“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
—Frederick Douglass (1857)
Last Sunday, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) gave a speech at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston. It began as a brief overview of the civil rights struggle roiling the nation when John F. Kennedy became a senator in 1962. Warren then connected the movement that culminated with some of the most sweeping rights-granting federal policies in the country’s history to the more contemporary Black Lives Matter protests. But, really, we only need one passage to get the underlying message of what the Washington Post dubbed “the speech that Black Lives Matter activists have been waiting for”:
“Economic justice is not—and has never been—sufficient to ensure racial justice. Owning a home won’t stop someone from burning a cross on the front lawn. Admission to a school won’t prevent a beating on the sidewalk outside.”
I do not begrudge Warren for giving the speech. After all, Black voters are a key constituency within the Democratic Party, and she might want to be president someday. I can even understand why she would seek to separate racial justice from economic justice, given her party’s lukewarm support for the latter.
One thing money cannot buy you is invulnerability from being on the bad end of a police officer’s gun when he pulls the trigger.
But the full-throated endorsement of her speech by the Black Lives Matter activist interviewed in Lowery’s article should show us the limits of a one-issue organizing campaign with, at best, weak and ineffectual demands. It should also make us question whether such a campaign can ever meaningfully deliver the systemic justice we seek.
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Alicia Garza, a co-founder (along with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi) of the Black Lives Matter Network, told a recent panel that its aim was to “rebuild a Black liberation movement.” It is certainly a laudable goal, if not also one that is, given the context, utterly laughable.
For confirmation of that fact, one need look no further than Black Lives Matter’s new website, updated Wednesday night. If a major critique of the organization had been its lack of concrete demands for social change, that is unlikely to be defused by its new-look guiding principles section. In fact, it seems to have gone in the other direction, with little more than feel-good vagaries and empty rhetorical defiance.
Even worse, though, is the “Herstory” section. It is hard for me to describe its maddening pointlessness except to note that this “Black liberation movement” spends about 60 percent of its “herstory” railing against “appropriation” and brand theft. It is awe-inspiring only in its myopia and its stark irrelevance to the actual struggles of the Black working class.
But not every group associated with the Black Lives Matter protests has taken such a complete vacation of their senses. There is Campaign Zero, which has provided the most detailed list of demands of anyone associated with these protests. They call for policies such as the end of broken-windows policing, body cameras on police officers, and civilian review boards that bring greater community oversight to police departments.
Maybe that milquetoast rhetoric gets you on talk shows, but it is hardly the stuff of revolution.
These proposals are praiseworthy in their detail, to be sure, but they suffer from the same narrowness that has hobbled previous demand-making. While police violence is deplorable and needs to be addressed, the truth is that you are 65 times more likely to die from a preventable disease such as diabetes than you are to be killed by a police officer’s bullet if you are Black in America (see page 67 of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2014 report on causes of death in the United States). But none of these demands include a call for a government-run universal healthcare system, nor do they address the shrinking wages earned by the Black working class, nor do they raise a call to arms for a greater investment in education. Instead we get more tinkering around the edges of a rotten system that rarely needs the brutal force of arms to sustain itself. Maybe that milquetoast rhetoric gets you on talk shows, but it is hardly the stuff of revolution.
If you think these demands don’t get made because “the number-one issue on most black voters’ minds is police brutality,” you would be wrong. It is not hard to see why this would be the case; deindustrialization and the shift to a service-based economy has hit Black communities harder than any other. The kind of high-paying industrial work that gave Black workers a sense of economic stability and generous health and retirement benefits has all but disappeared in the United States, replaced by an unending stream of nonunion, low-wage jobs that place the worker further and further from the products of their labor. And not only does police violence fail to show up as a top concern for Black voters in the polls, but a Gallup poll released in August showed that Black people feel no more mistreated by the police today than they did when the polling agency first started asking the question in 1997. In fact, the percentage reporting police mistreatment actually declined seven points in the last decade.
A movement that held true to a goal of liberation would challenge the fundamental assumptions of social, economic, and political organization under capitalism.
All of this makes it difficult not to see Black Lives Matter as something else entirely, aimed at ending one of the few outstanding fears of upwardly mobile members of the Black middle class. After all, access to the sort of advancement that is routinely denied to the majority of Black people who identify as working class can buy you out of a lot of things. Maybe you care a little less about the increasing privatization of our public schools, or the routine disinvestment in programs assisting the poor, or the means by which capitalists in the United States manage to keep their workers from collectively bargaining. But one thing money cannot buy you is invulnerability from being on the bad end of a police officer’s gun when he pulls the trigger.
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The hard truth is that if you disarm every police officer in the country tomorrow, it would not change the fact that Tamir Rice was being educated in a school system laid low by budget cut after budget cut. It would not change the fact that Michael Brown lived in one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country. And it would not change the fact that Freddie Gray lived in a city where unemployment is about 50 percent higher than the national average. What kind of movement for justice and equality fails to demand an end to these social ills once and for all?
A movement that held true to a goal of liberation would challenge the fundamental assumptions of social, economic, and political organization under capitalism and work toward a world where the people hold the key to their collective destiny. Such a movement would work toward concrete things like economic democracy, worker cooperatives, labor unions as a civil right, and a drive toward full employment and the valuing of labor that’s sufficient for every worker to not simply live but thrive. It would see children suffering in rotten schools and advocate for smaller class sizes, a rich curriculum, and teachers who are compensated well—not for the privatization and de-professionalization of education advocated for by organizations like the Walmart-funded Teach for America. And it would do more than simply shout at already established politicians, but would set about building a new political force to mobilize the masses desperate for a state that sees them not as subjects to be policed and punished but as full citizens participating in American life.
Black Lives Matter seems either unwilling or incapable of going that far.
It is time to begin a movement that will.
Douglas Williams is a PhD student in political science at Wayne State University, where he researches labor policy and working-class radical movements. A native of Suffolk, Virginia, he writes about these topics and more at The South Lawn.
Illustration by Max Fleishman