From Hashtag to Strategy: The Growing Pains of Black Lives Matter

Movement activists discuss strategy and tactics in #BlackLivesMatter.

Bill Fletcher, Jr.

On August 8 in Ferguson, Missouri, demonstrators mark the first anniversary of the death of Michael Brown. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

In the last several months, the movement for Black lives (also known as the Black Lives Matter, or BLM, movement) has made headlines by engaging — often aggressively — with Democratic presidential candidates Martin O’Malley, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Each action brought with it pointed questions and often, tactical criticisms.

Folks use BLM because it gives them a platform. At the Black Lives Matter Network, we aren’t concerned with policing who is and who isn’t part of the movement.

Meanwhile, several national and local organizations have come to be identified with the movement. As we found in building the Black Radical Congress (19982008), questions are emerging: How should we approach electoral politics? Should struggles for reforms be connected to a longer-term struggle for social transformation? Can U.S. capitalism accommodate the movement’s demands? 

Today, we lack a strong, conscious, self-identified Left, both nationally and within Black America. Despite the overall strength of the Black Lives Matter movement, the weakness of the Black Left has contributed to a downplaying of ideology, strategy and the centrality of the Black working class in the movement.

In These Times organized a panel to examine the challenges faced by BLM. Alicia Garza is a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Network and helped conceive the slogan in 2013; Jamala Rogers is a founding member of the St. Louis-based Organization for Black Struggle and a long-time community organizer, as well as the author of Ferguson is America: Roots of Rebellion; R.L. Stephens is the founder of Orchestrated Pulse and an organizer in Minneapolis who was present at the Baltimore protests. 

Let’s set some context: What exactly is Black Lives Matter?

ALICIA: I like this question because it’s often confused. The Black Lives Matter Network was founded in 2013 after Trayvon Martin’s killer was acquitted. Then there is the broader movement that is emerging to fight for Black lives and has taken on the moniker of BLM. So there’s both an organization that is being built intentionally — that has a set of principles, that has a vision, that has accountability to one another, and that also has guidelines for how we want to work together. The movement has many ideologies and approaches, but is unified by the desire to make Black lives matter.

Folks use BLM because it gives them a platform. At the Black Lives Matter Network, we aren’t concerned with policing who is and who isn’t part of the movement. If someone says they are part of the BLM movement, that’s true — if they’re working to make sure that Black lives do matter. But we don’t control the movement.

Some folks don’t trust organizations. I think we’d agree that you don’t have to be part of an organized group to be part of the movement. But we believe organization is incredibly important. I’ve heard that some folks in Ferguson feel the Black Lives Matter Network has overshadowed the work on the ground.

JAMALA: I don’t think most people on the ground think BLM is overshadowing their work. The reason that the moniker or hashtag BLM took off is because it resonated in such a way with the Mike Brown case — that was like the straw that broke the camel’s back. But it wasn’t just that. It was not just centered on police violence — it was other kinds of issues, too.

Alicia and I were in a meeting not too long ago and I said, Are there some things that all of the Black Lives Matter chapters should be doing or could be doing?” I think there might be some resistance to having something that definitive. But the movement is broad. The BLM movement is including other nationalities and other sectors of struggle like labor.

I think because we live in a capitalist society, people have a tendency to try to claim stuff as their own. So just recently I heard that somebody’s trying to incorporate the name in St. Louis. That kind of thing is not cool. Copyrighting names and slogans — that’s not what we do in the movement.

ALICIA: We don’t all have to think the same way, but we do need to clarify whether we are heading in the same direction. 

R.L.: There’s an organization called Black Lives Matter, but then there’s the cultural moment and the political space that the hashtag and the organization have opened up to create a lot of movement opportunities. My question has always been, how are those movement opportunities being managed both by the BLM organization as well as all these other political actors who are trying to seize this momentum?

I’ve noticed a growing divide between rhetoric from the dominant voices within the Black Lives Matter Network and what I’ve heard from Black people on the ground. Many see BLM rhetoric, tactics and strategy as irrelevant to their lives and struggles. There’s not actually a substantive connection there: people don’t feel meaningfully engaged and advocated for by those entities. The fact that there are queer Black women at the forefront of the hashtag and the organization has been highlighted; that’s good, but there’s a problem underneath that. There seems to be a dynamic where a primary goal is to get queer Black women to be the new face of the Black leadership class. Yes, the class has new faces, but the dynamics are the same as the old leadership class. I’m seeing a lot of representational tactics, but I’m not seeing real power built at the ground level for marginalized people. 

Another problem has to do with the substance of the demands. A primary demand of BLM, the organization and its affiliates, has been to ask politicians to say Black Lives Matter.” BLM activists recently met with Hillary Clinton, and one of them, after being asked directly by her for their demands, said essentially, We as Black people won’t tell you what to do, so you shouldn’t tell us what to do.” That was staggering to me.

ALICIA: Those activists asked Hillary Clinton about the gap between her rhetoric and actual practice. You ran one of the most racist presidential campaigns against what is now the first Black president in this country, in 2008. You were an adamant supporter of policies that led to hyper-incarceration. Now, your campaign speeches are all about saying Black Lives Matter’ and ending mass incarceration. But you helped facilitate it.” She didn’t answer the question.

