Black Lives Matter to Whom?
Before I begin, I feel that is necessary to explain my perspective. I am a white, college educated, upper middle class woman who has faced few institutionalized or informal forms of prejudice in my life. I am speaking from a position of profound privilege, and I know that acknowledging that is the least I can do before moving forwards. I do not and will never personally know the pride nor daily burden of being an American of color, and do not intend to imply that I do. As I discuss the shortcomings of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is with the intention of strengthening and validating the movement to my ability. I cannot claim to know the pain of systematic oppression, but I can see and trust that it is an urgent crisis, an attack on humanity, an infringement of basic democratic freedom and equality.
I would argue that the existing and often elusive or invisible systematic oppression of Americans of color is so substantial, that it requires an aggressive response, a revolution even. I will employ the foundation for revolution designed by Srdja Popovic in his book Blueprint to Revolution, to restructure the Black Lives Matter Movement. In doing so, I will evaluate the planning, branding, carrying out, and success of the movement. At each phase of the movement, Popovic’s book will provide insight on what was done and what would have been more effective. In summation, the current attack on Americans of color is a limitation of basic democratic freedoms and therefore justifies a consequential and complete revolution.
#BlackLivesMatter was created in 2012 following Trayvon Martin’s murder and in response to George Zimmerman being acquitted of shooting the 17 year old. The hashtag became a household name across America. Since 2012, the movement has continued to grow and diversify their efforts towards ending anti-black racism in American society. The movement emphasizes black, female leadership and inclusion of black queer, trans, undocumented, and disabled people. This information is prominently displayed on the movement’s website, blacklivesmatter.com.
According to CNN, the movement was not initially expected to succeed. However, in an article from December 2015, the movement is described as persevering despite polarizing effects and a lack of structure and leadership. The organization saw a chapter forming in 31 cities as of 2015, where rallies, boycotts, and other actions were planned (Sidner). The article also identifies what I would argue is continuing to be a central point of weakness for the movement; transitioning from impassioned people in the streets to political change takes meticulous planning and follow through. Cullors-Brignac, a cofounder of the movement, states that the lack of leadership is by design. “You can’t kill the movement by killing the leader … but decentralization does not mean disorganization” (Sidner). This is a key principle that Popovic outlines, but he identifies several other aspects of a revolution that must coincide but are lacking. The article also references the Black Lives Matter website as a public platform for group member communication, coordination, and inspiration.
It is clear that the movement has succeeded in many respects. This is confirmed by the reemergence of support and swelling of minority rights activism in the US in response to the November 2016 election of Donald Trump. The criticism and suggestions I make are not intended to imply that the movement has failed. However, the Black Lives Matter movement has undoubtedly yet to reach its potential, nor has it fully taken advantage of the validity of its message.
Popovic’s Blueprint to Revolution lays out basic principles of successful revolution, nonnegotiable characteristics of planning and execution, and anecdotal evidence of successful revolutions around the world. First, he describes how to build a support base and a “vision of tomorrow” then outlines what he calls the “holy trinity” of revolution including unity, planning, and nonviolent discipline. The portions of Popovic’s blueprint to which I feel the Black Lives Matter movement would benefit from the most (or the points where it adhered the least) are the building of a broad support base, the planning of concrete action at a local level, and the absolute resolve for nonviolence. In his closing, Popovic states that “the only people who can really know what will work for their societies and what won’t are the ones who live there” (232), thus my analysis and suggestions shall remain open to interpretation, criticism, and adjustment.
As Popovic explains, “a revolution only picks up steam once two or more groups that have nothing to do with one another decide to join together for their mutual benefit” (82). Because the Black Lives Matter movement involves an already-marginalized group, it is in the movement’s best interests to broaden and diversify the support base. However, there are two principles at war. Race in the United States has always been a contentious issue, each individual identifying with their race and ethnicity with a wide range of pride, anger, or even apathy. On a broader scale, the United States as a country of immigrantshas also long identified as diverse, while simultaneously and systematically oppressing certain minorities. As a result, the temptation to indignantly assert the value of one’s race can be impossible to overcome. In other words, there is value in acknowledging race. Furthermore,to be colorblind, to ignore race, to deny the value of diverse heritage would not solve racism.
