Black Lives Matter and the 2016 elections

August 17, 2015

The confrontations with Democratic candidates raise political questions that the Black Lives Matter movement will continue to confront in the months to come.

TWO RUN-INS this month, with very different outcomes, between Black Lives Matter activists and candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination cast a light on both the Democrats and their little-talk-and-no-action response to calls for racial justice, and the politics of the Black Lives Matter movement and the challenges it faces one year after the rebellion in Ferguson.

The first was headline news for the last week: Two leading Black Lives Matter activists in Seattle took over the stage during an August 8 rally to defend Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, featuring Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The activists avoided rally organizers' attempts to regain the microphone and continued speaking, as the crowd, many of whom had been waiting for an hour and a half to hear Sanders speak about the three cherished social programs, grew impatient.

Wild allegations began circulating immediately on the Internet that the two women were plants from the Hillary Clinton campaign and even Republican operatives--but so did claims that rally organizers called on police to arrest the activists, and that the crowd they confronted was "a bunch of screaming white racists," as one of the activists put it while on stage.

Protesting police terror in New York City

From the mainstream press to social media, most accounts portrayed the conflict as symbolic of deep divisions and hostility between two progressive camps--the Black Lives Matter movement that erupted in protest over the past year against the escalating epidemic of racist police violence, on the one hand; and the popular mobilizations for the Sanders campaign, with its focus on economic and social inequality, on the other.

That conflict is false and harmful. It is a challenge to everyone on the left to try to overcome this polarization.

The second encounter got less publicity: A group of Black Lives Matter activists traveled from Boston to New Hampshire to confront Hillary Clinton during a campaign stop on August 11. The group arrived too late to enter the forum where Clinton was speaking, but campaign staffers arranged a closed-door meeting with the candidate immediately afterward. In advance of their planned protest, the group stated via Twitter: "We've gotten the attention of ‪@HillaryClinton's staff & they are working w us."

What else to read

Socialist Worker readers debated the Black Lives Matter action in Seattle that disrupted Bernie Sanders' speech. Read the Views and articles related to this discussion.

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Winning talk isn't winning action editorial
Black Lives Matter and the 2016 election

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That idea that Hillary Clinton is "working with" anti-racist activists for any reason other than to advance her campaign is false, too, and also needs to be challenged.

Black Lives Matter activists and organizations are promising more confrontations with the 2016 candidates to come, but these two already pose important questions: What relationship should the Black Lives Matter movement have to the Democratic Party? What does it mean to pressure leading Democrats, and what should we expect from them? Where does the power lie to win the kind of radical changes that Black Lives Matter has called for? Should anti-racist activists and organizations be seeking to win broader layers of society to our cause? If so, how? What strategies and tactics flow from the answers to these questions?

IF THE near-term goal of the confrontations was to get the two top candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination to acknowledge the injustice of police violence and mass incarceration, and to include promises of change among their campaign statements, then victory is already at hand.

But the ease with which Clinton and Sanders could meet these "demands" should raise questions for activists.

Hillary Clinton's staff of experienced operatives was on the lookout for the Black Lives Matter activists in New Hampshire and sought to accommodate them with the private meeting with the candidate.

This wasn't just a matter of avoiding the embarrassments that her opponent Sanders has suffered--Clinton understands that any candidate who hopes to win the Democratic presidential primaries will have to have something to say about racist violence and the police. Thus, after the rebellion in Baltimore following the police killing of Freddie Gray, there was the spectacle of Clinton declaring that it was "time to end the era of mass incarceration" that kicked into high gear during her husband Bill's presidency.

Sanders was slower than Clinton to respond because of the historical weakness of his social democratic politics, which misunderstands the connection between the economic demands of the working class against poverty and exploitation and the specific demands of African Americans and other oppressed minorities against racism and discrimination.

Still, Sanders did start to change his tune after the first Black Lives Matter protest during his appearance at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix in mid-July. The new section of his campaign website on "Racial Justice" was based on a presentation to the National Urban League at the end of July, and Sanders' Los Angeles rally--before a huge crowd, including many unionists--that revolved around the same issues was in the works before the Seattle protest two days earlier.

Sanders should be challenged for his failure historically to address one of the most important issues in American politics, and political candidates in general should feel the pressure to respond to shifting popular consciousness and the impact of political protest. But this alone is a narrow lens to judge the direction of a movement that aspires to confront so much more than the politicians' public statements.

As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor pointed out in an article for The Root:

To be sure, the candidates running for the highest office in the U.S. should have to respond to the most significant anti-racist movement to sweep the country in years. But there is a larger question: What is the significance of either Sanders or Clinton producing "racial justice" platforms when they remain in a political party that is complicit and invested in the destruction of Black neighborhoods through the instruments of privatization and the erosion of public services and institutions? Why should we believe that this is anything other than election-year posturing? In 1964 Malcolm X said of Black voters, "You put the Democrats first and the Democrats put you last." Has anything changed in 50 years?

