By Alex Riccio (September 15, 2015)
9 August 2014; eighteen-year-old Mike Brown was shot dead by police officer Darren Wilson and left face down on a public street for four and a half hours before being processed into a local morgue. (1, 2) The murder of Mike Brown proved a catalyst for the revival of a black-led liberation movement with roots in preceding Abolitionists, Civil Rights, and Black Power! movements. Visible demonstrations spanning die-ins, road-blocks, marches, disruptions (most recently of presidential candidates), property destruction, and occasional celebrity displays of support often articulated by the phrases “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “Black Lives Matter” have captured the US public. (3, 4) Black Lives Matter resonates at a level similar to the 1960s “Black Power!” slogan, and has fostered just as much debate, confusion, and affinity amongst a divided populace. Perhaps most unrecognized regarding Black Lives Matter is its place within a long-arching trajectory of black-led liberation movements in the US, where even the most rudimentary examination of the language, demands, and principles of BLM exposes its deep connections and commitments to the project-making of the past; still urgently necessary in the present.
The resurgence of a black-led liberation movement has occurred within the context of deep spatial and social segregation (5), and underneath a predatory economic system. Culturally, white supremacist ideology (in the form of ‘colorblindness’ and ‘post-racialism’) reigns supreme amongst a larger public. Not surprisingly, these conditions nearly parallel the backdrop of Jim Crow era United States, making the connections between the periods easily evinced. (6) For the 21st century, schools and neighborhoods are even more racially segregated than in the Jim Crow period (7). Wealth has remained highly consolidated into the hands of a small percentage, yet such economic disparity is felt hardest by minorities; particularly African-Americans. For example: median household wealth possessed by white families’ averages $100k more than the median wealth possessed by black families (8). Additionally, and possibly most egregiously, the US prison population has exploded to over 2 million inhabitants (the world’s largest prison population) disproportionately targeting non-whites, and effectively creating what Michelle Alexander has termed a “New Jim Crow.” (9) Often unacknowledged is the purpose of our system of mass incarceration: free labor. A report by Global Research exposes numerous corporate companies which directly profit off the practically free labor (read slave labor) offered by our prison-industrial-complex. Bear in mind, the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution abolished slaver, except as a penalty for a crime—hence, slavery is still legal in the US (10).
Each of the former factors of oppression is capped by a state of rampant police brutality, where every 28 hours another person of color is murdered (11). The struggles that the Civil Rights and Black Power movements sought to overcome are almost perfectly mirrored today (often times the struggles have intensified), and to an extent these were similar struggles faced by Abolitionists battling chattel-slavery, therefore an overt connection is drawn between the black-led liberation movements of the past to the BLM movement today.
The conditions largely remain the same, but also important is the philosophical framework employed by BLM participants and their linkages to the past. On a personal level, I find the most interesting connection between the Black Power movement and BLM in both movements identification of being a population under occupation. As Huey Newton wrote in the annals of Black Panther newsletters, the black population was an occupied people within a foreign nation—a double occupation of sorts—therefore the Black Panthers recognized themselves as being a separate polity outside of the United States while still being geographically fixed within the nation-state borders. (12) This was so prominently featured amongst Black Panther ideology that even the state of Maoist-ruled China recognized the Black Panther’s as representatives of a separate nation from the US—albeit for a short length of time. The recognition of dual occupation is also made by Black Lives Matter, and the Pan-Africanism of Black Power movement-makers is echoed by BLM in their solidarity statements with the Palestinian cause against Israeli occupation, most recently displayed through a public statement signed by over 1,100 black activists, intellectuals, and artists (13). Further linking the philosophical and political frameworks of past and present movements are demands. The 10-point program of the Black Panthers and demands made by Civil Right players such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) have been echoed by BLM. (14) Among the demands is a call for full-employment of all African-Americans, a demand also made by Civil Rights campaigners and the Black Panthers. Also listed are demands for equitable housing, an end to racist profiling, and an end to police brutality (which in Abolitionists and Jim Crow era US took the form of public lynching); all of which were demands put forth by former black-led liberation movements. (15) The reincarnation of Abolitionists, Civil Rights campaigners, and Black Power participants is starkly evident in the actions, demands made, and rhetorical flourishes of Black Lives Matter leaders. Such parallels firmly cement BLM as the most current extension of a trajectory of black-led liberation movements.
