The rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement
The inspiring resistance in the streets of Ferguson has gone national since last August. In a document written for discussion--and finished before the shootings of two NYPD officers produced a right-wing backlash--explains the background for this upsurge and analyzes the movement that has taken new shape over the last months of the year. Here, we print excerpts from that document, edited for general publication.
A MOVEMENT has erupted against police brutality and shaken U.S. society to its core.
There were daily protests in the weeks after the announcements that two white police officers would not be indicted for the murder of two unarmed Black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island in New York City. Since late November, tens of thousands of people participated in demonstrations, direct actions and all manner of protests, to rally against the racism, brutality and injustice at the heart of American legal institutions.
The movement has put the final nail in the coffin of the idea that we live in a post-racial society, along with the delusion that the U.S. has abandoned its racial past. The Black Lives Matter movement has put the political establishment on the defensive, forcing the highest ranks of government to respond with promises of change.
In the weeks since a St. Louis grand jury's failure to indict white killer cop Darren Wilson, movement leaders from Ferguson have met with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. After weeks of silence when Mike Brown was first murdered, Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, uttered the phrase "Black Lives Matter" in a public appearance.
A handful of Black members of Congress interrupted a session with the "hands up, don't shoot" symbolic protest--a week later, several hundred mostly Black congressional aides walked off the job in protest. Black professional athletes have donned "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts, paving the way for college and high school boys and girls teams to wear the shirts as well. Thousands of college, high school and even middle school students have organized and participated in die-ins, walkouts, marches and other forms of public protest. Students at 70 medical schools organized die-ins under the slogan "White Coats for Black Lives," in solidarity with the protests sweeping the country. Public defenders and other lawyers organized their own actions, including the now-familiar tactic of the die-in.
The effects of this activism can already been seen in a shift of the widespread public discussion about racism, inequality and the justice system in this country. According to a Gallop opinion poll, since the mass protests after the Ferguson verdict in late November, the number of Americans who think racism is the country's most important problem leapt from 1 percent to 13 percent in less than a month--the highest level since the aftermath of the Los Angeles Rebellion in 1992.
Commissions, investigations and other inquiries into the machinery of Black murder at the hands of state agents are being established. Obama--who has been reluctant, if not openly hostile, to discussing the persistence of racial inequality, all the while attacking Black communities for bad behavior and moral ineptitude--has changed the emphasis of his public comments. In an interview days after the large December 13 protests, the president and his wife, Michelle Obama, described their own encounters with racial slights and being mistaken as service people. Eric Holder, who earlier in his tenure described the U.S. as a "nation of cowards" when it came to discussing race, has now concluded that, "we, as a nation have failed," in "race relations."
These, of course, are innocuous comments that reduce racial injustice to inconveniences, prejudice and misunderstandings--while ignoring the pervasive and institutional character of American racism that the vast majority of African Americans must contend with. Nevertheless, in a country where racial inequality has been made invisible by the stifling focus on a "culture of poverty" and "personal responsibility" as the main explanations for disparities between Blacks and whites, the shift in rhetoric at this early stage is not insignificant.
What is the background of this movement? What are its goals and how will it achieve them? These are important discussions that this article aims to introduce.
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The Roots of Ferguson
Before the U.S. was "post-racial," it was "post-civil rights."
Both phrases were meant to communicate the message that the absence of racially unjust laws meant that the U.S. was now a "color-blind" society, based on meritocracy. The findings at the heart of the 1968 Kerner Commission report--which concluded that structural inequality was the product of "white institutions" that "condoned" racial segregation, substandard housing and police brutality--has been replaced by 40 years of blaming African Americans for the conditions of their communities.
Periodically, there were political events that confounded the "personal responsibility" rhetoric and exposed the depths of American racial injustice. The Los Angeles Rebellion in 1992, sparked by another case of police going free even after they were videotaped brutalizing a Black man, was the most dramatic example.
