A Tough Weekend for the Black Lives Matter Movement

Gunshots in Ferguson overshadowed a day of protest, even as activists at a Bernie Sanders event in Seattle alienated potential allies.

Rick Wilking / Reuters

A year after an officer-involved shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, protestors keep pressing their cause with urgency, as they did Sunday in marches, rallies, and other activities around the country.

Officer Darren Wilson may not have acted unlawfully when he shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, during a murky physical altercation. But the same Department of Justice that cleared him of criminal wrongdoing has documented years of egregiously abusive policing in the St. Louis suburbs. Nevertheless, Missouri legislators failed last session to pass the vast majority of reform measures meant to fix the state’s glaringly oppressive criminal justice system. Nationwide, The Washington Post finds that police have killed at least 60 unarmed humans this year—and that black men, who make up just 6 percent of the population, account for a full 40 percent of those killed despite being unarmed. In recent months, moreover, the public has seen graphic video footage of at least two cops, in separate incidents, committing what separate prosecutors characterize as the murders of black men during traffic stops, then apparently lying about their actions.

Little wonder that Black Lives Matter protestors gathered in force Sunday. And yet, after watching the day’s events, I am more worried than ever that their efforts will fail.

This is partly because of the gunfire that erupted on the streets of Ferguson on Sunday night, ensuring that Monday’s headlines will concern themselves less with police reforms than reports of someone brazenly shooting at police cars on the street. (Note that early reports following most officer-involved shootings rely heavily on official sources and could turn out to be inaccurate in the fullness of time—if this turns out to be an unjustified shooting by police, the effect on public opinion will be different.)

The Black Lives Matter movement is in no way to blame for the incident, and the fact that violent criminals sometimes target police officers would, in a logical world, have no effect on support for body cameras that police departments don’t control; independent prosecutors for cases in which cops are accused of excessive force; an end to the War on Drugs; curtailing the power of police and prison-guard unions; restoring the voting rights of felons who’ve paid their debts to society; and other policy reforms that would make the criminal justice system more just.

Unfortunately, many members of the public wrongheadedly react to violent crime by shying away from any efforts to reform policing, even though such cases demonstrate the vital need for quality cops. The public hears about bullets whizzing by police in Ferguson, feels sympathy and concern for them—as do I!—and irrationally concludes that stymieing long-overdue reforms will somehow keep them safer. But no widely sought reform would make police officers more vulnerable to premeditated shootings or prevent them from responding aggressively.

Some members of the public will wrongheadedly conflate Black Lives Matter activists and the criminals who used the cover of Sunday’s anniversary and the accompanying protests to fire guns, beat up and rob a St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper reporter, and smash the window of a small business that serves Ferguson. There is no evidence that those criminals were participants in the Black Lives Matter movement. The vast majority of its members have been nonviolent all year, conducting themselves with uncommon bravery and restraint in difficult circumstances.

Alongside these unfortunate setbacks that the Black Lives Matter movement could not do much about, Sunday also saw activists acting under its banner disrupting a Seattle rally held by Bernie Sanders, the independent Vermont Senator who is challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination from the left.

CNN reports on what happened:

Seconds after Sanders took the stage, a dozen protesters from the city's Black Lives Matter chapter jumped barricades around the stage and grabbed the microphone from the senator. Holding a banner that said “Smash Racism,” two of the protesters—Marissa Janae Johnson and Mara Jacqeline Willaford, the co-founders of the chapter—began to address the crowd.

“My name is Marissa Janae Johnson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Seattle,” she said to sustained boos from an audience that had waited an hour and a half to hear Sanders. “I was going to tell Bernie how racist this city is, filled with its progressives, but you already did it for me, thank you.

“You are never going to hear Bernie speak if I don't hear silence now,” said Johnson, adding later, “Now that you've covered yourself in your white supremacist liberalism, I will formally welcome Bernie Sanders to Seattle.”

To sustained boos from the audience that assembled to see Sanders, Johnson demanded that the senator take action on saving black lives and called on him to release his plans to reform policing. "Bernie Sanders, would you please come over here," she said. Johnson and Willaford demanded—and eventually won—a four-and-a-half-minute-long moment of silence in honor of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager who was killed by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a year ago on Sunday. Sanders stood just feet away off stage, chatting with his wife, Jane, and the three aides that came to Seattle with him. Sanders’ aides said the senator had no plans of leaving during the protests, but once Johnson did not appear willing to give up the mic after the moment of silence, organizers effectively shut down the event.

