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What Black Lives Matter really wants from 2016 presidential candidates

For Black Lives Matter activist Allen Kwabena Frimpong, answering a debate question is not enough.


Deron Dalton


Posted on Oct 26, 2015   Updated on May 27, 2021, 6:15 pm CDT

Thus far, the presidential debates have barely mentioned Black Lives Matter, and the movement is now petitioning for that to change.

The Black Lives Matter network recently sent out a call to the Democratic National Committee for a Democratic presidential debate focused solely on racial justice policies. “It is not enough to poll the presidential candidates on whether or not they think ‘Black Lives Matter’ or ‘All Lives Matter,’” the petition reads on Color of Change. “We deserve substantive responses and policy recommendations. We deserve substance and not rhetoric. In fact, we demand it.”

The DNC offered a town hall. Black Lives Matter appreciated the quick response, but made it clear in a followup press release they want a debate, not a town hall.

“The presidential elections are important, but change happens in our own backyard.”

“We want a debate supported by the DNC that will speak directly and proactively to the issues impacting black people in this country,” the release reads. “Debates that are shaped by the corporate media will never adequately address the issues we care about.”

Black Lives Matter wasn’t even mentioned at the last GOP debate on Wednesday, Sept. 16, which was met with much criticism. The network and movement were the subject of only one question at the Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday, Oct. 13, that was answered with different responses: “Do black lives matter or do all lives matter?”

“Black lives matter,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), delivering the candidate-lineup’s most straightforward answer. “The reason those words matter is the African-American community knows that, on any given day, some innocent person like Sandra Bland can get into a car and then, three days later, she’s going to end up dead in jail. Or their kids are going to get shot. We need to combat institutional racism from top to bottom.”

Allen Kwabena Frimpong, 31, a prominent Black Lives Matter: NYC organizer, talked with the Daily Dot about the network’s political demands and what the community wants from a national Democratic presidential debate on racial justice policies.

The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Why is racial justice policy important as America moves closer to the 2016 elections?

Allen Kwabena Frimpong: It’s important right now because I believe in this moment, from the time Black Lives Matter has been able to come to life as a hashtag, into a movement, and now moving into a political arena to address the impact that white supremacy has had on black life since the inception of this project called the United States of America. Right now, I think we can point to numerous quality of life issues from Ferguson to NYC that shows that policy in practice has always disproportionately impacted black people in this country adversely. If we look at the court fees associated with the ticketing that was happening in Ferguson, it disproportionately impacted black people. When we look at the marijuana stop-and-frisk rates in New York City, it disproportionately impacted black people.

When we know that black people don’t even use drugs anymore than our white counterparts—in fact, white people actually do drugs a lot more than we do—but if we look at who is ending up prison cells, it’s us.

When we look at our HIV and AIDS rates we are the people disproportionately impacted. Until we really get a handle not only on the policy but the practices and the culture that are embedded in our systems, then we actually won’t achieve the liberation that’s going to benefit all of us as a country. So if we are really saying, ‘We the people’ in our Constitution, that actually gets to be all of us, and that actually gets to be actualized. In this moment, it’s not. We are not in integrity with our current constitution, and we are not in currently in integrity with the values that we say this country is built upon.

It’s actually a hypocrisy, and we have been in this American hypocrisy since many of us and our ancestors had to deal with the legacy of slavery on this project called the United States of America. That’s why it’s important to address racial justice—not only just policy, but addressing systems that uphold racial justice, economic justice, and social justice overall in this country.

What sparked the Black Lives Matter network’s demands in a racial justice-themed Democratic political debate?

What sparked our demands in terms of this network was really what happened in Ferguson when Michael Brown was shot and killed. If you refer to our website, the demands that were put forth were very reminiscent of the kind of six-point platform, 10-point platform that were coming out of the Black Panther Party or the Civil Rights Movement. Those demands came about because people who weren’t on the ground in Ferguson were able to understand that disparate impacts we were seeing were a result of that policy, were a result of people’s voices not being heard … and their actions not being part of decision-making processes about our own quality-of-life outcomes.

