“It’s terrible, but I don’t think it’s anything different than what’s been happening in this country for a long time. This hatred has been normal for a while, it’s just been in the shadows,” Alicia Garza, one of the co-founders of #BlackLivesMatter, an organization that shares a name with the movement it helps support, said in an interview.
The challenge, for the movement, is to stem the tide of violence against black men and women while working to fix what activists believe is a fragmented and broken society. It’s an ambition that won’t be easily achieved. But as the movement evolves and expands, it has forced change.
Over the summer, activists began publicly, and unapologetically, disrupting presidential candidates at events and campaign rallies. The strategy got results. Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley rushed to release detailed criminal-justice platforms after high-profile clashes with Black Lives Matter activists. In August, Hillary Clinton convened a meeting with activists who showed up at a New Hampshire campaign event intending to disrupt it.
The confrontations signaled the start of increasingly high-profile political engagement for the decentralized movement. They also laid bare the complicated and tense relationship between the movement and the progressive left. Liberal Americans often assume that voting Democratic and espousing a belief in equality are adequate proofs of solidarity in the fight against racism. In the past year, Black Lives Matter challenged that idea.
Some progressives questioned the logic of targeting politicians who claim to be sympathetic to the cause. What that criticism seemed to miss is that the confrontations were designed to push candidates further than they had been prepared to go. The protests were also a reminder to progressives that simply believing in something isn’t sufficient to change the status quo.
“Part of what we need people to understand is that their silence, their complicity, is part of the problem,” said Ashley Yates, a Black Lives Matter activist who helped plan and carry out a protest at Netroots Nation, a conference where Sanders and O’Malley were slated to speak in July. “There’s an absurd quality to the idea of people telling you to be calm and controlled in your pain. To whisper quietly as you’re being killed.”
As Black Lives Matter becomes increasingly intertwined with mainstream politics, activists have found people in high places ready and willing to listen to their demands. But that creates new challenges, as activists attempt to engage with a political system they want to change without compromising or capitulating.
“It would be naive not to realize that there is some kind of desire for mutual benefit when candidates agree to sit down and speak with us,” said Brittany Packnett, a protester and activist with Campaign Zero, a policy-focused group affiliated with Black Lives Matter, who has met with Sanders and Clinton. “But if we don’t take the fight everywhere we won’t win. It just means we have to be that much more clear about our intentions, hold that much more integrity when we engage in those spaces.”