Black Lives Matter is Taking a Page Out of Amnesty International’s Book

Since its founding in 1961, and particularly during the 1970s, Amnesty International has played a central role in bringing human rights from an often ignored abstraction to a key factor in international politics.  Crucial to Amnesty’s success has been its prisoner of conscience strategy.  Amnesty highlights the case of a political prisoner- or as they call them, a prisoner of conscience-, publicizes the human rights abuse, and pressures the government responsible to release the prisoner.  This strategy has led to the international shaming of abusive governments, the release of prisoners, and the creation of iconic symbols of human rights abuses.  Amnesty has expanded to focus on a wider range of human rights issues, but its approach to these issues builds on the prisoner of conscience strategy rather than replacing it.

Recently, the Black Lives Matter movement’s uses of symbolic, information, and accountability politics have been remarkably similar to Amnesty’s.  Especially given Black Lives Matter’s decentralized structure, it is unlikely that the movement intentionally adapted Amnesty’s strategy.  Nevertheless, there are many close parallels between its tactics and Amnesty’s.  Perhaps the most significant is their shared focus on individuals.  Where Amnesty uses prisoners of conscience, Black Lives Matter uses African-Americans killed by police.  The prisoner of conscience strategy exists on two levels.  The first level is to improve the condition of the prisoner and ultimately secure their release.  The second, however, is to use the prisoner as a symbol of broader human rights abuses, typically focusing on pushing the country’s government to stop abuse of others in similar positions.  This two-level approach to individuals is also used by Black Lives Matter, and Dara Lind writes that in Black Lives Matter’s development since Ferguson, “the focus on individual cases has remained- both as a way to remind American of the actual victims of the status quo and to demand justice for individuals at the local level.”  The symbolic level is particularly important to Black Lives Matter, as individuals killed by police become tangible representations of the multitude of abuses of African-Americans that go ignored.  Michael Brown is not just an 18-year-old killed by Darren Wilson; he gives a name and a face to a system of oppression.  Indeed, individuals are so central to the strategy of Black Lives Matter that key organizer of the movement Deray McKesson regularly writes tweets such as this one: “We remember you Mike. We remember you Pearlie. We remember you Mya.  We remember you Aura. We remember you Renisha. We remember you Tamir.”  Lind notes the utility of an individual-centered strategy.  She writes that “tactically, this makes sense.  It’s easier to mobilize people in response a particular injustice than to get them to prevent injustices across the board.”

Yet in addition to their focus on individuals, Amnesty and Black Lives Matter share an emphasis on documenting and publicizing abuses.  Repression of political dissidents and police violence against African-Americans are not rare occurrences, but they are typically invisible.  Amnesty and Black Lives Matter have gained prominence because they make the prevalence of these problems difficult to deny.  Research and documentation are core parts of Amnesty’s activities, and Jan Eckel writes that Amnesty attempts “to produce facts by building up channels of information, carrying out investigations, and verifying allegations.”  Black Lives Matter, too, has focused on producing information.  It has led to projects such as the Guardian’s “The Counted,” which documents all people killed by U.S. police.  Significantly, a major effect of Black Lives Matter has been increased filming and attention to videos of police officers, and a number of killings have been caught on tape.  In a recent article on why Michael Brown’s death led to such a sustained focus on police violence against African-Americans, Jamelle Bouie writes that “in the months after Ferguson, Americans viewed a steady stream of images from police stops gone wrong. The victims were almost always black, the offenses were almost always minor, the outcomes were often death, and—most importantly—police accounts never quite matched the footage.”  This type of documentation is particularly important as the public has strong bias towards the police officers that kill African-Americans, and while even videos have not always caused convictions of police officers, visible proof makes it much more likely that victims of police violence will be seen as victims.  For Amnesty, especially since states make extensive efforts to deny the existence or innocence of political prisoners, “high-quality research was an essential part of Amnesty’s political capital, providing credibility as well as informational advantage.”

Another important parallel between Amnesty and Black Lives Matter is the demands they place on states, which are conceptually noncontroversial but radical in their application.  Both groups are eminently focused on abuses perpetrated by states, and almost all states have established obligations to their citizens.  The state’s responsibility to protect human rights was already fairly well-established in intellectual thought, and after World War II human rights began to become legally enshrined, most notably with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.  Despite this recognition of human rights, few states seriously considered them as something that should constrain their behavior prior to Amnesty’s rise to prominence.  The novelty of this assertion made Amnesty’s demands quite radical, yet their strategy often consisted of holding government accountable to treaties they had already signed.  Similarly, no one would deny that black lives matter; even the use of “all lives matter” as an attempt to subdue Black Lives Matter accepts the view that black lives matter.  Also, rights to equality and justice are unequivocally granted in the Constitution.  Yet this has never been the reality in the U.S., and meaningful steps towards justice and equality often find themselves outside the bounds of mainstream American politics.

Given the chasm between existing reality at the time of Amnesty and Black Lives Matter’s founding and their goals of human rights and African-American equality, both focus on creating normative shifts rather than implementing linear theories of change.  Amnesty tends to focus much more on the fact that states should respect human rights than how they should implement them.  For Black Lives Matter, Jay King writes that “the movement does tend to shy away from specific policy prescriptions.  Instead, the work seems to be aimed at an abrupt, wide-scale change in consciousness.”  Crucial to these groups’ attempts to create a normative shift is their promotion of a language with which to express their aims.  Activists have often struggled to find a way to link seemingly different events rooted in the same cause.  By popularizing terms such as ‘white supremacy,’ ‘violence against black bodies,’ ‘unlawful imprisonment,’ and ‘prisoners of conscience,’ both groups have made it possible to articulate the norms they seek to implement.

Yet while Amnesty and Black Lives Matter have pursued very similar strategies, the organizations themselves have a number of differences.  In addition to its large grassroots membership, Amnesty has a strong central organization that Black Lives Matter does not.  Also, Amnesty’s tendency to take an apolitical stance in response to human rights abuses is not matched by Black Lives Matter’s leftist orientation.  While Amnesty is a global organization and works closely with local civil society groups, its members tend to be concentrated in the West while the human rights abuses they address are often in developing countries.  Black Lives Matter, on the other hand, draws a large majority of its members from the oppressed population it focuses on.  This makeup means that Black Lives Matter will find it easier to empower and accurately reflect the desires of the people they advocate for, yet Amnesty’s closer proximity to power means it has a greater ability to leverage it.

Nevertheless, both groups have managed to implement similar tactics despite their organizational differences.  Both have caused individuals to become well-known representations of systemic problems, documented the extent of the abuses, and put the abuses in the context of the norms they seek to promote.  Yet, ultimately, the goal of their promotion of symbols, information, and norms is for the power they gain from these factors to cause tangible improvements in the lives of oppressed populations, and this effect is exceptionally difficult to measure.  This challenge means that the exact extent of Amnesty’s success remains up for debate, but I think few would deny that its fifty years of action have caused a greater application of human rights.  Black Lives Matter has undoubtedly generated massive attention, and hopefully this attention will quickly translate into greater racial equality.


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