Dani Mcclain. Nation. Volume 305, Issue 8, October 2017.
On June 1, the right-wing blogger and avowed white supremacist Jason Kessler and other alt-right activists met for dinner on the patio of Miller’s Downtown, a popular burger joint in Charlottesville, Virginia. The dinner was two weeks after white nationalists had gathered in the city’s Lee Park, wielding torches as a kind of dress rehearsal for the mid-August “Unite the Right” rally that left counterprotester Heather Heyer dead and dozens more injured. According to local reports, members of the white-ledgroup Showing Up for Racial Justice surrounded Kessler’s party that night at Miller’s, recording the gathering on their phones and shouting, “Nazi, go home!” At a nearby table sat University of Virginia professor Jalane Schmidt, who at the time was trying to establish a Black Lives Matter chapter in Charlottesville. As black passersby stopped and showed interest in the confrontation, participants in the SURJ action directed them to Schmidt’s table. She considers that night to be her group’s first real meeting. Schmidt knew that many BLM chapters were founded in response to police shootings. “It begins in a crisis,” she told me. “In our case, it was the crisis of the alt-right organizing in our town.”
Despite reports to the contrary, the national constellation of racial-justice organizations loosely referred to as the Black Lives Matter movement is alive and well. It would be easy to think otherwise: BLM appears less frequently in the news than it did between 2013 and last year, when the movement responded forcefully in the streets and online to a string of black deaths at the hands of police. Now, when BLM is mentioned at all, it’s often because a member of the Trump administration is issuing a dog whistle to the president’s supporters, as was the case last month when Trump’s personal attorney forwarded an e-mail to conservative journalists characterizing BLM as “totally infiltrated by terrorist groups.” But even in more sympathetic portrayals, BLM is said to have lost or squandered the power it began building in July 2013 following George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. According to a recent BuzzFeed article, BLM is beset by debilitating internal rifts over direction and funding, preventing the movement from doing much at all to accomplish its aims.
But conversations with just over a dozen people in the movement suggest otherwise. BLM organizers are still in the streets in places like Charlottesville and Boston, where white supremacists mobilized this summer. From St. Louis, Missouri, to Lansing, Michigan, they’re engaging with electoral politics in new ways. And they’re taking the time to reflect on and develop new strategies for moving forward given the changed political terrain.
Trump’s election, like his campaign, brought a new fervor to efforts to crush black organizing and roll back the gains made during the Obama administration. Since last year, so-called “Blue Lives Matter” bills, which increase the penalties for offenses against police officers and in some cases designate them as hate crimes, have proliferated in state legislatures. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in late August that President Trump would sign an executive order again allowing local police departments to procure military gear like bayonets and grenade launchers. As president, Barack Obama had banned the transfer of such equipment after protesters and police clashed in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting. State legislatures are also considering laws that make nonviolent public protest costly and, in some cases, deadly: Lawmakers have tried to pass legislation that limits civil liability for motorists who hit protesters with their vehicles, as well as other legislation that puts protesters on the hook financially for any police presence their demonstrations require. “We haven’t seen comparable policies and practices since the McCarthy era,” said Alicia Garza, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, when I asked her whether the Trump era demands a new approach to black organizing. “So, yes, our tactics do have to change.”
The tactics may be evolving, but the organizers I spoke with reminded me that in a “leader-full” movement such as this one—that is, one that prizes collaborative and decentralized leadership—no one individual or group is in a position to decide for everyone else what tactics to prioritize over others. Still, it was clear from my conversations that activists in leadership positions within BLM-affiliated groups were expressing much more interest in electoral politics than I’d heard in the past. “In the early stages of the movement, people were talking mostly about the criminal-justice system and a system of criminalization,” said Jessica Byrd, who runs Three Point Strategies, a consulting firm that she refers to as “the electoral political firm of the movement.” These days, black organizers are turning their attention to the electoral system as yet another social structure that places black people at a disadvantage. This means a new level of engagement in electoral politics as well as the interrogation of a system that diminishes black voters’ power through the antiquated Electoral College, voter-suppression measures, and laws that disenfranchise people with felony convictions. “As much as we need to change the people, we need to change the process,” said Angela Waters Austin of Black Lives Matter Lansing, whose chapter is coordinating a statewide get-out-the-vote and political-education campaign called Election 20XX. “What are the policies that continue to make a Donald Trump possible? If he did not get a majority of the popular vote, then why is he the president?”
