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Black Lives Matter Has Shifted National Debate, Despite Controversial Reputation

Image: A demonstrator with Black Lives Matter holds up a sign during a protest in front of the White House in Washington.

A demonstrator with Black Lives Matter holds up a sign during a protest in front of the White House in Washington, U.S., July 8. Joshua Roberts / Reuters

The killing of five officers in Dallas by a man who allegedly targeted the police has reignited criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement, even though there is no evidence that Micah Johnson, the Dallas shooter, had any connection to Black Lives Matter.

An NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll released Tuesday showed that the Black Lives Matter movement polarizes Americans like Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Forty-two percent of Americans, including 70 percent of Republicans, disapprove of Black Lives Matter, while 45 percent of Americans overall and 73 percent of Democrats approve of the movement.

But while BLM has struggled to gain political popularity, it has made an unmistakable impact on American public policy and the culture. Civil rights activism, which had seemed stunted in the era of a black president, has powerfully re-emerged over the last two years, since the protests started in the wake of 18-year-old Michael Brown's shooting by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014.

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This activism has moved beyond policing to push for change in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street and within the Obama administration. This new generation of activists has aggressively rejected the idea that America is post-racial or mostly beyond its racial problems, instead highlighting racial inequities in a number of sectors.

Image: People take part in a protest against police brutality and in support of Black Lives Matter during a march in New York
People take part in a protest against police shootings and in support of Black Lives Matter during a march in New York July 9, 2016. EDUARDO MUNOZ / Reuters

And in just two years, the movement has gotten major results. Cities and states across the country started asking their officers to wear body cameras. President Obama created a national task force on policing, which includes Brittany Packnett, an education policy expert who has become one of BLM's key leaders. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, created a similar kind of task force.

Local prosecutors in Chicago and Cleveland lost their re-election bids earlier this year, after activists organized against them, arguing that the prosecutors had not been aggressive enough in investigating cases in which young African-Americans had been killed by police.

The Justice Department recently announced that it would, for the first time ever, require more than 28,000 of its employees, including most investigative agents and prosecutors, to get implicit bias training.

DOJ is increasingly inserting itself into controversial local matters that involve race and policing. As MSNBC's Ari Melber highlighted last week, the department waited 139 days before it decided to launch a civil rights investigation into the death of Eric Garner, the 43-year-old man who died in July 2014 in New York City after officers put him in a chokehold while arresting him. Last week, within a day of the death of Alton Sterling in Louisiana, DOJ said it would start investigating.

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Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, at a recent hearing on Capitol Hill, spoke of increasing racial diversity among the central bank's decision makers as an "extremely important goal," after activists highlighted the fact that none of the presidents of the 12 regional Fed banks is black or Latino.

The Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, which decides who wins the Oscars, announced late last month a huge new bloc of members, 41 percent of whom are racial minorities, a response to the "OscarsSoWhite" online protest earlier this year.

Image: TOPSHOT-US-POLICE-SHOOTINGS-PROTEST
Nimani Darch-Walker, 3, wearing a sign that reads "Don't Shoot", looks on during a rally by the Black Lives Matter movement at Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco, California on July 8, 2016. JOSH EDELSON / AFP - Getty Images

The Supreme Court recently defended the right of colleges to consider race in their admissions policies, after years of rulings that limit affirmative action.

Politicians, particularly Democrats like Obama, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, are speaking about institutional racism more than ever before. And polls show that white Democrats increasingly view race inequality as a huge problem, just as black Democrats do.

"The disruptions and protests of activists created the atmosphere which forced elected officials, like the president, and the Democratic candidates to respond and incorporate the issues into their platforms," said L. Joy Williams, a 37-year-old who is president of the Brooklyn NAACP.

That impact has left BLM with some strong supporters, but also passionate enemies.

Obama, in remarks on Sunday, positively likened the activists to those of previous generations who sought the abolition of the slavery and the expansion of the right to vote to women and African-Americans.

Obama: 'Black Lives Matter' Wants Good Relationship with Police 1:44

"I think that the overwhelming majority of people who are involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, what they really want to see is a better relationship between the police and the community so that they can feel that it's serving them. And the best way to do that is to bring allies forward. That means — that includes, by the way, the police departments that are doing the right thing, like Dallas, which has implemented the very reforms that Black Lives Matter has been seeking," the president said.

Ex-New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, on the other hand, has dubbed the movement as "inherently racist."

Popular or not, the activists show no signs of slowing down their movement. Deray McKesson, one of the leaders of Black Lives Matter, went to a protest of Sterling's death in Baton Rouge this weekend and was arrested on charges of blocking a highway. He was later released.

The activists have much broader aims. In terms of policing, they are pushing for investigations by prosecutors who are not part of local district attorneys' offices, arguing local prosecutors are often too closely allied with the police. They are urging the Obama administration to stop sending federal funds to any police department that does not keep detailed data on officer-involved shootings.

And they are pushing for other corporate changes in America as well, such as urging Twitter to hire more African-American staffers.

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