How Is Black Lives Matter Winning?

How Is Black Lives Matter Winning?

Minneapolis protesters’ call to #ReleasetheTapes exemplifies the movement’s strategic use of symbolic demands to win in the court of public opinion.

Protesters outside the Minneapolis police union offices, December 3, 2015 (Tony Webster / Flickr)

Over the past month, organizers in the Black Lives Matter-Minneapolis chapter have been demanding information and an investigation into the shooting and killing of twenty-four-year-old Jamar Clark, an unarmed black man. They have asked for the names of police officers involved, an independent federal investigation, and the public release of video footage depicting the shooting. While the officers’ names have been released and a federal investigation is now underway, the fight over the release of the video continues to escalate.

“The demand to release the tapes is one that resonates deeply with the community, as the city of Minneapolis has a culture of violence it is unwilling to address,” said Miski Noor, an organizer with BLM-Minneapolis. “How are we to trust a system that continues to prioritize and benefit from black death, and then hides, alters, or destroys the evidence of such action?”

The latest demand to #ReleaseTheTapes in Minneapolis fits into a pattern of demands by activists organizing under the banner of Black Lives Matter. Some observers claim that if we want to create a world in which black life truly matters, activists will need more specific demands that will have a greater impact. But the movement for black lives has repeatedly shown the strengths of a different kind of strategy.

The demands of the movement so far have been diverse and not necessarily unified. On the one hand, the demand chanted on the streets of Ferguson and New York was “simple,” as Johnetta Elzie put it in the New York Times: “Stop killing us.” In late August 2014, the social movement organization Ferguson Action released a long list of demands that went widely unnoticed. Nonetheless Oprah Winfrey and Al Sharpton criticized the movement for failing to articulate clear demands. Calls began to emerge from different sectors of the racial justice movement for body cameras, civilian review boards, and data collection on police shootings. Elzie and Deray McKesson launched Campaign Zero in August 2015 to provide policy proposals for police reform. In September, Alicia Garza of Black Lives Matter and R.L. Stephens of Orchestrated Pulse had a back-and-forth in In These Times, in which Stephens criticized what he perceived to be the primary demand of the movement: asking politicians to utter the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” Garza responded by saying that the point of the exercise wasn’t simply to repeat the phrase, but to “expos[e] where candidates stand as it relates to Black people.” Garza’s rebuttal illustrates how Black Lives Matter’s strategy has operated: its rallying cry is used to dramatize where both the public and those in power stand.

Black Lives Matter’s successful entry into the public consciousness is largely due to their rallying cry. In traditional political organizing demands are often “instrumental” and aimed at a specific policy change. Instrumental demands are chosen based on their winnability within the limitations of an existing political context (a budgetary increase or decrease on a particular issue, for example) or by the benefit offered to a narrowly defined constituency (a union fighting for a neutrality agreement from an employer). While instrumental demands are essential for organizations and their members, they often fail to reach a broader public. The campaign’s terrain is limited to one between an organization and key decision-makers, and the debate can be too technocratic to keep the public’s attention.

But much of the Black Lives Matter movement has chosen a more indirect and symbolic route. Instead of the instrumental approach, movements and large-scale mobilizations often pursue symbolic demands that center the moral crisis at the heart of their struggle. These demands are not framed by their policy impact, but by how they “dramatize for the public the urgent need to remedy an injustice,” write Mark and Paul Engler in their forthcoming book on social movements, This Is an Uprising.

On the whole, the primary demand of Black Lives Matter has been a moral one, as put by both Garza and Elzie: justice for those killed by police officers and an end to police violence in black communities. This is how the media and the public have generally understood the goal of Black Lives Matter. Thousands of people across the country have rallied around this simple idea, causing a dramatic shift in the political climate and public consciousness regarding racial inequality in our country. Before events in Ferguson, 46 percent of Americans believed that more changes were necessary to ensure that blacks and whites had equal rights. After a year of protests, the Washington Post found that 60 percent of Americans think the country needs to change to address racial inequality. Today 53 percent of whites believe changes must be made, compared to just 39 percent in 2014.

The numerous symbolic actions taken by Black Lives Matter—large marches, die-ins, blocking traffic, and even disrupting the speeches of presidential candidates—have shifted public opinion. These high-profile actions have not necessarily focused on receiving a concession from a particular decision-maker, but have instead tried to draw public attention to the issue of racism and compel ordinary people to take action—or at least choose sides.

