Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” ripples and echoes through much of the Black Lives Matter movement:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.
These lines in particular—the notion of a “negative peace”; the derision of a “mythical concept of time”; the myriad dissatisfactions of moderation and patience—have proven especially resonant of late. In July, Black Lives Matter protestors interrupted a Netroots Nation forum featuring Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, preventing the Democratic presidential candidates from speaking to the audiences assembled to hear them. Last month, other members of the movement interrupted a campaign stop Hillary Clinton made in Cleveland. As the activist Patrisse Cullors explained of her role in the shutdowns, “We are tired of being interrupted.”
The symbolism here—the grassroots movement, halting the momentum of politics as usual—is hard to miss. But the IRL activism speaks, too, to Black Lives Matter’s place in the history of the civil rights movement, and to the dilemmas it is currently navigating as it moves from a hashtag to a bona fide political organization. How does the movement think of itself, and its mission, and its strategy for effecting change? Does it want to work within the political status quo—a two-party affair premised on the notion of strategic frustration and incremental change—or does it want, instead, to disrupt the system from the outside?
It wants both, the movement’s co-founder, Opal Tometi, said at the Washington Ideas Forum on Wednesday. On the one hand, she told The Atlantic’s Scott Stossel, it’s hard to ascribe any monolithic motivation to the movement: True to its grassroots origins, Black Lives Matter is “a decentralized network,” containing multitudes and populated by people and local communities who have their own idea of what Black Lives Matter is and should be.
So, as Tometi explained:
I think where we are at is that we are open to a myriad of strategies and a myriad of tactics. We know that there are some people who will be inspired to work within the system as-is. We’re not going to condemn them or denigrate all those actions. We think that everybody, no matter where you are, no matter what your socioeconomic status is, whatever your job is—you have a duty in this moment in history to take action and stand on the side of people who have been oppressed for generations. And so we think that’s very crystal clear. Whatever means you need to take, we believe that folks should do that.
I think what we’re seeing right now is a crisis of our democracy, and the reality is that these types of actions that we're seeing—the disruptions, the really courageous acts of non-violent civil disobedience that are just taking this country by storm, really—is an effort to call attention to a very real crisis that's happening in our communities. Our communities are reeling from poverty, from unemployment, from discrimination of all sorts and different interactions that they’re having with the law enforcement, and education system, and so on.
And so these actions are actually in order to make very visible what’s taken place—and also to put forth what I would say is a moral dilemma: Let’s demonstrate, illustrate, the ways in which our communities are being undermined time and time again, and make sure that the broader public and those in power choose to stand with us. That’s what these actions are all about.
And I think what’s brilliant and beautiful about the types of courageous actions people are taking, be it around the elections and so on, is that we’re really redefining the political process. In my opinion, this is civic engagement. This is our democratic duty to dissent. If things aren’t working for us, it is our duty to rise up. And that’s what we saw in Ferguson. People were willing to put some skin in the game and say, “Hey, Michael was murdered here. Our lives aren’t mattering.”
We want to make sure that people know about this—there’s a crisis here. I think they were involved, and it’s very much so their right. And I’m just so inspired by the people who are taking action all across the country.
The Negro’s great stumbling block to freedom … is the white moderate who is more devoted to order than justice … who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.”