By Eric K. Arnold
Four days after the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, legendary hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest appeared on Saturday Night Live (SNL). Emcee Q-Tip announced, “Everybody stand up, one fist up in the air!” and proceeded to perform “We The People,” the most overtly-political song of their 26-year career. Tip peeled off some incendiary lines which referenced police brutality—“You be killing off good young brothers.” The song’s chorus took a direct stab at the bigotry aroused during the long Presidential campaign: “All you Black folks, you must go/ All you Mexicans, you must go.”
Post-election, even as much of America doubled down on bigotry or despair, Kamala Harris, California’s newly-elected Senator, offered her own message to immigrant families and communities of color (via her Facebook page): “We are going to come together and build a movement of people who will fight back against hate, xenophobia, racism and sexism.”
These are two of the most powerful recent examples to date of the “BLM Effect”—a willingness for Black people to use whatever platform they have—be it social media, political protests or SNL’s stage—to directly address issues of race and inequality. From everyday people swarming to the site of the latest incident of police murder, to Colin Kaepernick’s protest during the national anthem, the BLM effect is empowering a new generation to challenge the racist practices and institutions.
Birth of a Movement
On July 13, 2013, George Zimmerman was found not guilty by a Florida jury of murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The night of the verdict, Oakland prepared for the worst. Several downtown businesses boarded up their windows in anticipation of property damage—a reasonable assumption, given that protest marches had been frequent occurrences since the murder of Oscar Grant III by a BART policeman on New Year’s Day 2009. Many Oakland residents were pained by another failure of the courts to administer justice, yet tired of hearing police helicopters circling over downtown. As darkness fell, hundreds of protestors took to the streets. Once again, trashcans were set ablaze, anarchist graffiti was sprayed and store windows were broken.
Alicia Garza, a community organizer with the National Alliance of Domestic Workers, watched the verdict on TV from a local bar. Logging into Facebook, she wrote a long post which ended with, “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” Garza’s friend, prison-reform activist Patrisse Cullors, commented “#blacklivesmatter” on Garza’s post. Cullors started tagging friends’ Facebook walls with the hashtag; others did the same, and it quickly went viral.
The next day, Solespace, a downtown art gallery, offered a safe place for traumatized people to express themselves constructively, by making art. Garza spent her afternoon writing the slogan on sheets of colored paper over and over again. Afterwards, Garza, Cullors and another activist-organizer friend, Opal Tometi, announced through social media they had decided to form a new organizing project, called Black Lives Matter (BLM).
More than three years later, BLM has grown from a hashtag into a full-fledged, yet oft-misconstrued, movement. In August of 2014, following the murder by police of Mike Brown, Black Lives Matter organizers put together a bus tour to bring 600 Black community activists to assist with on-the-ground efforts in Ferguson and St. Louis. Their direct solidarity with Ferguson networks of young African Americans brought BLM into national prominence. The movement gained further momentum in 2015, when the first-ever National Convening of the Movement for Black Lives in Cleveland was attended by more than 2,000 “freedom fighters.”
Journalist Jamilah King, then a staff writer for Colorlines, covered BLM extensively during its early days. Her reportage helped demystify a movement which seemed to come out of nowhere and identified BLM’s cofounders as three Black women who were grounded in progressive social justice circles. In a 2014 Colorlines article written by King, Garza explained how the movement’s focus extended beyond the outcome of one legal case, toward a larger vision of making Black lives matter through effecting transformative change: “What’s going to make those lives matter is working hard for an end to state violence in Black communities, knowing that that’s going to benefit all communities.”
BLM has been at the forefront of what’s frequently been called a new Civil Rights movement, infusing fresh urgency into discussions around race in America. In 2015, BLM was a runner-up for Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” award, and Garza has gone on to give TED talks. The social media hashtag has become a global network with more than 40 BLM chapters worldwide. BLM is one of 28 organizations in the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) coalition of 28 affiliated organizations, which has issued a platform for Black liberation, and numerous policy briefs outlining necessary steps in that direction. Endorsers of M4BL include Color of Change, Race Forward, Brooklyn Movement Center, PolicyLink, Million Women March Cleveland, ONE DC and dozens of other organizations.
Shifting Pop Culture Toward Consciousness
“Black Lives Matter is arguably a more powerful cultural movement than it is a political one,” suggests King. “I say that because you have these moments in pop culture [where] we’ve seen the biggest shift: Kendrick Lamar at the Grammys, Solange [Knowles] releasing her album.... Those are really incredible moments [that] people are talking about.”