WHEN THEY'RE trying to win votes from the Democratic base, party leaders hand out appealing rhetoric and campaign promises like Halloween candy. What's harder is getting them to act when they're in a position to do so--on indicting and convicting killer cops, on demilitarizing police and decriminalizing nonviolent offenses, on redistributing wealth from corporations and the wealthy to fund our schools, libraries, parks and social programs.

Clinton and Sanders are hoping to be the president who follows Barack Obama, the first African American elected to the White House in a country founded on slavery. Yet while Obama owes his success to the unprecedented enthusiasm of the Black community, he has presided over worsening conditions for the vast majority of African Americans, including the militarization of police and a frightening escalation in racist violence.

Obama's near-total silence on any issue related to racism has given way this year to some cautious acknowledgment of the scope of police racism, moderate proposals for reform that remain underfunded and inconsistently applied, and calls to overturn the mandatory minimum sentences that have filled U.S. prisons to the bursting point with nonviolent offenders, disproportionately African American.

This is a change from the uninterrupted law-and-order hysteria of past decades, but there are obvious limits. Obama is only speaking out, to the extent that he has, in the final "lame duck" years of his presidency, and knowing that Republicans in Congress have the votes to block anything tangible that he puts forward. Likewise, Hillary Clinton the presidential hopeful is criticizing today what she was responsible for implementing as a lawmaker and Democratic Party leader.

Even more important is why Clinton and Obama have something to say today: the eruption of protest and political discontent that followed the uprising against police murder in Ferguson, Missouri, a year ago, and spread to cities around the country.

If Democratic leaders and even the odd Republican are acknowledging Black Lives Matter, it's because hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets over the past year and many more have had their beliefs and ideas challenged and changed--not the handful of public confrontations that began this summer.

That's why Sanders--a socialist in the mold of moderate European social democracy--has reacted as he has on this issue. Because of his political background, Sanders has historically focused on economic justice, while downplaying the importance of challenging forms of oppression that affect specific sections of the working class. has argued against this attitude from Sanders and when it is expressed by more radical leftists. We believe it will be impossible to build a united working-class movement to challenge capitalism unless it simultaneously struggles to defeat racism and oppression in all forms. But it's also important to recognize that someone holding ideas like Sanders is not a white supremacist.

THE SAME point applies even more so to the people who attended the Seattle rally to defend Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, where Sanders was scheduled to be the keynote speaker--along with socialist Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant and Gerald Hankerson, president of the NAACP for the Pacific Northwest region.

The crowd of some 4,000 people was mostly white, but not entirely. The sponsor of the event was the Social Security Works Washington Coalition, an alliance of unions and labor organizations that, of course, counts people of color among their members.

But the two Black Lives Matter activists who took the stage as Sanders began speaking called the rally crowd "white supremacist liberals" and "a bunch of screaming white racists."

According to reports, there were boos from the crowd when the disruption began--not surprising given the confusion of the moment, perhaps. Some in the crowd did jeer Marissa Janae Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford and called for them to be arrested, but others yelled, "Let them speak." After resisting the stage takeover, rally organizers tried to quiet outbursts from attendees during the four-and-a-half minutes of silence called for by the activists. When Johnson and Willaford kept the microphone and continued speaking after the silence, Sanders left the stage, and organizers declared the event over.

In the aftermath, the two activists explained that they hadn't asked for the opportunity to speak and been refused--and insisted that to have done so would have been to capitulate to the idea that anti-racists must "ask permission" to speak out against police violence.

But that underlines the activists' apparent assumption that they were confronting a hostile audience--as if an event to celebrate and defend Social Security was the polar opposite of a demonstration to demand that Black lives matter. In fact, in his rally speech, the NAACP's Gerald Hankerson, wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, spoke explicitly to questions of racial justice as part of the anti-austerity struggle.

And what about the rally audience? How many in the crowd had participated in a Black Lives Matter protest over the past year? How many more supported and defended the struggle when it was a topic of conversation in their workplace or community?

We recognize the right of the oppressed to challenge their oppression using whatever tactics they choose. But there is a critical discussion about what can take such struggles forward that shouldn't be avoided with the excuse that the movement should embrace a "diversity of tactics."

In an interview after the action, Mara Willaford said: "The way we think and the world we're able to envision is often so limited. This concept of democracy has conditioned us to always want the majority to be on our side. I want to be clear that the majority of people will always be complicit in the status quo."

This assumes that the majority of people can't be won to supporting an essential civil rights issue of stopping racist violence--or, short of a majority, that the minority that isn't "complicit in the status quo" wouldn't include exactly the people who would attend a rally to defend Social Security that featured two avowed socialists, one of them the most progressive candidate running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

One of the strengths of the Black Lives Matter movement as it emerged during and after the protests in Ferguson was the instinctive recognition that the fight against racist police violence was connected to working-class issues--something highlighted by the regular mobilization of contingents of Fight for 15 activists, for example.