The principle working against this complex problem is one Popovic identifies as a barrier to expanding a base of support. “It’s unrealistic to expect people to care about more than they already care about” (45), so to overcome such differences, “you need to pull people toward your movement and recognize that you can’t win without them” (48). In today’s America, there is vast difference and extensive apathy towards the struggle of the other. For success, the Black Lives Matter movement must pull people of all kinds toward their movement and recognize that nothing can be accomplished without them (51). After all, “in a nonviolent struggle, the only weapon that you’re going to have is numbers” (52).
This concept seems obvious, but it is difficult to implement. As stated, differences in race and opinion tend to separate people. Division is weakness. One instance where division threatened to end the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement was the uprising and backlash towards the hashtag #AllLivesMatter. As a New York Times article explains, the initial use of the hashtag appeared to be with the intent of drawing people together (Victor). However, #AllLivesMatter was perceived by the Black Lives Matter movement and the African American community as an insult and dismissal of the needs of this specific community.
The rejection of this trending hashtag seems rational, as it implies that the danger and oppression that African Americans faced was equal to that of all Americans. However, the aggressive rejection of the hashtag despite (at least initial) good intent inspired a national debate. Rather than strengthen the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the resulting increased airtime, inter-community dialogue, and national attention each served to distract from the goals of the movement and slow progress. And soon after the movement officially condemned the #AllLivesMatter hashtag, it was appropriated by the anti-Black Lives Matter groups, as they recognized the value of an inclusive spin on their perspective. Popovic describes a tactic for broadening the base of a movement called the “line of division.” The theoretical line separates those who support and those who reject the goals of any given revolution (Popovic 52). The intention of any revolution’s leadership should be to draw that line to include as many supporters as possible. Any action that may lead to pushing supporters away is equal to strengthening the opposition.
The Black Lives Matter leadership should not necessarily have swallowed their pride and adopted the #AllLivesMatter slogan as their own. However, the response alienated potential supporters, drew the line of division between black and all else. The message was and had always been that all lives matter, including and especially those lives that are marginalized by race. A clear message from the leadership to the movement’s activists should have been timely and loud. The directions to accept the hashtag and encourage all of those who believe that all lives matter to join the Black Lives Matter ranks would have been difficult, but the only response that could continue to broaden the base of the movement. In a similar vein, a simple name change to shift the focus away from exclusive language and towards a more goal-oriented simplistic name may have been more effective. As Harvey Milk was forced to speak to the needs of the majority to gain a following before speaking to the passion for LGBTQ rights that motivated him (48), the Black Lives Matter movement needed allies and should have sought to include all.
The language used to describe the movement itself on the website is also highly exclusive. It lists black men, black women, “black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, black undocumented folks, folks with records, … and all black lives along the gender spectrum” as the center of their liberation movements. It undoubtedly strengthens the movement to stress the African American leadership and inclusion. However, focusing a movement on the power of minorities is to mobilize just that: minorities. With pointedly African-American focused inclusive language, individuals of other races are unsure if they can take part in the movement. In Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ song “White Privilege II,” the white American artist describes being at a Black Lives Matter protest, not knowing if he is allowed to participate and not knowing how to commiserate. While white Americans will fail to understand or know the pain of systematic oppression to the extent of African Americans, they can seek to support and validate the claims of the oppressed. This is directly referenced within the Black Lives Matter website, where the founders explain that the strength of the movement is based in its blackness. However, on a fundamental level, it is in the revolution’s best interest to make all individuals feel welcome to participate and support.
To continue, I will discuss the planning phase of the revolution and several aspects of concrete local action that should be addressed. The planning phase of a movement should be extensive and thorough. Black Lives Matter has succeeded in making itself a household name. However, to continue momentum, the pressure for change must be applied in “a series of small acts rather than one cataclysmic showdown” (222). Each step should address a clearly defined goal and must be a battle “big enough to matter but small enough to win” (37). A quick search of Black Lives Matter supplies a fairly concise and accessible website, but the following links claim shootings at rallies, arrests, funding scandals, and articles covering the achievements and awards of the leadership. While media coverage is bound to be mostly negative, the public perception of a revolution is so delicate that this inconsistent portrayal backtracks progress.