It’s not enough to say in the city of Ferguson—where you have a population [that] the majority of it is African-American, how many of those people who are African-American are a part of the political process; who are running actually in political office; who actually thinks that it’s a viable solution to have change happen through government institutions? It broadened the network’s framing to address these issues, because it wasn’t just about the lack of police accountability and the police violence, [and] the state violence in this climate that was happening in communities like Ferguson across the United States; it became a larger issue that had to deal with all quality of life issues. When we’re talking about Black Lives Matter, we’re talking about all facets of black life through all our different identities and our lived experiences.

The actual, initial policies that were brought about not only included declarations around abolition and changes around how we view public safety in our communities, but then they also included what it meant for to have fair and equitable affording housing; what it meant for us to have national action plan of [racial] justice that actually looked at our assessment of policies and made sure the policies were equitable. These were the kinds of declarations that were being [made] through our demands when this movement started and are no different in this moment, because we’re in a presidential debate. It’s part of the strategy that we’re deploying that we’re now seeing, that’s engaging us in such a way that we want to make visible these declarations. That’s the reason why you have seen us involved in disruptions of the debates.

If you can list them, what are the key components of  Black Lives Matter’s political demands?

Again, I think there’s been an evolution since the time of Ferguson, but if I was to list them, I know, overall, it’s been around all forms of discrimination and around our human rights. I also wanted to add a caveat to this: These are not new demands for many groups who have been organizing prior to this movement. These political movements didn’t just evolve because Mike Brown was shot and killed. Many of the groups who have been doing this work—these are regionally and nationally in their own communities—who went to Ferguson on August 28 [2014], helped create these demands. They will evolve overtime.

“Just because we say ‘black lives matter’ … we don’t devalue anyone’s life in that. It’s a political declaration.”

In addition to that, having end of to all instances of police brutality, state violence against all black folks.

Also thinking about—we want to be able to have fully economic justice and employment for our folks.

We want to make sure that there are equitable living conditions within our own neighborhoods and housing for our folks.

We also want to think about the quality of education and making sure there’s end to the school-to-prison pipeline that’s again creating these disparate impacts we are seeing along our children. When we are thinking about education, there’s no reason why we should see the kind of suspension rates we’re seeing when we’re pushing out our black boys and our black girls out of school.

And lastly, one of the most key and important things that at the root of really a lot of this discussion … we really have to have an end to mass incarceration. We really have to be about the abolition of the prison system and really the way we think about law enforcement in this country, because it’s actually driving the reasons why we are seeing people getting shot every 28 hours. That original statistic came out of Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, which is one of the main groups [that] helped develop some of these declarations and demands.

You touched on intersectionality. Black Lives Matter is considered an intersectional network and movement when it comes to having diverse voices of black experiences and the issues. How would you want to see intersectionality play a part of the racial justice policies of the candidates?

I think a good place for the candidates to start—and this is the homework that folks have to do—it’s actually looking into the current systems you are operating in, and give tangible examples of how implicit bias, structural racism is pervading the actual place in which you are situated in as a candidate.

As Bernie Sanders being a current senator in your state, you would need to look into your current systems and critique them to see how they are creating disparate outcomes for black people.

For [former] Senator Hillary Clinton, you would actually have to be reflective about the actions that you’ve taken when you [were] secretary of state and to really think about the same question in how you were situated in your position: What were the things that you made may have been doing to create disparate impact?

The minute that we have that conversation, we really get to be honest about the roles we are playing in our positions of power, because we all get implicated in that.

It’s not just presidential candidates; it’s all of us that live on this project called United States of America. We all [need] to have an honest conversation about how we’re playing into the culture of white supremacy that continues to devalue black life. If we’re not going to have that honest conversation, then we can’t begin to put a framing that’s authentic and honest and get us to the kind of intersectionality that we want to see.

You can’t connect the issues and see them as one if you treat them as … fragmented and separate. Before we can even get there, we have to do that first. That’s [part of] what the network is calling for.

When we interrupted the initial Netroots action and the other action that happened in Seattle, we did not even hear an acknowledgement of like, ‘Hey, the system is broken and actually this is what it looks like.’

