In February 2018, Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Patrisse Cullors was asked to describe the difference in reactions to 17 Parkland, Florida high school students being massacred and her experience with “black racial justice organizing.”
Cullors lamented that, “White people get to be everything. They get to be victims; they get to be heroes. When we go out into the streets to protest and demand that our lives matter, we’re given heavy police repression. Why don’t Black people get to be victims?
Parkland’s students were embraced by the media. Celebrities like Gabriel Union, John Legend, and Oprah Winfrey, who contributed $500,000 to underwrite the expenses for their march in Washington, D.C., said the students reminded her of the 60s civil rights protesters.
The “difference” for Cullors was stunning and painful. Nevertheless, she expressed her support for Parkland’s students. A month earlier, Co-Founder Alicia Garza left BLM to form the Black Futures Lab. Opal Tometi, the other BLM Co-Founder returned to working full-time on immigrants’ rights.
Cullors took charge of BLM when the signature protests that marked its meteoric rise in 2014, slowed to a trickle. Some BLM affiliate chapters were in revolt against the center; others simply collapsed. Stasis enveloped BLM but Cullors soldiered on. On May 25, 2020, everything changed. The internet hashtag turned global political movement, was about to be resurrected as BLM 2.0.
This brief assesses how Black Lives Matter mobilized a mass movement to fight anti-Black state-sanctioned violence before the execution of George Floyd in June 2020 (BLM 1.0), and how the unprecedented global upsurge of protests and solidarity are presenting profound opportunities for BLM and activists across the planet to confront and dismantle the imperial carceral state.
New Black Nationalists assert that BLM 2.0 is a qualitatively different global movement operating in an increasingly vulnerable and declining state of planetary imperial order.
Black Lives Matter 2.0
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing by the Minneapolis Police, millions of people across the planet protested his murder and police terror in their own countries. They chanted “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe,” even as police teargassed them in 98 American cities and several European capitals. They wore BLM gear, and carried BLM signs and banners.
Murals of George Floyd were painted on walls and buildings from Western Australia’s Aborigine outback to small villages in Mexico. The plaza adjacent to Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Park was dedicated to BLM, and the street leading to the White House was emblazoned with its name.
On June 17, three weeks after Floyd’s assassination, Patrisse Cullors announced that the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation was establishing a $12 million fund to help organizations fighting institutional racism. The foundation set aside $6 million to support Black-led grassroots groups. Another $6.5 million fund was established for BLM’s 16 affiliate chapters in the U.S. and Canada.
BLM’s Global Network Foundation also announced it would "prioritize funding for mutual aid organizations and groups creating sustainable improvements in the conditions of all black people." Cullors added that “Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender-led groups” will be supported. BLM received an additional $1.1 million in individual donations averaging $33.00 per contribution and reported another $3.4 million in net assets from 2019.
More important however, than Black Lives Matter suddenly being propelled to the summit global pop-culture iconography, BLM 2.0 vindicated that upstart movement had won the political argument against the carceral state, and won big.
The Black community and BLM’s long-held assertion that America’s criminal justice complex is manifestly a racist institution moved from the periphery to the center as the new national consensus viewpoint. A Mid June Washington Post-Schar School poll found that 69 percent of Americans agreed that George Floyd’s death in the custody of Minneapolis police reflected a broader problem in the way black people are treated by police. Only 29 percent said it was an isolated incident.
When the same question was asked after Michael Brown’s execution in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, only 43 percent of the respondents in the Post-ABC News agreed that police shootings reflected broader problems in law enforcement’s treatment of Blacks.
The seismic shift in public opinion was attributable to whites finally acknowledging the veracity of Black claims of institutionalized racism in the criminal justice industry. BLM was propelled not only to the forefront of a newly expanded multi-racial counter-carceral movement in America's settler state, but a vast multi-ethnic, multi racial international reform movement—one deeply invested with Black moral leadership and authority. It cannot be emphasized enough how much moral rectitude “matters.”
BLM 2.0 was marked by a national frenzy to enact criminal justice reforms in municipalities, state legislatures, and Congress. BLM's reform agenda no longer existed in the biosphere of good ideas. Restructuring, reimagining, repurposing, shrinking, and abolishing police departments as we know them, lay at the heart of a highly contested national debate. Body cameras, chokeholds, qualified immunity, and use of force policies were thrown under the microscope for examination. From city councils to the 2020 presidential general elections, “the system” is being forced to respond to BLM’s reform agenda.
