Taking part in any form of social or political activism can be a tremendously complicated, time consuming, and daunting undertaking. Protestors may face arrest depending when and where they stage protests, and they can face assaults when they draw the wrath of others who dislike the fact that they’re protesting at all. Additionally, governments, and institutions that are the subjects of protests are often extremely slow to respond, if indeed they feel compelled to respond at all. Compounding these inherent difficulties, is the fact that in an era of virtually instantaneous communication and twenty-four-hour news cycles, deliberately unscrupulous reporting can be utilized and propagated for the specific purpose of attempting to undermine the objectives of any given protest. Thus that same access to instantaneous communication also confers enormous benefits to activists and protesters, who can effectively harness the potential of the technology at their disposal; but utilizing technology effectively means more than simply mobilizing protests and protesters.
For decades now African Americans have been subject to the disproportionately negative effects of institutionalized racism. That lingering feeling of systematic injustice, reached another boiling point in the wake of the 2013 shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, and Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal by a jury. In the wake of that shooting, thousands of African Americans decided that it was time to take to the streets and rightfully protest the apparent institutional disregard of their rights as well as those of their families, and those of their communities. In the wake of countless deaths of unarmed men and women, those who were fed up with the seemingly inevitable outcome of acquittals following the deaths of unarmed people, began a protest movement with the Twitter hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.
In the United States, systemic racism has long been a persistent and deeply immoral part of its institutional structure; and one whose roots stretch like vines through the passage of time, from the centuries and decades of the past, to well into the present day. The history of institutional racism in the United States is as old as the country
itself. Dating as far back as the Revolutionary War, on through the fight against slavery in the Civil War, into the early 1900s era of unofficial slavery known as sharecropping, to Jim Crow, and the War on Drugs today; the specter of legislatively enforced policies of racism have long been a routine staple of the American Experience for African Americans.
Between 1970 through 2005, the number of people incarcerated in the United States increased by an astronomical 700%. Largely in part due to the so called War on Drugs, of those 700% represented by the increase in incarceration, the vast and overwhelmingly statistical majority were blacks. Today African Americans represent only 30% of the population but comprise nearly 60% of those behind bars. Today we live in a nation where one in every 106 white men will serve time in prison; compared to one in every 36 Hispanics, and one in every 15 African Americans. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this disparity is also reflected in the poverty rate, which shows that 27.4% of African Americans live in poverty compared to 26.6% for Hispanics, and 9.9% for Whites. (1)
These numbers represent uncomfortable facts for those who would pretend that all forms of institutionalized racism ended, as if by magic, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Unfortunately, reality has a way of intruding and forcing even the most deliberately oblivious into facing uncomfortable truths. Another one of those uncomfortable truths, is that today in the United States; any African American child under the age of six has a near 46% chance, almost one in two, of being born into poverty. (2) By almost every single statistical metric, American society and its institutions by and large, even in 2016, still seem by every statistical metric to be rigged unjustly against African Americans.
Black Lives Matter arose as a direct attempt to oppose, protest, and draw attention to the glaringly institutionalized mistreatment of African Americans by both police and the criminal justice system. The efforts made in attempting to draw attention to the disparate treatment of African Americans by law enforcement on behalf of Black Lives Matter have been very successful. Today more than ever people are aware of the injustices perpetuated against African Americans by police as a matter of policy. In this regard Black Lives Matter has been enormously successful in spreading awareness; unfortunately, however, it like other substantively based protests of the 21st century, is not without a seemingly fundamental flaw. Disorganization.
The initial goal of Black Lives Matter movement was to protest the treatment of African Americans by law enforcement, and to protest their overwhelming representation in an unjust system of incarceration. However Black Lives Matter is today, plagued by a fundamental problem that seems to be endemic among protest movements in the 21st century. That problem is principally, a fundamental lack of organization and an authoritative leadership structure; and the inability of that leadership to focus the groups collective power towards a set of specific and achievable goals.
For every great example of Black Lives Matter protesters staging a meaningful protest either in support of their initial objective, or in solidarity with other marginalized peoples; there is another example of some group of self-proclaimed Black Lives Matter protesters deliberately disrupting events designed to offer recognition of other marginalized groups or people, or to serve as a rallying call for another significant social problem. It seems that instead of attempting to build consensus with other marginalized groups in the hopes of achieving a common goal, the absence of leadership and disorganization inherent within the Black Lives Matter movement has led to numerous situations in which people carrying the BLM banner have taken to protesting, and even seeking to silence those with whom they could form powerful alliances.
