Monday, August 24, 2015

What Does the Black Lives Matter Movement Really Want?
U.S. News & World Report
Joseph P. Williams

After skyrocketing into the public consciousness, the group’s lack of organization could undermine their social justice efforts.

It began as a bold way to protest injustice and raise public consciousness, blending social-media organizing with old-school civil disobedience: marches, sit-ins, confrontations with police.

Galvanized under a three-word slogan, the deliberately leaderless, ad-hoc group quickly morphed into a popular, accessible movement that mainstream politicians ignored at their peril.

Yet its failure to define its purpose, clearly articulate its goals, find common ground with establishment groups or even agree on its structure all but condemned Occupy Wall Street to political irrelevance.

Attention, #BlackLivesMatter: Those who ignore history, it’s said, are doomed to repeat it.

Having forced authorities to acknowledge disproportionate police misconduct against African Americans, disrupted the 2016 presidential campaign and placed racism on the national agenda in the Age of Obama, #BlackLivesMatter made headlines recently, flexing some political muscle but also exposing potentially critical vulnerabilities.

On Aug. 18, leaked video of an impromptu meeting with Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton shows a handful of activists struggling to outline a straightforward agenda in the precious few minutes they had her attention. Clinton, perhaps the nation’s most powerful woman, served up a pro tip: Marches and pressure tactics are good first steps, but real change comes from goals and a political endgame.

“You can get lip service from as many white people you can pack into Yankee Stadium and a million more like it who are going to say, ‘We get it, we get it. We are going to be nicer,’ ” she told Julius Jones as he demanded Clinton stand accountable for her role in the mass incarceration of black people, a top BlackLivesMatter issue. “That’s not enough, at least in my book.”

Later that day, a Tweeted invitation from Sen. Bernie Sanders – who’s gaining on Clinton in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination but who also has been a target of activists’ protests – to Deray McKesson, perhaps the movement’s highest-profile operative, triggered a Twitter brawl over who, if anyone, is authorized to speak on the behalf of #BlackLivesMatter.

Late last week, conservative news sites focused on the race of Shaun King, another visible #BlackLivesMatter activist, declaring that he is white and not African American. Though King has condemned the reports as lies and defended himself on social media, it underscored the movement’s lack of a unified communications structure, and its susceptibility to controversy.

"This attack isn't about me so much, but is about derailing Black Lives Matter and the movement against police brutality," King told CNN’s Don Lemon.

Now comes word that #BlackLivesMatter activists are planning to disrupt the Minnesota State Fair, an iconic annual gathering that features politicians along with livestock and fried food on a stick. Organizers reportedly plan to protest St. Paul police shootings along with the lack of African American food vendors at the fair; while McKesson is a former Twin Cities public school educator, it’s not clear if he’s connected to the protest.

Those developments,and its rejection of an organizational structure, has #BlackLivesMatters participants, allies and opponents asking what, exactly, a movement on the cusp of power wants from the powers that be – and if it can succeed where Occupy Wall Street failed.

“They could certainly benefit from some organizing and coming up with a 10-point platform on what we want,” says Lecia Brooks, outreach coordinator for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “I would say that’s definitely part of the growing pains” of a movement that’s less than five years old.

At the same time, “I think it’s also part of the hesitancy millennials have with the traditional way of doing things,” adds Brooks, who’s active in #BlackLivesMatter protests in Birmingham, Alabama, noting the movement principally consists of young people. “To their detriment, they lose ground in not wanting to follow a traditional pattern or path that has been blazed before.”

Launched as a hashtag out of frustration after vigilante George Zimmerman’s 2013 acquittal for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, #BlackLivesMatter emerged as a force last summer. That’s when the world’s attention turned to Ferguson, Missouri, where #BlackLivesMatter protesters, angry that a white cop shot and killed an unarmed African American teenager with no apparent justification, took to the streets and clashed with police.

“Black Lives Matter is a movement, but it is also a mantra,”Jonathan Newton, the founder and president of the National Association Against Police Brutality, told The Daily Beast recently. “It does not have a centralized structure, and that is what I think causes some confusion and also allows this movement to live on.”

Since Ferguson, the movement has broadened its causes, sweeping in lingering issues in black America: minimum wage demands, and crackdowns on police misconduct in communities of color, as well as decades-old disparities between blacks and whites on subjects ranging from access to quality education to rates of prison incarceration.

But it’s happening in a nation that’s enshrined the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech, sanctified images of black and white civil rights marchers linking arms and delivered two terms to the nation’s first black president. Images of #BlackLivesMatter protesters confronting would-be allies like Sanders and Clinton – and challenge one another – are as awkward and uncomfortable as a Kanye West album playing at a Bush family picnic.

Yet the young people involved in #BlackLivesMatter activism are doing what social change  movements are supposed to do, says Brooks: agitate, disrupt, “let people know you are there.” While it might look incoherent, she adds, “some really good things are coming out of it.”

Adam Green, a history professor at the University of Chicago who specializes in race and politics, says doubt and divisions are old hat in most of the old-school civil rights organizations. Even King faced internal criticism when he put poverty and an end to the Vietnam War on a par with demands for equality and justice.

The civil rights movement of the last century ultimately evolved into a coherent force, but it took time – decades, in some cases – and matured in an entirely different environment, Green says. He compared #BlackLivesMatter to the NAACP, the venerable civil rights movement which originated in the 1920s to combat an epidemic of black men lynched by mobs of white vigilantes.

“This is not that new,” Green says of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, adding that the main difference is it’s occurring in a whiplash era of Twitter, Facebook and the 24/7, instantaneous news cycle. “It’s important to consult history and see the way the kinds of challenges … correspond very much to ones that have come up before.”

Amen, says Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. That #BlackLivesMatter has garnered mainstream media attention, he says, demonstrates the impact they’ve already had on the halting conversation about race in America.

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“Organic movements, if you will, are sometimes messy,” Morial says, noting that #BlackLivesMatter is operating in the hyperkinetic atmosphere of social media. “It’s much easier to quickly create momentum because of the internet. But the framing is, we’ve had this two-year period of high-profile, very disturbing incidents of police misconduct,” including the seemingly unjustified police killings of Brown, Eric Garner in New York City and Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

Morial also credits the movement with pushing issues his organization has spent years fighing to put on the nation’s front burner; a 2013 Urban League white paper on entrenched racial discrimination, he says, sank like a stone; because of its clout, however, #BlackLivesMatter came up during the Republican presidential debate, and Sanders, Clinton and Republican heavyweight Bush made time to campaign at the National Urban League convention last month.

At the same time, Morial says, it’s important to remember that the fight for equality and justice has been going on since the first slave rebellion on a colonial American plantation. #BlackLivesMatter may have captured that zeitgeist, he says, but history tells us real change comes in fits and starts – and, usually, after long periods of frustration.

“Traditional politics is, ‘What do you want? State your demands, let me respond to it,’” Morial says. “But sometimes, activist movements are about raising awareness and creating a climate where these issues are discussed at a higher level.”

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