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Why 2015 May Be the Start of Something Bigger than #BlackLivesMatter


Written by C. Cole Fairbanks l @ccole_f

Ferguson protest at Penn State
Penn State student Zaniya Joe wears a piece of tape over her mouth that says “Black Lives Matter” during a Ferguson protest organized by a group of Penn State University students on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014, in University Park, Pa. (Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/TNS via Getty Images)

This year I spent a week prior to Christmas in New York City, America’s ethnic and cultural melting pot. I have frequented NYC many times, but this year, something different stood out in the midst of holiday shoppers in Manhattan.

There was a feeling of discontent and controversy that could be felt by everyone.

On the streets of Chinatown, peaceful demonstrators swarmed streets and sidewalks, chanting popularized slogans such as: “no justice, no peace,” “this is what democracy looks like,” and of course the most popular, “black lives matter.”

#BlackLivesMatter was voted 2014’s word of the year. But perhaps this movement and other sporadic ones like it are just the start of something much bigger.

Perhaps, these Progressive trends will not only continue to gain steam in 2015 and 2016 presidential elections, but also usher in a new era of sweeping reforms reminiscent of the Progressive Era and Civil Rights Movement during the early 1900’s and 1960’s respectively.

Here are 3 reasons why:

Protester in NYC stands in solidarity with Ferguson, MO, encouraging a boycott of Black Friday Consumerism on November 28, 2014 (The All-Nite Images/Creative Commons/Flickr)

1.) The majority of Americans no longer believe their justice system is colorblind

The first item on America’s list of ‘things to fix’ is the judicial system. Today, fewer than 4-in-10 (38%) Americans believe that black Americans and other minorities receive the same treatment as white Americans in the criminal justice system.

Just one year ago, the public was evenly divided, with nearly half (47%) the public agreeing that all Americans in the criminal justice system receive equal treatment regardless of race. Interestingly, the biggest drop in confidence came from Millennials (age 18-29), who are now 21% more likely to believe that their judicial system is tailored towards whites.

But why the sudden change? Was it the Trayvon Martin case? Does #BlackLivesMatter’s integration with social media more directly impacts Millennials?

Here are some disturbing videos that may help explain the American public’s growing concern with police brutality and the indictment process and/or lack of for police officers.

There is plenty of reason to believe that the media frenzy revolving around the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner as well as the consequential #BlackLivesMatter movement had a clear hand in this latest phenomenon. However, this does not exactly seem to be the case.

According to Washington Post writer, Christopher Ingraham, who wrote a recent article on this latest American Values Survey issue by the Public Religion Research Institute, wrote:

“Significantly, most of the responses on this question were collected before the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, which drew national attention to the treatment of blacks by the police and courts. Had the survey been fully conducted after Ferguson, it stands to reason that the drop in confidence in the justice system may have been even steeper. Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post

If those figures are steeper, that would mean that an overwhelming majority (62% or more) of Americans feel the system is unjust and therefore, be more inclined to support the 2016 presidential candidates who support Progressive judicial reform. And make no mistake, this is an issue that cannot easily be ignored during the 2016 presidential elections due to its strong connection with inequality and economic growth.

Although states like New York may be grappling with ideas about grand jury reform, whether America’s future presidential candidates decide to adopt some sort of judicial reform to their policy agenda remains to be seen.

However, such a move could be politically attractive.

This is especially true for potential candidate Rand Paul (KY-R), who will try to avoid being labeled as a racist after two controversial incidents involving his ex-aide, Jack Hunter, and Nevada cowboy, Cliven Bundy.

Two women show their support for legalizing marijuana on April 20, 2013 during the 420 Rally in Denver, CO (Cannabis Destiny/Creative Commons/Flickr)

2.) The decriminalization & legalization of marijuana now seems inevitable

Marijuana policy reform is another legislative initiative to look for in the coming years, especially during the post-2016 presidential election period.
75% of the American public already believe the sale and use of marijuana will eventually be legal nationwide.

If you are wondering what the correlation is between marijuana and the recent #BlackLivesMatter movement, here are some troubling statistics that have been compiled for your reading pleasure:

  • African-Americans are 62 percent of drug offenders sent to state prisons, yet they represent only 12 percent of the U. S. population.
  • Black men are sent to state prisons on drug charges at 13 times the rate of White men.
  • Drug transactions among Blacks are easier for police to target because they more often happen in public than do drug transactions between Whites.

