Black Lives Matter and The Failure to Build a Movement
This article first appeared on The South Lawn blog and is re-published here with permission from the author.
Even if I were not a supporter of Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination (though I wish that he would run as an independent), I would feel this way. Proof of their wholly unserious treatment of serious issues can be found in this sprawling Facebook post, replete with Beyoncé-based hashtags and all, that manages to spend hundreds of words saying nothing of note:
And then there were tweets like this, which abounded social media:
For starters, you can look it up yourself rather than request black folks perform the labor of informing you. twitter.com/betsyintc/stat…
Zoé S. (@ztsamudzi) August 08, 2015
For a group of people that are fond of telling people to Google It, these folks seem either unwilling or unable to find out what Bernie Sanders actually stands for.
However, since I am an organizer (and part of that role is to educate), here are the facts:
- This was not a Bernie Sanders rally. It was a rally in favor of expanding Social Security and Medicaid. On the eve of the 2014 midterm elections, polling in multiple swing Senate races and House contests found that Black voters overwhelmingly supported the expansion of Social Security. In Arkansas, one of the most conservative states in the Union and a state that twice elected the dad from 19 Kids and Counting to the state legislature, Black people supported the expansion of Social Security by a 9-to-1 margin. Do their voices matter? Maybe they are also “white supremacists”, as one of the protestors called the attendees of the rally.
- Bernie Sanders has one of the best civil rights records of any person to run for president. I know that some former foreclosure lawyers might feel some kind of way about discussing this, but it is important that we discuss things that people have actually done. So here are Bernie Sanders’s ratings from civil rights organizations throughout his career in Congress. Here are the bills that he has sponsored over his time in Congress. All of that, of course, is in addition to the work that Sanders did during the Civil Rights Movement. Maybe someone who made their money off making poor people homeless (even if she did cry about doing so, all the way to the bank) does not care about such things; I suspect that the people reading this blog, though, might feel differently.
- This quote from one of the protestors is stupefying. “‘Bernie, you were confronted at NetRoots at by black women,’ (Marissa) Johnson said before adding, ‘you have yet to put out a criminal justice reform package like O’Malley did.'” Just in case you were wondering, that would be Martin O’Malley, the former mayor of Baltimore who put in place much of the aggressive policing tactics that resulted in the death of Freddie Gray on April 12th. The candidate who has stood at the forefront of civil rights advocacy for over fifty years is now being told by Black Lives Matter activists (and liberal columnists) that he needs to be more like, you know, the guy who gave thousands of Black men across his city arrest records for the ridiculously minor legal transgressions. It is a perfect example of the triumph of form over substance in politics.
- The notion that these activists are putting anything on the line with these protests is hilarious. You have to chuckle a bit at the notion that these activists are putting their lives on the line….at a rally for expanding Social Security and Medicaid in Seattle. Perhaps they feared the septuagenarians tossing their fair trade Starbucks at them on stage? In any case, whenever the “hooriding” on Republicans commences, please let the rest of us know. Hell, I would be happy with them simply “hooriding” on Hillary Clinton, but we hear that doing so might require actual work, so maybe we will not see that, either. If these folks can’t pull together a coherent, disruptive protest against Hillary Clinton in the way that climate activists just did, how is there any chance of them successfully challenging police violence?
But as much as this series of protests might irritate me as a Sanders supporter, my frustration is not really about him or this ridiculous protest. I am frustrated by what one of the protestors called “the biggest grassroots movement in the country right now” and their lack of interest in winning any tangible gains for those that they claim to have as constituents.
In a public post on Facebook, Alicia Garza, one of the co-creators of the Black Lives Matter hashtag, defended the actions of those who interrupted O’Malley and Sanders at Netroots Nation in Phoenix:
I have already explored the ways in which points 1 through 3 are completely out-of-touch with actual sentiment in communities of color above and in previous posts. But you know what? Let’s stay with point #1 for a second.
What is the “weirdo populist economic determinism” that Garza speaks of here? Is it a minimum wage of $15 an hour, which will disproportionately help Black workers? Is it the expansion of Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare? Is it the guaranteeing the ability of workers to organize collectively as a civil right? Maybe it is arguing for universal healthcare in a world where a Black person is sixty-five times more likely to die from a preventable disease like diabetes (approximately 15,000 completely preventable Black deaths from this in 2014) than they are to be shot and killed by the police (238 completely preventable Black deaths from this in 2013)? Or is it socialism in general, which Black people favor by a 55 to 38 percent margin and figures heavily into the history of emancipatory struggle in the US?