[Black people] experience how the system is broken. We actually catch the end of the stick, so we know what it is, for most of us. We experience it on the daily. Our daily lives are dictated by the culture. If you’re somebody who has removed yourself from that, if you’re not thinking critically about how you’ve contributed to it, then you’re not going to be able to cultivate that framing. I think that’s why there’s trouble with candidates being able to create a frame, because none of them have been able to be honest and transparent about mapping out what’s just wrong … in the first place. It’ll actually bring some humanity to their candidacy and [give a new reason for] why people feel they would be the right candidate.

If [you] don’t get a clear sense of candidates’ understanding of some of these root-cause issues, then you can’t even begin to cultivate an understanding a solution around how to tackle these issues of justice and equity. 

Speaking of the interrupting, there’s been backlash for the disruptions at different candidates’ rallies. Why has Black Lives Matter taken on this particular strategy?

Black Lives Matter is a decentralized network of about 26 different chapters. It’s interesting to see how strategy is actually evolving in this moment because of the one of the things that our good friend Alicia Garza, one of the co-creators of Black Lives Matter, says is, we are not a startup company. We didn’t wake up one day and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to start Black Lives Matter.’ Black Lives Matter was a hashtag that was started out of a conversation between Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza on Facebook. Then, Opal Tometi came in and put together an online platform through Tumblr and some other social media tools to have that be what it was when George Zimmerman got no indictment. Then, we fast forward to this moment of Mike Brown, and then 500 people under the moniker of Black Lives Matter goes to Ferguson and were like, ‘That’s has been happening.’

I just want to be very clear for folks who wondering what is the strategy or how the strategy comes about, it’s a very emergent process. Netroots happened, that strategy, that thinking happened the day before the actual action happened.

I want folks to know that even when you’re seeing that action with Bernie Sanders in Seattle, that action happened in a very impromptu fashion.

Just this week, the actual strategy behind putting out this petition to put the call for an independent debate under the Democratic Party was also something that happened, as the idea was there, but in terms of the [conception] of it, it happened in a very emergent fashion.

The strategy behind this particular action and the rest of these disruptions have political aim but have intended and unintended consequences for all of that, and the network realizes that.

“The only reason why we are talking about this right now: It’s on our TV screens. Everyone gets to see the atrocities.”

We always have to hold the risk of what’s to come with that and the backlash that comes with that. If I’m going to communicate to a larger audience, there is larger political aim, especially around the latest action to call on the Democratic National Committee to hold another debate.

In terms of strategy, it would actually be an opportune time to call forth a Black Lives Matter debate. It’s actually very strategic. [For people who are the readers to say], ‘What are the opportunities in calling a debate and how can that promote the kind of actions that we want to see happen in a local communities?’ I’m somebody who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey. If I live in Jersey City, New Jersey, and I see people on my TV talking about my issues—locally, in my community—what kind of impact will that have on me? Not only am I thinking about the presidential elections, but then to start thinking about how I can become active in my own local community.

The presidential elections are important, but change happens in our own backyard. I say that is the political aim of why we are doing our disruptions. The presidential campaign, yes, but the actual aim is to get people active in their own local communities.

We aren’t endorsing candidates. So if we publicly told the nation that we aren’t publicly endorsing any candidates, people should really start to think, ‘What is up with that? Why they keep disrupting these folks?’ There’s a [political aim] behind it.

The Democratic National Committee recently responded to Black Lives Matter’s call for a racial-justice focus debate, saying BLM would be an ‘ideal host’ for a ‘presidential candidate forum’—a town hall—and would support the network if it chooses to organize such an event. What is your response to that?

I got a chance to see the response, and again, there’s a purpose to our madness. We specifically called for a debate, not a town hall. Why, yes, town halls open up opportunity to very important dialogue to be had about these issues. We are actually calling for a debate, and the reason why we are calling for a debate is for the reasons I mentioned earlier: To keep disrupting the process, because the process in of itself is not equable.

If we are going to challenge national electoral politics, this would be the way to go. If it’s in your policies and practices that you could only have six debates, we get to ask why. We also get to ask, ‘Why can’t we have a seventh, and why can’t it be a Black Lives Matter debate.’

