The movement has become a major political force in the Democratic presidential race. Now, Black Lives Matter is at a crossroads.
Photo by Flickr user Light Brigading
At this point, Black Lives Matter could be a historic civil rights movement that significantly changes America. Or it could fizzle out like Occupy Wall Street, an exciting and disruptive political force that briefly rose to prominence and then flamed out without leaving an indelible mark on the political landscape. Or it could go in another direction entirely. The Black Lives Matter movement is at a crossroads, and how it spends its growing political capital will determine everything.
The movement has acquired that political capital because of the moral importance of its cause. New stories of shocking and deplorable police behavior, and the dead black bodies left in its wake, seem to emerge weekly, faster than the media can absorb them. So before America has finished processing the tragic death of Sandra Bland, it's suddenly forced to work through what happened to Sam Dubose before blam! it's on to Christian Taylor. Then the prosecutor from some previous saga, maybe Tamir Rice or John Crawford, pops back into the news again, saying that another killer has been arrested or indicted—or, more often, that they're free to go.
So far this year, at least 742 peoplehave been killed by police. According to a Washington Post analysis, blacks are seven times as likely as whites to be the victims of police violence. In the past five months alone, at least 14 cops have been charged with committing murder, homicide, or manslaughter while on duty, according to an informal tally by informal tally by The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf .
It's emotionally and spiritually exhausting, and the Black Lives Matter movement's controversially disruptive tactics have flowed out of that exhaustion—flowed from that sense of being sick and tired of being sick and tired. Because the murders by police brutality is nothing new. Our parents and grandparents have their own stories of unarmed lives lost. The big difference today is technological—the ubiquity of cameras has made the stories undeniable and revealed just how often cops are lying.
The disruptive tactics are appropriate given the dire nature of their cause, aimed at hijacking and redirecting a conversation that would not otherwise be about dead and endangered black bodies. They recall, for me, the ACT-UP protests of the late 80s, when gay-rights demonstrators disrupted all sorts of events in order to get the nation to focus on the AIDS crisis. To fixate on these tactics is to ask why communities that have long been ignored are being so impolite in the way they demand to not be unjustly killed. If you're a so-called Black Lives Matter ally who has a problem with the movement's tactics, then you're not really an ally at all.
In recent weeks, some have questioned why Black Lives Matter has focused so much on Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate who would like to be an ally of the movement. In an op-ed for the Washington Post this week, Patrisse Cullors, a Black Lives Matter founder, explains:
"Agitating a perceived political ally to the Black community is strategic. For far too long, the Democratic Party has milked the Black vote while creating policies that completely decimate Black communities. Once upon a time, Bill Clinton was widely perceived as an ally and advocate for the needs of Black people. However, it is the Clinton administration's Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act that set the stage for the massive racial injustice we struggle with in law enforcement today... The Clinton administration gave birth to the very era of mass incarceration that current Democrats are renouncing with great emotion and fervor."
At the end of the piece she writes:
"Our role in the current election cycle is accountability. We know by centering conversations on the most disenfranchised among us, we ensure true liberty and justice for all. We will disrupt presidential candidates and all elected officials, we will move towards bold and creative action to deliver the ideals of democracy for ALL people inside of this country."
The reality is, Black Lives Matter tactics are working. So far, this young group has shaped the Democratic presidential race more than any of the left's old-guard special interest groups. Black Lives Matter activists have been extremely effective at forcing their concerns to the top of the Democratic agenda, forcing Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O'Malley to take meetings with them and release policy ideas that address the movement's concerns. But Black Lives Matter is poised to accomplish more.
We are in an era of deep partisanship, in which the presidential race no longer boils down to a battle for the middle. There is no longer a persuadable center in American politics any more. Nowadays, elections are not about persuasion, winning over independent or centrist voters. They're about motivation—turning out the people on your side, instilling voters with a sense of urgency and importance that forces them to show up to the polls.
Democrats know that if too many black people stay home next November, the party could lose the White House. And in this election, the black vote cannot be taken for granted because Black Lives Matter has sharpened black political power to a knife's edge.
Now, finally, Democrats are calling for criminal justice reform, no longer afraid that it will come across as evidence that they are "weak on crime." So the moment is ripe to shove the Democratic establishment as far leftward as it can on criminal justice reform. The moment is ripe to change Black America's relationship with American police. The political system may or may not respond to specific demands—but as Occupy Wall Street learned, the generalized message of a need for change can be easily shoved aside.
So what specifically should Black Lives Matter demand? That's a complicated question because Black Lives Matter is both a network with 26 chapters and a grassroots movement that includes people who don't officially belong to those groups. It's decentralized, viewing local leadership as paramount to achieving its goals. But America's policing problem can also be—and I think, needs to be—addressed by a national policy approach.
Of course, Black Lives Matter's leaders understand this. "The goal of Black Lives Matter is to transform America's systemic hatred against Black people," Cullors writes in the Washington Post. "Yes, we will fight for policy reform, but we know that every gain in this area can be retracted if we do not change the anti-Black culture in this country."
But policy reform will be critical in making concrete gains—the killings can be stopped by changing deeply-held racial biases, but that will take a long time. I hope Black Lives Matter will put its muscle behind one particular idea and try to force that idea into the political conversation in 2016. An idea that I believe is at the heart of our policing problem—the reason why police are positioned as occupying forces in so many working class communities of color, why some young black and brown people end up working in an underground industry that inevitably leads to police confrontations, fueling suspicion and fear. To me, the core of our policing problem is the War on Drugs.
The War on Drugs helps fuel the illegal drug trade, making drugs more lucrative and thus making that industry valuable for economically devastated areas where people need jobs and, and are also looking for ways to help soothe soul-deep pain. The failed War on Drugs positions America to see all black men as potential criminals, and positions the police to play whack-a-mole in the hood while getting lots of federal money in return, despite doing little to actually curb the drug trade. The War on Drugs, as Michelle Alexander explained in her seminal book The New Jim Crow, positions black people as resources to be used—mass incarceration has allowed police, prosecutors, judges, politicians, prison operators and others to make money from black bodies.
The only thing that could fundamentally damage the illegal drug trade is to end the War on Drugs by creating a legal option to buy and sell drugs. Allow the private sector to sell drugs in a way that is organized and taxed by the government like almost any other product. Without that we cede control of drug trafficking to the most dangerous members of society and forfeit billions in potential taxation. Without that we continue to hold out hope that prohibition will work, when it hasn't for decades.
So, some of you might be asking, should we just let people do drugs? Yes. Why are we criminalizing the choices people make about what they put in their own bodies? In what other capacity do you like the government serving as a nanny state, telling you what's best for you? Several state governments are already getting out of that business, either legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana.
Prohibition will never work. We know this because we've tried. The US government has spent decades and trillions of dollars, and quintupled its prison population without lessening the availability of drugs. But what if we give drug dealers real competition from the private sector? It would make the entire arrangement less attractive, taking a significant swath of customers away from the underground economy, thus making the costs of smuggling and dealing drugs less lucrative, thus damaging and shrinking that industry and giving us a chance to refocus our policing. Ending the War on Drugs is essential if we are going to change the way the police interact with black men and women.
Black Lives Matter could, in this political climate, with its current level of power, demand Democratic candidates start talking about ending the War on Drugs. If Sanders makes it a big part of his platform, then Clinton will have to discuss it, too. And if that happens then we may be on the way to seeing Black Lives Matter fundamentally change America.
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