R.L.: But who cares whether Hillary Clinton feels bad or has a personal reflection about her old policies? Politics is not about a change of heart. William Brownlow was the governor of Tennessee during Reconstruction. He was a vicious racist, but he supported Black suffrage and fought the Klan — not because of a change of heart, but because of his own self-interest.

It’s about power here, and I’m not seeing, in any of the rhetoric or any of these examples, real power built at the ground level for marginalized people. The power seems to be in the hands of the power brokers who are choosing select people to be the new faces of an emerging leadership class. Meanwhile, the Black masses are being left behind to suffer and die.

ALICIA: We have been clear that our strategy is to push the Democrats to acknowledge Black people’s concerns. This may not be your tactic — that’s okay. It’s not just about candidates saying Black Lives Matter,” though it is about exposing where candidates stand in relation to Black people.

As to the claim about representational” politics, I think we’ve been clear from the beginning that our politics are not just representational.” None of our folks are getting paid to do anything. Many of our activists are organizers and do work with people on the ground — poor people, queer people, disabled people, workers, etc.

JAMALA: Whenever you pressure somebody in power, you need demands. But many newer people who are joining this movement don’t know how that’s done. That’s okay. It’s an opportunity for us to say, Here’s how it could have been done differently.” But I’m not going to say, You shouldn’t have done that.”

I see people critiquing tactics. But if somebody is doing something toward a collective goal — political education or campaigning for an elected official — that’s fine. That’s part of building a movement.

But why shouldn’t people be able to critique tactics? I’m not talking about throwing hand grenades and making it personal; I’m talking about good-faith political critiqueFor example, the interruption of Bernie Sanders’ Seattle speech was very controversial — people were on different sides on that tactic.. Yet some people basically said, No critiques!” People had to support the tactic, because the objective was correct. Well that becomes a real problem…

JAMALA: It gets unproductive when people simply oppose a tactic in itself rather than critique whether it was successful. For example, in St. Louis, there was a highway shutdown. Some Black folks said, You’re inconveniencing people,” etc. But we’ve said it’s not going to be business as usual. So yeah, you might be sitting on the highway for two or three hours. I also see people attacking tactics when they don’t even have their own. 

R.L.: I want to rewind for a second. First, how are the politics of Black Lives Matter not representational? When pressed, time and again, Black Lives Matter, the organization and its affiliates, have asked politicians to say Black Lives Matter.” That’s been a primary demand — not actual tactics designed to remedy the problems faced by black people at all.

As to the question of tactics: My tactic is not to get anyone to say Black Lives Matter” or even acknowledge blackness directly. My purpose is to win and get power for our people.

I’ve been organizing at the Gap, where I work. In an op-ed for The Guardian, I called for an end to on-call scheduling. Everything I put into that op-ed was about Black poor people — my co-workers — but I didn’t mention that. I wasn’t trying to make Black lives matter to people at an ideological level. I needed to make a broader appeal to win my demand — a demand that would disproportionately help poor Black people, especially Black women. And we got Gap to end on-call scheduling. We won.

ALICIA: We’ve said, very directly, that to rebuild the Black Liberation Movement, we actually need to build a different kind of united front — both internal to Black communities and external to Black communities. We have also been very clear that our election strategy is to push the Democratic Party to acknowledge the concerns of Black people. It’s not just about having candidates say Lives Matter,” but certainly it is about exposing where candidates stand as it relates to Black people.

We should figure out how not to try to make everybody fit into the mold we are most comfortable with. I organize domestic workers. Domestic work is a relic of slavery, and very much Black women’s work. I can’t talk about domestic work without talking about Black women. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Our goal is to unite and activate all who can be united, but it’s not realistic to think that every Black person will like what we do or how we do it. Our aim is to rebuild a Black liberation movement. First, we have to awaken and activate our folk. It’s inarguable that BLM has done that and continues to.

These challenges remind me of the early days of Black Power, which caught on in much the same way as Black Lives Matter.” Then there was a rush to define what people meant by it and what kind of movement was actually going to be built. There was a lot of struggle around this. Between 1966 and 1968, there wasn’t one Black Panther party; there were several. Each was trying to corner the market and define who they were.

We need debate, but we should also remember that our opponents want an incendiary situation so the debate doesn’t move to unity. Some political forces are quick to jump to conclusions about the motivations of various activists in this movement, such as accusing people of being stalking horses for the Democrats. It’s very easy to break up a movement by spreading rumors.

ALICIA: We need to figure out how we bring the margins of Black communities to the center of our strategy. That process will take time. Also, being students of history, we understand that we’re in a moment that is different from ones in the past. It is informed by them, but it is not the same. What is our path to power? And what are our strategies to get there? Our approach at this point is to experiment and innovate, boldly and courageously.

JAMALA: But we also need to share what hasn’t worked for us as a people. Bottom line: We need to be building power.

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Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a talk show host, writer, activist, and trade unionist. The Man Who Changed Colors is his latest novel. His first novel is The Man Who Fell From the Sky. He is also co-author (with Fernando Gapasin) of Solitary Divided, and the author of They’re Bankrupting Us” — Twenty Other Myths about Unions. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at www​.bill​fletcher​jr​.com.

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