How Black Lives Matter has changed US politics
What role should identity play in our fight for freedom? After the election of Donald Trump as president of the US, the answer for many mainstream pundits has been simple: none. Particularly disheartening since the 2016 election has been the misguided view that black activism and its focus on racial justice, police accountability and – gasp – reparations for chattel slavery and decades of housing discrimination, was ultimately a divisive distraction from the larger goal of keeping a man who is sympathetic to white nationalists out of the Oval Office.
Depending on who you ask, black people shortchanged democracy either directly, by refusing to use their platform to endorse candidates, or indirectly by not voting with the same enthusiasm that ushered Barack Obama into the White House. The day after the election, US News World Reports ran a story that summed this up: ‘Clinton made her case to black voters,’ the headline screamed. ‘Why didn’t they hear her?’
This blame is neither new nor particularly compelling. Alicia Garza, a co-founder of the Movement for Black Lives coalition, Black Lives Matter and longtime organizer in black and Latino communities, sees it as part of a long history of wrongly blaming black people for the fundamental failings of electoral politics. ‘There’s a contradiction happening where now white liberals and white moderates are saying, “Man, we lost the election because black people didn’t vote, so fuck BLM”, and “We lost the election because we spent too much time on identity politics, but let’s do everything we can to galvanize white working class people”.’
There has been a not-so-subtle insistence across US media and politics that white working-class voters have been ignored for the sake of radical rabble-rousers calling for justice based on who they love, their gender identity, their class background, and their racial identity. At its core is the belief that whiteness is and should remain the norm and that white supremacy is an immoveable and non-threatening platform on which to advocate for incremental change. The Movement for Black Lives has long argued that this is not a feasible road to freedom.
More than a hashtag
Black Lives Matter is a history that is still being written. Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Opal Tometi turned their collective outrage into action upon George Zimmerman’s acquittal after killing Trayvon Martin in July 2013.
Garza, Khan-Cullors and Tometi were also among the protesters and organizers who flooded Ferguson, Missouri, for weeks after Michael Brown was shot dead by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in August 2014. Brown’s body was left in the hot Missouri sun for hours.
The immediate shock of Brown’s death gave way to a sobering look at the institutional forces that shape the lives and deaths of black people in places like Ferguson. The Department of Justice eventually issued a scathing report that detailed how Ferguson’s courts and police force strategically targeted black citizens for arrest and fines to add millions of dollars to the city’s coffers.
Meanwhile, organizers around the country joined Garza, Khan-Cullors and Tometi to turn #BlackLivesMatter into more than a hashtag. They created the Black Lives Matter Network and the Movement for Black Lives, the latter a coalition that included the Network and over 50 other racial justice organizations.
In April 2016, shortly after the Republican and Democratic Conventions, the Movement for Black Lives unveiled a long-awaited policy platform that outlined its essential beliefs. It laid out six core demands and 40 corresponding policy recommendations, including a call to demilitarize law enforcement, end money bail and end the privatization of public grammar school education in the US. The platform was bold not just in its recommendations, but also in its process. Officially titled ‘A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice’, the platform was the result of a year’s work by the coalition. It was proof that there is a vast, co-ordinated movement in the US that is determined to fight for black freedom.
But it was also proof that that movement is fragmented. One of the more contentious splits has been between Movement for Black Lives co-founders and another group called We The Protesters, led by high-profile activist DeRay McKesson. A charter school educator by training, McKesson rose to prominence during the uprising in Ferguson where he live-tweeted on-the-ground events, gave interviews on cable news and amassed hundreds of thousands of followers, including Beyoncé.
A challenge to power
Many of the differences between the two groups can be boiled down to ideology. More often than not, the Movement for Black Lives has eschewed attempts to work within law enforcement or electoral politics, arguing that policy reform is only one tactic in an arsenal with plenty of others; We The Protesters, on the other hand, has zeroed in on pragmatic policy solutions and welcomed the chance to work with elected officials, such as accepting invitations to meet with Senator Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. They released their own policy platform focused specifically on police use of force.
The Movement for Black Lives has spurned advances from establishment politicians. They refused to fall in line with the status quo and disrupted liberal and progressive presidential candidates like Clinton and Sanders at rallies and fundraisers. They did not stop at calling for an end to the extrajudicial killings of black men and boys like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Instead, they also demanded that the public at large, particularly black communities, also acknowledge the epidemic of violence aimed at transgender women of colour, who are murdered at stunningly disproportionate rates in the US. Organizers like Elle Hearns, based in Cleveland, helped develop a political platform that made these lives and deaths pivotal to black liberation at large.
‘In my work I’ve always tried to consider and understand the multitude of experiences that shape who I am as a black person and the experiences of those in my community,’ says Hearns, who has since co-founded the Marsha P Johnson Institute, named after the slain transgender icon who helped spark the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion. ‘Why it is important to always maintain space for sexuality and gender is because that’s who we are.’
Garza and Khan-Cullors, who both identify as queer, used their increasingly public platforms to demand that race, sexual identity and gender be acknowledged as interwoven forces. In an early herstory of the movement published on The Feminist Wire in 2014, Garza put it this way: ‘Progressive movements in the United States have made some unfortunate errors when they push for unity at the expense of really understanding the concrete differences in context, experience and oppression,’ she wrote. ‘In other words, some want unity without struggle.’
Today, that struggle continues on all fronts. The US is one of many countries that is witnessing the rise of white nationalist movements – identity politics, though it isn’t often called as such. At a local level, women and people of colour are using their identities to springboard themselves into elected office and challenge the agendas that threaten their existence. And Black Lives Matter is still organizing and protesting in a city near you.
Jamilah King is based in New York City and is a senior staff writer at Mic.com.