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?