Again, in a logical world, these tactics, love them or hate them, would have no effect on public support for a broad range of reforms to America’s criminal justice system. Still, this sort of activism strikes me as a self-inflicted blow to Black Lives Matter. After activists used a similar tactic against Sanders at Netroots Nation, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie astutely observed that while many expected the fissure point for liberals in the 2016 election to be between Hillary Clinton and those to her left, the first fissure to emerge, concurrent with protest movements against police brutality and for social-democracy, is an old liberal split between focusing on race and focusing on class.

“It showed the limits of Sanders’ brand of liberal coalition-building, which hinges on the idea that we could ameliorate serious injustice if we just achieve—or move toward—economic justice,” he explained. “For Black Lives Matter activists, this is almost an insult. To them, racism is orthogonal to class: They’re two different dimensions of disadvantage, and to improve the picture on one isn’t always to improve the picture for the other. Jim Crow, for instance, coexisted with strong unions, high wages, and an active welfare state ... To combat racism, you have to fight it on its own terms. Moreover, there are times when fighting racism in policing and other areas is necessary for headway on economic justice. Ending ‘stop and frisk’ in New York City, for example, lowers the odds young men of color will lose their jobs because of unfair stops ... An effective and broad-based left has to have answers for anti-racist activists. The question is whether Sanders can see this. Is he adaptable enough to build a new platform that tackles these concerns?”

That is sharp analysis.

And yet, Black Lives Matter is not, as best as I can tell, a movement that’s willing to ally itself with anyone, right, left, or center, who supports race-conscious policing reforms.

Here are all of the explicit demands listed on its website:

  • We demand an end to all forms of discrimination and the full recognition of our human rights.
  • We demand an immediate end to police brutality and the murder of Black  people and all oppressed people.
  • We demand full, living-wage employment for our people.
  • We demand decent housing fit for the shelter of human beings and an end to gentrification.
  • We demand an end to the school to prison pipeline & quality education for all.
  • We demand freedom from mass incarceration and an end to the prison industrial complex.
  • We demand a racial justice agenda from the White House that is inclusive of our shared fate as Black men, women, trans and gender-nonconforming people. Not My Brother’s Keeper, but Our Children’s Keeper.
  • We demand access to affordable healthy food for our neighborhoods.
  • We demand an aggressive attack against all laws, policies, and entities that disenfranchise any community from expressing themselves at the ballot.
  • We demand a public education system that teaches the rich history of Black people and celebrates the contributions we have made to this country and the world.
  • We demand the release of all U.S. political prisoners.
  • We demand an end to the military industrial complex that incentivizes private corporations to profit off of the death and destruction of Black and Brown communities across the globe.

Were the Black Lives Matter agenda all about policing reform, it could better afford to, say, strategically attack Bernie Sanders and ally with Rand Paul if the former wasn’t giving enough attention to criminal-justice reform and the latter was touting it.

Narrow focuses allow strange bedfellows.

But if Black Lives Matter intends to marry a left-wing economic agenda and noninterventionist foreign-policy demands to its concerns about race and policing, what sense does it make to attack Sanders in his long-shot primary against Clinton—darling of Wall Street, supporter of the Iraq invasion, proponent of the drone war, and First Lady during the incarceration boom—and to antagonize Sanders supporters, rare allies in some of their fringier demands, as white supremacists?

It seems likely that, with carrots rather than sticks, Sanders could’ve been persuaded to embrace the vast majority of the stated Black Lives Matter agenda; and there’s no chance that Clinton will ever support “an end to gentrification,” the release of “all U.S. political prisoners,” or “an end to the military industrial complex.” If elected, she will govern as the corporatist hawk that she has always been, and if the political climate changes––if there’s an uptick in crime, and many more voters favor investing in rather than reforming 1990s-style policing––can any Democrat argue with a straight face that Clinton would not shift right along with it?

Taken as a whole, it was a bad weekend for Black Lives Matter. And yet, the core of its case for policing reform is powerful, just, overdue, and capable of commanding much more widespread support than the least plausible of its demands. Going forward, I hope and expect that it will continue to act with urgency, but in a manner more likely to increase the odds that a coalition from across the ideological spectrum will rein in the excesses of policing and incarceration.  If its activists preemptively give up on the right and split the left, what then?