Black Lives Matter: Evidence that Police-Caused Deaths Predict Protest Activity
by Vanessa Williamson, Brookings Institution, Kris-Stella Trump, Social Science Research Council, and Katherine Levine Einstein, Boston University
Since 2013, protests opposing police violence against Black people have occurred across a number of American cities under the banner of “Black Lives Matter.” We develop a new dataset of Black Lives Matter protests that took place in 2014–2015 and explore the contexts in which they emerged. We find that Black Lives Matter protests are more likely to occur in localities where more Black people have previously been killed by police. We discuss the implications of our findings in light of the literature on the development of social movements and recent scholarship on the carceral state’s impact on political engagement.
While the movement is now closely associated with opposition to police brutality, the phrase “Black Lives Matter”1 originated in response to the July 2013 acquittal of a civilian, George Zimmerman, in the shooting death of the unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin. Over the following months and years, Black Lives Matter activists played a central role in organizing protests that drew attention to deaths of Black2 people at the hands of police, to the broader issue of police violence and over-policing, and to other persistent racial disparities in economic, social and political power.3 Groups associated with Black Lives Matter have advocated for a wide variety of policy changes—including body cameras, independent special prosecutors, and greater transparency in policing4—and have proven to be a salient political force, drawing enormous attention from all sides of the political spectrum at the local and national levels.