By the end of the 1990s, there was growing momentum against racial profiling of Black men. The deadly effects of racial profiling became a national discussion in 1999 when an unarmed Black immigrant, Amadou Diallo, was shot and killed by New York City police in a hail of 41 bullets. Diallo's death brought unprecedented attention to the practice of racial profiling and even prompted then-President Bill Clinton to appoint a federal task force to investigate it.
The emerging movement against corporate globalization and the insurgent Ralph Nader campaign for president in 2000 undergirded the rising tide of anti-racist activism. The unraveling of the death penalty in Illinois and the decision of Gov. George Ryan to declare a moratorium on its use in 1999 put a national spotlight on the intersection of race and class in the criminal justice system. In the spring of 2001, a Black rebellion erupted in Cincinnati when police murdered an unarmed Black teenager who ran from officers. For three days, Black youth fought police and destroyed millions of dollars worth of property.
The momentum of the anti-racist movement was dramatically reversed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The U.S. government rushed to turn tragedy into a call for national unity in preparation for a new war with Iraq.
The authorities justified racial profiling against Muslims and Arabs as part of the racist frenzy and the drive to war. No longer was the tactic subject to federal investigation and lawsuits. In 1999, 59 percent of Americans said they believed that the police engaged in racial profiling, and of those, 81 percent thought the practice was wrong. Even George W. Bush declared in his first address to Congress in early 2001 that racial profiling was "wrong, and we will end it in America."
But a mere three weeks after September 11, support for racial profiling of Arabs was over 50 percent, and was actually more intense among African Americans than other groups. Not only was the developing struggle against racism buried under a wave of jingoism and Islamophobia, but the previous focal point of the anti-racist struggle, racial profiling, was now championed as a necessary tool in the so-called "war on terror."
Over the course of the decade, though, the nationalism and silencing of protest about problems on the home front eroded. The most prominent of event was Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the federal government's lack of response as New Orleans and hundreds of Black people drowned. Two years later, tens of thousands of mostly Black college students marched in the small town of Jena, La., to protest a racist attack on Black high school students there.
The activism and mobilizations in response to the events in Louisiana didn't constitute the beginning of a movement, but they did uncover the persistence of racial inequality in the U.S. The Bush wars and occupations had closed the space for activism or even articulating the continuation of inequality in the country, but Katrina exposed to the world that the U.S. was still the same old racist empire, and Jena helped to revive a protest tradition that had been decidedly muted since 2001.
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The Obama Generation
The contradictions of the war and the collapse of the economy reduced the Bush presidency to rubble by 2008. Obama was elected that November as the nation's first African American president by running a campaign that not only tapped into disgust with Bush, economic crisis and endless war, but rhetorically linked his presidential campaign as a continuation of the civil rights movement. His campaign slogans of "hope" and "change" raised the expectations of millions.
The expectations of African Americans were especially high, as Blacks voted in record numbers to put Obama in the White House. Even though Obama received 95 percent of the eligible Black vote, he was a reluctant champion of African Americans as president. The first glimpse of frustrated Black expectations came very quickly.
Weeks before the new president was even inaugurated, an armed transit cop murdered an unarmed, 22-year-old Black man, Oscar Grant, on a Bay Area Rapid Transit station platform in Oakland, Calif. Grant's murder was also captured on video, and took place in front of dozens of witnesses. The anger in Black Oakland was palpable as hundreds and then thousands took to the streets to demand justice. It's possible that this kind of mobilization would have happened in any event, but the brutality of Grant's murder in the days before the nation's first Black president was to be inaugurated certainly added fuel to the fire.
Unlike other cases preceding it and those that would come after, Grant's murderer was eventually indicted, put on trial and convicted, going to jail briefly for manslaughter. Despite the abbreviated sentence, the struggle for justice for Oscar Grant brought a new layer of Blacks into the struggle, helped to develop new organizing networks that extended beyond Oakland, and showed that protest could get a cop convicted for killing a Black man. These would be important lessons and relationships moving forward.