I can speak from personal experience when it comes to witnessing the power of an angry but disorganized group of protestors abandon the opportunity to make allies personally. In 2011, I took part in the Occupy Atlanta protests in Woodruff Park. Initially the sight of hundreds of people of varied backgrounds and ethnicities gathering in a public park to discuss the political problems caused by increasing wealth inequality was one of the most exciting and energizing things I’d ever experienced as a young man, and my first foray into political protests. But during my tenure at the Occupy protests, I got to bare witness to one of the single most self-destructive and self-defeating instances of political activism gone awry.
In October of 2011, I sat with two of my friends among other protesters at the southwest end of Woodruff Park when it was announced that Representative John Lewis, the former chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee during the Civil Rights Movement had come down from the Capital in the hopes of addressing the protesters. As with all decisions in Occupy protests, any change or deviation from the groups daily procedures had to be decided by a vote. When it was announced that John Lewis had arrived to speak to the crowd, the response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. But then something happened that would become a metaphor for the failure of Occupy Atlanta, and the failure of the Occupy movement more broadly.
As John Lewis stood there quietly and patiently waiting for the vote to pass, that would allow him to take the floor and address the assembly, a lone voice of dissent spoke up in protest against the motion. That voice belonged to a 24 year old self-aggrandizing Ph.D student named Joe Diaz. Joe had suddenly decided that his interpretation of the egalitarian intent of the rules, was far more important than allowing one the most experienced successful civil rights activists in American history, speak to the assembly on the subject of political activism. In the minutes that followed, the crowd proceeded to get tangled in a net of its own bureaucratic making regarding its own rules; and then sitting in a park in Atlanta, surrounded by streets named after Civil Rights Movement leaders, the crowd voted to prevent one from speaking.
A similar event happened in August 2015, when two co-founders of the Seattle chapter of Black Lives Matter rushed a stage in Seattle, at a scheduled event for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. The crowd who had waited hours to hear the candidate speak, was understandably displeased and began to boo. Following the boos, Marissa Johnson then said “Now that you’ve covered yourself in your white supremacist liberalism, I will formally welcome Bernie Sanders to Seattle.” (3) After holding a moment of silence for Michael Brown, she refused to let Senator Sanders speak. Here were two African-American women interrupting a scheduled speech for a presidential candidate, who was actually arrested while chained to a black woman to protest segregated housing in Chicago during the Civil Rights Movement, who marched with the SNCC, and arguably the most vocal presidential proponent of reforming the criminal justice system; and they were accusing him and supporters of being white supremacists. The irony was astounding.
It happened again in Columbia, Missouri, when less than a week after the Pulse nightclub shooting, a self-appointed Black Lives Matter activist named Tiffany Melecio, disrupted a vigil for the victims of the shooting; and chastised those in attendance, without any evidence whatsoever, of not supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, and caring more about the LGBT community than the black community (4). The damage instances of disruption like this can do to the credibility of a social movement and the activists behind it cannot be understated. Not only are they incredibly divisive and insensitive; but they provide endless ammunition for those who seek to undermine the movements objectives and maintain the status quo. A task that is made even easier when there is no cohesive ideology to criticize.
In 1966, the black community of Oakland, California was still enduring routine instances of police brutality and discrimination, well over two years after the hard fought passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The conditions were such that two black men named Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, decided to form an organization, with the specific intention of taking a more militant and proactive approach to ensuring that the rights of African-Americans weren’t being ignored by the Oakland police. They called their organization The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
Unlike the SNCC and CORE, who championed the tactic of non-violent civil disobedience, the Black Panthers devised a tactic that would be highly visible to police, and one that did not preclude the use of violence as a means of self-defense. Newton had studied the open-carry laws of the state of California, and suggested a technique that would later be called “Copwatch”, in which the Black Panthers would arm themselves, and follow the police around local black communities to ensure that African-Americans weren’t treated unfairly by the police. That’s exactly what the Black Panthers did; when, in September 1966, an unarmed black sixteen year old named Matthew Johnson, was shot in the back and killed by a San Francisco police officer. (5) Similar incidents would follow, and at each one the Black Panthers would stage rallies in which participants were encouraged to arrived armed.
