It would be tempting to say the timing was surreal, if it didn’t happen so often.
Less than an hour after the close of last weekend’s conference of Black Lives Matter activists, attendees were pepper-sprayed by a Cleveland transit police officer while they were protesting the arrest of a 14-year-old boy.
The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) Convening at Cleveland State University brought together more than 1,000 activists and organizers from across the U.S., and even from other countries. Nearly one year after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the goal of the convening was to provide a space for the activists to mourn the loss of those killed by police, to show support for one another, to demonstrate pride in their community, and to begin developing a strategy for a movement that had burgeoned exponentially during that time.
There are conflicting reports over why the 14-year-old had been detained—some witnesses said it was over an alleged open container at a bus stop, and that the teen was thrown to the ground and handcuffed. Protesting the arrest, M4BL attendees crowded around the police cars, demanding the teenager be released and removed from handcuffs. The pepper spray used against the peaceful protesters was an unfortunate validation of the weekend’s message.
Nonetheless, their protest ultimately compelled the police to release the teenager—an affirmation of the Black Lives Matter activists’ belief in the efficacy of their actions. And if the past weekend and events like the protest at Netroots Nation the weekend before are any indication, those activists are showing no signs of slowing down.
“We’re not going to shut up.”
On July 18 in Phoenix, a group of activists at Netroots Nation interrupted a presidential forum with Democratic candidates Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders. Calling on the candidates to offer substantive policy solutions for addressing police brutality, the women protesters shouted, “Say her name!”—a reference to all the black women killed by police, including Sandra Bland, who had been pulled over the week before for a minor traffic infraction and then died while in police custody.
They were voicing a common concern among many black progressives: The Democratic Party was taking their votes for granted.
Opal Tometi, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, had helped plan the Netroots action. “We were really concerned that [violence against black citizens] wasn’t even part of the mainstream conversation at this large, progressive convening,” Tometi told the Prospect. “We know that it’s happening to black women and black men, and we can’t imagine that we live in a day and age where our progressive community isn’t taking on these issues of racial justice.”
“I couldn’t imagine that we’d have this type of platform and opportunity and space and not take advantage of it,” she added. “We had to do something.”
The action at Netroots drew the disapproval of a fair number of white progressives, who insisted the protest was unnecessary, disrespectful, or even ineffectual. But if the shifts of the Democratic campaigns in the week and a half since are any indication, those protesters’ seizing of the stage seems to have worked.
O’Malley issued an apology for his comment that “All lives matter,” which activists found dismissive, and Hillary Clinton, who was not at Netroots Nation, took to social media immediately to affirm her commitment to the movement. Sanders’s campaign moved to damage control, scheduling meetings with black activists, and Sanders specifically addressed racial injustice in a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Time reported that Democracy For America, Howard Dean’s one-million-member network of progressive activists, announced a change to its endorsement criteria: Candidates’ proposals for addressing racism would now be among its central determining factors.
M4BL organizer Malaya Davis, of the Ohio Student Association, said she doesn’t have much faith in the Democratic Party, but believes in the efforts to get candidates to pay a more attention. “At this point, I don’t think they have a choice,” Davis said. “Because we’re not going to shut up about it.”
“This movement has completely transformed how police brutality is understood, that it’s not isolated, it’s systemic,” said Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a professor of African American studies at Princeton University, during a discussion of the 2016 election at the conference. She added that the movement’s campaign “has been a lot more effective than all the candidates who are now running to catch up. And I would include Obama in that.”
Conference activists also stressed the effectiveness of small-scale organizing and grassroots strategies. Founded by three women (Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi), Black Lives Matter is a fast-growing, decentralized network of about 30 chapters, and includes small activist organizations and even individuals across the country who embrace its message.
Activists at the convening used the weekend to learn from other attendees what was working in their communities, and the organization’s dispersed leadership is seen as a virtue by its members. “I don’t think it presents challenges,” said Waltrina Middleton of Cleveland Action, who helped organize the M4BL convening, “because we’re here.” The diffuse organizational structure of Black Lives Matter is reflective of the fact that so many progressive victories are happening on the local or state level, from paid sick leave and drug policy reform to universal pre-K—and, of course, raised minimum wages. Indeed, the 2016 election discussion centered on local efforts rather than national campaigns.
Police brutality aimed at blacks and other people of color is, of course, nothing new. The attention it has received in recent years can be traced to the 2012 killing of teenager Trayvon Martin, and the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown lent renewed urgency to the protests. But the rise of Black Lives Matters has also coincided with the rise of other campaigns for economic justice—primarily led by people of color, too—and those campaigns have frequently come together.
Indeed, the Fight-for-15 effort that has demanded better pay for low-wage workers across the country has been intertwined with the Black Lives Matter from the beginning. In September 2014, Ferguson activists joined fast-food workers in New York City for a protest; in April of this year, Fight for 15 staged a die-in in front of a McDonald’s to protest racial injustice.