Again, having a town hall is nice. I’m not saying we can’t have one. Hey, whoever wants organized a town hall—can be more the merrier. But what Black Lives Matter is saying is that we are open to all those opportunities and there’s a specific reason why we called for [a debate].

When and where will the network like for the political debate to happen?

I can’t disclose that information at the time. I wouldn’t happen to know. That I can’t answer.

Activists in the movement met with different candidates. Is there a possibility for the Black Lives Matter network to set up meetings with the candidates?

The thing is, it’s interesting because there are people with this belief. There are people in the network who have met the candidates. People in the network have actually talked with representatives who have talked to the candidates.

The intention is not to come from a place where we are trying to consult with you to tell what to do. It’s been a conversation about, like I said, where do you need to look internally to reflect about what it is you’re doing, and how is what you’re doing contributing to the disparate impact we are seeing in our communities.

That’s been the line of questioning. I’m not going to sit and spend three consecutive hours of my time talking to a presidential candidate staffer and give them free information on stuff they’ve already written reports on.

There’s been some confusion on who is part of Black Lives Matter and what Black Lives Matter is. What are the differences between the hashtag, the network, and the movement? What’s the differences in the three’s political demands?

Opal Tometi just did a talk at the Atlantic … last month. She simply put it that the hashtag is a hashtag. The hashtag is a way to find each other not only as a nation, but as a global society that understands black lives matter. Just because we say ‘black lives matter’ … we don’t devalue anyone’s life in that. It’s a political declaration. It’s an open space for us to join in and find ourselves within this movement.  

It’s also a network with 26 chapters that are able to self-organize around the issues they care passionately about in their communities. These 26 chapters, between August 28 and now, are growing. We have to really put it in context because, again, Black Lives Matter as a network is not a startup company. There’s no business plan. It was really an idea of one person who said, ‘I want to go down to Ferguson to be in solidarity with people.’ That person called another and said, ‘I want to do the same.’ It took two people who then called Patrisse Cullors in California and then, the rest is history. Five hundred people [went] to Ferguson on August 28, and now you have a network of 26 chapters. No one knew that was going to happen, but that’s what happens when you have a movement.

Black Lives Matter as a movement is not just 26 chapters, but it also includes organizations who have been part of this legacy. When we’re thinking about this entire movement, the network who were part of catalyzing that experience and who went back home in their communities and decided they wanted to organize.

There are so many organizations that have been doing this work past this project. I can go down the lists of organizations that have been doing this work all the way back to the black liberation struggle. So it’s only a continued legacy. This is not new.

The only reason why we are talking about this right now: It’s on our TV screens. Everyone gets to see the atrocities. One of my good colleagues said this: ‘The conversations that we have at a water cooler when we are talking about racism is now on our TV screens.’ So nobody gets to have a water cooler conversation about it anymore, because it’s public. So now racism is front and center on your TV screen; it’s being blasted through cellphones; it’s being put on Facebook.

Sandra Bland, Mya Hall, all these people are people who have lost their lives to police violence. Also, we can talk about the intra-communal violence that’s happening in our communities on a daily basis, and then the unintentional offshoots and white people who are being arrested and brutalized who then media can list up because it’s like, ‘Oh, white people are paying attention now.’ We actually get to expose it all.

We’re not having a real conversation about what even allows for us to witness this. For folks to say, ‘Oh, Black Lives Matter is a thing now,’ when people have been organizing to make sure that our communities are doing their best forever. Since slavery, people have been trying to get free, for 400 years people have been trying to get free, and Black Lives Matter is just another chapter of how we’re trying to get free on the project called United States of America.

According to Black Lives Matter’s official site, the network is an ideological and political intervention group. And a couple of months ago, the network released a statement not endorsing or allowing any candidate to control the network. Are there any candidates Black Lives Matter will ever endorse? Is that even a possibility?

No. Not as I know it today [Oct. 21]. I don’t see it as a reality.

