Black Lives Matter. Do Elections?

Barbara Ransby profiles today’s Black freedom fighters, who are posing sophisticated new answers to old Left questions—like how to engage in electoral politics.

Frances Fox Piven

Black Lives Matter demonstrators rally in St. Louis on Nov. 23, 2014, after Missouri police shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. (Jewel Samad/Getty Images)

Schol­ar Bar­bara Rans­by, known for her influ­en­tial biog­ra­phy of Ella Bak­er, is a par­tic­i­pant in the protest move­ment we usu­al­ly call Black Lives Mat­ter (BLM). Now she has writ­ten an account of that move­ment that draws heav­i­ly on her expe­ri­ence, Mak­ing All Black Lives Mat­ter: Reimag­in­ing Free­dom in the 21st Cen­tu­ry. It is, as a result, as much a move­ment biog­ra­phy (or auto­bi­og­ra­phy) as a his­to­ry. Rans­by was there, in the ranks of the lead­er­ship, and tells the sto­ry with the urgency and pas­sion we might expect from a participant.

The election of Donald Trump provoked “much reassessing and soul searching” within BLM.

The BLM move­ment burst into the pub­lic sphere in 2014 and 2015 with street protests over police mur­ders of black young men and boys. Rans­by lays out the diverse groups involved and, in the process, the movement’s far-flung roots.

One dis­tinc­tive trait of BLM that emerges is its ecu­meni­cal stance toward prob­lems of inter­nal struc­ture, prob­lems that often absorb and dis­tract activists. BLM activists have con­struct­ed a loose coali­tion of move­ment groups, and they seem sat­is­fied with that arrange­ment. Rans­by and the activists she quotes talk of work­ing to stitch togeth­er — or weave togeth­er — dis­parate patch­es of struggle.”

Anoth­er is a shared skep­ti­cism of the elec­toral are­na. Instead, the BLM move­ment favors dis­rup­tive col­lec­tive action. Or, to put it anoth­er way, while these activists by no means reject elec­toral pol­i­tics, they don’t rely on it either. They believe in movements.

To me, it seems evi­dent that BLM is the new Black Free­dom Move­ment. How­ev­er, that move­ment arose and grew in a very dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal con­text. The reign­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty of the 1960s had come to depend on black elec­toral sup­port, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the north­ern cities. This rel­a­tive­ly favor­able elec­toral con­text gave the civ­il rights move­ment courage and ulti­mate­ly helps account for its sub­stan­tial leg­isla­tive vic­to­ries. (Sim­i­lar­ly, the elec­toral envi­ron­ment of the 1930s made labor vic­to­ries pos­si­ble, as the unsta­ble New Deal Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty could not afford to alien­ate work­ing-class vot­ers who had been won over by FDR’s rhetoric.)

The favor­able elec­toral moment of the 1960s passed, how­ev­er. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty failed to respond to move­ment pres­sure around the Viet­nam War and then tracked right­ward as the move­ments sub­sided and busi­ness influ­ence grew on both major par­ties. Many activists, per­haps espe­cial­ly young activists, came to view move­ment pol­i­tics and elec­toral pol­i­tics as alter­na­tive and anti­thet­i­cal paths to social change. And there is truth in the view that involve­ment in elec­toral pol­i­tics has tamed and even co-opt­ed move­ment activists.

The extra­or­di­nary event of the elec­tion of the first black pres­i­dent and the move­ment rhetoric of his cam­paign talk no doubt raised hopes, but the Oba­ma pres­i­den­cy was, in the end, a crush­ing dis­ap­point­ment. When Fred­die Gray’s death in Bal­ti­more police cus­tody in April 2015 sparked mass protest, Oba­ma and oth­er black elect­ed offi­cials alien­at­ed BLM activists by coun­sel­ing calm. His poli­cies did lit­tle or noth­ing to reverse soar­ing inequal­i­ty, or to rein in the abu­sive prac­tices of the carcer­al sys­tem. For­mer Black Youth Project 100 direc­tor Char­lene Car­ruthers tells Rans­by that in Oba­ma she saw the lim­i­ta­tions of any politi­cian to change our lives or trans­form our lives.” 

The elec­tion of Don­ald Trump pro­voked much reassess­ing and soulsearch­ing” with­in BLM, Rans­by writes. The same is true for many of us on the Left. We now have to wor­ry about the impact of the bel­li­cose Trump admin­is­tra­tion, as well as the pro­to-fas­cist white nation­al­ists whom Trump has worked to pro­voke and nour­ish. The repres­sive capac­i­ties of the nation­al admin­is­tra­tion are enor­mous, and they are com­ple­ment­ed by souped-up state-lev­el Repub­li­can regimes. The his­tor­i­cal truth is that mas­sive repres­sion usu­al­ly works, at least for a time, and some­times for a long time. The first black free­dom move­ment after the Civ­il War was destroyed by vio­lent and legal repression.

In the wake of the 2018 midterms, we all har­bor the hope of a dif­fer­ent future. Maybe the new Demo­c­ra­t­ic House will be suf­fi­cient­ly aggres­sive in its inves­ti­ga­tions that it will at least par­a­lyze the mad king and his régime, and at the same time pro­mote the poli­cies, or at least the polit­i­cal dis­course, that will make left reform seem pos­si­ble. That hope means we have come to the con­clu­sion that elec­toral pol­i­tics is impor­tant for the growth and suc­cess of social movements.

This is a big change in the think­ing of the broad Left. The ener­gy of move­ment activists as they worked to elect left-lean­ing Democ­rats reflects not only a recog­ni­tion of the dan­gers of the Repub­li­can Right, but also a recog­ni­tion that move­ments ben­e­fit in impor­tant ways when a régime includes sym­pa­thet­ic polit­i­cal lead­ers. Sup­port­ive politi­cians pro­tect the move­ment from repres­sion. They can also encour­age the move­ment with their rhetoric, and even pro­duce small con­ces­sions. Yes, they may do this out of their own cal­cu­la­tions of elec­toral advan­tage; they are politi­cians. Yet those con­ces­sions can be cru­cial to move­ment growth, as the ear­ly civ­il rights vic­to­ries were.

In oth­er words, elec­toral and move­ment pol­i­tics are not sep­a­rate and uncross­ing paths. Rather, they are deeply intertwined.

BLM activists have found­ed sev­er­al elec­toral groups since Novem­ber 2016, such as the Elec­toral Jus­tice Project, whose co-founder Jes­si­ca Byrd is described by Rans­by as a savvy opti­mist” with no illu­sions that elec­tions alone will lib­er­ate the Black peo­ple” but a con­vic­tion that elec­toral work can make a dif­fer­ence.” Rans­by her­self sees a mod­el in BLM’s mobi­liza­tion of black anger to oust Cook Coun­ty State’s Attor­ney Ani­ta Alvarez in 2016. Col­lec­tive rage can be sim­ply the refusal to tol­er­ate the intol­er­a­ble,” she writes. And that refusal can show up in many forms, from the streets to the polls.”

As move­ments grow and become more assertive and dis­rup­tive, they can threat­en to cause vot­er defec­tions that force the hand of reign­ing politi­cians, whether sym­pa­thet­ic or not. This, at least, is my hope for BLM and the next phase of Amer­i­can politics.

Frances Fox Piv­en writes on move­ments and U.S. pol­i­tics. She is on the fac­ul­ty of the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York, and the author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing Poor Peo­ple’s Move­ments and Chal­leng­ing Author­i­ty: How Ordi­nary Peo­ple Change Amer­i­ca.
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