By 2011, Obama's electoral victory had begun to lose its luster for African Americans. Black America was in the midst of an economic free fall, experiencing double-digit official unemployment, growing poverty and the devastating effects of the collapse of the housing market--and, with it, the disappearance of Black wealth. The success of Obama's campaign for the presidency had been met with ebullience, but the reality was significantly underwhelming. Obama and his political minions--the Rev. Al Sharpton chief among them--insisted that the president did not need a "Black agenda" and that African Americans would benefit from a policy agenda focused on a recovery for all.
This refusal to create policies that would attack the structural inequality and racism responsible for the disproportionate impact of the crisis in Black neighborhoods was replaced by an ideological attack on Black communities, led by the president himself. President Obama chastised African Americans for everything from feeding their children cold fried chicken for breakfast to having too many children out of wedlock. In other words, with no policies to confront racism on offer, blaming Black communities for the outcomes of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression would have to suffice. Even though Obama remained personally popular among African Americans, there were bitter limitations to having a Black president.
The episodic and periodically explosive character of American politics is, in part, because U.S. workers have few formal outlets to direct their grievances against the system or find temporary relief from its harshest effects. Instead, two political parties, both beholden to capitalist interests, control politics in the U.S., narrowing the space for political reform where it exists at all. For African Americans, this dynamic is exacerbated by the wide acceptance that Blacks are themselves responsible for their own conditions, as a result of bad behavior and bad choices. The unresponsiveness of the Black political elite has left even fewer avenues for expressions of discontent.
This was the context in 2011, when protests to save the life of Georgia death row prisoner Troy Davis coincided with the emerging actions of the Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York City. The development of sustained protest near the end of 2011 seemed to be the awakening of the "American Spring," at the end of a year when the Arab Spring had electrified the world.
Before Occupy, the space to express political concern, anger or simply disappointment with economic inequality and incompetent government had narrowed even further with the right-wing victories in the 2010 midterm elections. But the Troy Davis and Occupy protests shook up the status quo, reaffirming the legitimacy of street protests and radical politics. Moreover, their close proximity identified the overlapping and, in fact, entangled relationship between racial and economic inequality.
Occupy struggled to cohere a Black audience, but whatever its shortcomings, it was the desire of the movement to do this. More broadly, Occupy brought to the fore the contradictions of the U.S. road to economic recovery by highlighting unlimited government bailouts for private enterprise while millions of ordinary people wilted under the weight of unemployment, foreclosures and evictions. The Occupy movement affirmed the reality of inequality in the U.S. in popular consciousness.
Even with limited Black participation, the focus on economic inequality helped to break open the space to discuss conditions in Black communities. The emphasis on Black culture as an explanation for the crisis of Black America made little sense in the broader context of gross economic inequality. This doesn't mean that the victim-blaming explanations withered away, but now, other explanations competed for space.
Moreover, the vicious crackdown on the Occupy encampments during the winter and into the spring of 2012 broadened the parameters of understanding the repression and brutality of the police. For people who participated in the struggle, the police were now not just a force of repression against African Americans, but defenders of the status quo. They operated at the behest of the 1 Percent, at the command of local, state and federal agents that coordinated attacks to destroy the Occupy movement.
By the spring of 2012, thousands would take to the streets again to protest the murder of unarmed Black teenager, Trayvon Martin. The Occupy encampments may have been destroyed but the marches and mobilizations for Trayvon showed that the confidence to confront authorities was still alive. Weeks after newspaper articles described the murder of Trayvon Martin in a Florida gated community, the story went "viral," and protests erupted across the country to demand that Martin's killer, George Zimmerman, be arrested.
Thousands of people mobilized across the country, with the largest demonstrations in Florida and in New York City, where groups had already been organizing in opposition to the racist stop-and-frisk policy of the NYPD. These smaller demonstrations filtered into the popular culture as Black athletes also registered protest at the failure to arrest Zimmerman.
