Even our harmless burg of Weehawken, New Jersey, has had its Black Lives Matter/George Floyd vigils—two, in fact, one held in Hamilton Park and the other along the wide boulevard that runs atop the palisades—with our eternal mayor, Richard Turner, making his face-masked political rounds from one physically distanced group to another, various police officers and elected officials kneeling and signs of every size and shape and syllable.
I’m not sure where to go next in this essay since the thing that has struck me most over the past weeks of protests and the reactions they have triggered is how uninspired I have been by their energy and earnestness and the rightness of their cause. As I dig into my unsparked response, I’ve realized that though I am impressed by the energy and earnestness of those who have taken to the streets (and the communal experiment in Seattle intrigues me), I’m suspect about the “rightness of the cause,” at least as it’s voiced by Black Lives Matter (BLM) and purports to carry BLM’s objectives forward.
The About BLM section on the group’s website is an intellectual mess. BLM is a “collection of liberators” running an “inclusive and spacious movement” that, at the same time, restricts its efforts to helping only “ALL Black lives striving for liberation,” and further confines “Black lives” to mean “Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum”—whatever that means.
BLM also disqualifies any prior Black nationalism or Black liberation movements as having been “narrow” efforts that have “marginalized” their adherents (take that, Huey Newton and Fred Hampton!). BLM’s antidotal institution-building effort is “a movement that brings all of us to the front”—again, whatever that means.
Perhaps none of this matters—after all, who gives any credence to the “About Us” section on any website, a place filled with what webmaster Steve Krug calls “happy talk”?
But then, when you’re receiving grants from major philanthro-capitalists like the Ford Foundation and a sudden avalanche of large corporations want to ride on your train, your business in the world very much matters. BLM does have, hidden under its ornamentation of identity politics and gender affirmations and odes to “Black imagination and innovation, and centering Black joy,” a very hardcore mission: “to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes [and create] a world where Black lives are no longer systematically targeted for demise.”
This is language I can hang on to: clear, bold, limited in scope, anchored in evidence and having a metric for success and accountability.
But it is not the program for social and political liberation that BLM thinks it is (and that conservatives fear it is) because what BLM does is being done within the confines of acceptable protest—acceptable, that is, to those that push the levers of power and acceptably confined within the golden cage of celebrity and status.
Contrast “About BLM” to the words of Fred Hampton, deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party, in a 1969 speech about the Party’s goals:
“We got to face some facts. That the masses are poor…and when I talk about the masses, I’m talking about the white masses. I’m talking about the black masses and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too. We’ve got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don’t fight capitalism with no Black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.”
As Amy Sonnie and James Tracy noted in Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power, “the [original] Rainbow Coalition initiated by the Panthers united poor white, Blacks, and Latinos in a ‘vanguard of the dispossessed.’”
For these words and the deeds they inspired, Fred Hampton was assassinated by Chicago police on Dec. 4, 1969. No such targeting will ever be considered for BLM because, unlike the Panthers, who “policed the police” through armed self-defense and provided direct basic services to people who needed them (breakfast programs, screening for sickle cell anemia, legal assistance, to name a few), BLM will work with city hall (i.e., the philanthro-capitalists, the political machers, the C-suite executives) to effect change within the system’s definition of acceptable change, that is, change that does not upend the system but only repairs the fraying margins.
There’s no doubt that life would be better for many people if every agendum on the BLM’s list, along with those of the affiliated Movement for Black Lives, came to pass. Better, but not the fundamental resurrection this country needs.
So, while I am all for people exercising their freedoms in whatever manner of protest they desire, such movements still lack a thorough grounding in the study and analysis of what is really needed to dismantle oppression and exploitation, and because of that, the protests become performances of preferences rather than the first phase of building new institutions for a new world.