Editor’s note: In the third installment of the four-part series After the Fire, The Root looks at how the social-justice movement—on- and offline—is influencing the presidential race for 2016. Did your candidate say, “Black lives matter”? After the Fire was reported and written by Associate Editor Danielle C. Belton. Illustration by Jada Prather. Read Part 1 and Part 2.
Black people have the most impossible standard for togetherness, but it’s for a good reason.
We’re among the few, maybe the only group, who can get near 90 percent of its demographic on the same page, to vote one way or another. You can’t get 90 percent of women—across races, socioeconomic lines, religions, etc.—to agree on anything. Ninety percent of white people? Agreeing? Not happening. Latinos and Asians don’t vote 90 percent in one direction.
Yet despite our incredible ability to get together and get something moving, we’re extremely critical of our progress. It’s as if, so what if you got that 90? What about that other 10? What are they doing? Why didn’t they turn out and vote? Or, if they did, why didn’t they vote the same way? Don’t they know strength comes in numbers? Doesn’t that 10 percent know it’s an emergency?
And it’s never not an emergency in black America. Sirens are constantly going off, warning of one thing or another. Fires are constantly burning. People dying. People going to jail. Kids not getting educated. Schools closing. Lack of jobs, lack of resources, lack of grocery stores. Crime. Drugs. Guns.
To that 10 percent, the 90 percent turns into Harriet Tubman, Bible in one hand, gun in the other, issuing threats that this 10 percent is not going to get the 90 in trouble. The 90 percent isn’t going back. Get on board or get out of the way. Ride or die. Push or move.
The 90 percent is a bully.
Not because it wants to be, but because it believes it has to be. The only love it knows is tough. We know our opposition wants to tear us apart, to deny us our only real power—one another. So we tell ourselves we aren’t together in order to scare one another into staying together, reminding us of the constant crisis we live in.
We’re only 13 percent of the U.S. population, after all. A heavily policed, disproportionately incarcerated 13 percent. But though we are small and oft marginalized, we are mighty. We can do great things. We can change this country by holding the line and holding it accountable. We can elect presidents. That makes us dangerous.
That’s probably why, after the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, weakening it, nearly half of the states in the U.S. started pushing “anti-voter fraud,” voter-suppression laws meant to depress voter turnout under the guise of fighting nonexistent people who vote twice. But what was fraudulent? Too many black people voting in one direction, at a rate of 90 percent, throwing all their numbers behind one issue, one candidate and (at least this century) one political party, thus potentially having the ability to change the landscape of everything?
Yeah. That probably did it. And it was pretty awesome that the first black president is a two-term one, but now what? When schools in urban centers are being closed and privatized; when black unemployment (while better) is still higher than white unemployment; when there are nearly a million black people in prison; when unarmed black men and women, old and young, keep either getting killed by the police or dying in police custody.
What do you get for 90 percent?
The End of Silence
Well, being quiet didn’t work.
Since the beginning of the Obama presidency, environmental and social-justice activist Van Jones said he has watched himself and others try to change the way they talk about race. He called it a “black silence,” a sort of social contract built out of the belief that if black people worked within President Barack Obama’s timetable on race, reward would eventually be reaped. But for those pushing for equality, silence wasn’t golden.
“People didn’t want to make the president look bad, and frankly Obama himself did not want to underscore any particular benefit to black people because it would make the racists upset,” Jones said.
“We don’t care anymore. We’re not going to be well-behaved Negroes going forward,” he continued. “We gave almost eight years of silence to work and it didn’t work. I was part of that. Of trying to find more race-neutral ways to talk about progressive politics. Trying to use race-neutral ways to talk about race politics just leaves race-specific pain unaddressed.”
Jones pointed out that other issues got their rightful turn in the sun—marriage equality, the environment, immigration—but issues around black lives got muddled in a political atmosphere that said, “Hush.”
Well, death to all that. Silence is en mortem. And Jones believes Black Lives Matter killed it.
“The Obama era of black silence on issues that are of particular importance to black people is over,” said Jones.
Jones called the lip service African Americans have historically received from Democrats “trickle-down justice.” He said that’s not going to work anymore, not in this current political climate, where every single Democratic politician will be expected to “say the words ‘Black lives matter,’ period, and they will have to announce specific policies that are relevant to black people.”
“Listen, black folk can no longer be a ‘booty call’ vote,” Jones said. “We have to give the Democrats 95 percent of our vote for them to win the presidency. Not 50. Not 51. Ninety-five percent is required for Democrats to win the White House. Give them 80 percent, they can’t win. We have to get something for that. [Ninety-five percent is] heavy lifting for a party that will not even say our name.”