This represents a complete inversion of the political conditions in 2016. At that time, BLM activists "inside-outside strategy" staged rear guard protests to pressure Democrat presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to supporting their reform agenda, without formally endorsing them, thereby preserving their radical credentials and the patina of political independence.
Alicia Garza stated she'd vote for Clinton but wouldn't endorse her, saying “The Clinton’s use Black people for votes.” Cullors took a tougher line, surmising that "Black Lives Matter was opposed to a Democratic Party bought off by corporations and invested in harm against Black people.” As a decentralized organization, BLM chapters and individual activists were free vote their conscious. Some chapters split their support between Clinton and Sanders. Others protested both candidates and wanted nothing to do with Democrats. Prominent BLM activists DeRay McKesson and Brittney Packnett Cunningham supported working with President Obama's 21st Century Task Force on Community Policing. Others were vehemently opposed to it. BLM was disoriented and fractured over the contradictory messaging of the "inside-outside” strategy.
Clinton refused to budge, thinking she didn’t need the Black youth vote to win. BLM prepared to continue its protests against Clinton once she became president. They were both wrong. Neither camp foresaw a Trump victory in the 2016 election. BLM was left hanging in the breeze and their influence would wane as the spate of high-profile assassinations of Black youth receded, and the young movement struggled to recalibrate its bearings.
In 2020, BLM is in full support of Democrats in the national election. BLM's website now reads: “#WhatMatters2020 is a campaign aimed to maximize the impact of the BLM movement by galvanizing BLM supporters and allies to the polls in the 2020 U.S Presidential Election to build collective power and ensure candidates are held accountable for the issues that systematically and disproportionately impact Black and under-served communities across the nation.”
Cullors jointly endorsed Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, saying progressives needed to "make sure that we don't get people like Mike Bloomberg or Joe Biden in the president's office." But now that Biden is the Democrats nominee, in June, Cullors parsed her support for "Fighting Joe," by saying, “We’re going to continue to pressure Vice President Biden around his policies and relationship to policing and criminalization, that’s going to be important. But our goal is to get Trump out.”
Biden is not going to pacify the Black community by simply choosing a Black woman (probably Susan Rice) as his Vice-Presidential running mate. Nor is Biden going to appease BLM by supporting demands to “defund” police departments. He's clearly stated his opposition to it.
Cullors statement that our goal is to get Trump out is code that BLM should not split over supporting Biden. BLM will hold its nose and mobilize the vote for "Fighting Joe." If Biden wins and Democrats capture the Senate, elements of BLM's reform agenda will certainly become national law. However, BLM's central demand to "defund police departments" will be fought at the local and state levels.
How Black Lives Matter navigates the new political terrain the next five months until the November elections will reveal much about how they evaluated the political lessons of their past six years, and their ability to make adjustments in the heat of battle.
What is Black Lives Matter and What Do They Want?
Given the ubiquity of BLM's brand, why their overarching vison for Black advancement in America's settler state remains a vexing question. The BLM mystique can be explained in-part by understanding that it exists in variegated layers.
BLM is a potent political slogan. It's a hashtag with its own identity. BLM is a movement, and it's also a formal organization. BLM evanesces. Where one identity ends and another begins is not always clear.
Perhaps BLM can be best understood as a vector with multiple identities unlike anything we’ve witnessed in modern political culture. As a hashtag it translates across national, ethnic, racial, gender, and class lines symbolizing active resistance to security state-sanctioned injustice.
BLM is both an internet vector that expands resistance against the carceral state, and an organizing tool. Attached as a prefix or suffix to any righteous cause dissenting against “the security state,” Black Lives Matter gathers bodies like a call to action--summoning the resistance to battle. Once in the crosshairs of being labeled a “terrorist organization” by American Empire’s “Deep State,” BLM now defines 21st Century digital pop political culture.
Notwithstanding its layered identities and nuance, grasping Black Lives Matter original political design and vision is critical to grasping its strengths and weaknesses in the days ahead. Its initial claims to be a decentralized, “leaderless,” and then later “leaderful” (many leaders but none who is ‘first’ among equals) organization strained credulity. Understandably its most ardent supporters in BLM's early days granted its new leaders a wide birth latitude to shape the enterprise.