Black people, in poll after poll, seem to really care about this “weirdo populist economic determinism” stuff, since they consistently list things like education, the economy, and income inequality at the top of their policy concerns. As for police violence, a Gallup poll came out earlier this week that showed Black people reported feeling no more mistreated by police today than they did two decades ago (and that percentage is actually down seven percent from the 2004 survey).
And when issues of economic inequality have been on the lips of politicians left and right since Occupy Wall Street’s rise in 2011 (I would actually say that it is the one way that Occupy actually shifted political discussions in this country), why is it that Black Lives Matter seems to be doing the most to steer the discussion away from the issues that Black Lives Have Actually Said Matters Most To Them?
Bruce Dixon, writing for his website Black Agenda Report, put it best in his critique of Black Lives Matter a couple of days ago:
“Maybe movements nowadays are really brands, to be evoked and stoked by marketers and creators when needed. But it’s hard to imagine a brand transferring the power from the wealthy to the poor. It’s hard to imagine a brand being accountable to its membership, even if you could be a member of a brand. And it’s impossible for a brand to prefigure, to get us ready to imagine and become the kind of people we’ll need to be to build the new world after capitalism.”
As the famous quote from Frederick Douglass should remind all of us, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” In the absence of any ideological mooring or any, you know, actual demands beyond getting candidates to say a hashtag, it is hard to see how Black Lives Matter actually envisions a society that is different from the one we have now. Perhaps that is by design, given Garza’s answer to the question of abolishing the police in an interview for The Nation:
“The point to me is to be able to dig into these questions as opposed to being prescriptive about what the answers are.”
The problem, of course, is that it is hard to build a movement around fighting white supremacy and institutional racism when you are circumspect about a definitive path to eliminating those social ills; people typically want to know what your endgame is before they support your cause. How are you going to end white supremacy or institutional racism? Is it over once every cop is fitted with body cameras? Do we win when cops go to jail for civil rights violations? What if those things happen while unemployment for the Black working class is more than double the white working class? Is that not white supremacy, too?
Prescriptions are a good thing. Otherwise a social movement becomes what Black Lives Matter has seemingly become: a vehicle for individuals to become celebrity activists, feted by major media and nonprofits across the United States. How many articles have you seen that were focused on individual activists affiliated with Black Lives Matter? How many articles have you seen about policy victories at the local, state, or national levels?
Compare the two in your mind and see what you come up with. It is far more likely that you will remember some activist’s profile before you can think of a story on any kind of significant change that has affected Black Lives for the better. Great for them, I suppose, but then what has all of this been for if we are not working to remake the relationship between the state and its citizens? Given the police’s role as the main defender of private property in a capitalist system, we need something more visionary than a few hashtags and beige liberalism carefully disguised as radical change.
This has been a summer of disappointment. Not just with Black Lives Matter, but with self-described socialist organizations and publications that seem to believe that pandering to this particular protest group will get people like Alicia Garza and the innumerable online personalities who parrot similar rhetoric to stop engaging in the worst kind of hypocritical red-baiting: a red-baiting that completely erases socialists and communists of color from history in order to serve their mangled versions of liberatory politics.
As I have told people privately and publicly on a regular basis, their efforts will do nothing more than embolden an exclusive and identity-based liberalism. And you know what? The Sanders campaign posted about the #SayHerName hashtag all over social media. The largest socialist organization in America has posted on their blog and on social media in support of Black Lives Matter in the wake of their last demonstration at Netroots Nation in Phoenix.
Guess what? We are still here, with Black Lives Matter activists denouncing people at a rally for programs supported by Black people by a 9-to-1 margin as “white supremacists,” and with people from the online social justice set calling them “white moderates.” Funny how that works out.
It has been painful to see Black Lives Matter go all catawompus the way that it has. When the protests in Ferguson first began, I thought that this might be the best chance for a transformative and revolutionary change in our communities since King was rallying Black people and progressives of all stripes across the United States to a vision of liberation and justice. But it seems that all of this potential is being squandered so that a few people bent on the empty satisfaction of moral rectitude can score their fifteen minutes of fame. I have little faith that this will rectify itself in a world where the intoxication of fame and adulation is just one hashtag or attention-grabbing moment away.
Black Lives Matter is more interested in airtime for the few than social change for the many. What an absolute fucking shame.
© 2015 Douglas Williams