On the evening of March 6 in Madison, Wis., a white police officer, Matt Kenney, shot and killed Tony Robinson, a 19-year-old biracial teen, after he was seen behaving erratically, jumping in front of cars on a residential street and assaulting a person outside of a restaurant.
Shortly after his death, hundreds of people gathered on the streets and in the hallways of City Hall, chanting a single phrase: “black lives matter.”
“Of course we mobilized around it, there were so many immediate questions,” said Brandi Grayson, co-founder of the Madison-based Young Gifted and Black Coalition.
After the shooting, Grayson reached out to the leaders of #BlackLivesMatter, a social-media movement co-founded by Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza, who live in California, and Opal Tometi, who lives in Brooklyn. The three friends, all black women, have established themselves as advisers to local advocates protesting alleged police brutality and other forms of interracial violence.
Madison is one of 23 cities in #BlackLivesMatter’s growing network, including Oakland, Calif. and Kalamazoo, Mich., where rallies against police shootings of unarmed blacks have erupted in recent months. “History tells us that black folks are killed disproportionately [by police officers] than white folks,” Cullors said. “We are not just a protest movement, we are trying to build a new team of black leaders.”
Cullors first created the hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter, on Facebook as a reaction to an emotional post Garza wrote about the acquittal of George Zimmerman in July 2013. #BlackLivesMatter Tumblr and Twitter accounts soon followed.
The hashtag trended after the police shooting of Michael Brown and as people from around the country traveled to Ferguson, Mo. to protest the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the officer responsible for Brown’s death. BlackLivesMatter.com went up in October, and a set of “guiding principles” is in the works. The original hashtag continues to thrive online.
The founders of #BlackLivesMatter are adamant that they don’t attempt to dictate how street-level activists respond in the wake of police shootings. “We want to strengthen and support a vibrant black liberation movement in this country,” Garza said. “Which means building a bigger base of people who support black liberation.”
But the founders are unwavering in their focus. After a white 46-year-old atheist shot and killed a young Muslim couple and the 19-year-old sister of the bride last month in Chapel Hill, N.C., the hashtag, #MuslimLivesMatter, began to trend. #BlackLivesMatter disapproved, and spoke out against copycat slogans at the South by Southwest festival earlier this week. “It takes away from the conversation about anti-black racism, which is very important,” Cullors said.
Not everyone agrees. During a press conference three days after the shooting, Tony Robinson’s uncle, Turin Carter, told reporters, "I encourage everybody to show support regardless of race because this is truly a universal issue…. We don't want to stop at just 'black lives matter,' because all lives matter." He later elaborated: “America needs to accept, and we as black people need to accept, the fact that when a black baby boy is murdered, black Americans are not the only demographic who are adversely affected.”
Despite Carter’s request to expand the message, the chants that “black lives matter” continued.
“This is bigger than Tony,” said Cullors.