And “say our name” is what Democratic candidates have started doing. Sort of. Candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley flubbed the opportunity at Netroots when they were confronted with Black Lives Matter activists chanting, “Say her name,” a protest meant to highlight black women who have also been killed, many by police violence. Both handled the protesters abysmally, with O’Malley actually uttering, “White lives matter,” along with “All lives matter” and “Black lives matter,” before issuing an apology.
Sanders came off as annoyed at the protesters and actually blew off a meeting he was supposed to have with them. (Later, protesters under the Black Lives Matter banner would interrupt Sanders again at a rally. Hillary Clinton said “Black lives matter” during a speech in December, but undid that of sorts when she blurted the more co-opting and marginalizing “All lives matter” at a church in Florissant, Mo. But O’Malley, Sanders and Clinton would all go on to say it in July during remarks they gave to the National Urban League. As for their GOP counterparts, unless they said it at a frequency that only dogs can hear, no Republican candidate has dared to utter the words.
But is it really about just saying those three words? If candidates think so, they’re wrong.
Charlene Carruthers, with Black Youth Project 100, is skeptical. Too much of it sounds like opportunism.
“Candidates are right now paying lip service to mass incarceration, unemployment, LGBTQ issues. I’m not convinced any of them have completely turned the tide on partisan politics. I’m not convinced at all,” she said. “Some of these more recent revelations around mass incarceration and policing, I’m consistently left asking the question, ‘Where were you last year? Where were you two years ago? Where were you five years ago? Ten years ago? When you knew this was happening?’”
Communications strategist Jeff Johnson takes things a step further, demanding action, not name checking.
“In this political cycle, it’s been perceived as courageous if you say, ‘Black lives matter.’ That’s bulls—t,” Johnson said. “I don’t care if you say ‘Black lives matter.’ What I care about is that you fundamentally support a policy agenda that reflects that you believe black lives matter. Otherwise, it’s just rhetorical expediency. ‘I said it because I knew if I don’t say it then I’mma catch more hell for not saying it. Now that I said it, maybe they’ll leave me alone a little bit and I can keep moving.’ No! We need to have the kind of pressure that says, ‘Say it or don’t say it. I don’t care.’
“What I want you to say is, ‘I’m supporting this policy agenda, and this policy agenda supports the lives of black people,’” Johnson said.
Policy or Protests?
So what is the policy agenda?
Critics say there isn’t one. Some complain that Black Lives Matter lacks leadership, leading to this lack of specificity. Others push that the campaigns seem to be more about awareness than action and must go beyond protests. Jones, who often speaks out in support of Black Lives Matter himself, says he believes, “Demonstrations without legislation lead to frustration.” Jones and his bipartisan group #cut50 are currently backing a criminal-justice reform bill—the SAFE Justice Act—that would address some policy concerns that could prevent the deaths that seem to haunt us weekly.
“If you think about it, the civil rights movement is primarily remembered for the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” Jones said. “The SAFE Justice Act is really potentially the Civil Rights Act or one of the Civil Rights Acts for the Black Lives Matter movement. You’re talking about legislation that would begin to address everything from body cams on cops to the length of prison terms.”
It all goes back to that 90 percent, that voting bloc. The energy has to be channeled into something, into going somewhere, but is it Black Lives Matter’s role to do it?
Black Lives Matter, the organization, is still growing and developing. There are currently 26 chapters around the country, as well as one in Toronto. It does have a focus on nonviolent actions that brings a lot of attention to issues, but it is still building. Black Lives Matter, the movement, involves a multitude of like-minded organizations and individuals, who use the hashtag, who believe in the work, who do have policies they are fighting for locally and nationally, and who came together for the first Black Lives Matter gathering in Cleveland in July. More than 1,000 people showed up for the Movement for Black Lives Convening, where activists and organizations received training and discussed tactics and ideas, while also focusing on fellowship and self-care.
It’s understandable that some critics would latch on to all the protests. The point of a protest is that you can see it. It’s loud. The cacophonous chants stick in your head. They stop traffic. They shut down highways, malls, even Wal-Mart. Policy—the less sexy part of fighting injustice—won’t get the same kind of press as civil unrest. CNN won’t go to wall-to-wall, 24-hour coverage over a sleepy, bipartisan body-camera bill winding its way slowly through the halls of Congress.
But there are many groups, whether affiliated with Black Lives Matter or not, who have their own policy initiatives, projects and work within the community.
