Danny Katch listens to activists around the country to see where the discussion about what’s next for the movement is headed, and what that means for the struggle.
February 4, 2015, New York – THE MURDER of Mike Brown on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, last August–as horrific as it was–is far from unique. More than 150 years after the end of the Civil War and 50 years after the high point of the civil rights struggle, legalized lynching is still sickeningly familiar in Black communities around the country.
But what happened after Mike Brown’s murder–the reason we instantly remember his name today–has reshaped U.S. politics. The mobilization of Black St. Louis to demand justice–day after day and night after night, for weeks on end–in the face of the violence of a militarized police force sent the message that the police murder of unarmed Black youth would no longer be business as usual.
Even after the daily protests ebbed and the television cameras left Ferguson, the organizing continued among a dedicated and growing core of anti-racist activists. That set the stage for the even bigger eruption of protest after Brown’s murderer, officer Darren Wilson, was allowed to walk free by a grand jury. When another killer cop–caught on videotape murdering Eric Garner in New York City–went free a little over a week later, the new BlackLivesMatter movement went national for good.
Throughout the end of November and the opening weeks of December, crowds of people–mainly young, usually multiracial–gathered in cities around the country. When they could, they shut down streets and highways–but even when they couldn’t, they were forcing U.S. society to acknowledge the epidemic of police murder in African American communities.
Within a few weeks, the movement naturally receded from daily mobilizations–and it was pushed on the defensive after two New York City police officers were shot and killed on December 20, allowing police supporters and right-wingers to unleash a backlash.
But January has marked a new stage for the Black Lives Matter movement–not just one of mobilizations, but of assessing and processing. Over the last month, many protest organizers–new and old–were reading, writing and meeting to figure out what this movement is, where it should be heading, and what the full implications are of wanting to make Black Lives Matter.
There have been plenty of protests, too. The weekend of the Martin Luther King holiday saw a wave of demonstrations across the country, beginning on December 15, King’s actual birthday, when Boston activists shut down Interstate 93 during the morning commute, and continuing through December 20, the day after the federal holiday, when 68 Stanford University students were arrested for blocking the San Mateo Bridge across San Francisco Bay for 28 minutes. The precise time span had a meaning–to dramatize the statistic uncovered by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement that a Black person is killed by police, security guards or vigilantes once every 28 hours in the U.S.
In between, there were marches held across the country–from Minneapolis, where 2000 people took to the streets; to Seattle, where cops were caught on camera pepper-spraying high school teacher and anti-racist activist Jesse Hagopian as he was leaving peaceful march.
Actions took place throughout the month in response to local cases of police violence. In Los Angeles, activists camped out for weeks in front of LAPD headquarters to demand the firing of the cops who killed Ezell Ford last summer. In Wichita, Kansas, protesters disrupted a police press conference to demand answers for the January 3 police shooting of John Paul Quintero. In Chicago, one focus of protests became the demand for reparations for victims of Chicago police torturers commanded by the notorious Jon Burge.
As Dante Berry of Million Hoodies for Justice told Dissent magazine, “[T]he die-ins, the shut-it-downs, the bridge takeovers…provide a heartbeat. They demonstrate the energy of this movement, and the constant pain Black people are feeling.”
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EJERIS DIXON explained the importance of these continued protests in her keynote address at the January 24 Watching the Watchers conference in Chicago:
Many times, there’s a mobilization, a march or a murder, and people come out into the streets, and they’re all there. And then there’s a lull…But what we’ve seen is this continued momentum that is a really big deal, and that is really hard to do. And that can also be exhausting…This sustained momentum is nothing short of a victory.
But Dixon went on to add that it’s also important for activists to devote time to thinking about what the goals of these mobilizations should be:
Framing the message as “Black Lives Matter” is brilliant. It’s forward-looking, it’s simple, it’s aspirational…When Black lives matter, we will not be free, but we will be on our way. That distinction is critical, so we don’t confuse the message with the goal. The goal is the restructuring of our society. The goal is no longer needing police. The goal is no longer needing prisons. The goal is for people to have the tools and supports to live within their full dignity and humanity.
The “Watching the Watchers” conference brought together 350 people and a number of local organizations–among them We Charge Genocide, Project NIA, Black Youth Project 100, Black Lives Matter Chicago and the International Socialist Organization.
Six days later, a similar but independently organized event took place in New York City. The Gathering at Riverside Church drew close to 400 people for a series of workshops and meetings to discuss the state and future of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Both conferences reflected the feeling within the movement that in addition to organizing protests, activists need to find the time and space to figure out what the larger goals of the struggle should be.
During the evening plenary of the Gathering, Asha Rosa of Black Youth Project 100 spoke about the importance of building organizations within the movement, a theme that had come up throughout the day:
Organizations are longer-lasting than an action, longer-lasting than a campaign, longer-lasting than a moment. Organizations are where we can build structures that reflect our values, and build communities that help us sustain ourselves in this work and sustain the work itself.
We saw 60,000 people in the streets in New York City [for the December 13 day of protest]…I won’t be surprised if we don’t see 60,000 people in the streets again until its warm, and that’s okay…There are phases in these movements. We have to sustain that and make sure there are organizations for people to get plugged into.
