Social Movement Perspective: Understanding Black Lives Matter and the #Tally19

Sociologists are interested in the interplay between structure and agency. While individuals theoretically have the agency to make the choices they want, these choices are constrained by factors out of their control, such as their social class, or social location. Social movements scholars, in particular, are interested in the agency that comes into play when organizing: why individuals join a movement, why attrition occurs within a movement, how repression can affect who participates in movements. Social movement scholars analyze how organizers try to affect change, as well as how, in this case, state actors respond to the claims and actions of challengers. By looking at existing literature on social movements, we can further understand contemporary social movements and attempts to repress them, as well as possible solutions. 

#BlackLivesMatter began as an online campaign in response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal for murdering Trayvon Martin. The movement quickly evolved into a national grassroots social movement that is known for its protests against unjust killings of Black Americans. Since Michael Brown’s death at the hands of Darren Wilson, Black Lives Matter has increasingly been understood as a movement against police brutality. This year, Black Lives Matter has been very salient. Citizens have come out in force to protest the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Christian Cooper, and George Floyd, as well as the shooting of Jacob Blake – all at the hands of law enforcement officers).

What seems to be missing in the coverage and discussions of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, however, are the actions in smaller cities and towns and the details of activists’ and social movement organizations’ (SMOs’) goals. Analyzing what happens in localities is extraordinarily important since, more often than not, social and political change is local. In this post, we use social movement theory to understand the protests in Tallahassee, FL, and the tactics that have been used to suppress movement activity.

The state responds to activists differently, depending on their ties with political elites and the threats posed by challengers. Social movement scholars find that states do not simply respond to real threats, such as violence against people and property, but also symbolic threats that cast doubt on their legitimacy. One tactic that state actors can use is “channeling,” in which they try to channel activism into more structured and less confrontational forms. There are a variety of ways that state actors can engage in channeling, including simple ways such as enforcing bureaucratic mechanisms such as permitting. Arguably, we can see this tactic in play in Tallahassee. Following a protest at which a gun was pulled on activists, law enforcement said that citizens would no longer be able to march in the streets unless they paid for a permit to do so. The permit requires proof of an (at least) $1 million liability insurance policy, among other conditions. Requiring a permit to march in the streets hinders the disruption created by protests, thus taking attention away from the protests and the reasons for the protests.  

Of course, activists are not helpless in this situation – and this is what social movement scholars study. How do citizens choose to engage the power structure in their efforts to effect change?

An obvious way to challenge the state is to risk arrest and refuse to comply. Activists frequently take this approach with the hope that arrests and media coverage will bring additional attention to their cause. This is a tactic the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King Jr. frequently used to advocate for the rights of African Americans in the South. We see this in Tallahassee as well. Some of the activists ignored the mandate and marched anyway. Specifically, on Saturday, September 5th, the Tallahassee Police Department arrested 19 of the approximately 150 people protesting the grand jury’s failure to indict any officers involved in the three local deaths. 15 protesters were arrested on-site, and 4 had warrants issued for their arrest the following week. These individuals popularly became known as the #Tally19.

While the number of arrests seems relatively small, movement scholars find that numbers aren’t everything. States can effectively quash protests by tailoring repressive strategies to the exigencies of a locality. For example, arresting about 10% of present protesters can be a particularly effective form of repression in cities like Tallahassee, where there is less of an activist infrastructure than in larger cities. The conditions of bail for these protesters in combination with the city’s policies for protests, essentially prohibiting those arrested from attending protests until at least their arraignment. This has dramatically cut down the number of citizens in Tallahassee’s streets.

State level policies matter as well. There are two particular state mechanisms that are likely making challengers think twice about protesting in Florida. First, there is the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBOR). This statute shields law enforcement officers from investigation and prosecution arising from conduct during the performance of their duties, among other things. Florida is one of a handful of states that has codified a LEOBOR. Second, on September 21st, Governor DeSantis proposed the Combatting Violence, Disorder, and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act, which he intends to bring to a vote during a one-day session in November usually reserved for swearing in new state senators and representatives. The legislation would create new criminal offences for attending or organizing “disorderly” gatherings or protests, and explicitly prevent substantive cuts to police funding. Additionally, the proposed act states that anyone arrested for participating in a “violent or disorderly assembly,” would be stripped of state benefits, be denied bail until their first court appearance, and potentially be convicted as a felon. In the state of Florida felons cannot vote until they have served their time and paid an outstanding fees and/or restitution.  

Tallahassee activists are caught in a conundrum. The most effective forms of protest may be criminalized, thus diminishing the availability of solutions that activists can implement. The local and national support that Tallahassee activists have garnered may have a limited effect due to the chaotic and overwhelming nature of the current political climate.

Arguably, there are no good ways to respond. For example, activists could continue protesting at locations that would be willing to host protests. However, in doing so activists lose the ability to hold protests in politically strategic locations, and, with it, their ability to been seen and heard by those with power. Organizers can also continue social media campaigns to keep their efforts visible, but potential supporters are inundated with social media posts covering COVID-19, the 2020 election, and personal hardships that make it more difficult to engage. Activists could also increase their focus on the legislative arena; however, in Tallahassee and across the country activists have been pursuing changes to the funding and structure of police departments for years with little movement. A common legislative solution activists pursue is the implementation of CPACs (Civilian Police Accountability Councils), which in Florida would be composed of elected officials who oversee local policing to the extent allowable by LEOBOR. In Tallahassee, activists have spoken at several City Commission meetings arguing for a CPAC, and the Commission instead approved a review board that can make recommendations in incidents of misconduct but do not have any clear ability to hold law enforcement officers accountable.  

Social movement scholars focus on how challengers take on powerholders and analyze when and why they win. More importantly, movement scholars show that the choices of activists are often constrained by the state. We see this clearly in Tallahassee. While the costs associated with protesting have gone up significantly, the visibility garnered as a result of this state repression has catapulted the #Tally19 to nation-wide news. Although channeling has been widely effective in Tallahassee and paused current protests, it also gave rise to new members and new visibility within local organizing in Tallahassee. The shift from extra-institutional organizing in favor of working within institutions was a constrained choice, but one that activists how will lead to some semblance of change within the community.

Jessi Grace is a Ph.D. candidate currently researching sexuality and social movements at Florida State University. You can find more from Jessi here.

Caitria DeLucchi is a Ph.D. student currently studying gender and social movements at Florida State University. You can find more from Caitria here.

The feature image is from Pexels.

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