The Democrats that pushed their party’s national committee (DNC) to endorse the #BlackLivesMatter organization and its three co-founders told reporters they felt “blindsided” when #BLM leadership refused to endorse them back. The resolution was submitted by high-powered party activists, last Friday, including DNC Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, DNC Secretary and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and Black party stalwart Donna Brazile. The endorsement praised #BLM “creators” Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza by name and “resolved that the DNC joins with Americans across the country in affirming ‘Black lives matter’ and the ‘say her name’ efforts to make visible the pain of our fellow and sister Americans as they condemn extrajudicial killings of unarmed African American men, women and children.” The Democratic honchos then issued a “call for action” by Congress “to adopt systemic reforms at state, local, and federal levels to prohibit law enforcement from profiling based on race, nationality, ethnicity, or religion, to minimize the transfer of excess equipment (like the military-grade vehicles and weapons that were used to police peaceful civilians in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri) to federal and state law enforcement; and to support prevention programs that give young people alternatives to incarceration.”
All of these proposals have already been put forward by the Obama administration or its various task forces.
On Monday, the #BLM leaders issued the following response. It deserves a careful reading:
“A resolution signaling the Democratic National Committee’s endorsement that Black lives matter, in no way implies an endorsement of the DNC by the Black Lives Matter Network, nor was it done in consultation with us. We do not now, nor have we ever, endorsed or affiliated with the Democratic Party, or with any party. The Democratic Party, like the Republican and all political parties, have historically attempted to control or contain Black people’s efforts to liberate ourselves. True change requires real struggle, and that struggle will be in the streets and led by the people, not by a political party.
“Democrats clearly believed the #BLM organization would welcome the compliment.”
“More specifically, the Black Lives Matter Network is clear that a resolution from the Democratic National Committee won’t bring the changes we seek. Resolutions without concrete change are just business as usual. Promises are not policies. We demand freedom for Black bodies, justice for Black lives, safety for Black communities, and rights for Black people. We demand action, not words, from those who purport to stand with us.
“While the Black Lives Matter Network applauds political change towards making the world safer for Black life, our only endorsement goes to the protest movement we’ve built together with Black people nationwide — not the self-interested candidates, parties, or political machine seeking our vote.”
The unexpected rebuke startled and embarrassed the Democrats, who clearly believed that the #BLM organization would welcome the compliment. “Black Democratic operatives” told reporters “they are increasingly frustrated that movement activists seem to be pushing them away.”
The party’s embarrassment and confusion is quite understandable. Especially since the start of its engagement with presidential candidates, the #BlackLivesMatter leadership has given every indication that it was “circling the event-horizon of the Democratic Black Hole” and liable to be sucked in at any time, as we wrote in the August 12 issue of BAR (see “#BLM and the Democrats: How Disruption Can Lead to Collaboration”). The brashness of #BLM’s disruptions of Bernie Sanders’ and Martin O’Malley’s campaign speeches may have convinced activists that they were “confronting the ruling class electoral duopoly,” but the absence of demands – beyond the obligatory verbalization of “Black lives matter” and the candidates’ promise to formulate their own racial justice proposals – leads directly to cooptation. As we posed it in BAR:
“What is the purpose? If #BLM’s goal is to push the candidates to adopt better positions on criminal justice reform, what happens afterwards? The logic of the tactic leads to either a direct or indirect, implicit endorsement of the more responsive candidate(s). Otherwise, why should #BLM – or the candidates – go through the exercise?”
“The #BLM’s failure to put forward demands signaled that collaboration of some kind was afoot, whether that signal was intentional or not.”
The activist’s disastrous encounter with Hillary Clinton, August 11, only encouraged Democratic operatives in their belief that #BLM could be effectively captured by the Party – that, indeed, the group’s three leaders would welcome a grand invitation into the halls of power. Clinton had succeeded in treating the #BLM delegation like children at an elementary school civics class, lecturing them on the need to make demands on the system and to stop worrying about the contents of politicians’ hearts, including her own. (See “#BlackLivesMatter Performs a Self-Humiliation at Hillary Clinton’s Hands,” BAR, August 17.)
