Editor’s note: When it comes to keeping a movement going, you have to have a good understanding of what is getting in your way. In the final installment of the series After the Fire, The Root looks at what challenges this current social-justice movement is facing and what the future may hold. After the Fire was reported and written by Associate Editor Danielle C. Belton. Illustration by Jada Prather. Read the previous installments: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
If you’re not pissed off, you’re probably not doing it right.
Fighting for the liberation of black people—long term—brings up a lot of emotions. You get tired. It takes a toll. Just ask anyone who’s been doing this work since the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 or since last year, Aug. 9, in Ferguson, Mo. They’re exhausted. They’re also forever changed by the good and bad they’ve encountered through their work.
Have they had time to process anything? Hahaha. No. Processing. What’s that?
“It’s impossible,” said Ferguson activist Ashley Yates, known as @BrownBlaze on Twitter. “Anyone who’s still actively out there doing work who came out of the house in August hasn’t been able to process anything. It’s just so massive.”
The death of Michael Brown, the nonindictment of Darren Wilson, and the protests and fires of Ferguson changed everything. Protesters and organizers met the president. They also met several civil rights elders whom they’d admired, but depending on the elder, they were either accepted or felt rejected. Protesters went all over the world talking about America, racism and black liberation; then they went back home and found that changing the landscape of a stubbornly segregated and systemically racist place like St. Louis, Cleveland, Baltimore—America—was a task not of a few weeks, months or even a year but of a lifetime.
In the face of that—the prospect of a lifetime of fighting racism—some may grow weary. Some may bow out. Some may move on, and no one would be able to blame them. But many will stay, will fight on and will weather what storms may come, their “lives transformed” by this work.
“It’s kind of hard to go back to what you were before once you start doing this work,” said Michael McPhearson, executive director of Veterans for Peace and co-chair of the Don’t Shoot Coalition. “I’m sure there are a number of individuals who are in it for the long haul, [and] some who will drop out and come and go.”
For those sticking with it, here are the challenges many protesters and organizers outlined in the 40 interviews that The Root conducted for this series.
1. Divided We Fall
Aaryn Lang isn’t handing out any cookies for inclusion within the movement.
Describing herself as a “visible black trans woman,” Lang has been involved in movement work “since the day I had to start fighting for myself.” And the fight is real. The average life span for a transgender person is 30 to 32 years. It’s even shorter for black transgender women, and at least 11 trans women—many of them of color—have been murdered so far this year. Because of statistics like these, the last thing Lang and other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of color want is to have to fight with other black people for respect. Yet that is what sometimes ends up happening, over and over.
“I don’t really like inclusion. I’m black. I’m welcome here,” Lang said. “We can’t be included in something we belong to.”
Lang, who attended the Movement for Black Lives Convening in Cleveland this July, joined several other LGBT people of color onstage during a morning session to confront what they see as division within the larger social-justice movement, as well as threats of erasure by those who are either transphobic or believe that LGBT people of color should not be a primary focus of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Although Black Lives Matter was founded by black queer women and its founders have always had LGBT rights and concerns at the core of the movement, not all who have adopted (or co-opted) the mantra share this sentiment.
“We don’t need people to say, ‘Hey, you can come into this building with us and sit.’ It’s [more] about, like, ‘I’m going to move out of the way and let you speak because you are a part of this movement because you’re a black person and your life is in danger,’” said Lang.
“When black trans people come here and then have to explain what it means to be black and trans, our [energy] is not going where it needs to go,” said Janaya Khan, who also goes by the name Future and identifies as a trans person. Khan believes that trans people, particularly trans women, are vital to the work of Black Lives Matter. Khan, who normally does black-liberation work, chose Black Lives Matter because “I knew that Black Lives Matter was gonna be different. You could see in terms of its leadership. Centralizing the experiences of black feminists and black trans-feminist narratives, and centralizing black female leadership, I think, definitely set a precedent. Where it’s like, hmm, there’s real potential here in organizing in very noncolonial ways, and I’m very invested in that.”
