#BlackLivesMatter and Progressive Activism in a Presidential Election Season

As the newly elected Vice Chair of the Civil Rights Coalition of Maryland, and a longtime progressive and civil rights activist, I've watched with great hope and anticipation the rise of #BlackLivesMatter. I see this group as the first serious national grassroots movement to arise in the African-American community since the days of the Panthers. I love their passion, their insistence, their willingness to disrupt. I love that they were founded by young queer black women. I'm thrilled that they're willing to challenge the status quo, the Democratic Party, and African-American elected Democrats as well, because while in some respects things have got better and our society is "post-racial," in so many other respects, matters have gotten much worse, be it income inequality, mass incarceration, the drug war, educational discrimination or redlining. I can even handle the fact that they're not a group in the traditional civil rights sense, but more of a social media age "swarm," decentralized and deconstructed, responding more to local needs and without any command and control mechanism.

No movement, hierarchical or decentralized, exists in a vacuum. This movement seems particularly well-suited to the millennials running it, but millennials aren't the only ones out there. What I see in the new generation of cultural and political activists - its hypersensitivity to criticism and willingness to paint people as either for them or against them, in absolutist terms reminiscent of GW Bush - is also evident in the BLM community.

I've met some of the new leaders, and have attended events in which BLM has participated. I had not posted anything online until last week, when I shared two essays - one by Van Jones, a close friend of President Obama, entitled "Bernie Sanders and the Democrats - Why the Disruptions?", and the second by Charles Mudede, entitled "The Bad Politics of the Black Lives Matter Protestors Who Interrupted Bernie Sanders (Racist Structures Must Change. To create that change, we must have smarter strategies and tactics)." And, most recently, a heated dialogue between Secretary Clinton and several BLM activists which was posted online.

When I posted Van Jones' piece I simply commented,

Van Jones makes very good sense to me.

When I posted the Mudede article, I wrote:

Critical issues for moving forward. Alliances are crucial, as we are not a revolutionary society. Change must take root, or it will fade like the day's cable news. The teabaggers and Occupy arose in parallel; Occupy changed discourse but the Tea people changed legislatures.

The first post drove a single comment; the second engendered dozens, and the responses, from colleagues with whom I've worked and others who are just FB friends, were highly illuminating.

I made it very clear that I supported the disruptions, and wasn't challenging their efficacy as were many others. My point went to the way other (white) progressives were being treated, as if they were inherently part of the problem, and not part of the solution. There was a general attitude of, "If you don't agree with me and fall in line, then just STFU. To be with us you must love black people, and that means following our lead without comment."

I'll be clear again - this is a movement of grassroots black activists who should lead in the determination of strategy and tactics. They should be the spokespersons, and they should make the ultimate decisions. This is brutally about their lives, not ours, and that elevates them naturally in this instance. The non-black population has much to learn, and listening is a key feature of that learning.

However, as I said,

There is more than enough room for this kind of organizing, but people need to keep in mind that America is a big country, independents don't like anarchy, and the necessity of winning elections is a critical factor in solidifying gains in consciousness. Many of us watched the progressive implosion of '68-'72 which ushered in four decades of reaction . . .

. . . people who don't prioritize it [racial justice] are not white supremacists by definition. We've become way too facile at hurling epithets at those who don't support us 100%, or who are unwilling to cave to our demands. This has become too common within the progressive community, and it's the sort of "baseless hatred" that undermined the movement in the '60s.

It is a tragedy that these problems have not been resolved in 21st century America. People must take notice, which BLM is forcing them to do, but loving black people is not sufficient. Today the major problems reside in the structural racism, the institutional bias that cripples and kills. And that can only be changed by working in coalition and electing people who care enough to risk themselves politically in the context of a supportive majority.

That is what Secretary Clinton was trying to say, but her defensive manner, refusal to accept responsibility for her actions as her husband has, and constant interruptions of her interlocutors made a very bad impression. That leads to more instances of black movement leaders just facilely hurling out at white people that they don't "get" racial issues, that they aren't listening, that criticism of tone or presentation is unfair, that at root the bias against black persons is simply too deeply seated for non-blacks to understand, or that our discomfort with strategy and tactics is derived from unexplored racism. My favorite epithet hurled at some of the commenters was "the ubiquity of white fragility." That's a great phrase, and I'm sure that the academics will love it, and there might even be some truth to it for many people, but that doesn't mean that white criticism can simply be written off as irrelevant.

I went on to say, in response to a comment that this kind of criticism doesn't happen in the LGBT community:

. . . you don't see it in other segments of the community because either you're not looking or simply because you're not part of the community and so are understandably unaware. This kind of stuff goes on in the LGBT community all the time, and it leaks out only on occasion. . .

It may be that I'm unaware of all the outreach to Sanders before the incident. Personally, I don't take issue with the incident; I'm pleased with the disruptions, and find them necessary. I am concerned about how this will proceed as we get closer to the convention, because I've seen us stab ourselves in the back once before, and there can be no worse outcome, for either the progressive community or the African-American community, than to allow a Republican to be elected president next year.

What concerns me most is the underlying framing you presented: total agreement vs. racist paternalism. That's unfair, immature, and disrespectful of the generally ambiguous nature of life. I, for one, can be in total agreement with you as to the problem, but in serious disagreement with you over the strategy and tactics to resolve the problem. You don't seem to be allowing for that.

Keep in mind that saying that doesn't mean BLM does not have the right to act in any way they see fit. It's their action, they're leading it, and that is perfectly appropriate, but to expect everyone else to unthinkingly fall in line just because is absurd. That is not being a good ally.

Charles Blow in The New York Times wrote very eloquently:

The movement, to my mind, isn't a plea for pity, or appeal to comity, but an exercise in personal and collective advocacy by an oppressed people.

It says to America: You will not dictate the parameters of my expression; you will not assign the grammar of my pain; you will not tell me how I should feel. For these young activists, it's not ideological but existential; it's not about a political field but a battlefield, one from which they cannot escape, one on which their very bodies are marked and threatened with destruction.

This is not an esoteric, intellectual debate about best practices, but quite literally a flesh and blood struggle for equal access to liberty and longevity.

What I've learned from this is that we have a great opportunity to break out of the status quo, led by young black activists who are willing to risk their lives to create change. It's no small thing, because the past four post-civil rights era decades have seen progress in personal relationships but backsliding in institutional ones, and black electoral success has been generally co-opted to maintain a dysfunctional but comfortable status quo. But in this society no one group or community can do it alone, and no allies can be engaged when they're to be condemned to a marginal role. The one thing BLM does not have is perspective, not on a personal level given the youth of the activist class and not from an historical perspective either, it seems. Belligerent assertion allows one to feel good in the moment, and maybe force some change, but without electoral success institutional change simply will either not happen or occur at much too slow a pace. We "fragile" white folks need to listen and learn, but also be allowed to teach as well. We don't want relationships that are, as Van Jones described, "non-existent, tokenizing, or condescending/condemning." We hear your pain, we've paid our dues, and want to partner with you to change America. The only way we can do that is by understanding the "hard math" of electoral politics, and creating a coalition of mutually respectful activists.