Is it a groundswell among young, disenfranchised African Americans? Or is it the latest en vogue fad resulting from the “instant information” age? Whatever the rationale for the mass movement, the Black Lives Matter pilgrimage is quickly reaching a level of social activism almost forgotten by baby boomers, while attracting the attention of the mass media in ways not seen since the “Free Speech,” “Anti-War” or “Black Power” movements almost 50 years ago.
Black Lives Matter, or “BLM” for short, has forced its way into the political season in unexpected ways. It began last year after the Michael Brown killing by a White police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Some followers trace its origins even earlier to the Trayvon Martin killing at the hands of a White neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla. How and when it began may be irrelevant to the tens of thousands of followers (of all colors) nationwide who are taking on those in positions of authority extending from local law enforcement and city hall, to Capitol Hill and even presidential candidates.
No politician is immune
BLM is forcing candidates to grapple with the thorny issue of racial inequality as the Democratic campaign tightens and the Republican primary is wide-open. No political party—nor its multi-racial membership—is immune from the sprawling army of millennials armed with pocket-sized communications devices which influence the daily socio-political discourse in ways a generation before could not imagine. The activists are becoming a wild card in the 2016 presidential season, showing up at rallies and town halls, threatening to disrupt carefully crafted events and forcing scripted candidates off their storylines. BLM to date has not thrown support behind any political party or prized candidate; they’re keeping pressure on everyone seeking a vote to address issues specific to the African American body politic.
BLM activists have largely rejected the kind of “top down” leadership that has defined most social movements. And while reforming the criminal justice system is said by many within its ranks to animate their cause, BLM is pushing for a broad change in how African Americans are viewed and treated. Members have confronted some of the biggest names in the political season, such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seeking an historic redress of grievances of which all of the presidential hopefuls—according to the protesters—are well aware of but none have addressed during their individual campaigns.
‘We knocked on the door … now we’re kicking it open’
“You can change laws, you can change allocations of resources, you can change the way systems operate. You’re not gonna change every heart,” Clinton said to a cadre of BLM devotees who met with her at a campaign stop in New Hampshire. Specifically, the protesters questioned Clinton about her husband’s 1994 crime bill which led to a massive uptick in the prison population, disproportionately jailing African Americans. Clinton was making her first major policy speech that day and acknowledged that the bill, sponsored by then-Sen. Joe Biden and backed by the majority of the Congressional Black Caucus, went too far, vowing that if elected she would end the “… era of mass incarceration.” She also pressed the activists for a more concrete focus, noting, “We need a whole comprehensive plan—that I am more than happy to work with you guys on—to try to figure out. We know that Black lives matter. We need to keep saying it so that people accept it. What do we do next? What is our step?”
Sanders did not have it so easy at a campaign event in Seattle. His speech this month to a largely White audience was interrupted and he relinquished the microphone to a pair of BLM members who demanded he and other presidential candidates respond to the BLM agenda which first and foremost demands an end to the surge in police killings of unarmed Black persons. Political pundits responded to the Seattle incident as an unprecedented demonstration of activism because a pair of young Black women denied a White man the opportunity to speak to a like-minded liberal audience in one of the nation’s most [so called] progressive cities.
“We did as you asked,” said Mara Willaford, one of the protesters at the Sanders rally. “We knocked politely at the door, waiting for [political leaders] to let us in. But we received no answer. So we knocked harder, to only have you wave and smile at us. Now we’re kicking the door down. What else can you expect?”
Disrupt then shut down
Sanders continued his campaign with a stop a few weeks ago at the Sports Arena in Los Angeles, telling the overflow crowd, “There is no president that will fight more than me to end institutional racism and [work towards] criminal justice reform. I find it interesting that a kid smoking marijuana can get arrested, but CEOs get away with [corporate crime].”
This summer, members of BLM disrupted a Los Angeles Police Commission meeting which was addressing the findings of the Ezell Ford killing by the LAPD. Activists were calling attention to Chief Charlie Beck’s decision not to discipline the two officers involved in the shooting, even as the police commission stated that the shooting appeared to be outside of department policy. The protesters effectively shut down the meeting, and that was fine with Cal State L.A. professor Melina Abdullah who helped organize the protest.
“[LAPD] has this policy of keeping killer cops on duty, and they expect us to just accept it,” Abdullah said. “If we did, we wouldn’t be living up to our duty as people.”
