Civil Rights: The Next Generation

What happens in Baltimore isn’t going to stay in Baltimore

Martha BiondiJune 12, 2015

Demanding further action against the police officers responsible for Eric Garner's death, protesters march across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York on May 29. (Andrew Burton / Getty Images)

In a wide­ly cir­cu­lat­ed exchange dur­ing the com­mu­ni­ty uproar in Bal­ti­more over the police killing of Fred­die Gray, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer assailed the pro­test­ers for loot­ing and prop­er­ty dam­age, while activist DeR­ay McKesson strove to keep atten­tion on the per­va­sive, every­day vio­lence by police against Black peo­ple. There’s no excuse for that kind of vio­lence, right?” Blitzer asked.

'I think that this movement, whether we call it Black Lives Matter or whatever, is a ray of light. It’s the most important thing in black political life in a generation.'

Yeah, and there’s no excuse for the sev­en peo­ple the Bal­ti­more City Police Depart­ment has killed in the past year either, right?” McKesson shot back. You are sug­gest­ing this idea that bro­ken win­dows are worse than bro­ken spines.”

The exchange revealed the dis­con­nect between main­stream media inter­est in the vio­lence of riot­ers” and the efforts of orga­niz­ers on the ground to bring atten­tion to the struc­tur­al vio­lence of pover­ty in Amer­i­can cities, and the actu­al vio­lence of polic­ing. Still, the pow­er of high­ly vis­i­ble, dis­rup­tive street protests in affect­ing nation­al dis­course and trans­form­ing the con­scious­ness of par­tic­i­pants is unde­ni­able, and is draw­ing com­par­isons to the black upris­ings of the 1960s.

Where will the move­ment go next? It seems clear that the injus­tices of the past remain unre­solved, but are the strate­gies of an ear­li­er gen­er­a­tion suf­fi­cient to meet con­tem­po­rary challenges?

In These Times host­ed an inter­gen­er­a­tional dia­logue to explore these ques­tions with soci­ol­o­gist Frances Fox Piv­en, author of numer­ous stud­ies on social move­ments; African Amer­i­can stud­ies schol­ar Keean­ga Tay­lor, author of a forth­com­ing book on the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment; and Chica­go-based orga­niz­er Char­lene Car­ruthers, nation­al direc­tor of the Black Youth Project 100.

Is there a way to con­vert the ener­gy of the recent protests into a sus­tained movement?

FRANCES: Peo­ple ask, How can we trans­form move­ments into long-term, left, pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions?” But the assump­tion that move­ments are a flash in the pan is wrong. Move­ments have con­sid­er­able trans­for­ma­tive pow­er in them­selves and can last a long time. The move­ment in Latin Amer­i­ca that trans­formed South Amer­i­ca began as anti-aus­ter­i­ty, anti-struc­tur­al-adjust­ment protests against the IMF. Sev­er­al decades lat­er, it had trans­formed the gov­ern­ments of many South Amer­i­can coun­tries. It’s hard to know exact­ly when a move­ment begins and ends, but the civ­il rights move­ment cer­tain­ly began by the mid-1950s and last­ed at least 18 years, and in some sens­es con­tin­ues to exist.

CHAR­LENE: What’s hap­pen­ing right now is that a num­ber of new folks are just being politi­cized. They are build­ing their analy­ses and then fig­ur­ing out what they want to do. One of the chal­lenges is that you have folks who have been doing this work for decades in a very par­tic­u­lar way that is in con­flict with the val­ues and the ideals of many folks who are also com­ing into this work for the first time because of police killings. The new folks are bring­ing a dif­fer­ent analy­sis around things like queer­ness, black­ness, feminism.

Move­ment work does not hap­pen with­out funds. Where are the resources going? Who has con­trol over resources? We’re just get­ting start­ed, and we’re see­ing new lead­ers and new orga­ni­za­tions that have fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences, and also some sim­i­lar­i­ties, with black free­dom orga­ni­za­tions of the 1960s and 1970s.

KEEAN­GA: This move­ment is in its infan­cy. And that requires a cer­tain lev­el of patience with­in a con­text of the need to be urgent — an urgency that comes from the fact that peo­ple con­tin­ue to be killed by the police. The last 10 months, which have been book­marked by two rebel­lions, one in Fer­gu­son and one in Bal­ti­more, have seen an incred­i­ble amount of local orga­niz­ing that is being referred to in some places as the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment. The ques­tion is, how do you respect the local orga­niz­ing and knit it togeth­er across the coun­try into a nation­al move­ment that can raise nation­al demands?

At this point, have we seen any reforms or concessions?

CHAR­LENE: In St. Louis, a mea­sure for an inde­pen­dent police account­abil­i­ty board has just passed, but that’s also reflec­tive of years of orga­niz­ing. Per­haps this moment serves as the cat­a­lyst. There is more trans­paren­cy and account­abil­i­ty over at the LA Coun­ty sher­iff s office. And in Newark, May­or Ras Bara­ka installed a civil­ian review board that actu­al­ly reflects the demands of peo­ple and orga­ni­za­tions in Newark. Here in Chica­go, we won a repa­ra­tions ordi­nance for sur­vivors of police tor­ture under Com­man­der Jon Burge. That orga­niz­ing took place over decades, but we would be remiss if we didn’t say that the vic­to­ry was con­nect­ed to what’s hap­pen­ing right now.