Because of this change in the political climate, several municipalities have adopted reforms regarding police conduct, community oversight, limited use of force, independent review boards, body cameras, de-escalation training, ending abusive revenue generating practices, and prohibiting police departments from using military weapons. Other racial justice campaigns have also been boosted by the energy generated by Black Lives Matter. Campaigns for the softening of three-strikes laws in California, against the construction of a new jail in Philadelphia, and for “banning the box” that allows employers to see a candidate’s conviction records, all won important victories this year.

Perhaps even more important than the local and state-level changes that have already been implemented, there has been a huge shift in the public conversation regarding race and policing in the United States. All of the major Democratic primary candidates have been pushed to develop more detailed proposals on racial justice than any candidate did in 2008. Foundations and community organizations have launched brand new funding opportunities and grants to fund racial justice projects. And unions like the AFL-CIO and SEIU are talking about the connections between the movements for labor and racial justice. These victories by no means suggest that the battle to end racism in the United States is over. But it is significant that hundreds of thousands of people have been moved to protest in dozens of cities for a demand that symbolizes the worst aspects of racial inequality in this country: black death at the hands of public officials.

How Black Lives Matter Fights in the Court of Public Opinion

After the Black Lives Matter-Minneapolis protestors’ demands for a federal investigation and to release the names of the police officers involved in the shooting were met (a week after protests began), the group shifted to calling for the release of the police video footage. The group launched their #ReleaseTheTapes campaign over three weeks ago as people began a sit-in outside the city’s 4th Precinct headquarters. #ReleaseTheTapes is in keeping with the crucial role that video has played in previous police shootings. By refusing to release the video, authorities in Minneapolis are following a precedent set by their colleagues in Chicago. For a year the city blocked the public release of a video showing the murder of seventeen-year-old Laquan Macdonald, arguing it would interfere with an ongoing investigation. The video was eventually released after pressure from activists and the work of whistleblowers and journalists who pursued Freedom of Information requests. As Jamar Clark’s case heads to a grand jury, the movement powerfully demands that the value of black lives be determined not behind the closed doors of a courtroom, but in the court of public opinion.

After a grand jury failed to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the Staten Island police officer who killed Eric Garner, Buzzfeed national news editor Adam Serwer argued that grand juries often don’t indict cops when they kill because the law empowers officers to use lethal force when they have a “reasonable belief” that a suspect poses an immediate danger. “But it’s not just the beliefs of police that matter,” says Serwer. “It is also the beliefs of the citizens empowered to evaluate their decisions after the fact. And Americans almost always decide that police use of lethal force is reasonable.”

In such a political context, Black Lives Matter’s choice of a simple, moral demand for the release of the video is an attempt to dramatize a much larger issue for the city of Minneapolis and the rest of the country: the police department’s lack of transparency, and the result of the public’s tacit acceptance of lax laws governing police conduct. In Chicago, the demand for the public release of the video of Laquan McDonald and now the video itself has similarly symbolized much of what is wrong with the Chicago Police Department, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, and racial inequality in the city. In Minneapolis, even such a simple demand has elicited harsh police crackdowns on protesters and the shooting of five protesters by white supremacists. The protests have made some of the city’s problems visible to a national audience.

Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota joined protesters last week outside the 4th Precinct, but has since sided with the mayor Betsy Hodges in condemning their occupation. On Monday, Ellison took to Twitter to criticize the activists’ choice of tactics, writing: “Pls read Letter From Birmingham Jail. MLK didn’t just sit on Edmund Pettus Bridge. Moved to 1965 Voting Right Act” and “Trying to focus Grand Jury, engaging DOJ Civil Rights, developing state, fed, local agenda for lasting change.” Ellison finds himself among the many critics of BLM’s strategy and tactics who argue that the movement would better spend its time lobbying politicians or fighting for more specific pieces of legislation.

But BLM-Minneapolis’s strategy—of choosing a symbolic demand designed to win over public opinion on serious moral issues rather than focusing on narrow legislation or detailed policy reforms—follows in a long and important social movement tradition. During British rule in India, for example, Gandhi’s satyagrahis were heavily criticized by the Indian National Congress for choosing to frame the revolt against colonialism around the relatively minor grievance of the salt tax. But the salt tax was a popular issue that dramatized the injustice of British rule for many Indians.

Similarly, most of the well-known campaigns of the civil rights movement were focused on symbolic demands that dramatized the worst abuses of southern segregation. The demands first made to change Montgomery’s racist bus system are all but forgotten today. Civil rights leaders initially used an instrumental approach, proposing a detailed alternative seating plan that did not eliminate discrimination on buses: instead they demanded the employment of black drivers on routes frequented by black passengers, a guarantee of courteous treatment, and that whites be seated from the front to the back while blacks be seated from the back to the front.