As the 2016 presidential campaign unfolded, BLM activists gained a reputation for using disruption as a way to push the movement’s key issues. At the Netroots Nation conference that took place during the primaries, black activists famously interrupted the candidates’ forum with chants and heckles. At one point, Tia Oso of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (the organization headed by Opal Tometi, one of BLM’s three founders), took the stage. Soon after, Democratic candidate and former Mary- land governor Martin O’Malley stumbled with a tone-deaf proclamation that “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter.” Once Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders had the floor, “he talked over the protesters, got defensive about his racial-justice bona fides, and stuck to his [stump speech],” Joe Dinkin wrote on The Nation.com. After trying and failing to disrupt a New Hampshire campaign appearance by Hillary Clinton, a BLM Boston member asked her a halting, long-winded question that did the favor of making her response—“I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws”—come off as refreshingly sensible.
At the time, some progressives criticized these moves, blaming BLM for undermining Democratic candidates when the obvious threat, in their eyes, came from the Republicans. But to many black organizers, these disruptions were a principled way to hold candidates who claimed to represent their interests accountable. When I asked her whether she wished that Black Lives Matter had endorsed Hillary Clinton in the general election, Garza pivoted away from Clinton entirely and talked about how the Democratic candidates had bungled their BLM moment at Netroots. “When he was pressed, I wish that Bernie had said, ‘Of course black lives matter, and here’s what that means for me,’” she offered. Had Sanders discussed how “we function under a gendered and racialized economy” and done more to build relationships in communities of color, his run for president would have received more support, she added. The problem, in other words, is with candidates who alienate black voters, not with BLM’s refusal to play nice.
As the midterm elections draw near, organizers are laying the groundwork for two new initiatives—the Electoral Justice Project and the Black Futures Lab—that they say will address this alienation and transform the ways that black communities participate in the 2018 elections and beyond. And for Byrd and Garza, each of whom is behind one of these efforts, it is not the ascendance of Donald Trump that demands a new kind of black political power.
(After all, despite the pressure that BLM activists put on Democratic candidates during the campaign season, 94 percent of black women voters backed Hillary Clinton, as did 82 percent of black men. Black turnout “did come down,” Kayla Reed, a movement organizer in St. Louis, acknowledged. “But Democrats are not investing in areas where they have a base.”) Instead, organizers told me, to understand the movement’s new energy around elections, you have to understand Tishaura Jones’s failed campaign for mayor of St. Louis.
In March, Jones—then treasurer of this largely Democratic city—narrowly lost the party’s mayoral primary, 30 to 32 percent. Just six weeks earlier, she’d been polling at 8 percent in a field of seven Democrats. The winner was the only white candidate in the pack with a sizable following. That Jones came from behind to lose by just 888 votes suggested that she’d been underestimated by the mainstream media and more established politicians. But the young black St. Louis residents who’d been energized by the protests in nearby Ferguson weren’t surprised by her near-win: They had been working hard for Jones behind the scenes, sensing support for her in black communities citywide and finding ways to build on it.
Members of the St. Louis Action Council, which was formed in the wake of the Ferguson protests, had started teaching themselves the ins and outs of voter organizing a year earlier, when they’d gotten involved in the race for St. Louis circuit attorney, the city’s top prosecutor job. They asked the candidates their positions on issues like cash bail, juvenile detention, and marijuana decriminalization, and decided to endorse State Representative Kim Gardner. Today, they claim some credit for getting Gardner into office, thereby helping to elect the city’s first black circuit attorney. “From Kim’s campaign to Tishaura’s campaign, we grew,” said Reed, who directs the St. Louis Action Council. “People trusted us more.”
In advance of the Democratic mayoral primary, Reed’s group partnered with other local community organizations to hold a January debate, during which they quizzed the candidates on issues like economic development and displacement, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the relationship between the police and black communities. According to Reed, some of the questions were an effort to determine how the candidates’ goals aligned with “A Vision for Black Lives,” the detailed policy statement that the Movement for Black Lives released in August of last year. (Reed also leads the Movement for Black Lives’ electoral organizing committee. The Black Lives Matter Global Network is one of more than 50 allied organizations that comprise M4BL.) For the young black organizers, Jones stood out: Her platform included a plan to place social workers inside police departments, and she rejected calls to hire additional officers. To Reed and others, Jones was embracing a “divest framework” that echoed “A Vision for Black Lives,” which calls for pulling resources out of “exploitative forces including prisons, fossil fuels, police, surveillance and exploitative corporations” and investing those same resources in “the education, health and safety of black people.”
The debate that Reed’s group co-hosted drew a crowd of 1,500, and 33 percent of those who participated in an exit poll indicated that they supported Jones, Reed said. So the St. Louis Action Council paid little heed to the 8 percent that Jones had polled just days earlier. “What we knew was that polls often do not speak to what’s actually happening in communities that are not [made up of] regular voters,” Reed told me. By this point, she added, she could feel the energy around Jones’s campaign in the communities where she works. But she knew that the campaign was doomed unless one of the other leading black candidates agreed to drop out of the race.