By May of 1967, the sight of Black Panthers patrolling with legal weapons had become so common that the California State Assembly sought to outlaw the public carrying of loaded weapons. Knowing that they likely wouldn’t be allowed to carry their weapons for much longer, the Black Panther leadership saw the session as an opportunity to generate publicity. So on May 2nd, 1967, twenty six armed members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, walked onto the grounds of the California State Capitol, and marched into the State Assembly Chamber while it was in session, with Governor Ronald Reagan in attendance, to protest the passage of the Mulford Act. Five Black Panthers were arrested and charged with misdemeanors for the their participation, but the publicity from that single incident, enormously increased turnout and party membership, and ensured that from that moment on the Black Panther Party was invited to speak whenever other protest groups gathered.
While it might seem obvious, it’s worth noting that today, thanks to the internet; it is easier than at any point in human history to mobilize a massive group of people for participation in public protest. Although, mobilization is only half the battle; the open and unhindered ability of people to communicate via the internet, gives activists the ability to reach out to thousands upon thousands of likeminded individuals. But abundant communication is not without its own set of unique disadvantages, particularly when it comes to organization. More and more, the lack of leadership governing some of the largest protests of the early 21st century make them look less like social movements, and more like social protest franchises.
Because there is no centralized leadership governing Black Lives Matter, just as there wasn’t with Occupy Wall Street, anyone with any ideological objective can stand in front of a crowd and claim to speak on the behalf of the entire movement; and there is no figure of authority within the movement to claim otherwise or discredit their statements. Similarly, the lack of leadership means that the decision to stage protests is always left up to loosely affiliated individuals, who may not always conduct protests in ways that are beneficial to the group as a whole. Most importantly, the absence of leadership virtually guarantees a steadily broadening generalization of the movements goals, accompanied by steadily declining focus on the manner and methods by which those goals are achieved.
The Civil Rights Movement, The Labor Movement, The Black Power Movement, and Women’s Suffrage did not forge their way into United States history and create social progress, by simply creating a brand with vague emotional appeal and allowing others to use it. They staged protests carefully and deliberately, in such a way that the protests would maximize positive exposure, and highlight the hypocrisy of an unjust system. Likewise, the protest movements of the 20th century had strong and focused leadership, comprised of people in specific organizations who tirelessly worked together in close coordination and constant communication, to achieve specific measurable objectives; and the people responsible for achieving those objective knew they needed to build unity and consensus, and not further division to achieve them.
The astonishing rate at which protest movements can now spread, necessitates the presence of clear objectives and protest tactics that can be disseminated to other chapters toward collective action for a common cause. If these two key components are not present prior to the rapid spread of a protest movement, the end result is almost always an inevitable accumulation of increasingly ambiguous and tenuously related objectives. Even worse without clear and decisive leadership, other groups of people may decide to self-appoint themselves as speaking on behalf of the movement in a given city, and then stage protests or demonstrations that are unrelated to the groups stated objectives, or worse in plain contradiction of them. In the absence of guidance or leadership of any kind, even the most well intentioned protests can turn into sporadic and disconnected wild fires, when what is needed to address systemic injustice is a concentrated conflagration, set upon the foundations that support it. That is the fundamental flaw in franchising social action.
1) Kerby, Sophia. “The Top 10 Most Startling Facts About People of Color and Criminal Justice in the United States.” American Progress. Center for American Progress, 13 Mar. 2012. Web. 28 June 2016.
2) “The State of Working America Key Numbers: Poverty.” The State of Working America. Economic Policy Institute, n.d. Web. 28 June 2016. Creative Commons License.
3) Helsel, Phil. “Black Lives Matter Activist Disrupt Bernie Sanders Speech.” NBC News.com. N.p., 10 Aug. 2015. Web. 28 June 2016.
4) Griswold, Alex. “Mizzou Orlando Vigil Gets Completely Derailed After Activist Denounces White Attendees.” Mediaite.com. Dan Abrams, 15 June 2016. Web. 28 June 2016.
5) Editorial Staff, SNCC “Hunters Point – Cops Shot Into Community Center Sheltering 200 Children.” The Movement 2.9 (1966): 1-2. University of California, San Diego, Library. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Web. 30 June 2016.