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The movement moment we now find ourselves in, full of urban rebellions blossoming into thousands of actions (including blocking traffic, canvassing communities and protesting the police), has been building for years in response to the intensifying campaign to criminalize low-income Black communities. Social movements develop over long periods as material conditions change; the genesis of the Civil Rights Movement can be traced to Black participation in WWII.
Arguably, this movement moment began in earnest on Feb. 26, 2012, in Sanford, Fla., with the killing of Trayvon Martin. The Black community erupted in protest to pressure government officials — the same ones criminalizing us — to use their power to help us. The murder of George Floyd in 2020 marked another turning point, as the community in Minneapolis rose up — spontaneously — with raw outrage and grit in an urban rebellion that shook the city and the world.
As unplanned expressions of outrage, however, urban rebellions burn hot and short. The spontaneity and raw emotion draw attention, but the lack of political direction, coordination and organization produces unpredictable results.
Mass mobilizations represent the evolution of outrage into opposition — against specific policies, laws or practices. In Minneapolis, the outrage against George Floyd’s murder that first found expression in urban rebellion was then articulated as opposition to clearly defined injustices: police brutality and terrorism, the criminalization of Black communities, the school-to-prison pipeline, the use of traffic violations as government revenue centers, the unwillingness of district attorneys to prosecute cops who harm Black people, the militarization of the police, and so on.
Countless local communities have followed the same path from urban rebellion to mass mobilization, with pro- tests spreading in response to brutal police actions, like the shooting of Jacob Blake (who is now paralyzed) and the killings of Sandra Bland, Tony McDade, Ma’Khia Bryant, Adam Toledo and so many others. These protests, which continue to grow as of this writing, have been creative, poignant and powerful.
Everyday people have put their bodies (and freedom) on the line to bring attention to the terror leveled against Black communities. Many are engaging in protest for the first time in their lives. Others are renewing their involvement, initially sparked by Ferguson (or Occupy, or other movements), or continuing a long commitment to fighting against systems of injustice and for the liberation of all African people. Whatever the case, these protesters — particularly the substantial number of Black youth, women, and queer, trans and intersex folx that rose to leadership — are displaying resolve, consistency and dedication in expanding protests against police terror.
But history does not judge a movement by the sheer number of its protests, the wittiness of its slogans or the creativity of its actions. Instead, social movements are judged by their analysis of the underlying power dynamics and social issues, the demands they pursue to rectify those issues and the extent to which they achieve their demands. In this respect — and in spite of the bright spots — the movement as a whole has fallen woefully short of abolishing the prison industrial complex.
In its first evolution, the movement transitioned from raw outrage (i.e., urban rebellion) to defined opposition (i.e., mass mobilization). Now it is time for a second evolution. To oppose a policy or practice (police violence), protesters must pressure those in power to change their behavior — therefore, we mobilize. But to build a sustainable movement capable of shifting power to the Black community, we must take power ourselves— therefore, we must organize.
Organizing entails solid analysis — of the economic and social power dynamics and fundamental root issues in play (and a set of demands to address them), and of the common objectives and principles that unite the movement (and strategies and tactics to achieve them). It also requires a vision of the world that is possible. To build a new future with power centered in the hands of Black communities, the movement en masse must quickly evolve from defining what we are fighting against (police terrorism, funding police departments, etc.) to envisioning and articulating what we are fighting for.
A failure to properly organize dooms us to lose this historic opportunity and condemns the victims of police terror to endure more abuse. Our ability to organize is what will allow us to understand that the indictments of cops (like George Floyd’s murderer) are concessions of the state, not victories, and given only because of our ability to threaten capital en masse.
The establishment we are fighting against is organized— and actively fighting for the hearts and minds of our people. Put another way, we are against a well-developed empire.
Truly challenging that empire requires mass organization.
As Frantz Fanon famously wrote in his foundational work, The Wretched of the Earth, “Each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” Our mission is to shift power to the powerless Black people, and to organize a mass movement to wield that power.
M Adams is a community organizer, co-executive director of Freedom, Inc. and a leadership team member with M4BL. Adams is a dad and sees her family as a primary motivator for her work.