As should be clear, the death of Mike Brown was not a singular event that revived a visible public presence of black-led liberation movement, but one of an ongoing series of events that have attempted to re-center public discourse about police brutality, vigilante brand justice (i.e. neo-lynching), and the value of black bodies in the US. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and so many more are additional popular cases that have galvanized the movement, and while they are some of the more commonly known murders that have been committed they are merely a fraction of a slew of incidents of police brutality with impunity. (16) Some of the more visible BLM events have included Ferguson October, an entire month dedicated to centering black bodies and calling for justice for the lives of murdered African Americans; the non-indictment of both Mike Brown and Eric Garner’s killers in December sparking a Millions March in New York City (the movement’s largest public demonstration to date); the Oakland subway die-ins that successfully shut down the city’s transit system for three whole days; the civic uprising in Baltimore after the murder of Freddie Gray (framed by media as a mass rioting and looting affair); the indictments of five officers in the killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore; the rise of the ‘Say Her Name’ campaign that highlights the disproportionate targeting and killing of black female bodies; and recent series of disrupting presidential candidates during public speaking events. (16, 17) Such a list is only a small glimpse of the actions and successes that BLM has thus far accomplished, an additional list could include the linkages between Black Lives Matter and the current campaign “Fight for $15” which has had legal victories in Seattle and Los Angeles, and it would be wise to examine the attempts by BLM organizers to draw parallels between their struggle and economic justice, Palestine solidarity, and indigenous rights.
A final note about the parallels that BLM carries with former movement periods is its connections to 2011’s Occupy movement. The frames of these two movements are entirely different, and one could rightly argue that Occupy did not focus enough on the systemic assault on people of color in the US, but what is evident in examinations of Black Lives Matter is that many former Occupy organizers have splintered off into various movement threads including the current BLM campaigns (18). The connections between the two movements reside in their focus on systemic rather than symptomatic conditions of society, and their calls for economic justice and new forms of work as well as new values culminating into a vision for a new society. Any sociologist studying movements of the 21st century should be capable of recognizing the ways in which the Global Justice and Occupy movements have fed their energies into movements such as Idle No More and Black Lives Matter.
What is perhaps most frustrating for an individual supportive of Black Lives Matter, and particularly for those within a broader left, is the need to persuade activists that we are currently in the throes of a mass-based social justice movement—possibly the most promising to date in the 21st century US. The emphasis on waxing and waning periods of movement-making is almost always a fruitless endeavor owing to large sects of the population’s inability to link struggles and spirits of the past with the present and future. Chris Dixon has shown that one of our greatest challenges in movement-making is to combat historical amnesia (19). Such amnesia is truly detrimental to current movement projects that, above all else, require the activation of apathetic veteran and youth activists. Importantly, social justice advocates should recognize the purpose and phase in which Black Lives Matter is currently fixed. At this juncture, BLM has opted to put forth a platform for transformational change, evident in the issuance of a list of demands that does not rely solely on short-term or pragmatic reforms—the demands call for a restructuring of economic and social reality. The call for full employment, housing, and an end to all racist forms of discrimination is not a call for the current neoliberal government to step in and make some concessions, it is a call for a fundamental shift in how we have structured society. We are in the earliest phase of a resurgent movement, one that has its roots in history but is also undeniably original and fresh, and the traction is gaining. A frequent lament heard on the left is ‘we need to be organized,’ ‘we need a movement,’ but these sentiments fly in the face of what is undoubtedly a social movement poised to shuck off current power paradigms wherever they exist—get involved now.
(Flickr Photo Credit: Saundi Wilson)