The activism surrounding the case kept the story alive in the mainstream media, but not only that. The same thing happened with Troy Davis' case--together, they produced many months of public debate about the country's continuing crisis with racial inequality and injustice. Along with the publication in 2011 of Michelle Alexander's wildly popular The New Jim Crow, the activism and public discussion surrounding these two cases made it impossible to continue to dismiss these types of cases as "isolated incidents."
The eventual arrest of Zimmerman legitimized the importance of protests, marching and demonstrations after the crushing of the Occupy encampments. Zimmerman would go on to be acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, reinforcing for millions of peole what Black America already knew--the impossibility of a young Black man getting justice in an American court of law. Zimmerman's acquittal also gave rise to the defiant slogan "Black Lives Matter."
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From Ferguson to the Future
A 2012 SocialistWorker.org article titled "The terrorists in blue" concluded on this point:
If the police continue to kill Black men and women with impunity, the kind of urban rebellions that shook American society in the 1960s are a distinct possibility.
This isn't the 1960s, but the 21st century--and with a Black president and a Black attorney general serving in Washington. People surely expect more. Meanwhile, in a matter of a few days in late July , near-riots broke out in Southern California and Dallas after police, growing more brazen in their disregard for Black and Brown life, executed young men in broad daylight, out in the open for all to see...
There's a growing feeling of being fed up with the vicious racism and brutality of cops across the country and the pervasive silence that shrouds it--and people are beginning to rise against it.
This brings us to Ferguson. No one would have anticipated that a small city on the outskirts of St. Louis would become the epicenter of the "rising up" against police terrorism in the United States. At the same time, it is easy to see why Ferguson exploded. Racist police not only routinely harassed African Americans, but the city also relied on citing the Black majority for a range of minor offenses to generate income--fines from tickets became the second leading source of revenue for Ferguson. The antagonism between a white, racist police force and the Black majority was literally institutionalized.
When the police killed Mike Brown and left his body lying in the street for four and a half hours, it transformed this police killing into a lynching. It also perhaps signaled to Mike Brown's peers--those who would later take to the streets to protest his murder--an escalation in mistreatment by the police. If a cop was willing to shoot an unarmed teenager with his hands raised in the air and leave his body in the street as a clear message, then they were willing to do anything to maintain their authority and control over the community.
The anger in Ferguson ignited across Black America, with protests organized in solidarity across the country. The outpouring of Black anger wasn't just a reaction to this particular murder, but to all the brushes or worse with the racism of the police and the entire criminal justice system, experienced by every African American person, either personally or through a friend or family member
Moreover, the summer of 2014 was punctuated with equally horrific cases of police killings that highlighted the regularity with which cops are never punished for the violence they mete out. In the days leading up to the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, a white officer in Cleveland shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice within seconds of arriving on the scene.
Meanwhile, young Black protesters in Ferguson were denounced as "violent" even while the militarized local police force used tanks, tear gas and military-grade weaponry against unarmed men, women and children. The overwhelming response of the state and the heroic persistence of protesters in Ferguson made this an issue that wouldn't go away, and in so doing, it forced a larger public discussion about racial inequality, injustice, the police and the criminal justice system that would not have occurred otherwise.
This debate has had two effects on politics more broadly. First, it has forced into the American media substantive discussions about the material and structural dimensions of Black inequality. This has led to widespread reporting on cases of police brutality and greater inquiry into the circumstances surrounding instances of police violence, including murder.
Second, it also shed light on the divisions that exist among African Americans. This has been one of the most important political developments to occur with the rise of this movement. It was not only the media that described anti-racist demonstrators as violent to detract from the central issue of police terrorism directed at African Americans--Black elected officials and political figures like Rev. Al Sharpton also warned against violence and went out of their way to separate protesters into categories of good and bad.
