Saturday, January 10, 2015

It's Your Grandkids' Civil Rights Movement

If Oprah Winfrey were not so in love with Hollywood, she would not say something as stupid as that the #BlackLivesMatter movement has no leaders and no concrete demands.

The people who say that stuff must have their quotes sitting in a drawer to pull out every time there’s a threat of a viable movement in the present, because legitimate social movements can only exist in the past, and insofar as they can be rendered suitably photogenic for a major motion picture.  If they’re too messy (read complex), they either (1) don’t exist, (2) have to be dumbed down, or (3) are insane.

In the case of #BlackLivesMatter, the widespread accusations of leaderless chaos and fuzzy principles of unity are hard to comprehend, because the movement has some very visible spokespeople and a five-point program.  In contrast to the all-demands-welcome Occupy culture, #BLM has explicitly requested that everyone who wants to support their movement refer to these five demands:
  • We will seek justice for Brown’s family by petitioning for the immediate arrest of officer Darren Wilson and the dismissal of county prosecutor Robert McCullough. Groups that are part of the local Hands Up Don’t Shoot Coalition have already called for Wilson’s swift arrest, and some BLM riders also canvassed McCullough’s neighborhood as a way of raising the public’s awareness of the case.
  • We will help develop a network of organizations and advocates to form a national policy specifically aimed at redressing the systemic pattern of anti-black law enforcement violence in the US. The Justice Department’s new investigation into St Louis-area police departments is a good start, but it’s not enough. Our ride was endorsed by a few dozen local, regional and national organizations across the country – like the National Organization for Women (Now) and Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation – who, while maintaining different missions, have demonstrated unprecedented solidarity in response to anti-black police violence. We hope to encourage more organizations to endorse and participate in a network with a renewed purpose of conceptualizing policy recommendations.
  • We will also demand, through the network, that the federal government discontinue its supply of military weaponry and equipment to local law enforcement. And though Congress seems to finally be considering measures in this regard, it remains essential to monitor the demilitarization processes and the corporate sectors that financially benefit from the sale of military tools to police.
  • We will call on the office of US attorney general Eric Holder to release the names of all officers involved in killing black people within the last five years, both while on patrol and in custody, so they can be brought to justice – if they haven’t already.
  • And we will advocate for a decrease in law-enforcement spending at the local, state and federal levels and a reinvestment of that budgeted money into the black communities most devastated by poverty in order to create jobs, housing and schools. This money should be redirected to those federal departments charged with providing employment, housing and educational services.
No leaders?  Alicia Garza, Ashley Yates, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, Jameila White, Cat Brooks, Alexis Templeton, Brittany Ferrel, Zakiya Jemmott.  Maybe the reason Oprah Winfrey can’t see them is because they’re women?  Try Larry Fellows III.  Zachary Murray.  This is a leaderful movement.
BLM’s real offense is that they have embraced the slogan “This is not your grandparents’ civil rights movement.”  That ruffles a lot of feathers, because the grandparents’ civil rights movement has been cast as the gold standard of U.S. activism.  What the youth are saying may sound, to those who were part of the civil rights movement of the sixties (or want to believe or pretend they were), like a dismissal of their proudest accomplishments.  It’s not.  Millennial activists are not trying to deny the importance of what has come before; they’re just saying, “That was then, this is now, you did your part, we’re going to do ours our way.”

In the movie “Budrus,” about the Palestinian nonviolent movement, 16-year-old Iltezam Morar says, “All my life, I heard people talking about the First Intifada, the First Intifada.  This is my turn.”  Every generation of activists needs to make that break, find their own form of struggle.  In my day, it was all about affinity groups and six-hour direct action trainings.  I still think that’s a good idea, but it doesn’t fit so well with the quick click lifestyle.  Most younger activists are getting their training on the street.

The civil rights movement is a mythical yardstick for new movements.  It was never one thing.  As has been well documented in so many books and articles they would probably reach from New York to California, there were movements for Black freedom in hundreds of towns and cities in the fifties and sixties.  The “civil rights movement” included innumerable organizations, not all of whom liked each other, from the NAACP to SNCC to the Organization of Afro American Unity.  Many of the people who marched in Selma considered Ella Baker, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, Diane Nash, Bob Moses and Ivanhoe Donaldson more significant leaders than Martin Luther King, Jr.  When Freedom Riders nicknamed Dr. King “De Lawd,” it was not out of respect.
People who suggest that the Black Lives Matter activists should be doing today what Dr. King did in 1965 ignore the fact that King and others founded Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, following a year of activism around the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which itself grew out of years of similar actions that failed to capture widespread attention and thus spark a movement.  By the time King was invited to the White House, he had been in jail numerous times.  In part because of the ability to spread information about actions quickly across distance, #BLM has been able to coalesce around its messages much faster.  In 1970, activists Carol Wilson and Patricia Jackson drove across country to spread literature and news about the women’s movement.  Now you can post a picture on Tumblr and the next day see someone across the world holding up the same image.

Mainstream critics like Oprah want #BLM to hurry up and institutionalize, get an office, rein in its brilliant semi-spontaneous unpredictability in favor of choreographed nondisruptive protests, and lobby for short-term policy changes.  If I thought there was any chance that would happen, I would lay out the reasons it’s a terrible idea.  But I’m pretty sure the movement is just getting started.  Hopefully, the skeptics are just about done.