From its inception, BLM's strong feminist aversion to strong vertical and hierarchal leadership structure, dictated the blurred lines of authority, roles, and responsibilities between the center and its official chapters. However, a close reading of the statements of its three founding members provides critical insight into BLM larger design.
Alicia Garza once described BLM’s overarching mission by saying “We have always been clear that Black Lives Matter was not just about police violence but about the wide range of ways in which state-sanctioned violence against black people impacts our lives. We are working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically targeted for demise.”
Opal Tometi expanded on Garza’s remarks, adding that, “We want divestment from the police, and investment in Black communities. We are demanding immediate relief for our communities. We want community control. We want to end this war against Black people.” Going one step further, Patrisse Cullors suggested that "When we're thinking about defunding police, we need to be thinking about defunding the mass incarceration state."
It is Tometi’s last comment about “ending the war against Black people” that New Black Nationalists believe cuts to heart of BLM’s animating project. Whether BLM sees Black people as targets in a protracted war with U.S. imperialists that includes environmental, economic, and biological warfare or an all out genocidal race-war is debatable. It could be both. The point is that in either instance, BLM was conceived as a radical resistance and “fight-back” movement to secure Black survival on a hostile planet.
In this context, Garza, Tometi, and Cullors’ priorities in fighting the carceral state doesn't focus on better police training and hiring, increasing Black and Brown police officers, more civilian review boards or a myriad of other reforms.
BLM’s founders were preoccupied with “defunding law enforcement” to immediately reduce police department’s physical footprint. They want absolute cuts in personnel, militarized armaments procurement and expanding areas of authority. BLM wants to constrain and reduce law enforcements' capacity to “dominate the battlespace” (as Defense Secretary Esper put it before the June 1, assault on Lafayette Park).
That “battlespace is predominantly Black communities in which the police serve as an occupying force. From BLM’s perspective, the first task in ending the “war against Black people” is to flatten the growing mercenary forces that poses a direct military and existential threat to Black communities.
Patrisse Cullors was clear on this point when she observed that “Law enforcement is not actually used to keep black people safe. They're used to patrol, occupy, harass, abuse, often hunt and mostly, what we've seen is kill our communities. I should also add surveillance. Surveillance is a big part of what they do in our neighborhoods."
New Black Nationalists support the work of Black Lives Matter. Building resistance and fighting back against the state-sanction violence and oppression of U.S. Empire’s security state is a righteous and necessary cause. We don't oppose reforms that restrain the power of the state-security complex to visit gratuitous violence on Black bodies. We also believe that the seeds of radical and revolutionary change often times germinate in certain reform movements.
We are not holier than thou radical and revolutionary Black Nationalists that are contemptuous of movements not advocating the overthrow of American Empire. Defunding police, may be a "reform," but it is one with dangerous implications for the ruling class. The new budgets put forward by the mayors of Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York City since George Floyd's death, proposing deep cuts for police departments is not welcomed news for the carceral state.
Put another way, the difference between “defunding” and “abolition” of police departments is the difference between reform and revolution. Danny Haiphong, in a BlackAgendaReport.com article points out that, “Abolition of the police is a revolutionary project that cannot be fulfilled by the U.S. imperial state as it is currently constituted. The abolition of the police is a revolutionary demand since only revolutionary conditions can support it. Abolishing law enforcement requires the complete overthrow of the mode of economic and political rule in the United States."
It can be argued that BLM's reformists position of defunding police departments is the first stage of an evolutionary social-democratic process that would eventually defund the carceral state as we know it. It poses a peaceful alternative to the classic Marxist revolutionary position that the repressive machinery of the state must be smashed and broken for one group or class to seize power from another class.
In the weeks and months ahead, a plethora of criminal justice reform measures will be proposed and debated. Some reform measures like banning chokeholds have already been passed. As Danny Haiphong noted, "the ruling class will placate the movement with marginal reforms while reorganizing the national security state to protect its wealth." BLM's national leadership and local chapters have critical decisions to make on where to concentrate their fire. So will the thousands of Black people who took the streets this past four weeks. Their voices will be heard.
Debilitating health and economic issues plaguing Black communities are also part of the violence and war BLM seeks to end. Accordingly, BLM’s design calls for diverting funds from police departments to local community-based organizations to uproot these maladies. In doing so they seek to accomplish two key goals.