Obviously, defending Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is part of the same struggle--all the more so because the austerity agenda that threatens these and other social programs has had a disproportionate impact on Black America. The rally in Seattle was a protest against austerity politics explicitly, and this is the central reason for the enthusiasm driving Sanders' popular campaign, even though he is running for the presidential nomination of a party that has implemented austerity.

Both Black Lives Matter and the fight against austerity are important in their own right--neither should fall silent nor be pushed aside by the other. But even more important for the left is the task of connecting these important struggles and making them a central part of each.

THE CONTROVERSY over the Seattle protest raises other questions that the left and the Black Lives Matter struggle need to discuss.

One is the distorting effect of social media and the Internet on a complicated political issue. Within hours of the Seattle event, the story of what took place was polarized between two versions: on the one hand, that two young Black women, possibly working for another candidate, had used the mantle of anti-racism to smear Bernie Sanders; on the other, that an all-white crowd responded with nothing but abuse and contempt for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Unfortunately, much of the discussion that followed has been to challenge these caricatures, not the real political questions that arise from what happened in Seattle.

This isn't a call to reject the Internet and Facebook as evil forces that will corrupt left-wing politics. But it can be a reminder that not every 140-character tweet contains all the information we need to know--and that many crucial political discussions aren't best conducted in a hotheaded Facebook thread. One challenge that has faced every social and political movement of the past has been to find effective forums for such debates.

Another issue to arise is the recognition--again, like every significant social struggle before it--that the Black Lives Matter movement is not a single, uniform, unvaried formation.

Black Lives Matter emerged from one main source: anger at racist violence and the epidemic of police murder directed most of all at the Black community. But the experiences of initial protest and organizing have been different from place to place. So have the political conclusions drawn from those experiences, which have led to different, though sometimes unformed, ideas about strategies and organization.

At one year old, Black Lives Matter is still young. In Seattle, Johnson and Willaford are co-founders of a Black Lives Matter group that is connected to activists who organized the National Black Lives Matter Convergence in Cleveland this summer. This was one of the first such initiatives taken to give national shape to the movement, and it certainly won't be the last.

There is a healthy instinct among many individuals and organizations which have taken part in anti-racist protests this year to defend the Black Lives Matter project whenever it faces criticism and harassment, not only from right-wing forces defending police racism, but liberals in the Black community and beyond pushing moderation and patience, when the epidemic of police murder demands action.

At the same time, though, everyone who has taken part in the movement should be able to acknowledge and discuss political differences about how to understand the struggle and what comes next. It isn't destructive or disrespectful or racist in some way to discuss these questions--or to disagree about theories or political analysis or strategy and tactics. On the contrary, such debates are too important to the future to be avoided.

THE UPRISING in Ferguson last summer and fall and the national upsurge of protest and political action since has transformed U.S. politics, probably more so than any other issue this past year. Not only have mainstream political leaders like Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, personally responsible in significant ways for the crimes of the criminal injustice system, been forced to say something, but popular consciousness is changing.

Opinion polls show that that the depths of police brutality and racism are better understood throughout society today. According to the Pew Research Center, last year, nearly half of all whites said the country had done all it could to end racial discrimination. Today, that number is less than one-third. More than half of whites--along with 86 percent of Blacks, of course--say more needs to be done to overcome racism.

This represents a significant shift in consciousness. But Black Lives Matter also faces challenges. The number of police murders hasn't slowed in the past year. On the contrary, according to the Guardian's ongoing investigation, July was a new high point of 118 killings by cops, with African Americans accounting for an even larger percentage than usual in the grim toll.

There have been some successes, including the greater likelihood that killer cops will be indicted now--though not necessarily convicted--for their crimes. But this progress is still too small compared to the scope of the problem and the urgent need. As wrote on the August 9 anniversary of Mike Brown's murder in Ferguson, "[S]o much has changed--and not nearly enough has changed."

There are also positive challenges ahead. Black Lives Matter is one part of a radicalization in U.S. society, including around issues of economic inequality. Occupy Wall Street crystallized the sentiment a few years ago, the Fight for 15 by low-wage workers carried it on, and now the enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders' campaign is showing it in a new form, though it is limited by Sanders' decision to run as a Democrat.

Like the civil rights and Black Power movements before it, it matters how those involved in the Black Lives Matter struggle relate to upsurges around other left-wing struggles and movements, separate but very much connected.

Most political movements in history have erupted without a lot of warning, driven by bitter outrage at a particular example of oppression or tyranny. This alone can be enough to bring the movement to a certain point. But then new questions--about the movement itself, or other struggles, or the wider society--emerge. How those questions get answered goes a long way in shaping the future.

We need a patient but determined approach to a struggle that has inspired both bitter protest and positive hope that real change can be achieved. The strength of what made the Black Lives Matter movement so far--the actions of hundreds of thousands of people around the country to stand up and speak up, in defiance of both state violence and the opposition of the political establishment--will be the basis for it to take its next steps forward.

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