August ninth was the one year anniversary of the shooting Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and with it the protests and riots that followed. Brown’s death has become one of the key events in the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which protests the disproportionate and often unwarranted violence by white police officers on African American citizens. Although the facts in the Michael Brown shooting didn’t match the public story, the Black Lives Matter movement is an earnest and important social crusade—much more so than outrage-of-the-week clicktivism. Unfortunately, it is quite clear that this undertaking is doomed.
The first and most obvious problem is the lack of a specific objective. Any successful movement needs a goal or a series of goals that will focus and sustain the energies of the participants and shape the narrative in the press. There are potential goals that could be pushed: requiring racial quotas in police departments so that the ethnic makeup of departments reflects the diversity of their communities, requiring officers to wear body cameras, increasing oversight by state and federal agencies, and so on. The Black Lives Matter movement has not coalesced around a coherent goal and so there is no endgame for journalists and pundits to discuss nor does the movement have any concrete accomplishments that it can take credit for.
The lack of specific objectives may be due to the lack of an identifiable leader. Not that there has to be one leader. Much of Black Lives Matter has been driven by local grassroots groups and a more inclusive sense of community. No one, not even Gandhi or King, led a social movement all by themselves. But in the age of social media and television, movements must have a national spokesperson or a team of spokespeople with a single coherent message who operate as the public face and provide vision. This is where Occupy Wall Street failed and Black Lives Matter seems to be headed down the same path to its own marginalization.
The tactics used by Black Lives Matter have also been questionable or counterproductive. Protests are inherently obnoxious. That’s just a given. The tactics used by activists must be chosen carefully especially if they are going to disrupt the community. Successful protests are not staged in arbitrary places nor do they create new tensions. The whole idea is to stage protests at the scene where injustice occurs and dramatize and draw out the preexisting tension. The civil rights organizers of the 1950s and 60s didn’t pick random diners to occupy; they specifically picked segregated lunch counters in places where they were most likely to create a disturbance and get press coverage. It was the images of black activists being abused by police and locals that put the public on the side of the civil rights movement. In more recent times, anti-abortion activists (who have consistently outfoxed the pro-abortion movement in showmanship and tactics) stage their protests at government buildings where laws are made and at the clinics where the procedure is carried out. This makes the issue unavoidable when the press discuss it later.
The early Black Lives Matter protests on the streets of Ferguson were very effective. The imagery of unarmed protesters confronted by police in paramilitary uniforms illustrated the issue perfectly. But many subsequent demonstrations have not been organized with this kind of focus. Events such as die-ins have been staged on highways and busy streets, bringing traffic to a halt. This has not drawn attention to police violence or other faults of the justice system nor does it win the hearts and minds of the audience. All it has done is piss off commuters who are just trying to get to and from work. As a result, Black Lives Matter activists do not come across as citizens fighting for justice. At best they they come across as a nuisance and at worst they confirm the prejudices and stereotypes of blacks held by white America.
The way the movement is seen by spectators, and especially by white spectators, should be of upmost importance. If Black Lives Matter intends to do anything constructive it must recruit white Americans and not just a few white college students. Successful social justice movements don’t operate as a homogeneous group. They are successful by building coalitions. That means recruiting people from all other walks of life, especially the white middle class, and by getting established leaders to take up their cause.
Over the weekend, Black Lives Matter activists disrupted and overtook a campaign event for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. According to TIME, “two women and a man from a Seattle chapter of Black Lives Matter shoved Sanders aside, grabbed the microphone, and addressed the crowd.” This is not the first time this has happened to Sanders. While he hasn’t handled the heckling very well, these Black Lives Matter activists are alienating their best hope in the presidential race. Sanders actually has a history of civil rights activism, including the issue of police violence, whereas Hillary Clinton has a more complicated relationship with race and law enforcement, and the issue was barely addressed in last week’s Republican presidential debate.
There is a reluctance to frame the Black Lives Matter movement in terms that are accessible to white Americans. This is understandable. After all, it’s African Americans and other ethnic minorities who are victims of police violence and whose lives are undervalued. Black voices must lead the discourse. But racialized police violence is ultimately a white issue or, more specifically, a product of white culture and an institutionalized system of white supremacy. Any systemic improvement between African Americans and law enforcement hinges on a change in white culture. For that to happen the Black Lives Matter movement must win over the hearts and minds of white citizens.
For the anniversary of the Michael Brown shooting, The Guardian has published an oral history of the event. One of the constant refrains in the piece is that this event and the Black Lives Matter movement have somehow changed something. To the credit of activists’, the fact that we’re still talking about Black Lives Matter a year later is itself significant. But for all the press coverage and effort invested, there is very little that can actually be credited to this movement. In its current focus and form, Black Lives Matter is destined to fizzle out just like Occupy Wall Street before it.