It started on Facebook. Alicia Garza drafted a post dubbed “A love note for Black People,” crafted largely out of sympathy for a dead child and disgust for the system that killed him. That post was the impetus for a movement hearkening back to the impassioned protesting of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Lives Matter. However, Black Lives Matter has an obvious twist. It has thrown off the decorum and peacefulness that was previously used as a shield against white incrimination and is fighting racism with all the urgency of a militia unit. Their weapons? Words, protests, and the transcendent force of social media. Their goals? That part is a bit trickier.
At its crux, Black Lives Matter is a movement aiming to address a system that its followers have identified as unduly antagonistic towards African Americans. The solution starts with tackling rampant police brutality, according to a campaign launched in conjunction with BLM dubbed Campaign Zero.
“We can live in a world where the police don’t kill people by limiting police interventions, improving community interactions, and ensuring accountability,” the website states.
While the language Campaign Zero employs displays an obvious degree of level-headedness in its framing, comments made by everyday people sympathetic with the goals of BLM are often more volatile. In an essay dubbed Racism by Another Name, Jay-Marie J. Hill likened police brutality to a “sickness” brought about by systemic state violence.
For those placed in the crosshairs of the movement’s ideology, BLM can seem unnecessarily militant. Some vigorously decry the movement. In a piece entitled “The profound racism of Black Lives Matter Movement,” John Perazzo asserts that BLM “is in fact one of the most destructive, hateful, racist movements in living memory.”
That the jury is proverbially hung on the validity of BLM points to some inherent tensions within the campaign. BLM faces a choice, one that could make or break the momentum of the movement: to operate within the confines of a system that they have already identified as unfavorable in the hopes of affecting marginal change; or to dissolve that system and create something new in its place. Thus far, the indication is that BLM is going for the latter. As a result, the movement has inadvertently garnered a host of enemies—people who either take issue with its goals, practices, or rhetoric.
The Problem’s in the Frame
The problem for Black Lives Matter emanates from the manner in which it frames its grievances. Another recent social movement found itself in a similar situation, although its tone allowed for greater inclusivity. Occupy Wall Street captured national attention in 2011 when a series of protests decrying social and economic inequality swept across the country. For Occupy, framing the issue meant designating a specific “target”: the richest 1 percent of Americans. It was a rallying cry that was easy for the majority of people to answer because, by definition, most people fall into the category of “the 99 percent.” The movement did not divide people along lines endemic to their identity (race, culture, religion), but rather along lines associated with their wealth.
According to its guiding principles, Black Lives Matters has aimed to be an inclusive movement that seeks to incorporate members from different cultural and racial backgrounds. But while its goal may be bridging cultural divides, it is compromised by the fact that its message rests upon racial lines. Whether this was its original intent or not, the movement creates a division between black and white Americans. Whereas black Americans are protesting for valid reasons based off of a dangerous trend of police brutality, many white Americans feel as though they are being singled out by the movement. The result: a notion of a dangerous “otherness,” something that has fermented conflict throughout our nation’s history.
Alison Denton Jones, a lecturer on social movements at Harvard, highlighted the Occupy movement’s advantageous inclusivity to the HPR: “Once you start that conversation, it’s not that hard for people to realize that they’re in the 99 percent and they’re not being targeted by this movement, whereas Black Lives Matter has a big issue with many people, especially white people, feeling like they’re being lumped in.”
Occupy, while not prey to the same challenge, faced a hurdle in its decentralized approach to mobilization. In 2011, that decentralization was heralded as its greatest strength. In 2016, after the smoldering embers of the movement have faded, that “strength” has been identified as the reason for Occupy’s failure. Importantly, though, decentralization seldom led to situations in which local movements fell out of step with the organization’s central philosophy. BLM, however, has been riddled with such instances.
That the Black Lives Matter movement has managed to sustain itself this long without much local violence is remarkable. It’s something that is tied, somewhat paradoxically, to its status as a conventionally “leaderless” movement. Or, as prominent BLM activists describe it, a “leaderfull” movement. Indeed, the overarching organization decries the idea of having a fountain- head, but chapters abound with local leadership. Perhaps there is a sense of duty that these leaders feel for keeping the peace.
That is not to say that Black Lives Matter has not had its fair share of escalated encounters. From the BLM chapter at Wesley- an, which embarked on a campaign to disestablish a newspaper that ran an op-ed criticizing the movement for not addressing its extremists, to the protesters at Dartmouth who reportedly slung curses at their classmates and even went as far as to physically pin a student against a wall, college campus iterations of BLM have been riddled with controversy. Furthermore, protesters in Cleveland threatened a reporter who was filming a demonstration and, in 2014, protesters who were believed to be associated with BLM chanted “we want dead cops” in the wake of Eric Garner’s death.
These incidents, though not representative of the movement as a whole, are often misconstrued as such. As a result, they are used as fodder for a firestorm of criticism by BLM’s enemies.
