives Matter has come to signify a new era of black power, black resistance and black resilience. For black folks, this is our renaissance.

Alicia Garza, #BlackLivesMatter Co-Founder1 The #BlackLivesMatter movement began following the July 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Patrisse Cullors planted the seed for the movement when she reposted a friend’s Facebook status with the hashtag. 2 That friend was Alicia Garza, who posted, “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter,” following the Zimmerman acquittal.3 After she reposted her friend’s message, Cullors asked Garza if she would like to participate in a social media campaign. Garza agreed, and the two women invited Opal Tometi to join their efforts. The three women asked friends to share stories about how #BlackLivesMatter on Tumblr and Twitter accounts they created.4 Cullors, Garza, and Tometi also began using the hashtag in their other activism efforts.

 Catherine L. Langford (Ph.D., The Pennsylvania State University) is an Associate Professor at Texas Tech University. She can be reached at katie.langford@ttu.edu.

 Montené Speight has a B.A. in Political Science from Texas Tech University. She can be reached at Mroye05@yahoo.com.

As quoted in Tre’vell Anderson, “2015 BET Experience: Black Lives Matter Takes Center Stage,” June 28, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/music/posts/la-et-ms-black-lives-matter-2015-bet-experience-20150627story.html.

Alisa Robinson, “Black Lives Matter: The Evolution of a Movement,” Occupy, March 16, 2015, http://www.occupy.com/article/black-lives-matter-evolution-movement.

Jamilah King, “#BLACKLIVESMATTER: THE EVOLUTION OF AN ICONIC HASHTAG,” Occupy, February 17, 2015, http://www.occupy.com/article/blacklivesmatter-evolution-iconic-hashtag.

As reported by King, “#BLACKLIVESMATTER.” ISSN 2161-539X (online) © 2015 Alabama Communication Association #BlackLivesMatter 79 More than a year later, following the death of Michael Brown in August of 2014, the hashtag began trending, gaining momentum after a string of violent acts by police against Black men.

Black Twitter, described by Apryl Williams and Doris Domoszlai as “a networked cultural identity,”5 drew attention to the event, critiqued police violence against African Americans and media portrayals of African Americans, and galvanized a civic justice movement. With approximately one in four Twitter users identifying as African American,6 tweets utilizing hashtags such as #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, #HandsUpDontShoot, #MikeBrown, #BlackLivesMatter, and #Ferguson went viral.7 Social media’s response to violence against African Americans attempts to challenge White perceptions of Black Americans. Critical race scholars teach us that the scripting of the Black body through slavery, black codes, Jim Crow, lynchings, poverty, and shootings coaches White society that Black lives do not matter. Previous forms of official discrimination (e.g., segregation and lynchings) have been re-scripted into other forms of material violence against Black Americans (e.g., police shootings). As critical scholars work to explicate how the repeated and public violence against Black bodies teaches society writ large how the Black body is devalued within our communities and construed as disposable,8 additional scholarship needs to explain how negative stereotypes of Black individuals can be addressed and countered. Mediated protests such as #BlackLivesMatter create a rhetorical space to challenge and to re-envision the Black body within American society.

Although social media has drawn attention to the chronic violence against African Americans—an important first step—current public discourse does not offer a proposal to end the bloodshed. Calls for “Justice for Mike Brown,” for example, form reactive responses, not prescriptive plans. Mediated protests, including hashtags, Instagram photos, and videos, juxtapose actions and ideology, drawing discursive and nonverbal attention to police transgressions. Social media also constitutes virtual communities, uniting supporters of #BlackLivesMatter, as well as critics of the movement. Social media keeps advocates and allies informed, as well as create a quick and easy vehicle through which to keep activists informed. Most importantly to this essay, however, is how social media creates rhetorical possibilities for material change.

In this essay we argue that the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag provides a rhetorical space to rescript Black bodies. We begin by discussing how the hashtag can be considered a grassroots movement. We next discuss counter movements that seek to invalidate the #BlackLivesMatter movement. We conclude by considering what we learn from the movement.

