Movements & Memes: How The Struggle For Social Justice Shaped 2020

As we approach the end of 2020, on the cusp of a new presidency, we’re also able to see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. Vaccines are starting to be distributed, and treatments will continue to be rolled out in the new year. So much happened this year that it was nearly impossible to keep up with — beginning with tensions between the United States and Iran after General Qasem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. airstrike. Shortly after came the pandemic, as coronavirus spread beyond China and officially took hold of Europe and then the U.S. Another thing that galvanized so many of us this year was the long overdue national conversation about racism, white supremacy, and the future of policing.
If there's any baggage to take from 2020 it's this: This was the year of our reckoning, when the social justice movement took center stage, and activism became a part of more and more people's lives.
Across the country, countless people were doing the work on the ground, driving large-scale initiatives like defunding the police, abolishing the industrial prison complex, and fighting, well, the evils of capitalism. In truth, it's the activists and organizers that set actions in motion that have come to define 2020. Mass mutual aid movements provided groceries and protective supplies; there's a renewed attention to housing crises; immigration and deportation have been at the forefront of our collective conversations; and the repeated killing of unarmed Black people by police have inspired actual policy changes.
In looking at this year through the lens of social justice, it's clear that long-standing problems were both laid bare for all to see and exacerbated by the pandemic. Nurses and doctors went on strike for their rights, and showed up to counter-protest anti-maskers across the country. Organizers pushed for legislation to cancel rent and mortgages, and stave off people being evicted from their homes. In April, Representative Ilhan Omar introduced H.R. 6515, the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act, demanding more than just an eviction moratorium in order to relieve people of massive piles of debt and the threat of eviction. Throughout the year, housing organizers have continued to advocate for tenants, despite the fact that little has been by the government to protect them.
At the onset of the summer, mass Black Lives Matter protests sprung up in every state in the country in response to police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and dozens of other Black people. Demands for social justice — ranging from firing officers to defunding and abolishing the police were waged, as well as abolishing the whole prison industrial complex — were made from all corners of society. “Since George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, more people are socially aware of the effects of police brutality and capitalism on our society which has made people challenge a lot of beliefs they previously held,” Glenn Foster, Lead Organizer of The Freedom Neighborhood, an abolitionist collective in Washington, D.C. says. “It's going to cause disruption, but the positive benefit of the disruption is the exposure to systems that truly don't benefit the people, one of those being our police.” 
Although the protests have slowed down since the summer, they mark one of the biggest movements to shape this past year — and this decade. Talks of police reform surged in Congress, and in many states, organizers pushed for their towns and cities to take money away from police departments to redistribute it to social services. In plenty of places, protesters also toppled statues of white supremacists and slave traders to say goodbye to the tradition of elevating and worshipping racists.
“Our goal this year has been justice through abolition. The Freedom Neighborhood has been focused on educating the people about what an abolitionist society could look like that serves not just some of us, but all of us. We're not just protesting police brutality, we are trying to raise the consciousness of our society into believing that we can create the political, economic, and social liberation ourselves and we don't need to rely on a person in an office or a piece of legislation to do that,” Foster explains. 
While some took to the streets, others took to the tweets. Over the year, many memes inspired discourse and went hand in hand with the social movements unfolding. Social media played a large part in fueling movements in 2020, especially given that many have been stuck at home. A Pew Research study from June found that 54 percent of social media users between ages 18 to 29 said they used social media to find information about joining protests and rallies where they live. But the social media aestheticization and memeification of Black Lives Matter was also a key part of this year, meaning there were also several empty moments of "doing the work" on social media, that have since died down to a quiet Instagram hum.
On Twitter and Instagram, people turned Breonna Taylor into a meme demanding the arrest of the cops who killed her, and Blackout Days bombarded people’s feeds. Though both instances were supposedly meant to bring awareness to violence against Black people and justice for them, organizers and activists largely decried these tactics as being a distraction at best and harmful at worst. Instead, they urged people to give to bail funds, show up at protests, and find a political home to start doing the work.
Other trends, like a viral TikTok about racism against Black people in health care, helped to inspire more open conversations about what Black people experience in all walks of life. This kind of thing led to another key action: companies and organizations reckoning with the racism that plagues them from within. Many, including The Wing, the Sierra Club and DoSomething, faced social media uprisings from workers who spilled the worst of their experiences online and called out brands and companies for hypocrisy. Media companies like the New York Times, Bon Appétit, ManRepeller, and Refinery29 faced reckonings of their own, leading to changes in management and ongoing evaluations of how to make their companies equitable and just.
Black Lives Matter protests and demands for defunding the police lasted well through Summer into Fall, and as the protests grew, so did the police and prison abolition movements. Many initiatives and coalitions of organizers tackled many issues at once, including defunding the police and youth voter turnout for the upcoming election. The New Hampshire Youth Movement (NHYM) is one such group of organizers that focused on all of these issues during 2020. When the movement for Black lives swept people into protests, organizers rushed to provide protest defense, jail support, and other resources.
While helping with BLM protests, organizers from NHYM also ran a letter writing campaign to drive people in the community to demand that local officials defund the police. Despite the fact that budgets had already been finalized, they helped to start the conversation and set the groundwork for making sure budgets are reconfigured in 2021 — which will include electoral work, seeking to replace elected officials who don’t agree with defunding the police.
“The energy from the rallies and protests were tangibly redirected to policy change in defunding the police. In a year where police brutality was so blatant and millions across the country suffered economically, it was easier to convince the population that police forces are way over-budgeted, and the solidified it by using brutal force and military tactics to quell protests across the country,” Alissandra Rodriguez-Murray, Co-Director of Organizing for NHYM told Refinery29. 
By November, abolitionist organizers’ efforts made it possible for many measures to appear on ballots that would install oversight committees and remove some funds from police, among other reforms. And when all ballots were counted, 19 new measures to hold police accountable across the country passed. That same month, young voters turned out in record number to the polls in response to key issues like the pandemic, racism, and climate crises — and the youth voter turnout movement hugely contributed to President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. CIRCLE estimates that young voters ages 18 to 29 accounted for 17% of the vote
Although the presidential election often dominated conversations about politics this year, it’s clear that electoral work is far from being the main driver of incredible change. The organizing and calls for justice that have taken place have provided the necessary framework that will influence work for decades to come — marking lasting changes in conscience beyond the ballot box. In turn, those who helped to secure food and housing for people, to hold police accountable, and transform what social services are funded will continue to push for meaningful, material change in the new year. From all that happened in 2020 alone, it's certain they’ll continue shaping conversations and movements in pivotal ways we haven't yet imagined.

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