First, to begin the process of downsizing police departments, BLM advocates eliminating service responses to drug addition, domestic violence, mental health, and homelessness calls. By transferring these functions to community groups, BLM envisages this transfer of funds as a critical step in erecting a parallel infrastructure of sustainable community-based institutions. As mentioned earlier, BLM’s operational funding plan commits resources to sustain these types of organizations.
BLM prefers embedding these services in community-based groups that are invested in Black enclaves. These organizations have credibility with local constituents, as opposed to bureaucratic municipal government agencies which the community has no control over. In-part, this is what Opal Tometi is referring to as “community control,” not the old trope of Black capitalists and heterosexual Black male Democratic Party bosses controlling jobs, patronage, and social service contracts in the hood.
It’s not difficult to imagine BLM’s founding leaders adopting similar views about dismantling dysfunctional health care, energy, and tech monopolies that don’t serve the interests of Black and marginalized communities.
This week, U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar gave voice to this BLM's social-democratic stylings when she said. “As long as our economy and political systems prioritize profit without considering who is profiting, who is being shut out, we will perpetuate this inequality. So we cannot stop at [the] criminal justice system. We must begin the work of dismantling the whole system of oppression wherever we find it.”
BLM’s “people-powered civil society” contemplates community-based groups, non-profits, and critical service providers as a sort of shadow civil society. BLM’s critique of the 1960s Black Power Movement's shortcomings posits that black radicals and revolutionaries neglected the importance of creating durable institutions to anchor sustainable Black communities. In their view, the lack of Black strong community-based institutions rendered Black communities more vulnerable to attacks on its health, safety, and economic wellbeing.
It may seem like a peculiar analogy, but BLM’s people power or community-based approach mirrors some aspects of Eastern European countries efforts in the 1990’s to reconstruct their countries after breaking with the Soviet Union. Those countries attempted to invest democratic decision-making and administrative functions in unions, NGO’s, and civic groups, to prevent the concentration of power in new and intrusive centralized governing structures.
BLM is determined not to saddle the next Black generation with that burden. Further, BLM’s critique includes participating in the electoral process, to ensure there is sufficient capacity to repel right-wing attempts to monopolize power, disenfranchise, and attack Black communities, as the Regan Administration did in the 1980’s and Trump is doing now.
Looking deeper at the question of BLM's vision of its role, we turn to its concept of a liberation movement. “We are a collective of liberators” says BLM’s website. “We believe in an inclusive and spacious movement. In order to win and bring as many people with us along the way, we must move beyond the narrow nationalism that is all too prevalent in Black communities. We affirm the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum."
It continues by saying, "Our network centers those who have been marginalized within Black liberation movements.” Black Lives Matter emphasis on centering community-based groups and organizations is not just about diversity and inclusion; it’s the nexus of their project to build a new “Black Liberation Movement.”
BLM’s insistence on centering LGBTQ communities, the disabled, the undocumented, trans and queer folks reflects its critique of the anti-democratic, sexist, and patriarchal leadership model of the 60s Black Power Movement. Centering an inclusive movement of the marginalized, is a principle that is non-negotiable for BLM.
BLM's emphasis on decentralized leadership structures also ensure that the marginalized can influence and participate in the Black collective experience. Led by three feminists, two of whom identify as queers, BLM's decentralization model helps insure that those organizations and individuals who do the work in the community are empowered as central players in local organizations.
Based on Black Lives Matter’s emphasis on community-based civic engagement, and its notions of collective sensibilities, New Black Nationalists has characterized Black Lives Matter as a millennial-based, Black-feminist/LGBTQ-led, social-democratic leaning reform movement.
Where does Black Lives Matter 2.0 Go From Here?
In the aftermath of the global Justice for George Floyd movement, Black Lives Matter has a chance to do something very few organizations ever experience: they have a second chance to correct some of the critical shortcomings they experienced in their first six years of operation.
In essence, this is the challenge of BLM's 2.0. iteration. They have political momentum, legitimacy, mass multi-racial support, money, a reform agenda, and legislative officials who are trying to convert their reform agenda into law. What more could they ask for?
Blacks Lives Matter’s 2.0 Challenge is not Political, It’s Transparency, and Integrity
Black Lives Matter was not the brainchild of a think tank. It wasn’t the outgrowth of a conference or conceived by politicos with laptops over coffee in Starbucks.