Activists within the BLM movement contend its message may stem more from alleged social assertions that African Americans don’t have the power to stop the violence against them from agents of the state. The “all lives matter” retort from opposing voices may, in the eyes of BLM proponents, diminish the Black lives which continue to be lost (at the hands of White authority and by other Blacks primarily in the inner city). The latter construct is believed by BLM devotees to be the result of minimal attention paid to the socio-economic needs of those residents who witness little modern progress outside of the latest advancements in 21st century policing, fire protection or emergency services in general.
BLM: ‘… who knows what that is?’
The Republican party is in the “eye of the storm” as well. Jeb Bush was at a campaign rally two weeks ago in North Las Vegas when BLM activists peppered him with tough questions about the sharp increase in Black persons (many unarmed) being killed by law enforcement, as well as the treatment of African Americans in the criminal justice system. Bush responded to a question about institutional racism, specifically about addressing training reform at different police departments. Jamie Hall, a North Las Vegas BLM activist, asked Bush about his past efforts to create a better education system in the inner city “… but if kids in the neighborhoods are seeing their fathers and brothers and cousins killed, why would they want to go to school and excel?”
“We have serious problems,” Bush said, “and these problems have gotten worse in the last few years. [In some] communities, people no longer trust the basic institutions in our society that they need to trust to create, to make things work. There is racism in America … no one should deny that.” About 20 BLM activists began their familiar chant—others retorted with “White lives matter” and “all lives matter”—and Bush decided to end the rally.
On Aug. 21, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said of the BLM movement, “… who knows what that is?” and likened the group to the idea of meeting with top representatives from a leaderless movement on the political right. DailyMail.com that afternoon asked Walker if he would ever sit down with BLM representatives. “That’s a ridiculous question,” Walker said. BLM activists tried to engage Walker at the Iowa State Fair, and he reportedly ignored questions from a 50-member contingent.
Donald Trump told Fox News recently that he doesn’t see much credence in the BLM movement, noting, “… I’m seeing lots of bad stuff about it right now.” He also scolded Martin O’Malley for apologizing to BLM, after members reportedly chided him for saying “all lives matter.”
‘I’ll never give up my microphone’
“I thought when O’Malley made the statement that ‘White lives matter … all lives matter’ and then he apologized like a baby … like a disgusting, little weak pathetic baby.”
O’Malley made his comment at a Netroots Nation conference earlier this summer, after activists repeatedly shouted over him. In reference to Sanders, Trump said: “I would never give up my microphone. That showed such weakness … they just took the whole place over. I don’t know if I will [fight against BLM] or other people will, but believe me that’s not going to happen to Trump.”
BLM this month released “Campaign Zero” which is comprehensive set of policy demands which was informed partly by President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Many of Campaign Zero’s proposals—including body cameras, better training and community oversight—reportedly enjoy broad support from the American public and many law enforcement agencies. The policy sheet calls for an end to the “broken windows” policing philosophy (including petty street crimes, littering, loitering, curfew violations, etc.) wants to limit the use force employed by peace officers, seeks independent investigations and prosecutions of police brutality incidents, calls for more community representation on various police boards of inquiry, an end to “for profit” policing and private prisons, and a full “demilitarization” of police departments nationwide.
Campaign Zero also wants police departments to stop imposing minimum quotas for tickets and arrests, make stronger efforts in the recruitment and retraining of officers of color, as well as the decriminalization of marijuana and consumption of alcohol in public.
BLM activists last week targeted the New York Police Department’s involvement in the surveillance of their movement. The group says that nearly 280 documents demonstrate how the department has watched protests—primarily inside Grand Central Terminal between November 2014 and January 2015—and obtained these findings via the Freedom of Information Law. Apparently, the city’s Metropolitan Transit Authority and Metro-North (the transit polce force) dispatched counterterrorism agents, along with “undercover” officers to monitor 21 peaceful BLM demonstrators at the Manhattan transportation hub, photographing and keeping files on individual activists. BLM also says that the documents reveal that the two agencies worked in conjunction with NYPD intelligence officers to monitor the protesters.
Changing ‘hearts and minds’
“The report about NYPD and MTA police officers conducting surveillance on protesters opposed to police brutality demonstrates that the NYPD remains engaged in the same troubling surveillance it has conducted for decades on political activists,” said Monifa Bandele of the group Communities United for Police Reform. Bandele was referring, in part, to a 1971 court case involving a civil rights lawyer, Barbara Handschyu, and members of the Black Panther Party and a group of anti-war activists who filed a lawsuit alleging the NYPD had illegally infiltrated, surveilled and disrupted First Amendment-protected activity, mostly surrounding Vietnam War protests.
The tension over capturing hearts and minds versus changing the operation of systems—and, in particular, over which must come first—is a long-standing challenge. In 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. argued:
“Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.”