Black Lives Matter: Lessons from a Revolt

America’s Black Lives Matter liberation movement has neither a leader nor political representation, and although it did not achieve the reforms it sought, it didn’t fail: Traces of its rhetoric live on and have reshaped the debate about racial injustice in the U.S.

Five years ago, the city of Ferguson, Missouri was set ablaze. One too many black bodies had fallen victim to police bullets, and one too many uniformed officers had been acquitted. A year of protests against police brutality and racial injustice had brought together black people and anti-racist activists under one banner, Black Lives Matter. After young activist Alicia Garza created the hashtag in 2013, the imprecation transformed into an unstoppable social and cultural movement that spread across the U.S. and the world from 2014 to 2017. Dissident, irreverent, intersectional, radical, and without leadership or any political or religious affiliation, the collective used social media as a form of civil disobedience to disrupt the course of events, including the public discourse of Democratic candidates in 2016. “Black lives matter,” a heartfelt appeal turned rallying cry, called attention to the daily wrongs inflicted on people of color—those who bear the brunt of white supremacy and who alone comprehend its potency.

What BLM has been saying since 2013 is simple and indisputable: Faced with the fact that black people continue to fall victim to racial oppression and are denied justice, government authorities need a major overhaul, starting with the police and the criminal justice and prison system. To end the culture of impunity, BLM denounces the entire political economy underpinning racist violence and alerts lawmakers to its excesses. In Ferguson, police harassment was lucrative for the municipality which, like hundreds of local governments in the U.S., was called on to be held accountable for systematic discriminatory practices. For a while, the balance of power seemed to be tipping in favor of activists. Dozens of databases were created to record crimes committed by law enforcement, the U.S. attorney general initiated investigations and police departments agreed to improve their practices with body cameras, a so-called preventive technology, being worn as standard procedure.

Five years later, racial discrimination within the police departments and in economic, social and cultural spheres remains pervasive, and the racial climate has clearly worsened since 2016. Unsurprisingly, policies seeking to regulate police behavior during patrols are being eagerly dismantled. Just a few weeks ago, the Department of Justice announced that it would drop the case against the New York Police Department officer who strangled Eric Garner, whose dying words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry. Young black men are still four times as likely as white men to be killed by the police. Black men make up just 6% of the population, but 42% of death row inmates.

The backlash against BLM’s demand for equality and justice was tremendous, even prior to the 2016 election. BLM activists have sparked deep-seated tension, as evidenced by the FBI accusing the movement of subversive activity, labeling it a group of “black identity extremists,” while police unions and Fox News criticized protesters for chanting “kill a cop” and referred to them as “terrorists.” Worried progressives like Mark Lilla regretted BLM’s threatening “communitarian” ethos. Seen as too uncompromising and overly focused on the lives of the most vulnerable black people, such as prisoners, illegal immigrants and LGBT community members, BLM wasn’t suited to moderates’ taste. They said its “J’accuse” was stirring up trouble and the movement made whites uncomfortable, putting them on the defensive.

Today, BLM’s detractors delight in the movement’s smaller audience and assert that it failed and ultimately disappeared. The least critical among them have pointed to the lack of a clearly identifiable leader and spokesperson—as required by BLM, which like Occupy Wall Street, forbids a hierarchical structure—and to internal tensions between the various organizations making up the movement and which, without any core leadership, opt for different strategies. Lastly, BLM has been condemned for its refusal to include the Democratic Party within its ranks to help advance tangible public policy initiatives. In sum, as with any social protest movement, BLM has struggled to resolve the issue of how to proceed since the end of the protest phase and over which long-term political strategy it should adopt.

If we measure the movement’s impact in terms of its capacity to position itself as a legitimate representative before government authorities and to translate the reforms it sought into law, then BLM has failed. However, if we reason, as all liberation thinkers have done, in terms of discourse, traces and doors opened toward a horizon that is now perceptible, then BLM has changed the discussion around racial injustice in the U.S. Yes, BLM’s militants are no longer taking to the streets, but in reality, they are continuing the fight in the U.S. just under the surface within dozens of local organizations. Like all civil and equal rights activists, it’s only natural that they have unfinished business since their demands for justice and equality can only be partially satisfied. In addition to continuing to provide once-invisible black people with a podium and a voice, the network refuses to allow the public to remain indifferent to chronic police brutality, which is all too conveniently justified by criminalizing black people. Above all, BLM has demonstrated that combating racism involves institutions and political courage.

Just as the success of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez bears the traces of the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is impossible to miss the imprint BLM has left on Democratic discourse today, with a vocabulary that now includes words like reparations, structural racism, mass incarceration and the racial wealth gap. Conditions are not ideal, but we’ll hear more from BLM in 2020.

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