Once the St. Louis Action Council endorsed Jones, it threw its weight behind her for the next month, canvassing, getting out the vote, and partnering with the national civil-rights organization Color of Change to tell 20,000 St. Louis residents via text messaging that Jones was its endorsed candidate. In the end, it wasn’t enough. None of the other black candidates—all of whom were men, organizers point out—yielded to Jones, so the black vote was split and a white alderwoman named Lyda Krewson became the next mayor in a city in which black people comprise a slim plurality (49 percent), and in a region rocked by police shootings that have pushed questions of systemic racism to the fore.
Jones’s loss was a wake-up call to the movement’s leading organizers, and it made many of them prioritize bringing the power they’d built over the past four years into the electoral realm. “We should play out each one of those races not
as a local race, but as a national race,” Garza told me. “Nationally, we didn’t mobilize for Tishaura. Tishaura should’ve been our Bernie. Stacey Abrams [a progressive black woman vying to become Georgia’s next governor] should be our Bernie.” That means offering hands-on, on the-ground support, she said. “All of us should have been sending caravans of people to St. Louis to knock on doors if they wanted that.” Jones and Abrams aren’t the only candidates that Garza thinks the movement can support. Chokwe Lumumba, the black progressive who was elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, in June, is another; so are Pamela Price, running for district attorney in Oakland’s Alameda County, and Andrew Gillum, running for governor in Florida.
Identifying exciting candidates like these and deploying national resources to campaigns where they’re needed is just one part of an electoral game plan, Byrd told me. In November, she and Reed will launch the Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Project, an effort to educate and mobilize black voters that will kick off with town-hall gatherings in cities throughout the South and in what Reed calls “migration cities”: Midwestern cities with sizable populations of black Americans who moved north during the Great Migration. Voter education will be essential to these efforts. “We don’t understand what the [Justice Department] is doing, or what this executive order signed by Trump actually means,” Reed said. “We want to find a space to spark a continued conversation with a hope of getting more people to these midterm elections.”
Garza is launching her own electoral organizing project, called Black Futures Lab, this year as well. The $3 million initiative involves creating an institute where participants will learn how to craft and advocate for policy change, as well as recruiting and training candidates and campaign staff. “If we’re not making decisions about policy and about representation, if we are not creating our own independent, progressive political force to counter what is a potent backlash to our very existence, we’ll be gone,” Garza said, citing the imprisonment and exile that black-liberation organizers have faced throughout history. “Our ability to operate aboveground will be severely compromised.”
For BLM activists, the key to success is keeping these electoral efforts independent. “We’re not going to build a black-voter mobilization project because one candidate deserves it or the Democratic Party needs it,” Byrd said of the Electoral Justice Project. “Black people deserve it.”
None of this means that organizers will be stepping away from the tactics they used earlier in the movement. Last summer, after five Dallas police officers were shot dead after a protest and conservative commentators laid the blame at the feet of Black Lives Matter, BLM groups didn’t go quiet in an attempt to tamp down accusations that their actions led to the ambush. Instead, activists from Black Youth Project 100, Million Hoodies NYC, the #LetUsBreathe Collective, and elsewhere doubled down on direct action in the following weeks. They showed up at the police-union headquarters in lower Manhattan, at the Oakland Police Department, and in Chicago’s Homan Square, the location of a warehouse where police detained and interrogated thousands of people who had no proper legal representation. “For us, it was about telling a certain narrative,” said Charlene Carruthers of Black Youth Project 100. “Our movement has a clear vision that doesn’t center itself around individual police officers. Our groups were being blamed, without critical questioning of what we’d been doing for the past several years.” (The Chicago group’s activities should allay any doubts that black organizers can walk and chew gum at the same time: Earlier in 2016, BYP100 participated in the successful citywide campaign to oust State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.)
There have been fewer street protests calling for police accountability in 2017—partly because, in the wake of Trump’s ascent to power, there have been protests about so much else. The anti-Trump resistance has no doubt borrowed from the massive antiwar marches of the early 2000s and the Tea Party protests in the first years of the Obama presidency, but BLM also provided a crucial blueprint, according to several of the organizers I interviewed. BLM normalized confrontation and direct action, and recognized the underlying issues at stake. “Black Lives Matter begins this moment talking about state violence, about militarization, fascism, authoritarianism,” said Dream Hampton, an informal adviser to some movement organizers. “We had all this analysis and framing that was absolutely correct.” And the fact that those “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts, yard signs, and chants continue to be seen and heard everywhere is further proof of the movement’s enduring impact. “‘Black Lives Matter is only rivaled by ‘Make America Great Again,’” Hampton observed. “Don’t act like the phrase itself isn’t worth its weight in gold.”
