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

Movement activists discuss strategy and tactics in #BlackLivesMatter.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. September 23, 2015

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.

Bill Fletch­er, Jr. is a talk show host, writer, activist, and trade union­ist. He is the exec­u­tive edi­tor of The Glob­al African Work­er, a 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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