“What galvanized the entire African-American community in Montgomery—and resonated throughout much of the nation—was not this limited set of negotiating points, but rather the larger cry for dignity embodied in the boycott,” write Mark and Paul Engler in their new book.

This strategy of dramatizing a demand in order to shift public opinion on civil rights carried from Montgomery to the lunch counter campaigns that began in Greensboro and Nashville to the historic campaigns in Birmingham and Selma. Martin Luther King eloquently described the strategy behind these direct action campaigns as “creat[ing] a situation so crisis-packed” that it would expose the “pus-flowing ugliness” of segregation “to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion.” The farmworkers’ grape boycott campaign, the immigrant rights upheaval around the Sensenbrenner bill in 2006, anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan’s request for a meeting with President George Bush, fast-food workers’ demand for $15 an hour, and the climate movement’s fight against Keystone XL also used many of King’s strategies: creating and dramatizing a moral crisis of injustice, shifting public consciousness, and forcing the public to choose a side.

Symbolic demands are most effective when they generate public awareness and support rather than target specific politicians. The right wing also uses this strategy; recent examples include the recent call for a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood led by Ted Cruz and members of the Freedom Caucus, attempts by governors to unlawfully restrict entry of refugees into their states, the fight to restrict “partial-birth” abortions, and demands for the right to carry a concealed firearm, led by Representative Cliff Stearns and the National Rifle Association. This strategy can create a powerful and more easily digestible media narrative that narrower demands are often unable to provide. If combined with bold and courageous action, these demands can catalyze large-scale public participation in a movement.

But symbolic demands are not in opposition to more concrete policy demands, which are also vital for change: ending abusive policing and court practices, sentencing reform, and tackling historic inequities in economics, housing, and education rooted in slavery and Jim Crow. Sometimes symbolic demands can also be instrumental ones, like those made by Fight for $15 or during the Delano Grape Strike, where activists called for both specific policy changes and attempted to drastically shift public opinion. The symbolic demand is simply a way of engaging the public. Negotiations over legislative proposals are important, but they often occur at the last stage of a particular campaign or movement, once movements and large-scale mobilizations have shifted public opinion and those in power are then trying to address a movement’s demands.

Many organizers intuitively understand that their grievances will not be readily addressed by a corrupt and inadequate political and legal system designed to protect the status quo. The power of the symbolic path resides in the decision not to try to convince politicians and judges, but instead to try to win over the public. The Minneapolis battle over the video release has captured the public’s attention, whereas a long, drawn-out legislative battle might have reduced public interest and caused the movement to be overly reliant on individual politicians to take their issues forward.

This is not to say that legislation does not matter or is not needed. Rather, by choosing a demand that dramatizes the worst injustices of the system and that is already popular, the movement can transform the political context around an issue. This might then create the conditions for legislation to pass at a later stage of the movement.

The Case in Minneapolis and the Future of BLM

The Minneapolis Police Department has a history of problems with transparency and abuse. In the aftermath of Clark’s death, Minneapolis authorities would not say if any footage from body- or dashboard cameras, or from bystander or surveillance cameras even existed. Due to pressure from protesters and community advocates, officials declared that the police had obtained videos from several different sources. But they claim that none of the videos depict what happened in its entirety and have continuously refused to release the footage.

In 2013 the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that between 2006 and 2012, the city paid out $14 million in damages for alleged police misconduct. Despite this, Minneapolis police were rarely disciplined or found to have done anything wrong. Recently, Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau opened up a conduct review office, where none of the first 439 cases have resulted in an individual officer being disciplined.

The Black Lives Matter-Minneapolis campaign decision to demand the simple release of these videos has been an important method for the movement to take the value of black life outside of closed-door negotiations and courtroom decisions and into the court of public opinion.

Black Lives Matter-Minneapolis’s symbolic demand for the release of the tapes is just one of many being made by the movement. Observers might question whether the personal sacrifices or disruptive activities are worth such a small demand. What activists are now proving is what many other movements of the past have already shown us. Creating momentum around a symbolically loaded demand is in fact how many movements have won, and will continue to win. As the movement for black lives continues to grow, debate over its demands will also grow. In the meantime, activists might just change the scope of what it is possible to win.


Waleed Shahid is Philadelphia-based writer and the political director of Pennsylvania Working Families Party. He is a movement-building trainer with Momentum, tweets at @waleed2go and is a regular contributor to Colorlines.

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