It has been all but impossible to not to notice the Black Lives Matter movement. From coast to coast its members have made their presence known with their unapologetic, in-your-face message and rhetoric. While the organization has been a force for more than a few years, up until recently, mainstream visibility had eluded it. That ended when two of its members disrupted presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as he attempted to deliver a speech in Seattle in early August. Now, all of a sudden, the media is obsessed with the movement.
Reaction to these protesters was immediate and much of it critical. Many detractors, particularly those on the left, characterized the encounter as an attack on a person who had been an ardent supporter of civil rights, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and has embraced other progressive measures his entire adult life.
These were the same leftist critics who decried such actions as "disrespectful," "juvenile" and "misguided." Some even went as far as threatening to withdraw their support, financial or otherwise from the movement. To be sure, the ire of these protestors was not solely confined to Sanders. Democratic presidential candidate and current frontrunner Hillary Clinton, along with GOP presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, were also confronted by Black Lives Matter activists.
What distinguished this moment of protest from previous acts of civil disobedience was the fact that, in each of these protests, you saw Black activists not merely asking, but rather demanding, results from possible future presidents. Gone was the usual pretense of polite and cordial deference that have often symbolized more recent behavior of Black activism. What we witnessed was an unprecedented level of blunt demands for change not seen in Black movements since the late 1960s when the Black Panthers and other Black activist groups demanded and shouted for revolutionary change. Indeed, in just few months, BLM has been successful in having politicians from both parties address the concerns of Black and brown citizens.
While this attention is notable, there are a number of Black people who are far from content with the movement. Well-known journalist and former civil rights activist Barbara Reynolds penned a recent column expressing her dissatisfaction and dismay with the movement at its current state.
Reynolds makes the case that, while she agrees with the overall message and spirit of Black Lives Matters (BLM) activists, she is put off by what she sees as the lack of discipline and confrontational approach of its members. In a USA TODAY op-ed piece, GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson made the point that, while he agreed with the BLM stance that racism is indeed a factor in American life, the fact is that the movement needs to expand its vision and focus on education, the breakdown of the Black family structure and other factors that he saw as contributing to the disarray plaguing too many lower-income Black communities.
What the responses from both of these very accomplished individuals demonstrates is a vast generational divide between older Black baby boomers, millennials and many Generation Xers in regards to presentation and tactics. Reynolds clearly has memories of the well-dressed, well-behaved, well-spoken protestors (which included a large number of clergy across racial lines) who marched in the South more than a half century ago. These were the men and women who wore their Sunday best to church, as well as on the front lines, as they confronted violent law enforcement and rabid racists and segregationists. Carson assumes that the answer to Black salvation lies in turning off the television, refraining from using profanity, reforming the pubic school system, cleaner living and embracing conservative politics.
While likely well intentioned, the fact is that both Reynolds (a liberal) and Carson (a conservative) have urged young Black activists to subscribe to a form of respectability politics that is likely to do little, if anything, to rectify the serious/pressing issues facing far too many Black youth in the 21st century. Throughout history, whenever Black people have adopted the art of civility and decorum toward racism and bigotry, the result has been an upsurge in violence, discrimination and systematic racism directed toward the large community. The fact is that violence against Black bodies has always been a part of American life and it is still the case.
We have seen it in the gruesome lynchings of Black men and some women. The violent beatings of Black suspects in police custody. The rapes of Black women at the hands of White men other forms of physical, sexual and emotional assault. Particularly disturbing were the brutal rape and beating of Salisa Luster in Louisville, Kentucky, the murders of Eugene Ellison and Alvin Allison of Little Rock, Arkansas, and Victor White from New Iberia, Louisiana. Outside of Black news outlets, local news and alternative media outlets, hardly any attention was given to these crimes. The same was the case in regards to Monroe Isadore, a 107-year-old man who was shot by a SWAT team in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in September 2013. Race is a factor in these incidents and these are the sort of issues that Black Lives Matter is addressing.
The truth is that whenever any other group of people has decided to assert themselves and have the needs of their respective community addressed, there has been little, if any, resistance or controversial remarks from the larger public. When Black Americans decide to speak truth to power about the crucial issues facing many Black communities communities, there is an automatic level of resentment, fear and paranoia from certain segments of society. This is a perverse double standard that is unjust and unfair. Such a reality is evident in the recent sinister and viciously dishonest attempt by some members of the conservative right to scapegoat the rhetoric of the movement for the recent high profile murders of several White police officers, Given the fact that the majority of White police officers have been murdered at the hands of White people or by individuals or members of White fringe extremist groups seems to have been lost on them. The message coming from certain segments of the political left is that the movement lacks discipline and should strive to be more sophisticated in its efforts.
Whatever flaws it has (the same can be said about any and all grassroots movements), the fact is that Black Lives Matter activists have expressed their message plain, bold and clear without apology.
Dr. Elwood Watson is a professor of history, African studies and gender studies at East Tennessee State University.