For example, at Mike Brown's funeral, Sharpton lectured, "And now we get to the 21st century, we get to where we've got some positions of power. And you decide it ain't Black no more to be successful. Now, you want to be a 'nigger' and call your woman a 'ho.' You've lost where you're coming from." Sharpton went on to warn against partaking in "ghetto pity parties." Meanwhile, Barack Obama called for calm, and Eric Holder traveled to Ferguson to deliver the message personally.
Sharpton's vitriol directed at the young protesters in Ferguson wasn't simply a disagreement about the strategy and tactics needed to take the movement forward. This public attack was his attempt to reassert control over the direction of the struggle. While Sharpton was most direct, other Black elected official attempted to hijack the anger around Ferguson as a "get out the vote" rallying cry.
Very few Black elected officials had much, if anything, to say about Ferguson beyond using it as a call to vote. But that can't be much of a surprise when the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), in the weeks prior to the murder of Eric Garner in 2014, decided not to vote to stop the Pentagon program of giving local police forces the military hardware that would soon be dramatically displayed on the streets of Ferguson.
Support for the continued militarization of local police forces isn't the only problem with the CBC. The relationship of caucus members with corporate giants like McDonald's, Walmart and more has had a conservatizing effect. Being involved in formal politics at the highest levels requires regular solicitation of funds from corporations, and the price of that ticket is the dimming of their political horizons
The CBC has not been relevant to the lives of Black working class people in decades and its silence or ineffectiveness around Ferguson simply confirmed this. But this ineffectiveness meant that the working class youth at the heart of the rebellion understood that they would have to stay on the streets in order to keep their movement alive.
This proved critical when in November the grand jury delivered its predictable decision not to indict Darren Wilson. Across the country, activists anticipating this outcome had spent weeks preparing for actions in protest. In the immediate aftermath of the decision, Ferguson went up in flames, as police abandoned Black neighborhoods and allowed fires to burn through the night. This was fodder for hysterical news coverage that focused on the supposed violence of protests as the lens through which the story would be covered.
After a few days, the momentum of the protests began to wilt under the inevitable disappointment, fatigue and demoralization, now that the murder of Mike Brown had been approved by the state. But then came the decision of another grand jury not to indict another white officer involved in the murder of another unarmed Black man, Eric Garner.
The protests following this decision were bigger and more widespread than ever On December 13, upwards of 100,000 people took to the streets in New York City, Washington, D.C., and cities around the country in a day of action to declare that "Black Lives Matter."
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Black Lives Matter
The political conflict that began in Ferguson in debates over the character of the demonstrations has sharpened. This was fully shown at the march led by Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Action Network in Washington, D.C., on December 13. That demonstration was conceived of as a tightly controlled event, where Sharpton would display his relationship with family members as evidence of his leadership and authority.
It should be noted that Sharpton's relationship to the families of police murder victims is built on two main resources. One is his ability to provide financial help for these struggling Black families to pay for funerals, college tuition and so on. Plus, he can provide access to the highest levels of government. Reports show that Sharpton has visited the White House 61 times since Obama has been president. But accessing these connections through Sharpton come with a price--he calls all of the shots and dramatically limits the scope of the grievances put forward.
In Sharpton's speech at the December 13 march in D.C., he once again downplayed "race" as a factor, opting for universal and, thus, vacuous statements like "This is not old versus young, Black versus white...All human lives are important." Black organizers from Ferguson who attempted to speak at the march were stopped by Sharpton's team. Explaining this later, Sharpton said that "revolutionary" or "provocative" speeches were not going to be allowed.
In a self-serving article written after the march, Sharpton outlined what he thought would be a successful outcome for the movement:
In 10 or 25 years from now, it won't matter who got the most publicity or the most applause at a rally. All that will matter is the fact that police across the country will know that if they use deadly force, they cannot depend on local friendly prosecutors to walk them through a grand jury with no risk of a fair investigation. All that will matter will be the implementation of a process where state attorney generals handle police-involved shooting deaths of unarmed civilians, rather than local prosecutors and grand juries. All that will matter will be the idea that young men and women of color can walk down the street or drive in their car without fearing for their lives from those hired to protect them.