The Organization for Black Struggle in St. Louis has made calls for citizen oversight of police. Black Youth Project 100 has combined the fights for racial justice and economic justice and is currently involved in the “Fight for $15” campaign to raise the minimum wage. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights is working with the American Civil Liberties Union on a mobile justice app that tracks state violence by law enforcement, piloting the program in California. Hands Up United is focused on the St. Louis region, with local actions and teaching youth how to code.
Critics who expect the same of Black Lives Matter as they would expect of other, more policy-focused organizations are an insult to the numerous other groups, activists and individuals fighting for social justice and engaging in policy while also chanting, “Black lives matter.” It smacks of expecting one movement to be all things to all people, instead of seeing it for what it is: an important part of a bigger picture.
“The moment that we want Black Lives Matter to be Wal-Mart and be able to provide everything to everybody at one time, we’ve already jeopardized them as a functional organism,” Jeff Johnson said. “If you want hard-core structure, build it. If you want hard-core structure, push the NAACP to be more effective or the Urban League to be more effective on these issues. Don’t try to make Black Lives Matter something the very leadership and membership of that organization has never said they wanted to be.”
Speaking of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks is the president and CEO of the historic civil rights group, and is currently leading a march from Selma, Ala., to Washington, D.C., as part of the organization’s America’s Journey for Justice campaign, driving attention to a national policy agenda on criminal justice, voting rights, a living wage and equitable public education. He sees his historic organization and Black Lives Matter as having their respective roles to play.
“We do not have the luxury of standing in separate silos while black lives are being devalued and lost,” Brooks said. “We have to stand alongside each other and there are critical moments where we have to work together and we have to understand there are people who work in organizations that started two weeks ago or maybe a year ago or are yet to start. They are our brothers and sisters in a common struggle.”
In this modern, “post-millennial civil rights movement,” Brooks believes the fight needs to happen on all fronts and be multigenerational. Both the very young (Tamir Rice) and those older (Walter Scott) have died at the hands of police violence. Since all are affected, all are needed, according to Brooks.
Getting What You Give
“Change is happening with or without you.”
It’s what Ferguson, Mo., protester Johnetta “Netta” Elzie says in reference to the divisions that exist, within the movement, and of the outside influences bouncing against it.
Change is happening, so politicians should get on board. They should craft black agendas. They should appeal to the black vote. To that 90 percent. They should say “Black Lives Matter,” then act on it.
Not because it’s the right thing to do, but because they need to.
“They need us, these elected officials need us way more than we need them, and I need us to believe that,” said Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors. “I need us to believe that it’s through people power that gets change made, not that office. That office has power, that office has influence, but only the power that’s given.”
According to Cullors, the Hillary Clinton campaign is already calling on influencers in the movement, wanting their presence, their support.
But what will youth, who make up much of the movement, do to push things one way or another? How will they act?
Umi Selah, formerly Phil Agnew, of Dream Defenders, is open-ended about what could happen, reflecting the diversity of the different components within Black Lives Matter.
“We could be a disruptive source that doesn’t allow them to conduct business as usual until they speak about the issues that we champion or believe in or that believe are important or are important to our communities,” he said. “We could throw our weight behind a candidate and push [him or her] further to the left. Push them to speak out. We could abstain from voting and try to mess up the whole thing. But that probably wouldn’t be the most strategic thing to do at this point. We could register voters. I don’t know.”
Not knowing, but having the potential to pull off all of what Selah mentioned is the beauty of there being so many different groups right now—locally and nationally—organizing. There are endless ways they all can put pressure on candidates to respond with real policy that addresses black issues. That’s the power of that 90 percent that can be pushed and organized and motivated to go one way or the other.
The Rev. William Barber II of the North Carolina NAACP and the Forward Together Moral Monday movement believes the pressure needs to move from solely reacting to black deaths—like the tragic shooting of nine parishioners in Charleston, S.C., by a white supremacist—to enacting legislation and policies that protect black lives.
There needs to be something that black people get in return for their votes, for their pain. He points out that tragedies in the 1950s and ’60s—in which children, civil rights workers and others were killed—only steeled the resolve of organizers to push for the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, to end Jim Crow and fundamentally change the face of this country.
Today, Barber believes, organizers shouldn’t settle for any less.
“The system is coming down, and that’s going to be how we honor [those we lost],” Barber said. “Black lives matter, and all of us have to say, be very clear, that the response to these deaths is not symbolic, or incremental change, but fundamental change. Fundamental change has to happen and occur, and we have to demand no less than that.”
And why not? As Cullors said, they need us. Now it’s up to us to make sure we get something in return.
Editor’s note: In the fourth installment of After the Fire, we take a look at five challenges facing the Black Lives Matter movement.