Black Lives Matter Could Succeed Where Leaders Like Farrakhan Have Failed
A lot of the media coverage around Saturday's Justice Or Else rally focused on Louis Farrakhan, reminding us that building a movement around one man has its pitfalls. By eschewing leaders, Black Lives Matter has shielded itself from these problems.
Photo by Flickr user Ted Eytan
The dire need for black activism was made clear on Sunday when we learned that two investigations found the police justified in their killing of unarmed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Rice was shot in November of last year by a Cleveland police officer when the boy was alone in a park, playing with a toy that resembled a gun. Instead of a living boy, Rice has become another powerful symbol in the fight against police brutality.
The recent findings in the two reports on his shooting are an attack on our common sense. The fact that the officers believed Rice was 18 and dangerous when they arrived at the scene reminds us of the perception that black boys are scary men who must be handled with force. The speed with which he was shot, just two seconds after the officers pulled up, barely enough time to fully open the car door, underlines how police are often not protecting or serving the black community. Too often, police occupy black neighborhoods as though black citizens should be treated as enemies of the state. And the way the state has publicly judged all of this as justified shows how little black lives matter.
The Department of Justice has already placed the Cleveland Police Department under a consent decree, which means the department had been found to be deeply troubled and in need of reform at every level. They will spend the next several years being federally monitored as these reforms take place. But still, despite that response from the federal government, it's clear that that government is not always able to help protect black and brown people from the state.
We need organizations and leaders who will help speak up for a community that feels voiceless. By we, I mean America, not just people of color. All of America needs organizations agitating for the rights and dignity of black people. Black activism, from Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth to Malcolm and Martin, has historically demanded this country live up to its ideals. In doing so, it has made this country better. Who among us would argue that emancipation and desegregation and the advancements of the 60s have not made this country greater? It's clear that we need yet another demand for progress in order to make this country better for all of us. Saturday's Justice Or Else rally, a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March, was one attempt, albeit one mired in some of the problems that old school organizations have had.
The rally was called and led by the controversial Minister Louis Farrakhan, who functions like a human Rorschach. Some find him inspirational, some find him problematic though charismatic, and some find him to be anti-Semitic, sexist, and homophobic. Despite being a household name, it's impossible for Farrakhan to move in polite media circles and it's obvious why. He disqualifies himself. Few black Americans could have sparked the massive and historic rallies that Farrakhan has, but he is also his own worst enemy.
Much of the commentary about Saturday's rally has focused on Farrakhan's misogynist and homophobic statements. He lays bare the challenges of a movement led by an individual. If that individual says or does something deplorable, is the entire movement discredited? And it's dangerous to have a single prophetic leader, even if that leader lives a life beyond reproach. Dr. King and Malcolm X were beyond reproach—the FBI and the CIA followed them, working hard to try to unearth embarrassing or disqualifying statement or actions. They failed. But still their movements were so deeply tied to them and their charisma that their assassinations crippled the future of those movements. Though powerful leadership is critical in building a movement, it's dangerous to have a single person at the helm. Black Lives Matter knows this.
BLM is purposely leaderless and that has helped them become the vanguard of modern black activism. There is no individual who is the face of BLM, which means there's no one to kill or embarrass in an attempt to silence BLM. But there are, of course, people at the center of the organization. One of them is Patrisse Cullors, who is noted as a co-founder of BLM along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi. I interviewed Patrisse and others in the BLM movement on Saturday onstage at Politicon, a new political convention that took place in LA.
BLM is at a crossroads. They could grow into a modern version of the Civil Rights Movement and have a lasting, substantive impact on America. Or they could flame out and become an historical footnote like Occupy. They have already changed the conversation in America to focus on police violence against black and brown people and they have pushed that to the center of the presidential race. But that's not, as currently constituted, a lasting, substantive change. Occupy also changed the discourse, but the unsustainably unequal distribution of wealth continues.
Patrisse is aware that many perceive BLM to be at a crossroads and she is careful about moving forward strategically. After an hour with her, I got the sense that she is guided more by her head than her heart, always thinking long-term and big-picture. She's not interested in fame, but is charismatic and passionate and intelligent enough to get it if she wanted. She is a woman of great energy and bold spirit who is deeply committed to lasting change. She is open to advice from the previous generation of leadership and mentioned having mentors from the Civil rights Movement.
But where the CRM achieved so much by pushing the Democratic Party, Patrisse is uninterested in aligning BLM with the party. She said BLM will not endorse any candidate. I pressed her on that: endorsing a candidate who wins would lead to BLM having some leverage with that elected official. That's traditionally how special interests fight for what they need: We deliver you votes when you're running and you deliver us change when you're in office. Patrisse said BLM will not be playing that game. "It didn't work with Barack Obama," she said.
Patrisse is more interested in aligning with folks overseas in order to build a global resistance movement. She came to Politicon with a coterie of people from England who wore T-shirts saying "1518 people killed in police custody in England and Wales since 1990. 0 convictions." Patrisse also spoke of a recent trip to Palestine and how it pushed her to think about the struggle of people of color in global terms. I pointed out that toward the end of Malcolm and Martin's lives, they were talking about globalizing their movements. Whether that led to their deaths is another conversation, but I had to ask Patrisse if she is in fear for her life. She said yes. She said police have raided her home on multiple occasions and she assumes that her phone is tapped and her messages are being read.
BLM's newest tactic to attempt to empower people is an app, the Mobile Justice app (currently available in California as Mobile Justice California), which allows video of police interactions to go directly from your phone to the ACLU. The second you stop recording, the video is automatically sent to the ACLU, meaning officers cannot forcibly erase video, which many people have said has happened to them. This is a powerful way to empower citizens and create more video, which is a major reason why police killings have become a major subject. These sorts of killings have happened throughout history, but without video, without proof, it was impossible to get people to trust the word of a black victim. The ubiquity of phones that can capture video has transformed the relationship between black Americans and the police. But encouraging more people to police the police means encouraging more people to put their heads in the mouth of the lion. To videotape a heated police interaction can be a valuable documentation of the state in action and can create a crucial check and balance, but it also puts the phone-holder at risk of being arrested or harassed by police.
People who want to videotape the police will have to be prepared: They could end up becoming the subject of the next protest. The ACLU's representative on the panel, Hector Villagra suggested that those who want to videotape police stand at least 20 feet away. In most jurisdictions, you have the legal right to videotape the police from that distance. Then again, disorderly conduct is whatever the officer says it is and cops who feel threatened will often lash out in ways that push the boundaries of the law.
Patrisse said she cofounded BLM in part because of the killing of her brother when he was in police custody. She said she felt the need to do something and saw no political organization doing the work that needed to be done. Patrisse saw the void in black leadership that emerged after the assassinations of the 60s and like a true millennial she stood up to construct an organization and fill that space. BLM has not tried to resurrect that old leadership infrastructure. Instead, it has adapted to the times and built something new that is pushing America to take black life seriously. Whether it can bring about lasting change, however, remains to be seen.
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