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How Black Lives Matter operates when spotlight is trained elsewhere

Media descended again on Black Lives Matter in wake of shooting of five protesters in Minneapolis. But the group's staying power may have more to do with how it works even without national attention.

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Members of the group Black Lives Matter march to city hall during a protest in Minneapolis, Minn., Tuesday. Police are searching for three white men in connection with the shooting of five people near a Minneapolis police station where demonstrators have gathered for more than a week to protest the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man – Jamar Clark – by police on Nov. 15.

Craig Lassig/Reuters

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With the shooting of five Black Lives Matter protesters at a Minneapolis demonstration Monday, the movement has once more captured headlines. Most coverage has focused on the two suspects who have been arrested in connection with the shooting, and the week-long sit-in that the protesters had participated in leading up to the violence Monday night.

Less noted by national media outlets is the speed with which the group assembled the protests following the deadly scuffle between Minneapolis police and Jamar Clark on Nov. 15 – or the fact that, over the past year, the Twin Cities have been the site of both public demonstrations and grassroots efforts run by the organization’s Minnesota chapters.

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These less-recognized details suggest the movement’s strength lies only partly in its ability to take advantage of media attention when a high-profile, racially-charged incident occurs, some experts say.

More telling, they note, is the way its organizers have built and maintained nationwide networks via social media and organized events that steadily publicize and support their message – all when the spotlight is trained elsewhere.

“The grassroots organizing that underlies the Black Lives Matter movement is incredibly important and mostly invisible,” says Wesley Hogan, director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and a filmmaker who specializes in the history of youth social movements. “There is a lot of relationship-building behind the scenes that keeps people connected [within the movement].”

As is true of the movement in other parts of the country, Black Lives Matter Minneapolis took shape in the aftermath of the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Four months after the verdict, the nonprofit journalism outfit MinnPost reported that the group had:

…managed to organize some of the highest-profile public demonstrations seen in the Twin Cities in years: a march that shut down Highway 55; another that shut down I-35W; and, most prominently, a protest at the Mall of America that attracted thousands, partially shut down the mall during one of its busiest shopping days of the year, and led to the controversial arrest of 11 members of BLM Minneapolis…

By the time of the altercation between Mr. Clark and police, the Minnesota chapters of Black Lives had the capacity to respond within a day, organizing the week-long demonstration outside the precinct near the site of the shooting hours after the incident took place.

The ability to rapidly come together and respond to notable events is indicative of the strength of the movement’s leadership, says Eric McDaniel, associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin.

“The fact that they are mobilizing fairly quickly whenever something happens is a sign that there’s a good amount of organization,” he notes.

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But it is a movement’s efforts to influence politics and policy at all levels that is key to its longevity, Professor McDaniel says. The reason the Republican tea party movement “is so successful is because they articulate clearly what they want, and they use protests as well as the ballot box to push their agenda,” he says. To further establish itself, he continues, Black Lives Matter will need to do the same.

In many ways, such efforts are already under way.

Since its inception, the Minneapolis chapter has pushed for legislative change at state and local levels – including calling for a $15 minimum wage citywide and a tougher police body camera policy, and supporting a bill that would restore the right to vote to felons who had served their time.

On the East Coast, the movement’s Boston chapter – one of four registered chapters in Massachusetts alone – drew national attention when its leaders confronted Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in an effort to have her articulate how she would fight for equal rights as president.

In nearby Cambridge, the city’s Black Lives chapter has held protests over housing and displacement issues, worked to raise awareness for local elections, and encouraged the resident black community to vote, says Kathy Martinez, a local Black Lives Matter organizer.

In October, she recalls, the group stopped a parade held during the Honk! Festival – a street celebration featuring mostly brass and percussion instruments – to have trans activist Elle Hearns take the stage.

“It’s these disruptions that allow us to talk about the things that black people are facing,” Ms. Martinez says. “We’re not going to make CNN or whatever, but it shows the work we still need to do.”

She notes that even when the traditional media's glare is directed elsewhere, the movement can rely on the lines of communication it has set up over social media to connect with one another and get its message to its networks.

“The whole thing started [on social media], and we continue to use it to amplify our message,” Martinez says.

That, Professor Hogan says, is also critical to the movement’s long-term success. “You can’t underestimate the role of Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram in sharing ideas and strategies and tactics,” she says.

In some ways, that Black Lives has made it as far as it has speaks to the movement’s vitality. “When it first happened, I didn’t think it would have the staying power it does now,” McDaniel says.

And while it remains to be seen if the movement can sustain itself over the long term, some are optimistic of its chances.

“I think [the group’s leaders] have learned that you have to really organize on the grassroots level. That you need to work when the cameras are not around and when the reporters are not there, because you’re trying to sustain a movement for the long haul as opposed to looking to immediate victories,” says Robert Harris, professor emeritus of African American history and vice provost of diversity and faculty development at Cornell University.

“The movement will undergo some change, some evolution,” he adds. “But I think, from what I’ve seen thus far, that the young people [behind the movement] are on the right track.”