Khan would like to see Black Lives Matter grow and mine the power within black trans feminism. (“It’s one thing to centralize the experiences of black women and trans women and trans people in general, but it’s another thing to actually use ‘solidarity’ as a verb and to put that in action,” Khan said.)
Black Lives Matter as a movement does not exist in a vacuum. It’s still part of a society that values white straight men overall and still has to fight a patriarchal mindset that plagues many corners of the social-justice movement. During the civil rights movement, LGBT people often had to mute themselves, unable to be their full selves while fighting for their lives and the lives of others.
Bayard Rustin, who organized the 1963 March on Washington, was also a gay man who was marginalized within the movement in which he played a pivotal part. The Stonewall riots, which many credit with starting the modern gay-rights movement, at times are whitewashed by those seeking to deny the many blacks and Latinos who participated in and led the protests. People like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. And it has not been lost on many that the founders of Black Lives Matter—Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi—would likely be better-known if they were men.
It’s not lost on Lang.
“We have focused on black men,” Lang said. “Black men, black male masculinity, is something that is very sacred in our community, and I want us to also have a larger conversation about that and explore that a little more and wonder, ‘Where exactly does that come from?’ Is it the same form of white supremacy that we’re just enacting in ourselves, praising black male masculinity?”
Black lives matter, but do all black lives matter to all black people? That’s always a serious discussion as men push back against women, cisgender people push back at trans people, and straight people push back at LGBT people. While fears about virulent homophobia within the black community are actually a bit exaggerated, hatred toward LGBT people is real and isn’t going to disappear, no matter how many times people point out that “Black lives matter” means “all Black Lives Matter.”
“We should be able to prioritize the leadership of those who are most affected at all times,” said Malcolm Shanks, who identifies as gender nonconforming and joined Lang onstage at the convening. “That means not only black men but also black women, and also black trans women and also black trans men and also black gender-nonconforming people. Like, all of us have to be priority all the time because we’re all black and we’re all in danger.”
In interviews, many black female activists—straight, gay and trans—talk about men and even other women who have attempted to silence them because of the patriarchal nature of our society.
It’s hard fighting to be heard and fighting racism at the same time.
“It’s really rough,” Yates said, recalling that she has experienced a “ton of crap, ton of violence, ton of erasure” in this fight, but has also seen the beauty in black women coming together and getting things done.
“[There’s a] really beautiful component of being a black women during this time,” Yates said. “Seeing those that you love and those that you don’t just rise up. Run it and know that they’re running it. We can share in that.”
As for Black Lives Matter and its heart being about intersectionality within the movement, Yates credits that as something that “you can only get with women.”
“When I see Patrisse, Alicia, Opal out there doing work, that can only come from relating to another black woman. There’s such joy in that. It’s beautiful,” said Yates.
It’s this beauty that makes Yates, Lang and others ultimately optimistic.
“Anytime you have a group of people fighting for the same goal but they can’t all necessarily come together, there’s going to be some roadblocks with that,” Lang said. “It’s [about others] not being able to understand that every single one of us has a place, and every single one of us has the same goal in mind, so that is the way we need to operate with one another. But I think we’re getting there as long as we continue to make space for people who have been silenced in ways and let them speak up … to demand that they are heard in these spaces. We’re going to, like, completely destroy those roadblocks.”
2. No Money, Mo’ Problems
You don’t get rich fighting for freedom if you’re doing it right. If you’re doing it right, you are, if you’re lucky, not completely destitute, but more likely than not, you’re relying on the kindness of those who believe in your cause.
It’s a tough existence, especially if you’re part of a newer group that needs money but doesn’t want to raise that money off tragedy.
Shaun King, a writer who covers racial justice for Daily Kos and has started his own organization, Justice Together, says that the movement is “terribly unfunded” and there is a “real stigma” attached to raising money around police brutality.
A lot of the small groups and organizations that were created shortly after the unrest in Ferguson are broke.
