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Changing Hearts and Laws: The Political Efficacy of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement


The last three years on Twitter have been dominated by the growing import and presence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, an “international activist movement that campaigns against the [structural] violence towards black people,” focusing heavily on racial violence committed by police forces across the country in the last few months. The movement developed in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s murderer. Since then, the campaign has expanded into other arenas of intersectional advocacy—Black lives in the LGBTQ+ spaces,  Black women, and the lives of disabled Black people. This movement, as nebulous as it is—with as many voices as there are Twitter users—has become a lightning rod for commendations and criticisms. Within this storm of chatter, one thing is certain: The #BlackLivesMatter movement is much more than an ephemeral cultural phenomenon.

Earlier this year, in a “quasi-private meeting with activists from the #BlackLivesMatter movement,” Hillary Clinton offered her blunt view on the nature of social progress: “I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.” Perhaps she has a point. Is it possible to change people’s hearts, or do laws exist because it is impossible to change people’s hearts and societies must instead act outside the realm of emotion? This movement—which was started as a hashtag on Twitter by three Black women, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors—negates the difference between individuals and the law, as it seeks to change both concomitantly, demanding them both to change based on the narratives of Black Americans and the demands and actions from the activists within the movement.

"One thing is certain: The #BlackLivesMatter movement is much more than an ephemeral cultural phenomenon."

In order to effect these changes on the two levels of institution, the heart and the law, the movement engages its characteristically powerful grassroots members through storytelling on social media. Changing people’s hearts—that is, their internalized views on the intersections of race and other identities—begins with open dialogue and heavy emphasis on lived experiences within systems of oppression that exist to subordinate lives through virulent and insidious white supremacy. A quick search of the #BlackLivesMatter tag on Twitter shows thousands and thousands of tweets, which each echo similar sentiments about the mounting struggles of surviving in a system that was not designed for their success or existence. These are not calls into the void of Twitter; they are heavy messages that scream: “Our existences are not singular and we will never stop our progression towards justice.” The commingling of so many voices is a powerful statement that from individuality comes commonality and strength. It is this mixing that creates the formidable presence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, both on various social media platforms and in the real world. The cries of the many are able to drown out the droning of those who are in vitriolic opposition to the movement; their presence is felt but swiftly dealt with in swift flurries of replies that repudiate any arguments against with lightning speed. Furthermore, deconstruction of the typical social movement bureaucratic scheme in favor of decentralized nebulosity allows each voice to resonate hundreds of times as each individual activist—each a leader just by speaking out and sharing such personal stories—retweets and replies to hundreds of other users, increasing exponentially the web of communication and sharing voices and unique experiences with other users all over the world. This form of constant two-way communication sheds light upon the racial inequalities that are so ubiquitous today. Not only do they add to the common narrative of all people of color in the US, but they also enlighten the uninformed on the existence of these issues. To speak out is to spread information and possibly change hearts in the process.

These hyper-public dialogues on race in the US are shifting cultural paradigms on how and where it is deemed okay to speak about racial issues. Rather than shouting or typing into nothingness, those involved in the movement are shouting to anyone who will listen—and even to some who adamantly won’t. The extreme emotionality of sharing such personal stories of violent racism, from daily microaggressions to the grandiose policies of institutionalized racial injustice, creates a charged atmosphere of paradoxically commanding vulnerability. The realizations of these dialogues in the real world come in the form of the protests that burst forth on college campuses, at city halls, and even in the middle of major highways. Twitter users turn into activists, demonstrators, and protesters that call for effective change from legislators. The hashtag activism, along with the protests, die-ins, and other forms of direct action tactics, differentiates this contemporary movement from prior movements that stressed church involvement, Democratic Party loyalty, and respectability politics. The tactics utilized by this amorphous group are disruptive to the point of perfection. They force those in power to become uncomfortable with the state of affairs—not always the state of rampant racial injustice, but with the state of disruption—and act or respond in some way. This, in many ways, is different from the tactics of the movement’s predecessors: different, but wholly effective. Its list of accomplishments is growing as more and more politicians listen to the lived experiences of Black people and accept the goals and methodologies of the movement. Thus, the heart does not only merge with the law, but the changes in hearts are precipitating changes in laws and institutions.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement has swept across the country and taken a vice-like hold upon sociopolitical conversations. The constant barrage of tweets and shouts from all directions has forced the movement’s demands to the forefront of dialogue and demands answers with no signs of backing down. The power and prowess of this specific movement lies in its emotional cogency that brings two-fold changes to the arena of public life: changes in hearts and changes in laws. Hillary Clinton may be right in her advice that changing hearts doesn’t work but changing laws does. But her correctness is totally dependent on the temporality of the hearts that are being changed. Hearts already degraded by years of racism and prejudice may be beyond saving, but the hearts of those just beginning to understand the ways racism is so very prevalent in society and the hearts of the next generation are malleable; and it is those young hearts that will bear the burden of reshaping the laws of tomorrow to create a more cohesive world. The political efficacy of the movement is derived from its communal individuality that explodes into formidably present activism; this is not a movement that will fade into the fringes in the coming months, but one that will force the nation in the midst of major political campaigns to confront the harrowing truths of the furtive prejudice that pervades the institutions upon which the country is based.

Photo: Gerry Lauzon

About the Author

Britt Edelen '19 is a Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.