Nowadays, King says, “you can’t not talk about race publicly on a huge platform.” In 2015, singer Janelle Monae’s BLM-inspired song, “Hell You Talmbout” recalled the social protest anthems of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s; Monae followed up by joining with local community organizers against police violence during every stop on her national tour. The awakening of R&B singers extended to J. Cole and D’Angelo, while dozens of politically-conscious underground rappers—from St. Louis’ Tef Poe to Chicago’s Lil Herb to Pittsburgh’s Jasiri X to Oakland’s Kev Choice—also felt inspired to make protest songs. In the BLM era, attempts at colorblindness by Black celebrities like Stacy Dash and Lil’ Wayne have been met with furious clap-backs from their peers and social media commentators alike.
We’ve even witnessed an emergent social and political consciousness coming from star athletes—whose voices have been mostly silent since the late ‘60s—symbolized by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem. Kaepernick subsequently held a youth camp in Oakland called “Know Your Rights” which outlined a racial-justice platform.
In an ESPN interview, Kaepernick related that “[The] spreading of knowledge is happening... you start to break down ignorance, you start to break down some of those prejudices.”
Local Organizing, National Networking
BLM has also impacted conversations within activist circles, King says, adding, “The effect has been cultural and political, and that cultural element has given people a way to talk about race.” Well-intentioned POC [people of color] groups have attempted to insert their own ethnicities into the “___ Lives Matter” slogan, only to be met with swift rebukes.Harsher criticisms have been directed at onerous attempts to redirect BLM’s message, e.g., “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter.”
The movement’s biggest single political action to date may have been the decision, as an organization, not to endorse a candidate in the 2016 presidential election. Yet BLM’s most impressive accomplishment has been the networking, coalition-building and on-the-ground organizing work it’s done to assemble its social justice troops into formation for what’s to come under a Trump presidency.
In the Bay Area, BLM helped organize direct actions like a shutdown of BART on Black Friday and protests held at the Oakland Police Department’s headquarters, but it’s also hosted candidate forums in heavily African American City Council districts. It’s helped to bring police reform efforts into mainstream awareness, resulting in increased political pressure. BLM members were active in the “Frisco 5” protests which directly led to the forced resignation of San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr; a Department of Justice report on the SFPD subsequently found “numerous indicators of implicit and institutionalized bias against minority groups,” and made 272 specific recommendations for reform.
BLM’s national actions include lending organizational assistance to direct-action efforts in cities across America; disruption of the Republican National Convention and presidential debates; and most recently, on the ground mobilizing around the efforts to stop a proposed pipeline threatening a Sioux reservation in Standing Rock, North Dakota. Many BLM members are veteran community organizers who have long been involved in issues, such as immigration rights, affordable housing, police accountability, prison reform, medical cannabis, economic equity, media justice, gender identity and other interconnected issues which all relate to the Black experience in America.
BLM has garnered praise from Barack Obama—even though Garza criticized his State of the Union Address—yet it’s also been the target of considerable backlash. Right-wing pundits have labeled it a terrorist organization. Others have taken issue with its queer-friendly focus—Garza’s husband is transgender, and BLM has been outspoken about violence against the Black queer community. BLM’s critics have included both expected sources like Fox News and Breitbart flacks, and the unexpected: NAACP leaders complaining about direct action tactics; and former Black Panther Chairperson Elaine Brown, who accused BLM of having a “plantation mentality.”
BLM takes a strategic approach regarding disinformation, says Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice, and a member of BLM’s communications team. As Cyril explains, “We know disorganized truth can be overcome by a well-organized lie. Sometimes, we simply don’t respond, to not give the lies credibility. Sometimes, we put out press releases and statements to correct inaccuracies. But mostly, we try to build a powerful counter-narrative. We communicate, strategically, as part of a larger strategy for change. But we are up against a powerful disinformation campaign driven by historic national commitment to white supremacy, so we take it one day at a time.”
Panther Parallels, People Power
Numerous points of connection between BLM and the Black Panthers suggest a historical continuum is at play. It’s no coincidence that both the Panthers and BLM originated in Oakland, or that the Panthers’ Ten-Point Program demanded freedom, full education, a jail moratorium, and an end to police brutality, while the M4BL’s platform states, “We demand an end to the criminalization, incarceration, and killing of our people.” Such apparent similarities explain why many see BLM’s emergence as part of the Panther legacy. Conversely, BLM’s existence has affirmed the continued relevance of the Panthers.
