The growing militarization of the American police and their unaccountability for their brutality is a major problem and the Black Live Matter movement deserves credit for bringing this issue to the fore. BLM is probably the biggest social justice group to emerge in recent years, yet I find myself increasingly frustrated with the group.
It is the job of activists to be very clear about what they want when they cause disruption in society and to protest with clear objectives in mind, but BLM’s goal seems to get people to repeat their slogans so that people will pause and reflect on racism in their society. BLM doesn’t have any proposed policies to promote as far as I can tell. Currently BLM is conducting a campaign to confront presidential candidates to force them to address the discrimination against black people in policing.
I question their messaging, since this isn’t just a black problem and it would be better to pull together a wider coalition, since police brutality is a problem for all people, but it does hit black people the hardest. For example, a slogan like “Brown Lives Matter” could bring together Blacks, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans rather than just Blacks, but that is really nitpicking and to be fair, the movement has been trying to get people of other races involved.
The real problem, however, is the strategic goals and the tactics of BLM. They do not have a list of policies which they want politicians to implement, yet they are going after Democratic presidential candidates, seeking to disrupt their campaigns. Now I can understand disrupting campaign speeches by politicians, but this is a tactic which should be employed after other tactics have been exhausted, since it makes the public very angry when they can’t hear a candidate speak and it alienates the candidate whose position you are trying to change. Now I don’t know the full history of what happened before Netroots 15 in Phoenix, Arizona, when BLM protesters disrupted the speeches by Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders. Maybe BLM asked for meetings with the candidates and were ignored, so they felt that disrupting the speeches was the only way to get the candidate’s attention, but my feeling is that they didn’t try very hard because both O’Malley and Sanders want the Black vote and they are very willing to have meetings with lots of different groups if they are asked.
What I will say, however, is that their disruption of an event where the candidates were invited to speak about the rights of undocumented immigrants was an extremely poor choice. What they basically said was that their issue overrides the very serious problem of the 11 million people living in the US in constant fear of deportation. Remember that the organizers of the event worked very hard to get the presidential candidates to come and answer questions about their immigration policy, yet the BLM protesters didn’t seem to think that the lives of undocumented immigrants matter very much when they disrupted their event. I worked a year in a shelter for undocumented immigrants in Austin, TX and their rights do matter. In fact, I would argue that the fear and abuse that undocumented immigrants face in general is probably a bigger problem than the abuse that black people experience with the police.
Maybe if the BLM activists had worked harder to bring Hispanics into their coalition, they would have had somebody in their group who would have pointed out that disrupting an event about the rights of undocumented immigrants is not a good idea. Both O’Malley and Sanders were scheduled to appear in several other events at Netroots 15 including some that addressed Black rights, but the BLM activists didn’t choose to disrupt the candidates at those events, which in my opinion would have been the event to disrupt, since they would not have prevented the candidates from hearing about other issues which are also vitally important. I would also point out that if the BLM activists had really wanted to get the candidates to speak about their issues, they could have organized their own event and invited the candidates like the other groups did. Clearly the BLM activists weren’t interested in dialog with the candidates. What they wanted was to make headlines in the press by disrupting the candidates. O’Malley took this disruption better than Sanders, by staying and engaging afterwards, but Sanders didn’t attend any of the subsequent events which addressed black issues, although he did return for a event with Hispanics, so the BLM activists lost an opportunity to engage Sanders.
It would be one thing if the BLM activists were demanding something that would make a significant difference, but what they chanted when disrupting O’Malley and Sanders was “say her name!”. Sanders was listening and he tried to comply with their demands by mentioning Sandra Bland’s name in subsequent speeches. When Symone Sanders, a black advocate for criminal justice reform who is also a member of BLM, contacted Bernie Sanders, he sat down and talked to her for an hour about how to incorporate BLM issues into his campaign, and he later hired Symone Sanders to be his National Press Secretary. Bernie Sanders used Symone Sanders’ suggestions in his speech at the SCLC in New Orleans about how to talk about black rights and economic injustice as being parallel issues. It’s also worth noting that Sanders was already talking about criminal justice reform, holding the police accountable for their actions, and the need to provide jobs and education for black youth before the BLM protest at Netroots 15.
