The Black Lives Matter movement has received no shortage of criticism. Its purpose and organizational structure have remained a mystery to many—and its tactics have been labelled as everything from impractical to terrorist in nature. This is not surprising or even particularly new. Those outside of social movements, especially when they perceive that they stand to lose some sort of power or privilege, have rarely been supporters of social change. It is a common strategy on their part to attempt to discredit said social movement by questioning their methods.
In fact, just as a number of Americans are now skeptical of Black Lives Matter, so too were a number of Americans of the civil rights movement, who said its leaders were pushing the country "too fast.” Yet Black Lives Matter, unconcerned with negative perceptions, continues on—only with renewed energy and focus in the Trump era.
“What people are seeing is that there are less demonstrations,” said Alicia Garza, one of three women credited with coining the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag after a jury acquitted a neighborhood watchman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012. “A lot of that is that people are channeling their energy into organizing locally, recognizing that in Trump’s America, our communities are under direct attack.”
While the movement continues to focus on police violence against black people and recognizes that the issue has not subsided, it also believes that the reality of a Trump presidency means that a larger strategy which considers broader social justice issues, coalition building, and policy and political action with other progressive groups is what is needed to bring about substantive change.
“There was a lot of regrouping that had to happen within our movement and on the broader left to really think strategically,” said Asha Rosa, the national organizing co-chair for the Black Youth Project 100. [...]
The first major convening of young black activists during the Trump presidency came in April, when they met in Memphis for speeches, marches and workshops marking the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. They were joined by representatives of organized labor, the “Fight for $15” minimum wage effort, and a smattering of immigrant-advocacy and Muslim-rights groups.
The Black Lives Matter network is now one of more than 50 groups that have christened themselves “The Majority,”a coalition of progressives working on social justice issues, including LGBT rights and Islamaphobia.
The partial shift in focus from protest to policy has not been without success, even though these successes rarely make the news the same way large-scale rallies or mass demonstrations do. Experts say that this shift is indicative of an effective social movement.
“That’s actually the way effective social movements often work or behave,” [Stephen Zunes, a University of San Francisco professor who studies social movements said], pointing to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in the wake of the financial crisis as a counterexample. “What the Occupy people did not learn, or by and large do, is go do the lobbying, the organizing to make change happen. They wound up fetishizing the ‘occupy’ part, and then, by and large, it fizzled.” […]
And the local-led, network-based leadership model that naysayers critiqued and said seemed too disorganized? Apparently, that’s part of what is driving the movement’s success.
Much of the push for policy change is being driven by local chapters of Black Lives Matter, Garza notes, under the national media’s radar.
In Memphis and Atlanta, activists have focused on challenging the “money bail” system, their term for the widespread practice of holding people in jail who are unable to pay even small amounts required by courts to assure they will show up for trial.
Poor defendants — who stand to lose jobs, apartments and custody of their children as they sit in jail — often plead guilty to lesser crimes without seeing a judge or jury.
To draw attention to the practice and reduce the strain on families, local Black Lives Matter activists raised more than $33,000 to bail black mothers out of jail just before Mother’s Day, said Mary Hooks, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Atlanta.
Of course, much of this movement work goes unnoticed by the national media— in part because of all the news coming out of the Trump presidency. And let’s face it, successfully bailing black mothers out of jail is a much less provocative news story for the media than an uprising or a protest.
But here’s the thing: Black Lives Matter has always been a both/and game. Protests are a tactic within a movement, but they’ve never been the end goal. While the world saw a movement born from protest, legitimate pain, and anger and saw it struggle with growing pains over the past few years, there was always a larger strategy that included a platform with several objectives. Just because protests may seem less visible at the moment, rest assured that the movement continues to organize, strategize and, most importantly act on behalf of black lives.
It is by no means trying to make itself mainstream. The movement has evolved since its inception and because there are multiple chapters and participants, there is no one specific way that activists will show up in the work. But one thing is clear: Black Lives Matter will continue to do the work that is needed to honor, affirm, and fight for black people in the face of deadly oppression.