On August 21st 2016, Black Lives Matter activists released a 10-point plan, named Campaign Zero, which proposed policies for tackling police violence and misconduct. Since 2013, the movement has gained extensive media attention for many issues faced by black Americans, and, in 2016, it helped shape the policy agendas of the Democratic presidential primary candidates. The release of a manifesto may suggest that the movement is now attempting to transform its media attention into policy success.
Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a new social movement. Unlike pressure groups, which are generally formal organisations, with clear leaders, specific aims, and often fee-paying members, social movements are large, loose networks of people and organisations that wish to make significant, broadly similar changes to society. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was coined in 2013 after George Zimmerman, the shooter of a young black man, Treyvon Martin, was acquitted of second-degree murder. The hashtag then went on to grow into a major social movement with various chapters, organised events, and activities springing up across the US. The movement, as a whole, is not a centralised grouping and has no official hierarchy. BLM is concerned with all aspects of black life, not just criminal injustice and the deaths of black people at the hands of the police and “vigilantes”. According to the movement’s main website, BLM activists are fighting for equal rights for all black people – including women, gay men and women, transgender men and women, the disabled, children, and the elderly, in the US and internationally. Like most new social movements, the BLM movement relies heavily upon direct action.
The Black Lives Matter movement is an interesting example when writing about the factors affecting pressure group success. If success is viewed as raising awareness, the movement has certainly ensured that some of the issues facing black Americans continue to be in the media spotlight. Through their mass following, and use of direct action, social movements can be extremely effective at grabbing the nation’s attention. However, translating this attention into political reform can prove to be difficult. Members of the ‘Occupy’ movement, which arose out of the 2008 financial crisis, drew considerable media attention through their 2011 anti-capitalist protests of Wall Street. The movement influenced the wider political agenda, and partly as result, many Democrats continue to criticise income inequality. However, the movement found it difficult to turn their broad goals into concrete change. In terms of legal justice, the BLM movement has similarly had little success to date. Of the several high profile police shootings protested, there have been no major convictions. The movement has been criticised for being heavy on protest and light on policy. However, the release of a manifesto containing specific, achievable proposals may help the movement to go on to have greater success than Occupy. The BLM movement is also interesting when writing about why social movements and pressure groups are particularly influential in US politics. The US is an extremely large, and diverse country, yet it is dominated by only two ‘big tent’ parties that can often overlook minority concerns. As a result, pressure groups and social movements, like BLM, tend to play a vital role in bringing issues to the parties’ attention. After BLM activists criticised the 2016 presidential primary candidates’ policies on race and criminal justice reform, the two leading Democratic candidates made swift changes to their platforms. Bernie Sanders released a comprehensive justice reform plan to tackle police violence and excessive jail sentencing. Hillary Clinton publically stated that there are issues with mass incarceration and the criminal justice system, and pledged to introduce new national standards for policing. As such, it is clear that groups speaking on behalf of a large section of a party’s electorate can have a demonstrable impact.