Black Lives Matter, Two Years after Ferguson

Section of U.S. Perspectives document approved by Socialist Alternative’s National Convention in June 2016. The full document can be found at 

We have already alluded in this document to the profound impact that the BLM movement has had on U.S. society, particularly since the rebellion in Ferguson in the summer of 2014 and to the limited but significant victories won by the movement through struggle.

But despite these gains, the criminal justice system remains and will remain racist to the core. Meanwhile, housing segregation remains entrenched, education is becoming more segregated and the black population faces significantly higher rates of poverty, unemployment and underemployment than the population as a whole.

The most important outcome of BLM to date is the radicalization of an important section of black youth on a scale not seen in four decades. Many black youth entering the struggle rejected Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and the black establishment. This is a welcome development, but it is uneven. In some areas, radicalizing African-Americans took over existing civil rights organizations like the NAACP; we saw this in Minneapolis. Also, in the South, the black churches and civil rights organizations still have authority when people move into struggle. This was clearly the case in the “Moral Mondays” movement in North Carolina, for instance.

Despite its impact, BLM functions more as a banner than an organized force. While the banner of BLM has a wide reach, the movement remains very small in an organized sense and has only limited reach within the broader black working class. A number of aspects of BLM are symptomatic of the general points Socialist Alternative has made about the character of struggles in this period. Like Occupy, it has a loose, horizontal character, with a relatively small active base but a much broader public sympathy. While there are many extremely positive radical elements to BLM, it also reflects the overall throwing back of consciousness with strong elements of identity politics and reformism.

The limited ability of BLM to connect with and mobilize broader sections of the black working class is not because of a lack of support for the issues BLM-linked groups have raised, but because these groups have not succeeded to date in rooting themselves and developing a program to address all aspects of black working-class reality. It’s one thing to convince people in the abstract that “the whole damn system is guilty!” but it’s another thing to get people to work to replace that system.

This requires taking up the wide range of issues facing black workers and youth, building alliances with other sections of the working-class and linking the struggles for specific aims to a vision for how to change society along socialist lines. Most black working-class people agree with BLM in opposing racist police violence, mass incarceration and “stop and frisk” policing. However, broad sections of the black working class are also angry at the amount of violent crime in their communities and sometimes call for more cops “walking the beat;” BLM activists have difficulties addressing these concerns.

Another problem is that a number of groups under the BLM banner have become dependent on financing from forces hostile to working class interests, like the George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. And while identity politics has played a role in radicalizing many, it has also led to division and contributed to the problems facing BLM today.

Besides campus activism, many BLM activists have now turned towards political action. For example, there was the high profile candidacy of DeRay Mckesson for Mayor of Baltimore. Despite his prominent association with BLM and huge following on social media, he only managed to get 2% in the recent Democratic primary. This reflected a failure to really root his campaign in the day-to-day struggles of the local community. But despite this very weak showing, we should expect that there will be other BLM-linked candidacies at local level in the next period, both within and outside the Democratic Party, and many of these will have a bigger impact than Mckesson. Of course the Democratic establishment is working overtime to co-opt many of these activists, but it is very clear that a significant section is determined not to go down this road.

In the presidential election the official BLM position was not to endorse a candidate. Nevertheless the pull of the 2016 elections as an arena for political action was reflected in the focus of BLM actions aimed at presidential candidates. BLM activists disrupted Bernie Sanders events early on but as the primaries went on increasingly focused their fire on Hillary and Bill Clinton. Broadly speaking these actions had a real impact in raising issues of racist policing and mass incarceration within the presidential debate. Of course, Trump has also been a focus of BLM and other radical protesters. This could escalate if he becomes the nominee.

The New York Times recently wrote that there is a generational divide in the black community, with people over 45 generally supporting Clinton while there has been a broad rejection of “Clintonism” among people under 45, (April 18, 2016). The core issue that is driving this rejection among younger people is the Clintons’ role in expanding the war on drugs and mass incarceration, but it also reflects the broader rejection of neo-liberalism and capitalism among young people generally. Many but certainly not all of the black activists opposing Clinton wound up supporting Sanders’ campaign. We have already mentioned Michelle Alexander’s support for a new party. These are important developments.

It is also important to point out how Sanders’ eventual program – centered on pro-working-class demands combined with a strong anti-racist appeal – was able to win the support of tens of thousands of black and Latino youth and gave a taste of how to counter the divisive impact that identity politics can have. It demonstrated, despite limitations, a point that is central to our politics, namely that black, Latino and white workers, young people, women and men can be brought together around a program that speaks to their common interests while opposing all forms of discrimination and oppression.

While the first phase of BLM struggle is over, the “genie is out of the bottle” with a generation of black youth moving into action. This will continue and has the potential to become a key factor in movements. Socialists must propose strategies of mass action to bring killer cops to justice while also calling for the movement to put forward concrete demands like elected civilian boards with full control over the police and class demands for good jobs, equal pay, quality schools, expanded affordable housing and guaranteed health care. With a working-class program, the struggle against racism can be brought to new heights and win real victories to improve black people’s lives while confronting capitalism.