FRANCES: If we looked close­ly, and nobody has done this in a thor­ough way, we would see mod­er­a­tion of police street poli­cies in the cities. But it’s also impor­tant to locate Black Lives Mat­ter, the move­ment against police bru­tal­i­ty, in the larg­er con­text. As dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion has pro­ceed­ed in cities over the last sev­er­al decades, our poli­cies have focused on con­trol­ling, dis­ci­plin­ing and incar­cer­at­ing the peo­ple who have been made super­flu­ous as a result. We’ve impris­oned mil­lions of young minor­i­ty men, and we harass them on the streets because we don’t need them any­more to do the work of an indus­tri­al econ­o­my. In that sense, the Black Lives Mat­ter has a deep con­nec­tion to the Fight for $15, because both of these move­ments are protest­ing against exploita­tion and exclu­sion and stigma­ti­za­tion. So it’s not going to be over in a moment, and we’re not going to win eas­i­ly. It’s a strug­gle at the very heart of the Amer­i­can econ­o­my, and Amer­i­can cities, and Amer­i­can race relations.

Where is the move­ment headed?

KEEAN­GA: This is a dif­fer­ent era from the 60s, where you could often point to the erup­tion of rebel­lions and then some type of tan­gi­ble pro­gram from the state. A recent poll found that 96 per­cent of Amer­i­cans expect some kind of vio­lence in their cities. And that means police are heav­i­ly armed in response. Look at Cleve­land in late May, when police mobi­lized to try to intim­i­date pro­tes­tors from com­ing out. That exhibits the dif­fi­cul­ty of this fight. As Frances said, this is not just about polic­ing — this is an eco­nom­ic issue that the state has no real res­o­lu­tion to.

They’ve cut the pub­lic sec­tor, they’ve turned work into low-wage mean­ing­less work that peo­ple can’t sur­vive on, and cre­at­ed a sit­u­a­tion where the police become the last func­tion­ing pub­lic insti­tu­tion, one that is used to main­tain the sta­tus quo.

FRANCES: And even to make mon­ey, as we saw in Fer­gu­son. The DOJ report revealed the extent to which police were crim­i­nal­iz­ing poor peo­ple in Fer­gu­son just to eke out mea­ger revenues.

CHAR­LENE: In New York, when the police went on a work slow­down and stopped writ­ing tick­ets, in response to May­or de Bla­sio mak­ing very mild state­ments about police vio­lence, it cost the New York City Hall $10 mil­lion a week. So not only do we need protests, we also have to start think­ing about a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent kind of soci­ety, one that doesn’t rely on police to raise munic­i­pal funds and to bru­tal­ize com­mu­ni­ties of poor and work­ing-class peo­ple. This is a long and impor­tant strug­gle that we’re just at the very begin­ning of.

Any last thoughts?

FRANCES: The issue isn’t vio­lence. Peo­ple who are exclud­ed from impor­tant roles in major insti­tu­tions often have to become dis­or­der­ly and dis­rup­tive and make trou­ble. And then they are called vio­lent. But the kind of vio­lence that the crowd makes is typ­i­cal­ly minor. It has to do with break­ing win­dows, not killing peo­ple. But this accu­sa­tion of vio­lence turns pub­lic opin­ion against the peo­ple who are try­ing to have a voice, who are try­ing to be par­tic­i­pants in a polit­i­cal con­flict. So it’s impor­tant that we be very alert to the abus­es of charges of violence.

KEEAN­GA: Ter­ri­ble things have been hap­pen­ing to black peo­ple around this coun­try, but at the same time, I think that this move­ment, whether we call it Black Lives Mat­ter or what­ev­er, is a ray of light. It’s the most impor­tant thing in black polit­i­cal life in a gen­er­a­tion. And that’s a rea­son for opti­mism. Peo­ple are try­ing to fig­ure out not just how to get this or that police offi­cer arrest­ed, but how to ques­tion the entire régime of vio­lence that per­vades so much of our lives. And, for that, we should be hope­ful about the future, because peo­ple are trust­ing each oth­er to try and end this in ways that we haven’t seen in a long time.

CHAR­LENE: It’s impor­tant for us not to pit so-called good pro­test­ers against bad pro­test­ers or vio­lent actions against so-called non­vi­o­lent actions. Because what we see and what we will con­tin­ue to see is a phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of people’s rage and just hurt and pain, and their desire to declare, No more. I’m here, and this has to change.” 

Martha Bion­di is a pro­fes­sor of African Amer­i­can Stud­ies at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty and author, most recent­ly, of The Black Rev­o­lu­tion on Cam­pus.
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