Apryl Williams and Doris Domoszlai, “#BlackTwitter: A Networked Cultural Identity,” Harmony Institute, August 6, 2013, http://harmony-institute.org/therippleeffect/2013/08/06/blacktwitter-a-networked-cultural-identity/.

Aaron Smith, “African Americans and Technology Use: A Demographic Portrait,” Pew Research Center, January 6, 2014, http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/01/06/african-americans-and-technology-use/.

See Howard Koplowitz, “#IfTheyGunnedMeDown: Mike Brown Shooting Spurs Powerful Twitter Hashtag On Black Youths’ Portrayal in Media,” International Business Times, August 11, 2014, http://www.ibtimes.com /iftheygunnedmedown-mike-brown-shooting-spurs-powerful-twitter-hashtag-black-youths-1654926. See also Samantha Storey, “Outrage Over Teenager’s Death Erupts on Social Media,” New York Times, August 11, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/12/us/mike-brown-shooting-social-media.html.

Ronald L. Jackson, II, Scripting the Black Masculine Body: Identity, Discourse, and Racial Politics in Popular Media (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2006).

80 Langford & Speight #BlackLivesMatter as a Movement Within a time span of a couple of years, #BlackLivesMatter evolved from a hashtag into a movement. As a slogan, #BlackLivesMatter can be used in a wide variety of contexts and in a variety of ways. Activists proclaim it in chants, signs, videos, photos, and graffiti. Celebrities use it, mainstream media covers it, and churches call their congregants to participate in it. Language specialists even recognize the phrase as a movement. When they use the hashtag, people identify with the movement and critique social and institutional practices. When they engage in direct action under the banner of the hashtag, people agitate in their local communities for social and political change.

Activists organize protests, demonstrations, die-ins, teach-ins, and other acts of resistance in the name of #BlackLivesMatter, opposing the treatment of African Americans by law enforcement. In August of 2014 activists arranged a Black Lives Matter ride to Ferguson to support protest efforts by the local community. 9 Ferguson protests were just the beginning for activists, however, with protestors participating in close to 900 #BlackLivesMatter marches, protests, and demonstrations worldwide between July 2014 and June 2015.10 Although most have been general demonstrations, others have been in honor of specific persons killed by police. For example, on December 13, 2014 protesters staged a die-in during a march in Chicago and on December 20, 2014 thousands of protesters filled the Mall of America.11 In January of 2015, a group of clergy members staged a die-in in a Capitol Hill building cafeteria, exclaiming “Black Lives Matter” before falling to the floor.12 Although most protests have sought communal recognition of movement concerns, others have been directed toward educating communities. During teachins at universities and colleges throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, some campuses discussed how to move forward following Ferguson,13 others considered how disciplines and curriculum could address diversity issues,14 and yet others deliberated about strategies to advance social justice for Black Americans.15 #BlackLivesMatter activists do not limit their activism to their own cause, but participate in sympathy strikes regarding a wide variety of concerns that impact Black communities. For example, #BlackLivesMatter supporters took part in the April 15, 2015 fast food strike seeking increased pay for fast food workers16 and medical school students Darnell L. Moore and Patrisse Cullors, “5 Ways to Never Forget Ferguson—and Deliver Real Justice for Michael Brown,” The Guardian, September 4, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/04/never-forgetferguson-justice-for-michael-brown.

Alisa Robinson, “At Least 898 Black Lives Matter Demonstrations Have Been Held in the Last 326 Days,” Elephrame, June 2, 2015, https://elephrame.com/textbook/protests.

“‘Black Lives Matter’ Protests,” CNN, February 4, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2014/12/13/us/gallery/black-livesmatter-protests/index.html.

