understanding the next steps for black lives matter
As a scholarly observer of social movements and a person who thinks that African Americans are mistreated by the criminal justice system, I have been very interested in what Black Lives Matter will do in the days and months to follow. The shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling highlight multiple problems – police officers with bad records on the beat, racial violence, and the over policing of society. The consequent shooting at the Dallas rally, which resulted in five more victims, show us that people can exploit a genuine effort to reform society in order to inflict more violence on others.
These horrid events are part of a larger pattern that Black Lives Matters protests yet there is a rare window of opportunity here. Once the media has shifted attention away from the violence, Black Lives Matter has a chance to broaden its coalition and extend its impact. Some like, New York Times writers Michael Barbaro and Yamiche Alcindor, conclude that the Dallas shooting undermined the positive attention the movement received after the Sterling and Castile deaths.
The opposite is true. Black Lives Matter has a chance to emphasize that it is above violence and that justice is truly its major goal. In the social sciences, we call this the “radical flank effect” – a movement may gain prominence when contrasted with a radical or violent manifestation of the movement. At this moment, a lot of people will want a voice that can focus on the basic injustices in the criminal justice system and maintain a distance from the most virulent forms of nationalism.
As a movement firmly rooted in the left, Black Lives Matter has some challenges.It rightfully celebrates Blackness, but that same strength might pose problems if the movement needs a White majority to reform police policy. Another challenge is the focus of the message. Many, such as myself, see Black Lives as a reasonable response to violent police. Yet, that message is bundled with others such as being queer friendly and celebrating the global Black community. I affirm many of these values while noting that external audiences may not. Perhaps a decentralized structure may circumvent this issue. Each local chapter can develop its own indigenous solutions to police relations and thus not have to balance these different needs.
Maybe the most profound decision that Black Lives faces is whether it wants to be full fledged national movement aimed at political reform, like the NAACP in the 1950s or the SCLC in the 1960s, or whether it wants to be more of a community oriented organization like the Black Panthers of the late 1960s. The official Black Lives website quotes Huey Newton, among others, which suggests that the movement aspires to both functions. If that is a correct assessment, then police reform is an anchoring point for a more thorough discussion of Black lives in a larger White society. It may be the case that this is enough to resolve the proximate issue of deaths at the hands of police, but it may be the case that a more thorough effort to build community is not the most appropriate tool for policy change.
I suspect that ten or twenty years from now, observers will see this period as a pivot point for Black Lives. After three years of emergence, Black Lives has become the face of police reform, but one rooted in the Black community and one rooted in cultural politics. The question is whether this is enough to affect the policy problems that generated the movement or whether Black Lives Matter will be an intermediary phenomenon leading to a broader de-policing of sciety.
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