I was reading this history about SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], and it said that after Freedom Summer [SNCC’s organizing campaign in Mississippi in 1964], folks in SNCC were tired. They weren’t marching. But they were building. They were organizing, and that’s equally important–if not more so–than just coming out and marching in the streets.
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BEYOND THESE conferences, another way that Black Lives Matter activists have grappled with the larger goals of the movement is through the question of what to demand.
The demands page on the Black Lives Matter website begins with justice for Mike Brown through the arrest of Darren Wilson and the dismissal of district attorney Robert McCullough, and goes on to call for the Pentagon to stop giving police departments combat weaponry and transfer funding from law enforcement to the Black community, via schools, housing and job creation.
Black Youth Project 100 calls for the decriminalization of marijuana and an end to the “war on drugs” that has resulted in so many people of color being imprisoned for nonviolent offenses.
Because the movement has been very decentralized to this point, demands put forward by various groups haven’t mainly served the concrete purpose of providing points of unity for demonstrations or publicity. But they have contributed to the dialogue among activists and organizations about the movement’s direction.
Disagreement over demands is an often overlooked aspect of the divide between the typically younger activists mobilized by the Black Lives Matter struggles of the last months and years and the Black political establishment, which has tried to confine the struggle to the most narrow possible terms.
When Ferguson activists fought to be on the stage at the December 13 rally sponsored by Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in Washington D.C., it wasn’t just so they could get a share of the credit. They have a different message. Sharpton helped illustrate this point in an article he wrote in the days after the protest, in which he confined aims of the struggle to very modest goals like getting independent prosecutors to investigate police murders of Black people.
Sharpton’s claim to be the natural inheritor of the civil rights movement is being challenged because he has dropped that movement’s broad demands for full equality. That role has fallen to new organizations like Ferguson Action, whose vision statement returns to the unfinished project of the struggle for Black liberation–calling for, among other things, full employment, decent housing for all, and an end to mass incarceration.
One question coming up in many cases is how protesters can both call for a total restructuring of the criminal justice system while also demanding more immediate measures like the indictment of killer cops.
Short-term victories can be a crucial building block by bringing in new people who might not yet be ready to call for prison abolition, but who are convinced of the need for more immediate reforms. Furthermore, there are demands–such as restoring the right to vote for all prisoners and subjecting police precincts to local community control–that fall short of revolution, but can still serve to radicalize newer activists by exposing the racist and undemocratic nature of the criminal justice system.
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IN HIS classic book about SNCC, the people’s historian Howard Zinn wrote that these young Black radicals had flipped the script on the country’s normal racist practice of identity formation. Instead of the typical situation in which “the Negro was always compelled to see himself through the eyes of the white man,” SNCC was creating a new situation in which “the United States was now forced by the young Negro to see itself through his eyes.”
The civil rights movement that SNCC was a part of permanently changed U.S. society–even if it didn’t come close to fully toppling the institutions of American racism. In the decades since, those institutions have recovered what ground they did lose, and taken new shapes–in part, grotesquely enough, by stealing the movement’s legacy and claiming that we now live in a “color-blind society,” and therefore the struggle against racism is obsolete.
As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote, the Black Lives Matter movement “has placed the final nail in the post-racial coffin, and along with it, the delusion that the U.S. has abandoned its racial past.” A new generation is forcing this country to look at itself through the eyes of those harassed by the police and thrown into prisons without a second thought.
The movement is just beginning to reckon with how to address the accumulated theft and violence inflicted on Black America, throughout U.S. history, and in the last few decades, when Black wealth was decimated by foreclosures and public-sector job cuts, and whatever forms of political autonomy that existed were undermined by public school closures and state takeovers of bankrupt cities.
Liberal politicians–Black and white–have had little to offer the new movement. In Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, the president had nothing more to say about Ferguson and Staten Island other than that Americans “have different takes on” their meaning.
Just as young people in Ferguson understood after Mike Brown was killed that nobody was going to fight for him if they didn’t stay in the streets, today, activists around the country see that there is no leadership coming from the first Black president or his supporters like Al Sharpton–and that it will be up to them to figure out the types of changes it will take to make Black lives matter in a country where they have always come cheap.
It’s a process that will take time to play out. In Philadelphia, the Reclaim MLK protest was organized around the demands of reforming the police department, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and having a fully funded democratically controlled school system. It remains to be seen if those demands spread nationally.
In December, people chanted “Hands up don’t shoot!” for Mike Brown and “I can’t breathe!” for Eric Garner. Now, it’s just as likely that the chants will be about local issues and victims of the local police. The movement is sinking roots and deepening.
But it will also be important for these local struggles to flow back into national marches, demands and organization. Events like The Gathering and Watching the Watchers are helping to create spaces that bring together activists across this decentralized movement to talk strategy and ultimate goals.
These are modest steps for a movement aiming to challenge racism and police power–two of the most powerful repressive institutions in the U.S. What matters for now is that hundreds–maybe thousands–of people, led by youth of color, are beginning a journey that history tells us has the power to shake American society to its core.