On the day of the Clinton fiasco, MSNBC asked #BLM co-founder Alicia Garza, directly, if the organization would “score” the various candidates’ racial justice proposals (which would implicitly amount to an endorsement of the highest scoring candidate), or would they make “explicit demands”? Garza pointedly refused to answer the question. The Democratic National Committee now had every reason to believe that nothing more was required of the Party than that they repeat the magic words “Black lives matter,” recognize Black female humanity through praise of “‘say her name’ efforts,” and back a short list of proposals already promulgated by President Obama. Why wouldn’t #BlackLivesMatter be thrilled?
The DNC endorsement was a perfectly logical outcome of the #BLM leadership’s strategy to make no substantive demands of presidential candidates. Real movements are defined by their demands, but the #BLM’s failure to put forward demands – including the mild and reformist demands listed on their national web site, and even when the Democratic front-runner directly solicited a list of demands – signaled that collaboration of some kind was afoot, whether that signal was intentional or not.
“’Consultation’ is a term that means whatever the speaker wants it to mean, or nothing at all.”
We at Black Agenda Report will not speculate about the level of interaction between #BLM leadership and DNC operatives in the days and weeks before the Democratic endorsement. That’s a fool’s game, which distracts attention from central questions of movement politics – such as the nature of demands – and from facts that are clear to any observer. In their rebuke to the DNC, #BlackLivesMatter leadership resorts to what BAR co-founder Bruce Dixon calls “weasel words” to deny any direct collaboration with the Democrats. The endorsement was not done “in consultation with us,” they say. “Consultation” is a term that means whatever the speaker wants it to mean, or nothing at all.
This is no time to engage in legalese. #BLM’s leadership has spread confusion and done real damage to an incipient movement that does not belong to them, but to which they contributed an attractive hash-tag that has served as a general reference point for a whole range of organizations, activities and political tendencies. The “movement,” if it is sustained, will grow a name of its own, distilled from the demands that define it. As with popular upheavals in previous eras, the movement will earn its name, and will be rooted in the streets, not the suites – and certainly not in the Democratic Party, which is where movements go to die.
Malcolm X liberated the Black political conversation and set the stage for the most tumultuous, productive era in 20th century Black U.S. history in 1963, when he railed against the “Big Six,” the civil rights organizations recognized by the white power structure as representatives of Black America: the NAACP, National Urban League, CORE, SCLC, SNCC, and A. Philip Randolph, the Black labor elder. Both before and after the March on Washington, which the Nation of Islam minister called “the farce on Washington,” Malcolm accused the Big Six of collaborating with the Kennedys to cool down the passions of Black people in the street. “It was the grass roots out there in the street,” Malcolm declared, in his “Message to the Grassroots,” in November, 1963. “[It] scared the white man to death, scared the white power structure in Washington, D. C. to death.” The job of the Big Six was to put “cream in the coffee” – to weaken and tame the movement, said Malcolm. In return, the Big Six were given money, recognition, and access to people in power.
“Self-imposed Black restraints on critiques of African American leadership came tumbling down.”
Min. Malcolm X’s accusations may have been unfair to some of the individuals and groups involved, but he put the Big Six on notice that he would not respect the old Negro dictum of not washing dirty linen [Black internal political disputes] in public [within earshot of white people]. As a result, self-imposed Black restraints on critiques of African American leadership came tumbling down, and a raucous movement emerged to acheive Black self-determination, and to join, and change, the world.
Malcolm turned the Big Six groups’ access to the White House into a source of righteous suspicion. Why are you going in and out of The Man’s house? If you enter The Man’s house, you better tell the people what you talked about in there. What did you promise him? What is he offering you? Most importantly, you must understand that your presence in that house is, by definition, suspect.
At Black Agenda Report, we still believe that those who purport to lead Black people must be held accountable. That applies to the old-line Black civic groups, to the #BlackLivesMatter organization, and to the larger movement-in-the-making.