Wesley Lowery, “‘Black Lives Matter’ Protestors Stage ‘Die-in” in Capitol Hill Cafeteria,” The Washington Post, January 21, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2015/01/21/black-lives-matter-protestersstage-die-in-in-capitol-hill-cafeteria/.

See “A Teach-in: Moving from Fear to Flourishing After Ferguson,” Lutheran Theological Seminary, December 16, 2014, http://ltsp.edu/BlackLivesMatter.

Jim Norrena, “Black Lives Matter Teach-In Highlights CCA’s Commitment to Diversity,” California College of the Arts, March 12, 2015, https://www.cca.edu/news/2015/03/12/black-lives-matter-teach-highlights-ccascommitment-diversity.

“Black Lives Matter Teach-In,” Oxford’s Wadham College, March 4, 2015, https://www.facebook.com/events /722021934583337.

Steven Greenhouse, “Movement to Increase McDonald’s Minimum Wage Broadens Its Tactics,” The New York Times, March 30, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/31/business/movement-to-increase-mcdonalds-minimumwage-broadens-its-tactics.html?_r=0.

#BlackLivesMatter 81 organized a “White Coats for Black Lives” day.17 Activists used the slogan in acts of vandalism as well. Following the mass killing of worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Caroline on June 17, 2015, protesters sprayed “Black Lies Matter” in all caps on monuments commemorating Confederate leaders and soldiers in half a dozen states. 18 As a slogan, #BlackLivesMatter is flexible enough to be deployed in different contexts and by different individuals.

Celebrities—primarily musicians and athletes—use #BlackLivesMatter both directly and indirectly as a form of political protest or to identify with the Black community. Musicians Kayne West, Prince, and Jay Z and Beyoncé have used the phrase or been associated with the movement. West tweeted, “600,000 people rallied for justice on Dec. 13th #blacklivesmatter,” in December 2014 to 11 million of his followers.19 Within three days West’s tweet was favorited almost 33,000 times and re-tweeted more than 22,000 times.20 During the Grammy Awards Prince declared, “Albums still matter. Like books and black lives, they still matter.”21 Although Jay Z and Beyoncé have not said anything about the movement, news sources report them to have donated “tens of thousands” of dollars to the movement.22 Athletes have used the sport arena to support the movement. The University of California-Berkeley women’s basketball team showed up to play in homemade t-shirts with the names of Black victims of police brutality on the front and #BlackLivesMatter on the back.23 Even when athletes do not identify themselves with the #BlackLivesMatter movement overtly, their actions have been characterized as a part of it (e.g., Andrew Hawkins of the Cleveland Browns wearing a “Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford” t-shirt; member of the Oregon men’s basketball team offering the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture; and NBA players including LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kobe Bryant wearing “I Can’t Breath” t-shirts).24 Celebrities have pre-existing platforms from which to communicate the movement message—be that Twitter followings, awards shows, sports arenas, public interviews, or news reports. Unlike most uses of the phrase within the movement, celebrity use of the phrase does not call others into action but puts on public display their ideological commitment. Celebrities undergird the pathetic appeal of the movement with the ethos their credibility affords.

Although traditional Black media cannot respond with the speed and variety of responses that social media can, traditional Black media (including Ebony and Vibe) has covered the origin of the movement, current activism focus, and controversies surrounding the movement. Black media does not try to assume a nonbiased position, however. These outlets identify themselves as Khury Petersen-Smith, “Black Lives Matter: A New Movement Takes Shape,” International Socialist Review 96 (Spring 2015), http://isreview.org/issue/96/black-lives-matter.

“‘Black Lives Matter’ Painted on Confederate Monuments in Several States,” Alabama.com, June 26, 2015, http://www.al.com/news/index.ssf/2015/06/black_lives_matter_painted_on.html.

BET-Staff, “Kayne West Supports Black Lives Matter Protests With Tweet,” BET, December 16, 2014, http://www.bet.com/news/music/2014/12/16/kanye-west-supports-black-lives-matter-protests-with-tweet.html.

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