Planning should begin with identifying clear goals. According to Popovic this is about “identifying situations in which people are using authority beyond reasonable limits” (142). Because the movement was spurred by the perceived overreach of police power, this is a clear starting point. The response action should be poignant, but Popovich reminds us that nonviolent action can align perfectly with humor. Any activist would argue that the oppression of marginalized groups is no laughing matter, but the use of humor does not detract from the seriousness of a revolution in a counterproductive way. In fact, it makes activists more inclined to participate, as the action is less daunting, it prevents aggressive systematic response, and “the high and mighty can’t take a joke” (111).
The classic humor based response to violence comes from the iconic image of flowers being placed in gun barrels in protest of the Vietnam War. A modern day twist that could be easily planned and executed by Black Lives Matter is planting sunflower gardens in the public spaces of a city. The idea of a rogue garden is derived from TedX speaker Ron Finley, who has started “guerilla gardening” around South Central LA as a means of community building and elevation of African American children out of societal hardship. He takes strips of grass that are city property but maintained by residents and transforms them. The gardens are facilitated by a community effort, provide a learning experience for children, unite people of all abilities, and provide beauty. As a form of subtle resistance too, the tall standing sunflowers would become a symbol of the movement, as each site would be marked with a #BlackLivesMatter sign. Furthermore, oppression backfires as city governments would feel obligated to reclaim the public land, but are forced to destroy something so beautiful and peaceful. These moments of absurd response should be well documented by media and the movement itself.
Furthermore, “It’s not only that the amorous demonstrators aren’t breaking any laws; it’s also their attitude that makes a world of difference” (Popovic 99). To fight hate with love takes massive effort, self-control, and courage, but the results are great. Another easily identifiable goal is to correct the public perception of African Americans as outsiders, invaders, the lesser. The focus of the movement must shift away from pointing fingers and blaming and towards shaping a vision of tomorrow. A widespread reconnection and redefinition of the notion of America, the melting pot. Revolution participants can accomplish the mapping of safe spaces at a low cost, electronically. These would be parks, homes, streets, and police stations that are working to reduce everyday racial inequality. Through agreeing to be a safe space, locations will be registered on an online free map and marked visually by a sticker. Any perceived infringement of total equality in these spaces can be reported to the map by anyone, resulting in the removal of the Black Lives Matter endorsement. Eventually, local restaurants, stores, and service providers would seek these endorsements, and crowd sourced accountability would keep the map updated. This soft form of activism and potential boycott (in the event of a lost endorsement) is easy to accomplish, low cost, low risk, and high reward. Another symbol of the movement could include marking these locations with American flags and Black Lives Matter stickers, as the increasing differentiation of black people from “American” is detrimental to all.
The planning that goes into these events would be fairly extensive, so the chapter meetings of Black Lives Matter should follow a common thread. Members should be encouraged to introduce themselves to form bonds. Brainstorming for future action should be widespread, as the most effective action comes from the local level. Every single effort must be carefully constructed to be peaceful, entirely benign, and community oriented. As tempting as it is, anger does not have to equal violence. This will be further explored in the discussion of resolve for nonviolence, but widespread training in preparation for nonviolent action should be mandatory for every participant.
Because the environment in which this blueprint for revolution was conceived and perfected was one of an oppressive dictator and authoritarian government, the human tendency to respond with anger and violence was nearly impossible to overcome. Even Nelson Mandela, in his younger years, felt that “the time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices – submit or fight” (Popovic 196). However, he later understood that “what South Africa needed in order to move forward wasn’t more bloodshed but rather forgiveness and reconciliation” (198). It may seem that the most serious infringement of rights requires a violent response. Conversely, the most dangerous situations require the power of peaceful action. As Popovic states when describing the fight against Milosevic, “these guys have trained armies at their disposal. So a violent campaign against a dictator already starts out at a disadvantage” (86). In the case of Black Lives Matter, to fight police with violence is to attack them where they are strongest and most expecting. It is also to confirm the perception that African Americans are violent and uncontrolled.
