#BlackLivesMatter Asks, so #BlackLivesMatter Receives

Lauren Victoria Burke
Demonstrators marking the one-year anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown protest along West Florissant Street Aug. 10, 2015, in Ferguson, Mo.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

This week, video of Black Lives Matter activists meeting with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton became a shocking “must-see” event, but not for the reasons some might think.

Not shocking because activists talked to Clinton. Not shocking because of the tactics Black Lives Matter activists have used to confront candidates on the presidential trial. But shocking because it’s rare to actually see black advocates asking for something.


And not just asking—demanding.

The polite over-deference was gone. The video of the BLM activists conversing with Clinton on racism and on her husband’s and her role in bad justice policy showed none of the usual pretense. What remained was a blunt demand for change directed at a former secretary of state and the front-runner in the campaign for the White House in 2016.

We haven’t witnessed any black advocates having such a conversation with leaders in either party for more than six years. What we have seen is endless discussions and panels on the issues facing African Americans, along with a load of White House-driveway press conferences with black leaders after their chats with President Barack Obama. What the results of those interactions were remains a mystery.

In case no one noticed, Black Lives Matter is action-based. You want the Confederate flag down at the South Carolina Statehouse grounds? Bree Newsome climbed up the flagpole and took it down. If you want presidential candidates to focus on your agenda, you simply have to create a strategy that doesn’t allow for your concerns to be ignored. So far, for Black Lives Matter, they haven’t been. 


What has resulted? After only three months of protests, the Death in Custody Act became law in December 2014. That was followed up by 40 new measures in 24 states focused on officer training, body cameras and limits on certain military equipment. There was also the formation of a Presidential Task Force on Policing, followed by an executive order issued by President Obama featuring a measured rollback of police militarization. Then the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill allocating $25 million in body cameras. And Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) recently offered a police body-camera bill that would allocate $100 million in police body cameras per year over five years. 

That’s a pretty good start for a movement that’s less than 2 years old. When you aggressively push an agenda, politicians get the message. For Democrats, the unspoken connection between aggressive black advocacy and voting is far too important to ignore. That’s why presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) announced Thursday that he will offer legislation abolishing private prisons.  


The results of the recent activism are also the reason another Democratic candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, posted a detailed justice-reform platform that would establish use-of-force standards and independent prosecutors in police-involved killings. Black Lives Matter’s activism is also why Hillary Clinton made her first policy speech on justice reform back in April. When was the last time a legacy civil rights group changed the narrative in a presidential race?

If there’s one thing certain in life and in politics, it’s that if you want something you have to ask for it. For six years we’ve heard about the value of an “inside game” of behind-the-scenes advocacy. A look at poverty, unemployment and income-inequality stats for black Americans forces us to question whether that inside game by legacy leaders is working. 


We see grumpiness on the part of many progressives because of Black Lives Matter. Many Democrats would appear to be perfectly satisfied with winning with black votes while ignoring black issues. African-American voters are apparently supposed to be satisfied with silence or vague support for their concerns. No other group would put up with that. That some progressives want Black Lives Matter activists to shut up is deeply ironic, given the response to others under the Democratic Party’s wide umbrella.  

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) was arrested in front of the White House to protest deportations. Immigration-reform activists heckled President Obama in July 2011, November 2014 and June 2015. Somehow, progressives weren’t all that outraged. When an immigration heckler standing onstage behind Obama at an event in November 2013 shouted him down, who in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party told immigration-reform advocates to shut up and sit down?  


When LGBT activist Ellen Sturtz heckled first lady Michelle Obama at a fundraiser in June 2013, it was just another moment in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy. In June, trans activist Jennicet Gutiérrez protested the president during a speech at a Pride Month celebration in the East Room of the White House. LGBT rights have advanced more than those of any other group over the past five years, but LGBT activism continues without the same criticism we see aimed at Black Lives Matter.

The best political advocacy pushes an agenda even after big wins. Black Lives Matter is just getting started. And somewhat like the Tea Party in 2010, BLM activists are showing that aggressive advocacy works. As the late Julian Bond once said, “Good things don’t come to those who wait. They come to those who agitate.”


Lauren Victoria Burke is a Washington, D.C.-based political reporter who writes the Crew of 42 blog. She appears regularly on NewsOne Now with Roland Martin on TV One. Follow her on Twitter

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