What a difference a few years can make.
Black Lives Matter, which began in 2013 as a reaction to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer George Zimmerman, has quickly evolved into an umbrella group for modern-day black activism and racial justice movements in general.
From California to the Midwest to the east coast, rallies and protests around police brutality and other enduring issues have all invoked the battle cry of Black Lives Matter – from the streets of black neighborhoods in Baltimore and Ferguson protesting police murder to elite college campuses battling ancient patterns of black disrespect and exclusion.
All the racial justice campaigns that have struggled since the 1960s to find a unifying principle seem to have found one in BLM.
With the growth of BLM, though, has come controversy. For black folks, one key question is leadership. Does Black Lives Matter break the traditional mold of top-down “race” leadership or does it create a new, decentralized model for the digital age?
Media has long painted the movement as a face-off between old and new, with the youth winning: news stories tend to reinforce the idea that BLM is a movement for and about millennials who have recast black activism out of necessity.
The media focuses on a generational gap in black leadership that’s been festering for decades but that’s now in full view – a gap that’s not merely about age but also about movement goals, tactics and demography. (BLM was founded and led by women, some of them gay – a fact that on its face challenges the history of black activism as sustained by straight men.)
Sometimes this view seems legitimate. Last year, all the gaps seemed to come to the fore after an incident at Holman United Methodist Church in which a black town hall meeting with Mayor Eric Garcetti devolved into a clash between him and BLM members who were angry at not being accorded the time and space with the mayor that they’d been promised.
The group staged an impromptu, raucous protest that was noted around the world and largely seen as BLM’s repudiation of the mayor, of traditional black leadership and of a middle-class mindset more concerned with currying favor with elected officials than with raising discomfiting issues of racial justice.
And yet that’s too simple a narrative. The fact is that since BLM’s inception, nearly all black people of all ages and stations support the group’s philosophy and guiding principle of activism and justice. No one, from church-based mainstream leaders like Al Sharpton to BLM co-founder Patrice Cullors, disagrees that black lives must be accorded dignity and value in order for black people to finally achieve justice on a broad scale.
Black people of all generations and job descriptions are in this fight, from the ‘60s veterans to millennial upstarts – an encouraging fact that outweighs the inevitable factionalism over who should be leading that fight.
Dr. Maulana Karenga, founder of a human rights organization called US and creator of Kwaanza, sees the whole discussion about “generationalism” as a red herring.
“With black people, the media likes conflict and disarray,” he says. “I see no gap, I see continuity. Police brutality is an old issue that dates back to the ‘60s, with the Black Panthers and others. The street protests and direct action of Black Lives Matter is from the ’60s, too.”
He adds that women founding and leading freedom movements is not novel either – Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker and Mary McLeod Bethune were but a few.
The difference he does see between then and now is the deliberately decentralized, “leaderless” approach that’s come to define BLM. “I’m not really into leaderless-ness,” he said. “I think there must be discipline and structure for movements to succeed.”
The bigger question for Karenga is whether BLM is a movement at all.
“I would say that it’s a philosophical movement, a PR-campaign for black value and dignity, more so than a movement with specific agenda,” he says. “But it’s not new in that regard either.”
Karenga has a point. In many ways, the self-affirming sentiment of “Black Lives Matter” is nothing more than a continuation of Jesse Jackson’s 1980s slogan “I am somebody,” which is itself an echo of “I Am A Man,” the rallying cry of the striking black sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968. It was during that strike that Dr. Martin Luther King, who was lending his support to the workers, was assassinated.
Veteran rights activist Daniel Johnson argues that today’s Black Lives Matter activists can’t replicate the energy of the movement 50 years ago because young blacks are so far removed from the issues they’re protesting.
By and large, “they have not suffered police brutality. The lack of that kind of experience means that the fight isn’t in their bones,” said Johnson, a former student activist at UCLA who now co-chairs the Alliance for Equal Opportunity and Education.
“I participated in the Mobile [Alabama] bus boycott, and things changed,” he adds. “That was a movement.”
Karenga agrees. “These young people have not lost anything yet, have not been met with [police] violence themselves,” he says. “They won’t get beaten or hosed or set upon with dogs. They’re protesting violence, but not really experiencing it themselves, whereas everybody black in the ’60 felt the sting of Jim Crow.”
Despite the experience gap, BLM has developed into a legitimate campaign that has demanded a response from everyone, from presidential candidates to the White House itself.
Last fall, women leaders from BLM met with Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett. The group reportedly got encouragement from Obama, the black president who has been infamously leery of aligning himself directly with black issues. The president’s message: “Keep speaking truth to power.”
The blessing bestowed by the first black president who has deliberately sat on the sidelines of racial issues suggests a new model of leadership in which mainstream black figures – especially elected officials – don’t lead, but support.
It’s worth noting that BLM is the force behind the current crisis of Jackie Lacey, the first black district attorney who is being publicly pressured to bring charges against an LAPD officer who fatally shot a black man in Venice last May.
At this point, it appears that traditional black leadership is working with BLM, or at least with its message, and even those not working with the group ultimately can’t ignore it.
From BLM’s standpoint, its call to revive black activism while consciously making that activism more inclusive of women, gays and others dovetails nicely with the LGBT rights movement. But make no mistake: its focus is black folks.
“Black Lives Matter… centers [on] those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements,” it explains on its website. “It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.”
That rebuilding, we can all agree, is a very good thing.