The Question of the State in Black Lives Matter

Senator Bernie Sanders and BLM Activist Mara Willaford. Image via The Atlantic

Black Lives Matter. This isn’t a question, or at least it shouldn’t be. And in three days or months or years this statement will still be true: Black Lives Matter. The question is, in three days or months or years will the #BlackLivesMatter organization matter? The group, formed after the murder of Trayvon Martin, has gained prominence for drawing attention to epidemic levels of police brutality against black Americans. The movement has eschewed the tools we’ve come to associate with activists, such as passive groups marching with brightly colored signs, in favor of more aggressive tactics that force discussion, such as confronting Bernie Sanders during a Social Security Rally. With the recent release of Campaign Zero (to clarify, Campaign Zero is not directly released by the BLM organization) the BLM movement is shifting from the Twitterverse into Washington, and already there seems to be some tactical dissonance.

BLM has not shied away from controversy. In response to characterizations of the protests in Baltimore and other cities as “riots,” leaders of the movement have directly challenged the notions of “non-violence” that have become viewed as a staple of activism since the Civil Rights Movement with the hashtag #ReclaimMLK. But perhaps BLM’s most discussed tactic has been interrupting large public rallies, in particular those of liberal politicians and commentators. The presidential race has provided the perfect target. The group has already interrupted candidates speaking at the progressive confab Netroots Nation, and it later disrupted a Social Security rally in Seattle, where presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was speaking. The protests at the Sanders rally in particular led to significant backlash from white liberals, who argued that targeting Sanders was ineffective given that he is the most liberal candidate with the best civil rights record and most promising economic platform for helping black Americans. All of these critiques miss the point.

The BLM organization has been defined by its refusal to work within traditional political parties and systems, which it rightfully believes has ignored its concerns. Widespread within the BLM movement are critiques of the “white moderate,” the Democrats’ handling of police violence against blacks, and “respectability politics.” And if the goal of BLM is to force political elites to discuss the disproportionate effect the criminal justice system has on black Americans, their tactics have been incredibly successful. Shortly after the Netroots protest, Bernie Sanders devoted speech time to the death of Sandra Bland, and after the Seattle protest, Sanders released a platform for racial justice. The protests even frightened the Clinton campaign enough to give five BLM activists alone-time with the candidate. However, while BLM’s radical tactics may have gotten them the meeting with Clinton, they didn’t help them once they got there.

Watching the video of the BLM meeting with Hillary Clinton, however, it’s easy to get the impression that the activists were out of their league. They end up being lectured to, and while Clinton’s condescension during the meeting was unwarranted, she does make a statement towards the end of the encounter that confronts the reality facing BLM. “[T]he consciousness raising, the advocacy, the passion, the youth of your movement is so critical. But now all I’m suggesting is, even for us sinners, find some common ground on agendas that can make a difference right here and now in people’s lives…I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You’re not going to change every heart. You’re not.” As Clinton notes, raising awareness of these issues is critical, but awareness is not a long-term strategy. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton may be toting criminal justice reforms platforms now, but how likely are they to try and implement those platforms once elected? Moreover, even if the next president is willing to consider criminal justice reforms, the BLM movement is unlikely to get the changes they seek so long as they refuse to work with the system to any extent. I think that some within the BLM movement recognize this.

Looking at recent interviews with BLM leaders, some members seem to acknowledge that remaining steadfastly outside and in opposition to the current political system might not be their best long-term option. In their meeting with Hillary, the activists took a drastically different tone from the one activists have taken when confronting Bernie Sanders. At various points Julius Jones “respectfully” disagrees with Hillary. And while the conversation is heated it lacks the aggression and radical language generally associated with interactions between BLM activists and politicians. And in a recent interview with leaders of BLM and associated groups, three of the four interviewed said that BLM running for office is important for having their concerns addressed and policies implemented. The problem is the fourth interviewee’s disagreement.

Multiple articles have warned that BLM’s decentralization and lack of defined leadership structure will result in it going same way as Occupy Wall Street, but what’s more concerning is that this decentralization could lead to internal conflict over end goals. For instance, while Alicia Garza, one of the founders of BLM, is saying that BLM would love for its leaders to run for office after some changes to the political system, Mara Willaford, who co-founded the Seattle Branch of BLM, is instead saying that putting movement leaders into government positions is just another way for the state to repress the movement. Disagreements like this exist throughout the movement and across the country. Disagreements within an organization are important for growth and maintaining relevance, but when one side believes that the other is enabling the very oppression the movement is fighting, it can threaten the organization itself.

Thus far, BLM’s tactics have been exactly what has been needed. They have drawn attention to a serious crisis facing America in a way that is difficult to ignore. Campaign Zero, and meetings between BLM activists and various political figures, including White House staff, show that at least some members of the BLM organization and the larger movement are willing to work with the system in order to modify it as it currently exists. However, both the organization and the movement are going to have to reconcile this faction with the significant number of its members who feel that the system cannot be reformed, that working within it only further enables oppression, and that it must be overthrown entirely.

BLM will continue to force America to really look at itself and its history, but I suggest that it also has to be willing to work with the political system, at least to some extent. Whether that is accomplished by running for office or through further dialogue with politicians to ensure policy proposals are implemented, only time will tell. In a statement last week, BLM said “The Democratic Party, like the Republican and all political parties, have historically attempted to control or contain Black people’s efforts to liberate ourselves. True change requires real struggle, and that struggle will be in the streets and led by the people.” The struggle may indeed be in the streets, but if it never makes its way into the laws then it cannot be sustainable.