The article demonstrated two things. One is that the sharpening divisions and the emergence of new leaders in a movement of which he has been perhaps the best-known leader for years has gotten his attention. That Sharpton felt compelled to intervene in the current debates over the direction of the struggle is significant.
But the content of his essay also betrayed the narrowness and conservatism of his vision. He continues to downplay racial inequality as a central organizing issue in the movement, and instead defines victory as a matter of two or three reforms, including the widespread use of body cameras by police, which don't even address the central issues at the heart of the misconduct and brutality in the nation's legal institutions: criminalization of African Americans, the war on drugs and the cascading effects of mass incarceration.
But Sharpton and the politicians for whom he works aren't interested in upending the system. They are looking to dull the antagonisms so that business as usual can resume.
A statement produced by a group of Ferguson organizers, some of whom were the ones prevented from speaking at the December 13 protest in Washington, D.C.,, reveals a world of difference in the scope and goals of their conception of the movement. They link struggles against police violence to a much broader vision of social justice, including immigrant and trans rights and support of the low-wage worker movement. In conclusion, they write:
This is a movement of and for ALL Black lives--women, men, transgender and queer. We are made up of both youth AND elders aligned through the possibilities that new tactics and fresh strategies offer our movement. Some of us are new to this work, but many of us have been organizing for years. We came together in Mike Brown's name, but our roots are also in the flooded streets of New Orleans and the bloodied BART stations of Oakland. We are connected online and in the streets. We are decentralized, but coordinated. Most importantly, we are organized.
Yet we are likely not respectable negroes. We stand beside each other, not in front of one another. We do not cast any one of ours to the side in order to gain proximity to perceived power. Because this is the only way we will win. We can't breathe. And we won't stop until Freedom.
The challenge is to transform this sentiment into a bigger, broader, living, breathing movement.
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The Next Steps
As was the case with the civil rights movement, the political establishment, recognizing the strength and popularity of the struggle, will attempt to redirect it in a more benign direction. It's not every day that the president of the United States, flanked by his vice president and attorney general, agree to meet with grassroots activists who weeks earlier were protecting themselves from tear gas attacks. According to participants, Obama told protesters that they should slow things down and be patient, and that change takes a long time.
The meeting itself is the unmistakable result of the organizing, the movement and the determination of the people involved. But affirmation and sympathy aren't the same as a change in policies and don't constitute actual reform. For example, Obama left the meeting promising to spend $263 million on basically toothless reforms--but when the $1.1 trillion federal budget was passed by Congress weeks later, funding for even the toothless reforms was missing.
The long-term strength of the movement will depend on its ability to not only reach large numbers of people, but integrate them into the movement as leaders and organizers in their own localities. This includes students, workers and union members as well.
The growth of a Black student movement is also a likely outcome of Black Lives Matters, but there will be different demands and different dynamics. Black students have mobilized by the thousands to protest not only police brutality off campus, but to link those grievances to the hostility they face on campus as well. Indeed, the slogan "Black Lives Matter" creates multiple fronts for organizing against many manifestations of Black oppression.
There will be political polarization in the movement as more conservative forces work to reduce demands to the lowest common denominator of punishing individual officers or making procedural changes in law enforcement. But the nature of Black oppression in the U.S. lends itself to a broader conceptualization of the movement's tasks. Martin Luther King Jr.observed this about the Black movement in the late 1960s. He wrote then:
In these trying circumstances, the Black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws--racism, poverty, militarism and materialism. It is exposing the evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced
The same is true today. It is impossible to separate the brutality of the police and the injustices of the legal system from poverty and underemployment in Black communities. It is impossible to imagine curbing police abuse without addressing the crisis of mass incarceration, the war on drugs and the economic pressures that keep African Americans vulnerable to the whims of law enforcement. These problems will continue to be exacerbated as the destruction of the public sector, urban restructuring and gentrification, and the limited prospects for work in private job market leaves millions of working class African Americans in a precarious state.