It was the product of a spontaneous chain of events starting with the police execution of a Black youth, an internet love letter to Black people, a hashtag, and three well educated Black feminist community organizers who knew the institutional assault on Black lives would never end without a new type of resistance movement.
Consistent with their critique of the Black Power Movement’s shortcomings and their new generation’s millennial sensibilities, they discarded the nationalist, sectarian, revolutionary, vertical, heteropatriarchal, messianic, rigid ideological models of the past.
BLM would be mass-based, horizontal, decentralized, feminist, black-led but inclusive, marginalized-population centric, independent, reformers. That’s fine. Your identity is what you are. Be true to it. But BLM’s leaders never quite succeeded in packaging their ensemble of identities into a singular compelling vision with coherence.
Today, BLM 2.0 has resources flowing in its pipelines, but in truth they weren't broke in their 1.0 days. They did have a problem with transparency and the way they handled the donations they received from Ford Foundation, Borealis and Open Visions. Contracts with consultants were executed without notice or explanation of the services rendered to BLM's chapters.
BLM supporter Marissa Johnson of the “Safety Pin Box” group that disrupted Bernie Sanders speech noted, “Resources end up getting directed to just the national [organization] because people on the outside of the movement don’t know any other names besides Black Lives Matter. It prevents resources from getting to a wide range of people doing on-the-ground work.” This was no way to run a decentralized organization with chapters that need resources.
BLM chapter leaders also complained that requests for political guidance and coordination from its national leaders were routinely ignored. “A lot of us were looking for support, cues or direction, and we weren’t getting it,” said Margaret Haule, of BLM in Austin. Decentralization does not mean leaving your local affiliates out on an island, with no training and direction.
As radical Black feminist Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor pointed out in her article on BLM "The absence of any structure within the movement, left very few spaces to evaluate the state of the movement, delaying its ability to pivot and postponing the generalization of strategic lessons and tactics from one locality to the next or from one action to the next. Instead, the emphasis on autonomy, even at the cost of disconnection from the broader movement, left each locality to its own devices to learn and conjure its own strategy."
Similarly, while the founding leaders always insisted on the BLM’s organizational independence from the Democrat Party, that deception led to disorientation when some BLM operatives joined President Obama’s criminal justice reform task force, and disagreement arose over the protests against Sanders and Clinton. In truth the “inside-outside” strategy, always contemplated negotiating or cutting a deal with the Democratic Party at some point. But when Hillary Clinton lost to Trump in 2016, there was no deal to cut.
Looking back at the Black Lives Matter 1.0 experience, perhaps Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor summarized it best when she said, “Black Lives Matter’s bigger problem was the movement’s inability to create the space to debate and work out the tension between reform and revolution, or more crudely between body cameras and prison abolition. All movements are confronted with existential debates concerning their viability and longevity. There are always crucial decisions to be made concerning their direction and the best route to get there. But without the opportunity to collectively assess, discuss, or ponder what the movement is or should be, those political disagreements can sometimes devolve into bitter personal attacks. It raises the crucial question of how organizers emerge from a lost battle or even a lost war with more clarity about their experience, the lessons learned, and salvaged relationships that may allow them to fight another day with a better sense of what to do the next time around.”
BLM's "next time around" has arrived. BLM's has gotten this second chance, not because it confronted its shortcomings and resurrected its organization but because the execution of Black people is a profoundly American blood sport, exercised on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. It was only a matter of time before another police murder would serve as catalyst for a new wave of Black protests. George Floyd's assassination crystalized that moment, and put BLM back in play.
So, how will BLM process this moment? BLM can be honest and transparent about its agenda. It can be open about where its trying to take the Black community. BLM can accept criticism from the people it seeks to lead and be willing to change. No one is going to hold anything against BLM for making honest mistakes, especially when we are operating in uncharted waters.
But giving short shrift to the Black community is insulting to the character and moral suasion that has sustained our movements’ integrity. It is also a blot on the Black Feminist movement whose shoulders BLM stands on—a feminist movement that is second to none on the planet in blazing a path to reorder society.
What's next for Black Lives Matter? On their website a new slogan appears. NOW WE TRANSFORM! We like that. If BLM remains true to its radical Black Feminist roots, they will be a transformative force in the 2020's--a decade that will be filled with war, peace, and revolution.