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In the summer of 2020, following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the movement for Black lives galvanized racial justice efforts nationwide, quickly becoming what scholars claim to be the largest movement in American history. Millions around the U.S. participated in protests to combat violence and systemic racism toward Black Americans during what became known as the "summer of racial reckoning."
But three years removed from that groundswell, and a decade since its inception following the killing of Trayvon Martin, many Black Lives Matter chapter leaders are themselves reckoning with how much has changed and how much has stayed the same.
“There haven't been improvements for Black Americans,” JaMae Rooks, co-director of the Atlanta Chapter of Black Lives Matter, told Yahoo News. “If anything, there have been symbolic gestures, such as making Juneteenth a federal holiday, to give people the illusion that things are forward moving.”
New data shows that support for the movement more broadly has plummeted in recent years. According to a Pew Research Center survey published earlier this month, about half of U.S. adults, or 51%, said they support the BLM movement compared to 67% three years ago.
Locally, many chapter leaders say that after several years of successive policies that prioritized the safety and well-being of Black Americans failed to become law following the initial wave of protests in 2020, burnout and exhaustion set in, which made it even harder to motivate community members to keep fighting for change that continually failed to materialize.
But for some, the progress of the movement can’t be quantified over just a few years.
“Progress can be hard to measure sometimes, especially over such a spread of time and geography,” Michael Howson, organizing fellow for the Black Lives Matter Alliance Broward organization in Florida, told Yahoo News. “The key is the framework through which one approaches the work. For us this is the continuation of a long term struggle that began before we were born and must continue for us to achieve any victories.”
BLM public controversy
Critics of the movement tie its drop in support to the public controversy leveled against the organization in late 2020 over the decision-making of the national organization’s leaders. In this instance, one of the organization’s co-founders, Patrisse Cullors, was accused of using a portion of the $90 million raised in the summer of 2020 for her own personal benefit, including the purchase of a $6 million property in L.A., while several chapters complained of receiving no financial support for their work in the community.
Several chapters within the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation wrote a letter during this time voicing concerns about financial transparency, eventually breaking away as they lost faith in the organization. Families of some of the victims of police violence also accused the organization of profiting from their loved one’s death, but not financially supporting the families in return.
Cullors later resigned from the organization after admitting there was no framework in place to deal with the influx of cash and explained the purchases were an investment in the foundation. For many critics, however, the damage was already done.
Cullors declined Yahoo News’ request for comment and the foundation did not return Yahoo News’ request for comment.
Future of the movement
Today, the organization, which is led by a board of directors, acts as a decentralized network of local-based chapters. There are at least 20 chapters under the global network and at least 17 breakaway chapters that act in loose collaboration with the organization.
Evan Auguste, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston and an expert in Black liberation psychology, believes that while support for BLM continues to drop, that doesn’t mean racial justice is unattainable.
“While BLM represented the largest formal movement of the day, it should not and does not stand in for the diversity of collective visioning that we have for Black people within this nation and beyond,” Auguste told Yahoo News in an email.
Yahoo News reached out to more than a dozen Black Lives Matter chapters across the country to best understand, from their perspective, where the movement stands today, what happened to the energy from three years prior and what’s next.
Here are what leaders from six BLM chapters had to say:
Black Lives Matter Atlanta
JaMae Rooks, member
The energy around Black Lives Matter has changed significantly when you compare it to the summer of 2020. I believe it is partially due to the lack of progress being seen. It doesn't matter what type of work you do, if there isn't any seen or felt progress, people lose their momentum and drive to continue the fight. I also believe that people joined the movement because it was what was trending at the time. … But just because you don't see the finish line right now, doesn't mean that you don't complete the race.
Black Lives Matter Paterson (New Jersey)
Zellie Thomas, chapter leader
Racial inequality isn’t accidental, it is intentional and systemic. So while there has been an increased focus to improve racial disparities, there has also been an increased effort to stop any such improvements. The effectiveness of the movement can be seen in the backlash it has been receiving. It’s so effective they are banning books from schools, prisons and public libraries and censoring discussions about race and racism in schools. Learning about racial injustice only leads to repairing harm and reparations for Black Americans.
Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward County (Florida)*
Michael Howson, organizing fellow
We've successfully removed several relics of the Confederacy and their racist ideology in Broward, we fought for the creation and now sit as the Chair of the Broward County Police and Criminal Justice Review Board, a first in the county. Our compatriots in Miami and Tampa and other places have had similar successes. … What we do and achieve individually may seem only drops, but together we are a deluge of resistance and change upon the blood stained schema of the nation.
Black Lives Matter can only die if Black and brown people give up on it or allow white people to tell us whether or not it's good.
Black Lives Matter Louisville*
Chanelle Helm, Strategic Core Lead Organizer
The biggest change of the BLM space now is that it has evolved – and it should. As grassroots organizers, our movements will always shift and we have to be prepared for pivot. We have to pause and move with the movement. For some, that looks like scaling up – building out their chapters and spaces to hold a better, larger structure of movement work. For others, that looks like shifting movement goals and organizing campaigns.
There are some, like BLM Louisville, who are moving the same work but with more accessibility to our communities. We've developed Mutual Aid spaces that take the place of typical service organizing, support legislative agendas, slates or policies so that they build a changing, more intersectional but transformative narrative about the injustices Black and Brown communities live in.
The biggest challenge for any Black or Brown movement space is beating the white supremacist narratives to delegitimize us. It's frustrating but other white movement spaces don't get these types of attacks. They get support.
Black Lives Matter Sacramento*
Tanya Faison, founder
We're fighting the system. It's not going to be a quick and easy fight and there's not going to be one thing that fixes it all, and there's not gonna be one organization that makes all the changes that are needed. We need people power. There is a change in the support, but it's not because of a lack of interest, it's more so a lack of people seeing that they’re making an impact. And I understand completely when that impact doesn't feel seen and then you start losing motivation.
Black Lives Matter St. Paul/Minneapolis*
Todd Gramenz, chapter leader
I would say it’s gotten worse since we’ve stood up against this oppression because we haven’t gotten the effective change in regards to policy change on a national level or a local level in all municipalities here in the U.S.
Here in Minnesota, with Philando Castile being killed, that really took a lot out of our community — then after George Floyd we thought the country would respond with swift legislation and it never happened. … Where is this real Black liberation? Look what happened to the Black Panther Party and NWA — we’re in the phase of dismantling. Our culture needs to be embraced and we need to have real conversations. Our lack of leadership at a national level has completely eradicated the kind of influence we used to have at a national level. I’m rooted in real change. While we may see hopelessness, we are working underneath.
*These groups are not affiliated with the BLM Global Foundation but hold many of the same values and principles.