Any well-meaning disruptive movement is bound to make enemies. For BLM, those foes abound. The movement has made enemies out of self-professing moderates, hardline conservatives, and even former civil rights activists.
The largest group allied against BLM seems to be a cohort of right-wing media outlets that denounce the tactics and purpose of the movement. Some published editorials that criticized BLM
for its rejection of its rival movement, All Lives Matter. Others point to instances in BLM’s short history in which local chapters have acted belligerently.
Hand in hand with the conservative media comes the conservative political base. In this election cycle, Chris Christie, former Republican presidential hopeful, brutally rebuked the movement for what he characterized as “lawlessness,” specifically in what he believed was a call for the murder of police officers. He extended that criticism to President Obama and the Democratic Party, who have defended the matter in the past. “I’ll tell you the thing that disturbs me the most [about] what’s going on with the Democratic Party in Washington,” Christie said. “They’re not standing behind our police officers in this country.”
Politicians in general are put in a compromising position when they have to address BLM. On the one hand, they could throw their support behind the movement and risk alienating a cohort of police offices or other public defenders who feel as though the movement is unjustly targeting them. On the other hand, politicians could condemn the movement and risk the ire of liberals and African Americans who believe that its goals are common-sense propositions rather than grossly unreasonable demands.
Surprisingly enough, BLM has even drawn the disapproval of members of the original Civil Rights Movement. They often criticize BLM for abandoning their brand of civil disobedience. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, former Civil Rights activist Barbara Reynolds denounced BLM as something that is “hard for [her] to get behind,” because the tactics that the movement uses are completely different from the ones activists previously employed. Reynolds notes, “at protests today, it is difficult to distinguish legitimate activists from the mob actors who burn and loot.”
For BLM organizers, the docility shown by Civil Rights activists is too weak to address the nation’s race problems. For Civil Rights activists, nonaggressive tactics were necessary to high- light the often egregious racism and prejudice of the institutions oppressing African Americans. BLM believes that the nature of the current world—a faux color-blind society that is ignoring rather than addressing racism—is not conducive to the same approach. In their eyes, it needs a jarring blow to encourage its leaders to change. That unabashed approach makes people uncomfortable, especially in a society that has ebbed closer and closer to a state where the extreme of political correctness is the new norm. To blazon its website with comments that put the onus of institutional racism on the state—“it is an acknowledgement that Black poverty and genocide is state violence”—is to subvert that new norm.
These tactics, which have led to people describing BLM as “not your grandparent’s civil rights movement,” have lined up a succession of enemies that might prove fatal if efforts aren’t made to assuage tensions.
The Solution is Also in the Framing
Some would argue that smoothing things over isn’t the answer. Others assert that it is the only way for BLM to enact substantive change.
The reality is that BLM lacks political capital. Thus, up to this point, any attempts to influence policy have been driven by force-the-issue demonstrations that have mainly symbolic effects. BLM is more likely to take to the streets than to lobby in boardrooms to make change. Politicians, who often count police officers and other public safety groups among their primary constituents, are loathe to appease BLM in fear of losing their political base. To aggregate the political capital needed to be actively engaged in the legislative process, BLM has to be prepared to stop spurning political candidates and institutions. In 2015, the Democratic National Committee offered to endorse the movement—an endorsement that BLM quickly turned down, arguing that “The Democratic Party, like the Republican and all political parties, have historically attempted to control or contain Black people’s efforts to liberate ourselves. True change requires real struggle, and that struggle will be in the streets and led by the people, not by a political party.”
Alternatively, its leaders can begin running for political office in the hopes of addressing the problems from within. In Baltimore, prominent BLM activist DeRay Mckesson announced his candidacy in the mayoral election in February 2016.
Brandon Terry, an assistant professor of African American Studies at Harvard stressed to the HPR the importance of BLM amassing local political capital, rather than national support: “So many of these issues have their roots at the local level or municipal level. You’re not going to change criminal justice only at the federal level,” Terry said. “It requires a lot: it requires money, it requires organization, and it requires network coordination and it’s going to be difficult.”
However, operating outside of traditional institutions, as the movement has been doing thus far, has dangers as well. For BLM, the problem is alienating the people that could possibly enact the change they are working towards, and further drum- ming up the view of a radical black movement. To be successful, BLM needs to lean partially on values that previous social movement leaders have identified as integral to success.
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.” BLM has somewhat convoluted the order of those steps, but are nonetheless following the general formula. Its website serves as a sort of hub for statistical support of their mission; direct action is obvious in the organized protests, sit-ins, and social media campaigns that have been started in response to the movement’s rallying call.
The self-purification will arguably come once the movement arrives upon a decision about the question of framing. Should they continue to frame the movement in a way that is off-putting to support outlets, or should they amend their methods to be more amenable to the public? If the latter route is taken, then negotiation will be easier for BLM to accomplish. The former, on the other hand, might do little except prolong a cycle of reciprocal animosity between BLM and its many opponents.
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