WASHINGTON (AP) — Hundreds of Black Lives Matter activists, black and white, marched outside the Minnesota State Fair this weekend, hoping to bring attention to the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police.
Inside the fair, a booth had T-shirts bearing the slogans “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” for sale. Todd Gramenz, who reserved the booth, chatted with fairgoers while the other protesters were kept outside.
The competing activities in Minnesota underscore the challenge that Black Lives Matter faces as it evolves from social media hashtag to full-blown movement. Its fluid, organic nature generates confusion about exactly who is in charge, who can legitimately speak for the group, and even whether it can be blamed for violence that some say may have been inspired by its rhetoric.
Tracing its roots to the fatal 2012 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida, the Black Lives Matter movement gained national ground after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
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Since then, deaths of other unarmed black males at the hands of law enforcement officers have inspired protests under the “Black Lives Matter” moniker.
Some are affiliated with the original Black Lives Matter network founded by Opal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza and their allies. But some are not, although they use the slogan.
Garza said in an email interview that her organization — which has 26 chapters, including Ghana and Canada — doesn’t try to control who uses the name.
“Anytime someone identifies with a movement to make black lives matter in this country and around the world, that’s a good thing,” she said.
Some similarly loosely organized social movements, like Occupy Wall Street and the tea party, evolved beyond their grassroots beginnings, while some died.
Others followed the lead of the 1960s civil rights movement, which birthed groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Having small nebulous groups linked through social media and a shared cause may be enough for now, but odds are against such groups surviving for the long haul, said Deana A. Rohlinger, a Florida State University sociology professor who studies social movements and collective behavior.
“Activists do really good work locally,” she said. “But if you want to affect politics and politicians, then you really do have to move up your organization to a more structured format that can engage politicians and lobbyists on their turf.”
Activists claiming to represent the group interrupted a speech about to be delivered by Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate, and met with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush.
And a Texas sheriff criticized the movement after one of his white deputies was shot and killed Friday at a Houston gas station; a black man has been charged with murder. Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman questioned whether it was spurred by anger over the killings of black men by police.
But Garza called any attempt to link the Black Lives Matter with the killing “racist and ridiculous.”
“Our hearts go out to anyone who loses a loved one on the wrong side of a gun. Black families know that pain all too well,” she said.
Garza said the news media equates every black protest with the movement and the network.
“While you don’t have to be a member of BLM to be a part of the movement, you do need to be a member of BLM to speak for BLM,” she said.
The Minneapolis march has come under criticism by police for a 30-second chant “pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon” uttered by some protesters during Saturday’s four-hour march. Rashad Turner, the lead organizer of the Black Lives Matter protest, said the chant was meant to call for similar treatment between black people and police officers.
“We’re not going to get caught up in one chant out of four hours and apologize for that,” he said.
The Rev. Charles Williams II of the National Action Network in Detroit said “folks with their own agendas … are going around and trying to coin their movement or hashtag” under the Black Lives Matter banner — a sentiment echoed by Detective Victoria Oliver, a Denver Police Protective Association board member.
“A lot of people are taking this platform of ‘Black Lives Matter’ and getting a little abusive with it. This is being used as a platform to be more rebellious,” Oliver said.
Garza said the Black Lives Matters network sees itself as evolving, but “we’re less concerned with the structure of BLM as we are with the function and our impact.”
Additional reporting on this story was done by Associated Press writers Deepti Hajela in New York City, Corey Williams in Detroit and Sadie Gurman in Denver.
Jesse J. Holland covers race, ethnicity and demographics for The Associated Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jessejholland