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Black Lives Matter and the Rise of Populism

Writer: Rena Rawanchaikul

Graphic Designer: Janice Cheng

It began with a knee on a black man’s neck.

On the 25th of May 2020, George Floyd’s killing went down in the pages of history and was forever imprinted as another incident of racial injustice in the present day. His death proved the last straw after a slew of murders of Black people, sparking a wave of Black Lives Matter protests beginning in May and carrying on for a number of months, which advocated against systemic racism within the police force and called for racial justice, particularly as the prevalence of police brutality against black people has increasingly become assimilated into the ever-increasingly exposed general populice’s consciousness and psyche through social media.

However, it should be noted that these Black Lives Matter protests were not new. Although they did start again in May with renewed fervour, the movement truly began in 2013, when the shooting of Treyvon Martin and his shooter’s subsequent acquittal resulted in the circulation of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter online. By 2014, the grassroots movement had spread its roots into numerous states and even other countries with growing support from more people. But it was thrown back into the limelight, with revitalized relevance following the 25th of May.

This, alongside with the tangible global rise of populism and the perceived threat to democracy that it poses (with Freedom House regarding populists and autocrats as the dual threat to democracy) began to make me curious. It begged the question: Is the Black Lives Matter movement a populist one? And if so, what does that mean for all the actors involved in this fight, and those of the democratic state and its institutions?

In political science, populism is defineds ‘the idea that society is separated into two groups at odds with one another - "the pure people" and "the corrupt elite”’ (Populism, A Very Short Introduction). True populists mark themselves out with direct appeal to ‘the will of the people’ and a vow to fight against the ‘entrenched elite establishment’, leading to many leaders, particularly, though not exclusively, of the political right in Europe and the US gaining power. Populism enabled Donald Trump and Viktor Orban to rise to power, for example.

This may naturally seem to be a threat to grounded state institutions and ‘the establishment’, especially if said ‘establishment’ is democratic in nature, or came to power democratically, and particularly as populism is generally perceived, in its untempered force, lofty promises, divisive language, and common coupling with vitriolic nativism or nationalism, to undermine the standing of the democratic state. However, it is important to differentiate between a centralised, well organised radically right movement and a community-based, more loose and more open (with non-divisive ideology) movement. Whereas we may indeed see Black Lives Matter to be populist, it crucially does not have a centralised, control-based leadership, instead preferring to disperse organization, open up chapters, in contrast, it is notable, with the figurehead-heavy Civil Rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s in the US. This greatly decreases the chance of a radically left leader to take charge and take the movement down a different path than that of demanding equality.

The Black Lives Matter movement is a clear demonstration of the people exercising their rights, guaranteed to them in a democracy, to protest, gather, and speak, for example. It reinforces once more the primacy that these rights have and sanctifies their importance in society, particularly when they are threatened by the Black Lives Matter movement, a populist one? When these threats are widely reported on, as of the United State’s usage of tear gas in the US, a weapon banned in war, against peaceful American protestors, this exposes the areas that institutions and organisations must address to protect the rights of people. It reminds us, and the leaders who rode on more threatening, narrow-minded populist waves to get into power, of a different kind of populism than the negative, insulting one generally thought of. Black Lives Matter could be seen as populism of a more democratic, more tempered nature. And we shall see what else the movement has to bring.


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