In this context, aggressive policing has become an integral part of maintaining the borders of segregated neighborhoods while preying on economically marginal young Black men who have been forced into the underground economy. Some Democrats voice concern about police practices, but they also champion the policing policies that prompted this crisis. Moreover, with the ongoing trends toward austerity, further attrition of public services, and low-wage work as the primary option for the unemployed or underemployed, there is little reason to believe that police confrontations and provocations in Black and Brown neighborhoods will end in the near future.
The movement's ability to connect with organized labor--where African American workers are unionized at an even higher rate than white workers--will be critical in the coming months. The impulse towards "shutting it down" and "no business as usual" makes the movement predisposed to arguments and discussions about the central role of the working class and the power of the strike weapon.
Consciousness about the relationship between Black poverty and unemployment, police terror and the criminal justice system already exists. The existing solidarity between the low-wage worker mobilizations and Black Lives Matter helps to demonstrate the connections between economic exploitation and racial oppression. One can imagine the transformation of this struggle with workers participating in workplace actions to demand an end to the racial violence of people and the prisons.
The movement holds out the greatest hope for African Americans and the working class in general. The Black insurgency of the 1960s was able to not only transform Black life in the U.S., but to affect all of American politics.
A movement of Black people challenges the imagined inhumanity of Black people, thereby undermining the racist logic that holds American capitalism together. Even as polls show that white people continue to maintain faith in the police, these ideas, like all ideas, are fluid and not immutable. The key to transforming reactionary ideas is engagement with political struggle, which disrupts the dominant logic--that African Americans are inferior, irresponsible and deserving of whatever treatment is meted out by the police
In the 1960s, millions of young people who began the decade with a very limited idea of what "freedom" meant came to draw very radical conclusions about the nature of U.S. capitalism. After betrayals by the Democratic Party, the failure of the state to uphold even the most basic Black rights in the North, and the limits of civil rights legislation, thousands of those activists to become revolutionaries.
There is no reason to believe that the same process is not underway today, and perhaps even deeper at this early stage of the movement's development. Even amid the tumult of the 1960s, the last vestiges of the postwar economic expansion still existed. Today, the Obama Generation has come of age in an unrelenting period of war, recession and ever-accumulating debt.
In some ways then, the repeated references to the civil rights movement do not quite match. If anything, the movement today is confronting many of the same issues that shaped the Black Power insurgency toward the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s. Confrontations with state power, de facto segregation and "colorblind" discrimination, the role of electoral politics, and the multiple meanings of "Black Power" are just some of the issues that confront organizers today. These are questions that the movement will grapple with in the years to come, but it has already shaken the political status quo.
At the end of Martin Luther King's life, he recognized the way that the Black movement was the cog churning all of politics in the U.S. He wrote of how the unwillingness of African Americans to accept oppression could transform the entire nation. His words seem particularly fitting for the political moment we are living in:
I am not sad that Black Americans are rebelling; this was not only inevitable but eminently desirable. Without this magnificent ferment among Negroes, the old evasions and procrastinations would have continued indefinitely. Black men have slammed the door shut on a past of deadening passivity. Except for the Reconstruction years, they have never in their long history on American soil struggled with such creativity and courage for their freedom. These are our bright years of emergence; though they are painful ones, they cannot be avoided....
Today's dissenters tell the complacent majority that the time has come when further evasion of social responsibility in a turbulent world will court disaster and death. America has not yet changed because so many think it need not change, but this is the illusion of the damned. America must change because 23 million Black citizens will no longer live supinely in a wretched past. They have left the valley of despair; they have found strength in struggle. Joined by white allies, they will shake the prison walls until they fall. America must change.