“They can’t hire competent staff,” King says. “A lot of really good people are just completely winging it.”
Many activists feel it is wrong to turn around and ask for money when yet another unarmed black person dies at the hands of state violence or from a gun-wielding white supremacist. Money for what? Even if you need it, the consensus seems to be that it looks terrible.
Yet money is what fledgling groups require to keep actions going, to keep work going, to keep the movement going. Operation Help or Hush is busy raising funds to get food and water to people protesting, but also to put together lunches for impoverished students who are out of school. But for those organizing under the Black Lives Matter banner, where the money comes from is everything.
The people? Yes. Corporations? No.
Organizers say that they want to avoid what they see as mistakes that older racial-justice nonprofits have made in taking money from corporate donors and, thus, having their hands tied when those donors act out.
Case in point: the fight for Net neutrality and multiple civil rights organizations that were standing on the side of the telecoms—who were arguing for segregating the Internet into “slow” and “fast” lanes based on fees—and the people who wanted equal Internet access for everyone.
“[We had] civil rights groups stand on the side with Ted Cruz and John Boehner and against President Obama and John Lewis on an open Internet because they were taking money from Comcast,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOf Change.org. “It wasn’t just that they took money; they had board members from those places.”
Robinson found the telecom fight especially appalling considering that if there were to be slow and fast lanes on the Internet, he had a good idea where the movement would end up.
“The Internet and technology has proved to be such a powerful tool … because the Internet was an open Internet. [The people’s voices] travel just as quickly as the voices of corporations. … An organization like mine, which started with a single email in the aftermath of a crisis and has grown to a community of 1.3 million people who take on major fights every day, we wouldn’t exist without an open Internet.”
Charlene Carruthers, national director of the Black Youth Project 100, sees the creeping influence of capitalism as something racial-justice organizations must always be conscious of.
“One of the principles I live by is, don’t take money from someone who you would have an issue with protesting later, or you’re going to have to run a campaign against them,” Carruthers said, explaining that an organization’s “choices” are its “values.”
“I think that people need to do work that’s reflective of their values and the values of the constituencies that they’re supposed to be held accountable to,” she said.
3. Prying Eyes
They’re watching you. Us. Everyone. But it’s not paranoia when they’re actually out to get you. The Intercept reported this summer that the federal government has been monitoring people participating in the Black Lives Matter movement since the protests in Ferguson last year. Is anyone surprised?
The Department of Homeland Security is watching; so is a cybersecurity firm that labeled Black Lives Matter protesters “threat actors.”
This is the insidious nature of the beast that protesters are fighting. Those protesting want “freedom,” they want police to stop killing unarmed black people, they want economic justice, and these “wants” are threats. These wants are scary and must be categorized and monitored. It doesn’t matter that Black Lives Matter is nonviolent in the face of state violence. In this Kafkaesque exercise, it’s the nonviolent actor who is deemed the threat.
She might make you look bad. He might convince others that something is wrong. She might hold you accountable. He might send a tweet about it. So the government keeps an eye on them, those who shut down highways and malls with only their bodies and preach liberation. But the government has always kept an eye on black people who used the Bill of Rights to fight for their rights.
“The state knows how to co-opt and immobilize movements,” said Khan, who references how the government dismantled the the Black Panther Party in the 1960s. “They immobilize movements by incarceration. So we’ve just seen several times now where Black Lives Matter organizers have been arrested with terrorism charges and also lynching charges, and that’s a fear tactic. If you immobilize our leadership by incarcerating them, it becomes incredibly difficult for the movement to continue, which is why decentralized leadership is such an important thing in this particular movement in this time.”
Today. Tomorrow. Same problem. Same enemy. Same government action. But will we get the same results?
COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), the FBI’s surveillance program that purposely disrupted and attempted to discredit the civil rights and black power movements, operated in secret from 1956 until 1971. It sent threatening letters to Martin Luther King Jr. in an attempt to convince him to kill himself and actually orchestrated an operation that assassinated Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. By comparison, Homeland Security got outed for spying on Black Lives Matter in less than a year of stalking candlelight vigils and breast-cancer walks.