The BLM protesters didn’t say to either O’Malley or Sanders that they wanted them to create criminal justice reform plans, but O’Malley had been working on one for weeks and released it after the NetRoots 15 protest. Three weeks later, BLM activists decided to disrupt Sanders’ speech in Seattle about defending Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Again, the BLM activists didn’t try to work with the organizers and get a few minutes to speak. They didn’t try to organize their own event and invite Sanders to speak at it. Their goal was to disrupt an event fighting for the rights of millions of Americans, whose medical insurance, disability and retirement are under attack. Again BLM decided that their issue overrode another very important issue. It seems extremely strange for a group dedicated to black civil rights to disrupt an event to promote government programs which help millions of black folk and give them a decent standard of living.
Two BLM activists stormed the stage in Seattle as Sanders was speaking and took the microphone. When some people in the crowd of 5000 started booing, because they had come to hear Sanders speak, the BLM activist called them “racists” for booing their disruptive behavior. Watching a video of the event, I heard people in the crowd say, “How dare she call me a racist!” Then, the BLM activist demanded 4.5 minutes of silence and kept talking until Bernie Sanders finally waved to the crowd and left, since it was clear that BLM was never going to allow him to speak. The BLM activists could have caused a couple minutes of disruption to get their message out and keep the pressure on Sanders, but their goal was to shut him down entirely. Many of the organizers of the event and the 5000 people in the crowd which included many activists and progressives were probably alienated by the BLM tactics, and will not be very welcoming to BLM in the future.
The BLM activists told the crowd to “hold Bernie Sanders to account” for his actions and noted that O’Malley had released a comprehensive criminal justice reform plan, but Sanders had not. Now, I can understand denouncing Sanders for this, if the BLM activists had been making this demand of Sanders for months, but this had not been one of their demands. At the NetRoots 15 protest, their demand was “Say her Name!,” which Sanders had done in response. After complying with their demands, suddenly they were changing their demands, and not giving Sanders enough time to reasonably comply with their demands. Sanders was already working on a comprehensive criminal justice reform plan but it wasn’t done and he was already planning on announcing Symone Sanders as his new national press secretary. After the BLM protest, he rushed out a draft of his plan and announced Symone Sander’s new position that same night. She give a very strong speech about black rights and criminal justice reform before Sanders’ main speech that night.
BLM has indubitably gotten O’Malley and Sanders to act in response to their protests, so it might be argued that their tactics worked, despite the fact that they were rude and trampled on the rights of other activists. The problem in my opinion is that BLM has not been clear about what they want from politicians. Both O’Malley and Sanders have shown that they are willing to advocate for policies which address the problems of police brutality and mass incarceration of black youth, but the BLM activists have given them no indication what those policies should be. As an activist myself, I think it is irresponsible to disrupt politicians and refuse to let them speak when you don’t have clear policy positions that you want them to adopt. The goal of BLM activists appears to be raising the issue in the public eye and getting in the national news, by disrupting the speeches of progressive politicians. They don’t seem to care about the actual policies which are designed to address racism.
I find both this manner of raising awareness and the tactics of speech disruption to be reprehensible. If an activist group is going to disrupt a politician’s speech, they have a duty to clearly tell that politician what he or she is doing wrong and what policy needs to be implemented to correct the situation. BLM activists haven’t given either O’Malley or Sanders clear policy direction, nor have their demands been clear.
Of course the candidate who they most need to reach is Hillary Clinton, who is very hard to disrupt, since she doesn’t give many public speeches like O’Malley and Sanders. The BLM activists tried to get into a Hillary event, but were kept out due to the limited number allowed in attendance, but Hillary did agree to meet separately with the BLM activists afterwards. That event was filmed and Democracy Now ran a segment to show clips from the meeting and interview the BLM activists who had participated in the meeting with Hillary Clinton.
During the meeting Hillary told the BLM activists that she needed to hear what policies they wanted her to implement with regards to criminal justice reform, but the BLM activists turned the question around and accused Hillary of telling black people what to do. The central goal of the BLM activists was to get Hillary to admit her own complicity in the oppression of black people, but they weren’t interested in discussing what policies Hillary could implement to prevent future oppression. In exasperation, Hillary said that their goal of getting white folks to admit their complicity might change some hearts and minds, but not many and they would be having the same conversation in 10 years time. Hillary asserted that she wanted to change laws and economic structures, so they could avoid having the same conversations in the future.
