Editor’s note: This is an explanation from the Israel Action Network about the official and unofficial positions of Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives and how their positions on Israel and the Palestinians have evolved. The Israel Action Network is part of the Jewish Federations of North America.
What is Black Lives Matter?
Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a non-centralized grassroots social justice movement organized by regional chapters urging society to value Black lives and recognize their marginalization.
The now international movement originated in America in 2013 following George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the death of Black teen Trayvon Martin. As details of the shooting unfolded, two Black and LGBTQ social justice leaders, Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors, created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter in response to Trayvon Martin’s death. The hashtag quickly spread and birthed a 21st century millennial-driven civil rights movement. Decentralized, non-hierarchical and tech-savvy, BLM differs in structure from past American civil rights groups.
Differences within BLM
Every local chapter (including within those within the same city) have their own unique chapters of BLM, characterized by micro-regional expressions of activism: some prefer protests, and some prefer direct action strategies, like shutting down public highways. For instance, west coast BLM leader Patrisse Cullors has endorsed the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement and has participated in a “Black for Palestine” delegation to the Palestinian Territories. On the other end of the spectrum is a group called “Campaign Zero.” Unlike BLM’s more unpredictable west coast chapters and sub-groups, Campaign Zero does support engagement with the political system and one of its leaders, DeRay Mckesson, served as a mayoral candidate in Baltimore.
Recently, divides between BLM chapters have become more apparent. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May of 2020 and the recent protests condemning police brutality, BLM chapters have taken different approaches to dealing with this important issue. For instance, Campaign Zero has formulated a plan to institute eight major changes to police entities that are projected to decrease police-caused deaths by at least 70%. Some BLM chapters, however, are pushing back against this initiative by deeming it not enough of a radical change. This illustrates clearly that BLM is an overarching movement which contains many different identities.
How is BLM Different from the Movement for Black Lives?
On August 1, 2016, the Movement for Black Lives (MBL) released a national platform claiming to represent the views of over 50 organizations, with 29 of them listed as part of the “United Front,” which is the list of signatories that are also member organizations. This list includes the organization Black Lives Matter Network (BLMN), which is the decentralized grassroots social justice organization most closely associated with Black Lives Matter.
The document included 40 policy suggestions, divided into six categories, which range from economic policies to matters relating to the criminal justice system, and called for the suspension of American military aid to Israel. Neither the Movement for Black Lives nor the Black Lives Matter Network has formally endorsed BDS. The 2016 MBL document is now no longer available on its website.
It is critical we understand that Black Lives Matter is not necessarily represented in its entirety by the Movement for Black Lives platform or by the Black Lives Matter Network – there are other nationally focused groups that take a different approach and are sometimes in disagreement with other segments of BLM.
How is BLM intertwined with the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?
On August 19, 2014, Michael Brown was fatally shot by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO. Protests, both peaceful and violent, ensued, lasting for months at a time. Simultaneously, Israel was in the midst of Operation Protective Edge with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. As protesters in Ferguson were being tear-gassed by police, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza started tweeting at Ferguson protesters, advising them to insulate themselves from tear gas and using the hashtag #Ferguson. This ignited the “From Ferguson to Palestine” call to action that many activists continue to invoke today.
Very quickly, Black and Palestinian activists began to use social media as a tool to express support and solidarity with each other. This confluence of events created the perfect storm for collaboration and increased kinship between the groups. Those employing the “Black for Palestine” effort believe that Black Americans and Palestinians are similar victims of repressive, armed, and largely white colonialist governments. Generally speaking, both believe that their movements are perceived to be illegitimate by outsiders and share a narrative of dehumanization, oppression, and resilience. The sense of shared experience between both peoples has coalesced into an intentional coupling and conflating of their narratives.
In 2015, over a thousand Black activists and organizations signed a “Black Solidarity Statement with Palestine” endorsing BDS. This occurred around the same time that Patrisse Cullors opted to endorse the BDS movement. A select group of Black Lives Matter activists and West Bank Palestinians have travelled across the Atlantic to visit one another and strengthen their ties. It must again be stated that this document does not reflect the views of all BLM chapters or activists. There are many activists that have very little knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and/or are not affiliated with the BDS movement.