Protesters know that they’re being watched. And the very digital organizing tools that have made Black Lives Matter successful can also make protesters vulnerable.
“We live in a different age than any other mass movement for racial justice that’s happened in the U.S., and what I mean by that is that we have a different level of access to technology,” said Carruthers.
Carruthers points out that in today’s environment, it’s not only about someone tapping a phone or residence; “it’s about surveillance of your cellphone, of your social media, Facebook, your Twitter, your bank account. The level of access that many different entities have to individuals is different now, and it’s a challenge.”
The fact that many people’s entire lives are in a digital cloud that can be hacked or manipulated leaves them vulnerable. That’s why hacker Geminii Matt was at the recent Movement for Black Lives Convening in Cleveland July 24 to show activists how to protect themselves online.
“Technology is a force multiplier,” said Matt. “It allows you, as one person, to be able to do tens, hundreds [of] times more stuff, right? And technology allows you to do a lot more stuff. It makes one person maybe … have the power or voice of 100, which is great for organizing. It’s great for anything, but also, because we use technology, it can also be easily recorded, archived and surveilled. We know that’s a fact.”
Matt, who is also a security researcher and developer, runs monthly encryption workshops in Harlem called Crypto Harlem. He credits the Edward Snowden leaks with demonstrating how far government surveillance can go.
He’s trying to get activists and organizers (and everyday citizens, for that matter) to accept how vulnerable they are to hacks—as you are, for instance, if you’re still coming up with your own passwords instead of going with a random series of letters, numbers and characters.
One of the measures of Black Lives Matter’s success both as a movement and as a communications strategy is the many, many co-optations that have happened around it, the best known of which is #AllLivesMatter, the hashtag that is one part rebuttal and one part ass covering for those who find talking about black lives and black people uncomfortable.
It’s easier to get around the issue of race by wallpapering over it and claiming that you’re for “all lives,” which might as well mean “no lives,” with its neutralizing, diminishing nature. It’s not as if people put down breast-cancer research by saying that people should focus on awareness for all cancers.
Black Lives Matter co-founder Cullors sees co-optation as both a challenge and a “consequence of popularity.”
“We can’t avoid it totally losing its militancy … that’s what’s allowed … us to make it go viral and global, is its militancy,” Cullors said.
The need to diminish blackness in Black Lives Matter is another component of structural racism. In America, there’s always been a desire to have blackness without black people. Black people create something interesting, controversial, forward thinking or simply flat-out cool, and there is always someone who thinks that all those innovations and movements would look better if they were coming from a white face. All Lives Matter is the “Miley Cyrus invented twerking” of 2015.
Valuing black life doesn’t mean diminishing other lives. But tell that to structural racism, the one true challenger and villain in all of this.
“We’re having to work in great crisis and great trauma,” said Ash-Lee Henderson, an organizer with Project South. She said that people are trying to do “everyday base-building work,” trying to “get free while people are really hurting, and the crisis is increasing.”
And that trauma leads to exhaustion, frustration. Yates worries how this movement will sustain itself when so many people are still dealing with day-to-day struggles—with life, with racism.
“How do we sustain this level of energy, power, mobility and movement and support the people who have cultivated that?” she asked. “That’s an issue that we’re going to have to start facing very soon before folks experience burnout. … You’re seeing people navigate [this movement] who have never done activism full time. Everyone is learning in the moment.”
Yates said that for many young activists, the movement is one in which people are absorbing death after death at the hands of police, martyr after martyr. That in order to sustain these depressing blows and maintain, there needs to be solidarity, togetherness, in the face of tragedy.
“[We need to make] sure that we’re lifting up the marginalized within our marginalized community, decolonizing our own behavior and the behaviors that hurt our people,” said Henderson, referencing LGBT people and the need to move past our internal prejudices to focus on the common cause. “It’s a piece of the important puzzle of us being totally free.”