The BLM activists were right to criticize the policies which Hillary promoted in the 1990s which have thrown large numbers of black people in jail, but the goal of BLM should be to get those policies repealed, not to get Hillary to admit that she is culpable for the oppression of black folk. The BLM strategy is frankly counterproductive and no politician is going to take them very seriously if they continue making these sorts of demands.
When I go to the BLM web site, I do see a list of 5 national demands, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a coordinated effort to push for those demands. When I wrote a long email expressing my disagreement with their tactics, I never got a response to indicate that anyone had read it. A simple “thank you for your opinion” would have been nice.
The thing that frustrates me about many of the BLM activists is that they show such little regard for other activist movements either past or present. They make comments expressing how important and urgent their issue is, while seeming to disregard other issues or even the actions of other groups to address racism.
During the early 1960s, Bernie Sanders was an activist for CORE and SNCC at the University of Chicago, where he protested the segregationist housing policies of the University. He got arrested once for his activism and he participated in the March on Washington where Martin Luther King gave his famous “I have a Dream” speech. A number of BLM activists have publicly stated that Bernie doesn’t deserve any special consideration or leniency from their group because of his 50 years of civil rights activism or the fact that the NAACP currently gives him a 100% voting record.
Imani Gandy who is the @AngryBlackLady on Twitter posted:
If I see one more Bernie acolyte mention that he marched with MLK, I’m going to burn the Internet to the ground. @EdDescault @Eclectablog
10:23 AM – 19 Jul 2015
Roderick Morrow, a black comedian, created the #BernieSoBlack hashtag to make fun of how Sander’s supporters keep mentioning that he marched with MLK as an argument that he shouldn’t be criticized.
Julius Jones of BLM said in an interview with Larry Wilmore:
In this case with Bernie Sanders, with all the other democratic nominees, they are not showing up for black lives. The movement is happening. It’s live. It’s real. It’s like we are pushing the needle and folks are not showing up in real enough ways, because Bernie Sanders, for as much as he was walking with MLK, he ain’t walking that walk now.
What Julius Jones should say is that Bernie Sanders isn’t walking the walk that BLM wants, because Sanders is much closer to the walk of MLK than they are. When MLK was alive, he pressured politicians to implement specific policies to reduce racism, a strategy which BLM hasn’t employed. At the time of his death MLK was leading protests against the economic inequality of blacks and the war in Vietnam. Sanders’ current campaign for a $15 dollar minimum wage, free tuition at college, reduction of student interest rates, a trillion dollar investment in infrastructure to create 13 million jobs, paid family and medical leave, 10 days of paid vacation per year, a transaction tax on Wall Street, breaking up the big banks, raising the tax rates on the wealth and better financial regulation are all geared toward addressing the economic inequality of blacks which MLK thought was the most important issue of the black rights movement in the late 1960s. On antiwar issues, Sanders voted against both Gulf Wars and has promised to vote for the nuclear deal with Iraq and talks constantly about the need to avoid perpetual war in the MiddleEast (although his support of the Israeli militarism, drone strikes, and armament plants in his state indicate a less than perfect record on this issue).
BLM had a legitimate criticism of Sanders when they raised the fact that he was only talking about economic racism and wasn’t doing enough to address the racism of cops killing black youth. Yet, BLM fails to acknowledge that Sanders’ programs for economic justice is also part of the legacy of MLK and are an important component of the fight against racism. The real problem, however, is that BLM criticized Sanders for not “Saying her Name”, but it wouldn’t tell him what policies he should be promoting to stop the next Sandra Bland from dying.
One prominent BLM activist dismissed Sanders in this way:
No candidate who is really about this w[o]rk would break a sweat in response to a question in the form of “Do Black Lives Matter?” The simple answer should be “Yes” not some weirdo populist economic determinism.
The question is whether repeating “Yes, black lives matter” or “Say her name” over and over will make a significant change and help solve the problem. Saying these slogans might awaken some peoples’ consciences and get BLM in the press, but it doesn’t do much to achieve concrete changes in my opinion. Both Sanders and O’Malley tried to respond to those slogans with proposed policies at NetRoots 15 and the BLM activists chanted over them.
BLM is a decentralized movement so it can’t be expected to have one single message, but as a movement it needs to reevaluate how it approaches its national campaign to disrupt the speeches of presidential candidates. These tactics are counterproductive when BLM has no policy prescription to offer and seems to only want politicians to repeat slogans which will do little to solve the problem of racism or criminal justice in the long term.