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How #BlackLivesMatter became a worldwide rallying cry

#BlackLivesMatter jumped from the keyboard to the streets as it was used to organize die-ins, rallies and calls for police reform. It has been called a digital civil rights movement, but it has not capped the growing list of African-American deaths at the hands of police.

But has it done more than create armchair activists?

University of Michigan senior Bria Graham, 22, stands with tape over her mouth that reads '#BlackWomenMatter.' She is just one activist in the global #BlackLivesMatter movement to combat police violence against black people. (Patrick Record/The Ann Arbor News/AP)

Activist Alicia Garza felt physically sick to her stomach when George Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighbourhood watch volunteer, was acquitted of murder in July 2013 for the shooting of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin in a gated community in Florida.

Garza, then 32, used Facebook as an outlet for her grief and frustration in a now-famous post in which she wrote "black lives matter." Joined by two other rights activists who added the hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter was born.

It wasn't until Michael Brown, another unarmed black man, was shot and killed by a white police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson more than a year later that the hashtag became an international phenomenon.

#BlackLivesMatter peaked on Twitter on Nov. 24, 2014 when it was announced that a grand jury had declined to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who had shot and killed Brown following a confrontation.

Organizing by hashtag

In the weeks and months that followed, the movement jumped from the keyboard to the streets with die-ins and rallies, as well as calls for police body cameras and changes to police training.

Protesters stage a 'die-in' to chant 'Black Lives Matter' during a demonstration at a mall in New York State on Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014 - one of the busiest holiday shopping days of the year. (Patrick Dodson/The Daily Gazette/AP)

In the process, #BlackLivesMatter became the touchstone for a new generation of voices that challenged the organizational structure of civil rights activists of the previous generation, says Yohuru Williams, a history and black studies professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

 I want to know that if I'm pulled over by the police that there is not a chance of me becoming the next hashtag.- Toronto human rights activist Akio Maroon

"We are looking at a responsive, organic reaction to police violence," Williams says, referring to the fact that, as with the Arab Spring uprising, #BlackLivesMatter connected like-minded people through social media.

"But it's somewhat problematic," he goes on. "It's still a relatively small number of people on the ground who are doing the work and a lot of people remain armchair activists."

From clicktivism to activism

#BlackLivesMatter was predicated on the populist logic of Silicon Valley — that anyone with an idea can harness communications technology to start a global social movement.

Twitter users in the Middle East have also deployed these hashtags — like #BlackLivesMatter, #ICantBreathe (a reference to the death of Eric Garner by an NYPD chokehold) and #Ferguson — to show their solidarity.

#HandsUpDontShoot was another hashtag that galvanized the new digital civil rights movement.

But while the movement seems to have sustained its energy, it has not capped the growing list of black citizens killed by the police in the U.S.

Most recently, several black women in the U.S. have died while in police custody, including Sandra Bland, sparking the hashtag #BlackWomenMatter. But their cases haven't always sparked the same outpouring of media attention.

In Ferguson, renewed violence broke out this week during events to mark the one-year anniversary of Brown's death. Among other things, it showed the frustration of many young African-Americans who have not seen their relationship with police improve in the last year.

"There have been all these incidents, despite the body cams, despite the dashboard video, despite the national conversation, these incidents continue to play out," Williams said.

Another sign of this frustration came when Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders was booted off stage during a campaign rally last week by #BlackLivesMatter members demanding he focus more on racial equality.

 
Officers arrest a protester Monday night in Ferguson. Dozens of protesters were arrested Monday night, and almost 60 protesters were arrested earlier in the day. (Jeff Roberson/Associated Press)

The event sparked a wave of backlash against #BlackLivesMatters protesters and discord within the movement.

The controversy caused Garza to pause her vacation and re-enter the online fray, to encourage people to take few deep breaths and focus.

"We didn't start the movement. We are contributors to it," she wrote on Facebook on Monday. "We embrace a diversity of tactics and strategies."

According to its website, #BlackLivesMatter's national demands are specifically related to police reform, including calling for the arrest of Darren Wilson, police training and the release of the names of all officers involved in killing black people within the last five years.

However, its sense of itself as just one voice among many may prove problematic for a movement that lacks a central body.

"You have to think about the larger ask, and that is hard for a movement whose strength has been local," says Williams. "It will be a sticking point for younger activists," who, like those in Ferguson this week, "are coming together to say 'We're not going to leave until we see some real change.'"

'Shout as loud as we can'

Akio Maroon is a community organizer and human rights activist with The Network for the Elimination of Police Violence in Toronto. She says the #BlackLivesMatter unified people across the border over police brutality.

"Ending police violence is not just an American thing," she says. 

"Toronto can be more unified in how we tackle racial profiling, carding and police-sanctioned violence," Maroon argues, pointing to Andrew Loku and Jermain Carby as two examples of unarmed black men killed in Canada by police in the last year.

Black Lives Matter is doing a great job at keeping the attention focused on where it needs to be, Maroon says.

But, she says, there are many "arms and legs and tentacles" working for one cause. 

"We need to shout as loud as we can. I want to know that if I'm pulled over by the police that there is not a chance of me becoming the next hashtag."

Residents, who marched from west Baltimore to City Hall, shout 'Black Lives Matter' while protesting the death of Freddie Gray, in Baltimore, Maryland April 30, 2015. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

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