Black Lives Matter
A “pop-up movement” or one with lasting impact?
Emily Woo Yamasaki and Andrea Bauer
volume:  
volume 37
issue 1
February 2016
imagestuff

On Aug. 23, 2014, protesters gather at the spot where Eric Garner was choked to death by New York City police a month earlier, to demand prison for killer cops and an end to police brutality. Photo: Stan Honda / AFP

Black Lives Matter. As a slogan, this simple statement captures a profound truth: for Blacks, fighting racism is a matter of survival. Not only because of murders by police, but also because of poverty, mass incarceration, and all of the other ills that Blacks continue to experience unequally in the U.S.

Black Lives Matter. As a movement, BLM is going through the search for direction that every new movement goes through. A reformist or a revolutionary perspective? How to integrate class and relate to other struggles? What attitude toward leadership?

How Black Lives Matter develops matters to all of us — because Black leadership is crucial not only to Black equality, but to every movement and the whole working class. The fresh eruption of a radically inclined Black liberation movement is exciting and potentially game-changing.

A bold, inspiring challenge. As many people know by now, the slogan was popularized by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi — three Black women, two of them queer — as a call to action after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2013. A year later, anger over the death of a second teenager, Michael Brown, who was shot by a cop in Ferguson, Mo., propelled a hashtag into a movement.

Black Lives Matter has made the issue of cop violence a front-page issue. It has inspired militant protests across the country, forced presidential candidates to address racism, and produced more than a score of loosely affiliated chapters. It has attracted support from people of all colors.

And some quarters of the movement have rejected the tired, compromising, and Democratic-Party oriented strategies of Black establishment leaders like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. The question now is, what to replace these discredited strategies with?

What is this movement, exactly? The first thing to say about the nature of the movement is that it’s eclectic, varying from place to place and based on who is doing the organizing or speaking.

Direct action is a clear emphasis, from street protest to disruption of speeches by political candidates.

But some chapters, as in Charleston, S.C., are more oriented toward school reform, supporting Black-owned businesses, and influencing local elections. BLM-identified activists have even started SuperPACs in St. Louis and New York to raise money for Democrats.

When it comes to demands on the system, BLM is again hard to pin down. Blacklivesmatter.com showcases general principles (diversity, globalism, restorative justice), but not demands. BLM outgrowth Campaign Zero, however, has concrete demands that include body cameras for cops and demilitarization, and has met with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to push for its proposals.

BLM’s eclecticism is seen as a strength by many of its organizers. But the different tendencies in the movement aren’t actually compatible, and one or another will dominate. There’s room for political growth here, however — because neither an ultraleft politics centered on disruption, nor a purely reformist politics of lobbying the system, are the basis for a lasting movement with real impact.

The essential questions. The issues that Black Lives Matter faces are the fundamental ones of program and leadership.

So far, the most visible tendency is reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street’s anarchist and anti-leadership approach.

There’s a generational component to this. Understandably, young Blacks are angry about the terrible national and world situation that has been “handed down” to them by previous generations, represented in the movements by sell-out leaders often trading on past glory. This fuels anti-leadership impulses now, just as it did in the New Left of the 1960s era.

But it’s not the existence of leadership that’s the problem. If collective action is happening, leadership is happening, whether it’s openly acknowledged or not. The problem is what kind of leadership, and with what goals and strategies? History shows that movements without a unified program, democratic functioning, and coordinated, accountable leadership will fade away.

Another prominent (but not universal) tendency in Black Lives Matter is cultural nationalism.

By cultural nationalism, we mean believing that the struggle around race (or other issues) is more important than other struggles — and more important than class commonality or difference. It can be seen today in BLM and various movements in the concept of “allyship,” which tends to mean uncritical support for Blacks or other people of color or LGBTQ people, for example, rather than mutual solidarity and frank dialog.

Cultural nationalism and identity politics are close kin. Black scholar Adolph Reed has a thought-provoking critique of identity politics as “the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism” and prop for capitalism. Identity politics, he posits, means that it would be fine for the 1 percent to rule the 99 percent — as long as that 1 percent was perfectly integrated by race, sex, etc.

Identity politics ignores the fact that it’s capitalism that’s ultimately responsible for racism — along with sexism and every other “ism” that infects society. In order to eradicate racism, capitalism must be junked.

Some BLM leaders describe themselves as anti-capitalist. But, to achieve the fundamental, all-encompassing change Blacks need, it will take an understanding of capitalism that leads to a program uniting all those who suffer exploitation and oppression under its rule.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was a grass-roots, multi-racial civil rights mobilization that challenged the all-white, segregationist state delegation to the Democratic National Convention in 1964. (The Freedom Socialist Party takes its name in honor of the MFDP.)

They did not prevail, and left the convention rather than accept an insulting, meaningless “compromise” engineered by President Lyndon Johnson. But their door-to-door organizing, principled leadership, and powerful televised speeches at the convention were key in propelling the civil rights movement forward.

Black writer R.L. Stephens credits the MFDP with a strategy that “created potential for political solidarity rooted in shared interests, not empathy or pity.”

As MFDP founder Fannie Lou Hamer put it: “Ain’t nothing going to be handed to you on a silver platter, nothing. That’s not just black people, that’s people in general, masses. See, I’m with the masses. ... You’ve got to fight. Every step of the way, you’ve got to fight.”

Black Lives Matter has launched the fight. If it can develop a class-based radical program and a strong democratic leadership, it can change the world.

To listen to this and other articles from this issue, click here.