This summer, as we approach the first year anniversary of the Charleston massacre (June 17) and the hanging death of Sandra Bland in a Texas jail cell (July 13), the second anniversary of the choking death of Eric Garner in New York (July 17) and the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri (August 9), the Black Lives Matter movement is at a crossroads. And this is as good a time as any to assess what the still relatively brand new movement should do next, now that it has caught everyone’s attention and does not appear to be going anywhere in the near future.
At this year’s commencement at Howard University, President Obama gave a nod to black activism, but also an admonition.
“You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. I’ll repeat that. I want you to have passion, but you have to have a strategy. Not just awareness, but action. Not just hashtags, but votes,” the president said.
“You see, change requires more than righteous anger. It requires a program, and it requires organizing,” Obama told the crowd, noting that Fannie Lou Hamer, who spoke at the 1964 Democratic Convention, did not have technology, but rather had to organize cotton pickers door to door. “And I’m so proud of the new guard of black civil rights leaders who understand this. It’s thanks in large part to the activism of young people like many of you, from Black Twitter to Black Lives Matter, that America’s eyes have been opened…to the real problems, for example, in our criminal justice system.”
“But to bring about structural change, lasting change, awareness is not enough. It requires changes in law, changes in custom,” the president insisted. “If you care about mass incarceration, let me ask you: How are you pressuring members of Congress to pass the criminal justice reform bill now pending before them? If you care about better policing, do you know who your district attorney is? Do you know who your state’s attorney general is?” Obama asked.
“Mobilize the community, present them with a plan, work with them to bring about change, hold them accountable if they do not deliver. Passion is vital, but you’ve got to have a strategy.” The president also noted that change requires listening and compromise, not moral purity, and that the focus should not merely be on shutting down rallies.
“Be confident in your blackness,” Obama said. He insisted that while racism persists and there is no post-racial society, race relations have improved. If the Black Lives Matter movement could benefit from the president’s advice, then certainly they would benefit from Obama and other political leaders speaking out more about the need to end institutional discrimination.
Black Lives Matter activist Jasmine Richards, 28, was convicted under California’s felony lynching law for allegedly encouraging activists to riot and trying to free someone in police custody in Pasadena. How ironic that a black racial justice activist is charged under a law meant to protect blacks and Latinos from lynch mob violence.
That tells you that this new movement is a victim of its own success, and that someone is after them, in the way that the Black Panthers and other civil rights groups were targeted, monitored and undermined. We have seen it this election season with the vilification of anti-police brutality activists, the insistence that Blue Lives Matter, and that protest against police brutality places law enforcement in danger.
Richards’ case exemplifies the need to reform a justice system that too often punishes people of color, the poor and working class, and rewards white privilege. While Richards faces four years in prison for exercising her First Amendment rights, Stanford swimmer Brock Allen Turner raped an unconscious woman and was sentenced to only six months–because after all, the judge did not want to ruin his life.
Turner is expected to be released three months early. However, there is no similar sense of compassion for people of color whose lives will be ruined behind bars. For example, high school football star Brian Banks was sent to prison for six years after being falsely accused of rape in 2002 at the age of 16. Meanwhile, a Baltimore man was sentenced to four years for the arson of a CVS store in the wake of the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray, and a St. Louis man was given five years for an attempted arson in Ferguson.
Black Lives Matter is performing a valuable public service, and that is forcing Americans to examine the inequities in society and discuss them in a significantly new and sustained manner. When movements make the transition from influencing policy to running for office and making policy, there is potential for revolutionary change.
One example of such potential is when the late Chokwe Lumumba—a black nationalist, attorney and politician—became mayor of Jackson, Mississippi in 2013, however short-lived his tenure. Activist DeRay Mckesson had an unsuccessful foray into politics this year with a run for mayor of Baltimore, an attempt to change the system by getting into it and not just through protest. More activists must follow his lead and make the public get used to a Black Lives Matter political presence on the local, state and federal level.
Further, campus activism remains an important area for young black activists to focus attention. Despite the stereotype that college campuses are bastions of liberalism, the fact remains that not unlike the greater society, institutions of higher learning have problems. The rape and sexual assault scandals that university administrators refuse to address; the protests over hate crimes and racial harassment against students of color; the effort to help these institutions come to terms with their role in slavery, and the move to rename halls built in honor of Confederate heroes, defenders of slavery and Klansmen all stand at proof that much more work is needed.
And while young people are generally more liberal and progressive than their parents—just look at the overwhelming millennial support for Bernie Sanders as proof of this—racism among youth is very much alive. The “Trump effect” is infecting young minds. The Republican presidential nominee is leaving his impact on a younger generation, as white students emulating him are bullying their immigrant, Latino, Muslim and black peers. Or, perhaps they are mimicking their parents, or the media personalities and politicians who thrive on division, intolerance and scapegoating.
Coalition building is important in the movement for racial justice, and white allies will continue to play an important role. As @Yoliwriter tweeted: “White people, no one is asking you to apologize for your ancestors. We are asking you to dismantle the systems they built and you maintain.” Despite assertions to the contrary, President Obama did not usher in a post-racial America. Rather, all the open sores are there for the world to see, and it is not a pretty sight.
Some would argue that the racial climate has worsened, as whites are soon to lose their majority in an increasingly browning U.S. population. While many whites have felt the Bern and have sought economic justice, some elements of the white working and middle class have gravitated towards the Hitleresque demagoguery that Trump represents.
The slogan “Make America Great Again” is part of a zero-sum game in which people are led to believe the Mexicans, the Muslims, the “others” are benefiting at their expense. America never was a great place for people of color, and Trump supporters believe the country must return to the 1950s, that mythical utopia when white America was on top of its game, and incidentally, women and people of color were out of the game.
As an anonymous philosopher said, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” While many white folks do not feel privileged, black and brown people are faring even worse, on average. That’s because systems of oppression–the bad habits and entrenched practices that place black people on the losing end in so many aspects of life–continue to plague us. White allies can help shed light on this, and a diverse coalition can fight for racial justice and against xenophobia, Islamophobia, sexism and misogyny, homophobia, and all other interrelated forms of oppression.
Finally, Black Lives Matter around the world, and the fight for justice is an international proposition. On Twitter, Palestinian activists advised protesters in Ferguson on how to deal with police teargas, as the Black Lives Matter movement has shown solidarity with the victims of Israeli apartheid in the West Bank and Gaza. This, as Black Power activists are protesting against police violence and the regressive, neoliberal coup in Brazil, which installed a new all-white government in that majority-black and brown nation.
Meanwhile, June 19 is Juneteenth. Juneteenth is America’s other Independence Day, when in 1865—over two years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation—Texas received word of the emancipation of the slaves. The day represents an African-American commemoration of the end of slavery. However, the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us that the vestiges of slavery remain, and those who were freed on paper are not necessarily free in the full sense.
It is the failure of the U.S. to eradicate the badge of slavery that that brings us to where we are today, which is protracted institutional racism. The police violence, the mass incarceration, the health disparities, poor schools, high poverty and high unemployment impacting black people are a testament to an ongoing problem. Hence the need for social justice movements to make things right, and for their work to continue.