These statistics were compiled by Forbes contributor, Erik Kain, and Huffington Post writer, Dr. Boyce Watkins who conclude the ‘War on Drugs,’ “disproportionately targets blacks and other minorities and the poor across all racial demographics.”

The debate sparked by Ferguson following the events of Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s deaths seems to have confirmed this belief. What is interesting though, is that the American public may be finally ready to confront this new drug policy landscape.

According to a recent Pew Research study that dates back to February 2014, Americans have a far different view of drugs than they did during the Reagan Administration. For example:

  • For the first time in American history, 54% of Americans support legalizing marijuana, and that number continues to grow with each passing year
  • 67% of Americans believe the government should focus more on providing treatment to for those who use illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine instead of prosecution
  • 63% of Americans support moving away from mandatory prison sentences for non-violent drug crimes

These striking statistics briefly highlight the American public’s transformed view on drugs. Interestingly, mandatory sentences guidelines and draconian “hard on crime” policies, which partially tie back to judicial reform, seem to draw negative connotations from most Americans.

On the other hand, there is one thing that would most likely draw a positive reaction from Americans in the future – reform, reform, reform.

An Oakland native lets his voice be heard with power on October 14, 2011 during the #OccupyWallStreet protests in Oakland, CA (Glenn Halog/Creative Commons/Flickr)

3.) Economic inequality is becoming a colossal problem in the US

Welcome to the 21st century, where economic inequality continues to accelerate at an alarming rate. Whether you blame technology, globalization, financial deregulation, or some combination, income and wealth inequality is a growing threat to American society.

It has inspired mass protests that include the most famous #OccupyWallStreet moment in NYC’s Zugatti Park following the 2008 financial meltdown.

Interestingly, the 20th century also started off this way. Those were the days of the Progressive Era, in which Americans witnessed their battle with inequality reach a tipping point in the 1920’s.

In fact, according to a recent National Bureau of Economic Research study, 2014 is starting to look a lot like 1929. And everyone remembers how great the roaring 20’s were; it was like a big party. The 1930’s then, could best be defined as a 10 year hangover.

“Now, the richest Americans have a share of the country’s wealth almost big enough to rival those in the late 1920s…Even the 1% are lagging behind the .01%.” Henry Gass, Christian Science Monitor

Again, how does #BlackLivesMatter relate to inequality? Recent events revolving around the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, which include the NYC, Washington DC, and Oakland protests have shed major light on the issue. This is primarily due to the fact that inequality has widened along racial and ethnic lines since the Great Recession.

This controversial political issue will be the primary thrust of President Obama’s state of the union address tomorrow. The president is expected to announce a series of proposals aimed at reducing inequality, including a populist tax plan that will target inherited wealth accumulated via a legal loophole that allows wealthy Americans to pass on tax-free assets to their heirs.

Furthermore, his proposal plans to tax capital gains for incomes above $500,000 from 23.8% to 28% and eliminate a loophole used by a handful of wealthy individuals, including Mitt Romney, who turn tax-preferred retirement plans into tax shelters. These two proposals in addition to a plan to tax companies with assets over $50 billion are expected to raise $320 billion in revenue over the course of the next decade.

Although critics like John Boehner’s spokesman claim it to be “more of a talking point than a plan,” Obama will also announce his community college proposal tomorrow. Under this proposal, students who attend at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 grade point average while in college, and make steady progress toward completing their programs would have their tuition eliminated.

To Sum it Up

2014 was a big year for social change advocates. 2015 may be an even bigger year as America prepares for its 2016 presidential elections. Beyond 2016, there is a very good possibility that Progressive reforms are on the horizon for the US due to its racially biased justice system, draconian drug laws that have prompted the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana, and the rise of economic inequality that has widened on racial and ethnic lines. Historically speaking, it is only a matter of time before social movements such as #BlackLivesMatter turn into political movements.

As the saying goes, history tends to repeat itself.

Rekindle the dream. Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (Seattle Municipal Archives/Creatve Commons/Flickr)

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.