“People are feeling the conversation about race and justice, not only in the presidential election, but also in the era of Black Lives Matter,” says Rene de Guzman, curator of a recent Oakland Museum of California exhibit. “All Power to the People: The Black Panthers at 50.” In addition to archival material, and recent photographs of more than 100 rank-and-file former Panthers, the exhibit featured a video installation of BLM activist Cat Brooks speaking, driving the point home about the BLM/BPP connection.
The Panthers’ legacy, Cyril says, is “one of brilliant Black militancy and also deep fracture and suffering. As a Panther Cub, I’ve been shaped by both. Today, as a member of the Black Lives Matter Network specifically and the Movement for Black Lives in general, I see tons of similarities between the two organizations—and some important differences.”
According to Cyril, “Both organizations were birthed by organic intellectuals whose love for Black people and all oppressed people is unwavering. Both organizations seek alliances across the lines of difference and make every attempt to embrace and engage all Black people, but especially those pushed to the margins of society. Both organizations have an internationalist approach, both (in different ways) value and uphold the leadership of women, and both have made a unique commitment to rejecting homophobia as a principle and a practice. Both have a critical and clear commitment to the concept of Black Power, as articulated by Kwame Ture [aka Stokely Carmichael]. Also, both were/are under attack by the FBI and local police and under constant and illegal surveillance for democratically-protected activities.”
Cyril is careful to note that “these organizations... didn’t emerge in the same political context and shouldn’t be expected to mirror each other. The Black Panther Party emerged after several decades of decolonization movements in the global South, including the independence of Cuba. BLM emerged after three decades of neoliberal attack on the Black communities of the US, specifically decimating national and global movements, a massive expansion of the prison system, and a systematic destruction of public education.”
Hodari Davis, organizer of Oakland’s annual Life Is Living festival—held in DeFremery Park, a former Panther stronghold in West Oakland—points out that “the Panthers didn’t have hashtags. They didn’t have social media. They weren’t able to Tweet their story.” Still, he says, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” reminds him of Panther slogans like “Black is Beautiful,” which he says had a “profound” impact on him as a child.
For Cyril, some of the takeaways from the Panther experience reflect a more evolved view of social equality and civil rights: “The lessons we must learn are how to not allow patriarchy, heterosexism and internalized racism to become the fracture points that open the door to FBI surveillance and COINTELPRO-style activities. These weaken movements and threaten them as well.”
The specter of state-sponsored repression has indeed loomed large over every would-be revolutionary uprising since the Panther days. The tools of oppression, however, have only gotten more sophisticated over the decades; the fire hoses of Bull Connor’s time have been updated by mobile sonic disruptors and portable cellphone signal-collecting devices.
Different Day, Same Movement
Ultimately, both BLM and the Panthers are part “of one movement: the movement for Black liberation,” Cyril says. “It’s a continuation of the resistance that Black people have been engaged in since the first slave revolt,” adds Brooks.
Similarly, Brooks says, “Direct action is not new to this moment in time. The Freedom Rides were a form of direct action. The lunch counter sit-ins were a form of direct action. The Montgomery bus boycott was direct action. All of those things interrupted business as usual.... You can’t uphold those [actions] and then call those of us who shut down freeways or BART trains or presidential debates troublemakers.”
While BLM is “not your grandfather’s Civil Rights Movement,” Brooks says, the economic reality for Black people in America means the movement must revisit what the Panthers called “survival programs.” Some communities of color, she explains, don’t engage in political activism because of pressing economic hardships, like paying electricity bills, or grappling with rising rents and eviction notices. That’s why, Brooks maintains there’s also a need “to be articulating and advocating for policies that make it less oppressive to live in this country.”
BLM may be many things to many people, but one thing it has consistently been is a wake-up call. Most people are unaware, as Davis points out, that the Panthers’ membership was two-thirds female. When museums curate exhibits on BLM five decades from now, there should be no denying that Black women and queer folks were at the forefront of the movement. As King notes, that would be a key pivot from the downplaying of queer Civil Rights-era figures like Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker, who are rarely mentioned in the same breath as Dr. King and Malcolm X.
Eric K. Arnold is a contributing editor to Race, Poverty & the Environment and the founder of oakulture.com.