In the United States, the state of oppression of racial minorities justifies full-fledged revolution. The initial reaction is to fight back with violence. The most effective response, though, will come from an organized movement with an absolute resolve for nonviolence. This takes massive skill and practice and should therefore be hugely stressed within chapter meetings and with new members. As Ghandi says, “preach nonviolence within your movement” and preemptively identify potential points of friction (Popovic 207). When members inevitably question the power and effectiveness of nonviolent action, the statistics back it up. History shows that nonviolent action produces more victories, requires fewer participants, and establishes more lasting change than violent conflicts (201). Knowing and preaching these facts is paramount, but putting them into action can be an even greater challenge.
In the last several years, in response to instances of police brutality and racial oppression, Black Lives Matter nonviolent protests have filled public spaces in cities across the country. The power and effect of these moving responses is widespread. However, due to the horrifyingly common need for and occurrence of these events, this response has become commonplace. As media outlets pay less and less attention, tensions rise, and participants begin to doubt the power of nonviolence. With little change accomplished over time, conflict breaks out, and peaceful protests turn into token instances of African Americans being rash and violent.
This trend is difficult to foresee and nearly impossible to prevent. However, diversifying responses and continuing to target small battles that can be won keeps the movement moving and the participants motivated. Police brutality is a national problem that is almost impossible to tackle at a local level, but societal racism is not. Some of the most effective change can come from simple exchanges of perspective and dialogue. If Black Lives Matter trained their members to moderate community dialogue, micro-level change could take shape and grow. The dialogues would have to be small, controlled, but diverse, including members from every social and racial stratum available and willing. Moderators would introduce the concept of dialogue as entirely different than debate. No one should speak to change someone’s mind, only seek to understand. Generalizations are not allowed, but speaking from personal experience is encouraged. Respect and open minds are required. It seems a nearly impossible goal to ask a diverse group of people to sit down and speak to each other. It also seems likely that dialogue would amount to nothing. But the action gets at the deeper more entrenched cause of systematic oppression: racism still runs deeply through many American communities and no one is talking about it.
In another form of nonviolent action, Black Lives Matter could reclaim the song that Obama used at his inauguration ceremony. Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen sang Seeger’s song “This Land is Your Land,” joined by a diverse choir. They encouraged every attending audience member to join in singing, “this land was made for you and me” (Pete Seeger & Bruce Springsteen). If, in the wake of another instance of police brutality or racial inequality, Black Lives Matter protesters gathered instead in public places (walking malls, police stations, homeless shelters, schools), held hands and sang this song, there would be no doubting the message. There is no violent response that would be as powerful as singing to the oppressors that they too could share in the collective love of a land that was meant for everyone. Popovic encourages a movement to even extend a welcome to officers to join the ranks of the movement, removing the stigma of a barrier between the two (209).
The problem of racism in American is not simple, and therefore the solution will not be. The success of Black Lives Matter thus far is incredible, especially considering that the barriers working against African American equality are simultaneously working against the movement’s every step. Through broadening the support base, the movement can improve image and increase influence. Through planning creative, unique local action, the movement can rebrand itself and keep Black Lives Matter relevant. Finally, with a recommitment to nonviolence, the urgency and strength of every member’s voice can come through, unobstructed. I can only hope that these suggestions serve to encourage a new dialogue on what Black Lives Matter can accomplish and how to keep moving forward.
A Guerilla Gardener in South Central LA. Perf. Ron Finley. Ted Talks. N.p., Feb. 2013. Web. 8 Nov. 2016.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis Feat Jamila Woods - White Privilege II. Ryan Lewis, 21 Jan. 2016. Web. 19 Nov. 2016.
Pete Seeger & Bruce Springsteen - This Land Is Your Land - Obama Inauguration. Perf. President Obama. Enrico V L, 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 19 Nov. 2016.
Popovic, Srdja. Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World. Trans. Matthew I. Miller. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015. Print.
Sidner, Sara, and Mallory Simon. "The Rise of Black Lives Matter: Trying to Break the Cycle of Violence and Silence." CNN U.S. N.p., 28 Dec. 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.
Victor, Daniel. "Why 'All Lives Matter' Is Such a Perilous Phrase." The New York Times. N.p., 15 July 2016. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.