“It’s impossible to organize fast-food and low-wage workers without grappling with the massive movement happening around the murder of black men and women across the country at the hands of police,” said Jonathan Westin, the executive director of New York Communities for Change (NYCC). NYCC, along with other groups such as the Service Employees International Union, was one of the organizers of the first Fast-Food Forward strike in November 2012.
“The majority of workers at these jobs are people of color,” he added. “It cannot be separated; it’s their everyday lives.”
Multiple workshops and panel discussions at the M4BL convening emphasized workers’ rights and economic justice. The black activists involved in the struggle for higher wages and a stronger labor movement hope that the larger labor and economic justice organizations place more of an emphasis on the fact that the beneficiaries of minimum-wage hikes and paid-sick-day legislation are disproportionately women and people of color.
“Black women [are] sitting at the nexus of almost every social ill that exists in our country, particularly economically,” said Kimberly Freeman Brown, president of the KFB Consulting firm. “If black women and their economic well-being isn’t at the center of our strategy, you’re not serious about economic justice. It has to be the litmus test by which we not only measure how well our economy is doing, but how well our work on economic justice is going.”
Brown was the author of the report “And Still I Rise,” which profiled 27 black women labor leaders, including Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Brown says that those women, and other leaders like them, “need to be a part of the labor movement’s decision-making on how it allocates its resources and organizes itself.”
She co-led a discussion on economic justice with Marc Bayard of the Institute for Policy Studies, who was project director for the report, and with Sean Thomas-Breitfeld of the Building Movement Project. Bayard and Thomas-Breitfeld also contributed to a report called “Black Workers Matter.”
“I think that we, black people, know that we aren’t going to be able to have economic and racial equality and justice without a strong organizing structure and organizing capacity,” said Thomas-Breitfeld.
The first step, said Bayard, is to understand that an issue doesn’t have to apply to white men for it to be considered an economic injustice. Fees for traffic violations and other minor citations that target the wallets of black citizens, discrimination against former felons—these are just some examples that were outlined in another conference workshop. The success of Fight for 15 illustrates the power of mobilizing black workers, said Bayard, but this is not sufficiently acknowledged. “What’s missing in these conversations about the Fight for 15 is obvious in all these photographs. It’s black and brown and primarily women in any photograph you see, whether it be in Milwaukee, New York City, or South Carolina. … It seems as if black people are hiding in plain sight.”
Bayard added that elevating black leaders and voices is not just right—it’s strategic. “When [labor] is talked about in the context of race, like in North Carolina where Reverend [William] Barber is really active in the Fight for 15, it gets even more momentum,” he said. “It’s even more fuel. I think in some ways we’re also trying to push our own progressive allies to really acknowledge the racial elements of these issues. Because you’re not going to win without doing it.”
One Rule: Inclusion
In terms of strategy, Black Lives Matter organizers also recognize the importance of an intersectional approach with issues of immigrant rights. According to the Economic Policy Institute, an increase in the minimum wage would disproportionately benefit people of color, especially Latino workers, and Opal Tometi emphasizes the need to work closely with immigrant-rights groups and avoid being pitted against such communities in a “fight for pennies.”
“I see the immigrant-rights movement and the Black Lives Matter movement as joining forces,” said Tometi, who is also the executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI). “At the same time, I think there are people like black immigrants who live at the intersection of both. I ultimately see there being an incredible opportunity for people of color more broadly having fair wages and a dignified living that doesn’t undermine or undercut any of the communities.”
Jonathan Westin, of NYCC, cited prison reform as one example of the connection between racial justice and immigrant rights. “The detention of undocumented folks is seen as the same unjust incarceration of people of color all across the country.”
BAJI works closely with immigrant-rights groups like Puente Arizona and Families for Freedom. “We’ve been working with them for over a decade,” Tometi said, “so we have very real relationships with people in these other movements.” By working with other local, grassroots groups, the network of racial justice advocates can elevate their issues to the national level. “Some people need better microphones,” Bayard said, which a cross-country network can provide.
In that respect, the M4BL convening offered the estimated 1,200 attendees an opportunity to amplify their voices. They represented scores of organizations, from nascent neighborhood-based nonprofits to the SEIU and NAACP. The only “rule” governing the conference seemed to be that all work had to be inclusive. Transgender attendees were granted significant time on the main stage to outline the unique discrimination they face and the shortcomings they experienced at the conference, and event organizers seemed to make a genuine effort to address the concerns of the LGBT community. Unlike some civil rights groups of years past, Black Lives Matter seems to place greater stress on the importance of including LGBT rights in their activism and acknowledge a group that has long been at the forefront of the fight for racial and social justice.
Some goals of the Black Lives Matter organization are already known, such as better public and mental health services, an end to police militarization, and support for the End Racial Profiling Act. But Tometi said that leaders and organizers will be developing more concrete tactics and action plans in the next few weeks. The convening, said Tometi, “was an opportunity to touch base with one another, to build and form our strategies, figure out what’s working and what’s not, go back to the drawing board and continue experimenting with new strategies to develop our leadership, to build our power, and to change our society.”