In Charlottesville, the phrase itself didn’t move Jalane Schmidt much at first. “A hashtag does not a movement make,” she remembers thinking. But once the “Vision for Black Lives” policy platform came out, she was impressed. Schmidt had felt frustrated as she followed the debates among local organizations regarding the city’s Confederate
monuments over the past year and a half, with conservative preachers and a quiet, careful chapter of the NAACP serving as the official voice of black Charlottesville. The city was becoming a focal point of white-supremacist organizing, but the church leadership and legacy civil-rights organizations had suggested ignoring their meetings and torch rallies. So Schmidt decided that it was time to start a BLM chapter. “We saw a need to have another vehicle for black mobilization in town, given the situation that we had,” she said. At 48, Schmidt is older than the typical BLM activist; but as a queer black woman, she appreciated the role that other queer black women had played as the movement’s founders. Black Lives Matter was also the organization that was most consistent and outspoken in its claims to be unapologetically black. Schmidt thought she’d found a good fit.
At that first unexpected chapter meeting in Miller’s Downtown, held “right under the noses of the white supremacists,” Schmidt collected the names and contact information of local people interested in getting involved. As she and other core members learned about more altright and neo-Nazi rallies planned in their community, they reached out to national BLM organizers for guidance and support. David Vaughn Straughn, another core member of the Charlottesville group, remembered his frustration as he tried e-mail address after e-mail address listed on the BLM website—for organizers in New York, Chicago, Boston, Denver, and Washington DC, and on and on—and received no response. Eventually he made contact, and the fledgling chapter got on a call with Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a BLM Global Network co-founder, and Nikita Mitchell, BLM’s organizing director. But the conversations around strategy never clicked. “Organizing in a small Southern town is different from organizing in a big city,” Schmidt said. “In a big city, you can use these big, disruptive tactics and then fade back into the woodwork of 3 million people. Here, the people we might piss off—we’re going to have to work with them next week.”
There was also the question of whether their group would be allowed to carry a BLM banner during the “Unite the Right” counterprotests. Though the BLM Global Network doesn’t require local groups to clear their decisions about actions or tactics with the national group, it does require new groups wishing to organize under the Black Lives Matter mantle to go through a series of conversations and trainings before officially using the phrase in their name. According to Schmidt, she asked Khan-Cullors: “There are going to be all these white people there wearing ‘Black Lives Matter’ T-shirts, but we’re not allowed to [call ourselves a BLM chapter or march under a BLM banner]?” The national group at first said no, then reversed itself a few days before the events that would garner national attention for the eruption of violence and the displays of white-supremacist hatred. The Charlottesville group is still not an official chapter, but the BLM Global Network amplified its call to action on the national organization’s social-media channels just before the weekend of August 12. “Had that amplification been given sooner, I think we would have had more individuals coming down and helping us defend our city,” Straughn said. “I just wish I had more of a personal connection with somebody who could’ve got the ball rolling a little bit quicker.”
Khan-Cullors is open about her regrets. “It’s really unfortunate that we took too long” to respond to the black activists in Charlottesville, she told me. “It’s always hard to tell what needs a rapid response.” In my conversation with her, what at first might sound like bureaucratic pettiness came across instead as an expression of the difficulties that any national organization faces as it goes through the pains of rapid growth. The BLM Global Network has reason to tread carefully when it comes to authorizing new groups: It is now the target of two lawsuits brought by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who claim that BLM has created an unsafe environment for law enforcement. Groups calling themselves BLM chapters, but lacking the training that Khan-Cullors and Mitchell offer, have engaged in actions—such as inflammatory chants picked up and broadcast by the media—that provide fuel for such legal claims. “You need to know what you’re getting yourself into once you start calling yourself a BLM chapter,” Khan-Cullors said of the responsibility she bears. “You’re going to get a lot of publicity. The right’s going to come after you. You’re going to need security.”
A highly visible four-year-old movement and the national organization that emerged from it are bound to stumble when it comes to providing resources, training, and support to places across the country faced with crisis. Nowadays, that feels like everywhere, and black organizers are meeting the challenge with a spirit of experimentation. Rather than creating chaos, they’re looking for a way out of it. “We are reflective of the needs of hundreds of thousands of people in this country who have been feeling that the government cannot and will not do its job,” said Shanelle Matthews, the communications director for the BLM Global Network. Electoral organizing, street protests, disrupting Democratic events, and crafting new and visionary policies are all ways to begin to meet the challenge, Matthews added. “However nimble we need to be to approach that, that’s what we’re going to do.”