Some people have given the critiques. So I’m going to play devil’s advocate on myself. Some people have said, ‘Oh, by you disrupting Bernie Sanders action … then what are you saying about Hillary, or what are you saying about Obama?’ The thing about us is that, just because we are disrupting Bernie Sanders’ action, to us it’s not indicative of us then supporting another candidate. The logic and thinking behind that is actually false. It’s a false belief. For us, again, there’s a strategic, political rationale and aim that we have behind why we’re disrupting and why we’re putting these actions forth.

It’s goes back to the premise of, if we’re saying that the policies, the laws, practices, beliefs, values, and culture of this nation are supposed to be equitable and supposed to stand on humility, but yet we incarcerate the most amount of people in this entire world. We’re saying we’re about all of these things, and then black folks are the ones that are carrying the burden of all this injustices [so] that we actually have larger conversation to talk about. We have to challenge all of the practices even when we’re in them and create our new practices. 

I think that’s the challenge with this movement, because we’re trying to imagine the new while also living under oppression; we’re living under a cultural violence, and we have to contend with that to try to find space to heal, imagine, create, innovate, and disrupt, so that we can actually live. We’re considering the legacy of what we’ve been trying to do, and striving to do, and surviving to do, over the last 400 years. It’s not new. The only thing that makes it new is technology.

I’m not downing technology. The ride to Ferguson happened because of social media. Black Lives Matter happened because of social media. Trayvon Martin, we found out about the initial no indictment that happened because of Black Twitter. When we found out about Mike Brown being murdered, we found out through Twitter. Social media had some positive aspects that allowed for us to really feel with these realities differently and in real-time in ways we were not able to before.

Are there any candidates you personally want to sit down with?

If I were to be honest with you, no. I’m more interested in sitting down with the local council person that’s in my community. I’m more interested in talking to the local congressperson. I’m actually more interested in talking to my local senator in my community before I’m interested in talking to a presidential candidate for the reasons that I mentioned earlier. 

These people who are dictating local policies in our communities are directly impacting our lives. How many Americans in this nation actually participate in the local government? We’re not asking those questions. So, I’m not interested in, at this moment, talking to any of the candidates unless it’s part of a strategy around local electoral politics to get people in their local communities to start participating in the system differently. I’m not interested in talking with any of candidates unless it’s meeting that political aim.

Based on that, what message would you send to any of the Democratic candidates when it comes to their current policy platforms: Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, or Martin O’Malley?

My friend said this, Monica Dennis who’s my comrade in BLM: NYC, on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show and I totally agree with her: When we’re talking about policies and systems, if we are not assessing our policies to make sure that they are equitable, they stand for the liberation of black folks, and they stand in racial justice, then we’re doing our policies a disservice.

So, if our candidates are not able to walk us through a process around how they’re able to assess the policies before they implement then I’m actually not interested in talking to them. If they’re not able to sit down with the policies they have and engage black people in discussions about why these policies matter—why they’re good and why they’re bad and why they’re not supporting their interests—then I actually don’t want to be talking to these candidates and certainly will not be voting for these candidates if they’re not going to be talking about these issues.

If I’m going to be talking to these candidates, I want to ensure myself that if I’m engaging with them that they can actually talk to these issues. If they are unable to explain themselves in a way that upholds racial justice, then they wouldn’t be able to make these issues very real for the families that have to live in the conditions that are impacted by these policies.

“Since slavery, people have been trying to get free, for 400 years people have been trying to get free, and Black Lives Matter is just another chapter.”

We have to have racial-equity impact assessment around how we implement these policies and practices. We really have to hold people at the federal level accountable. So they can get to see how policy on the federal level impacts things on the state level impacts things on town or city level and how that is impacting the families that are sitting on the block who have to deal with all of this stuff; that are sitting in their homes that have to deal with all these loopholes and system failures that are not supporting them.

We can talk about policy, but if policy is not practiced in a way that creates equitable conditions for people then people will find alternative routes to get what they need. If I need money by tomorrow, and I don’t have a job, what you think I’m going to do? We don’t have those conversations, but yet right-wing people say, there are bad criminals in this society, and we can use that as a rationale to lock millions of people up. But at the end of day, is it going to add to the economic viability of this nation? No.

We would really need to be honest; we would really need to be authentic; we would really just need to be humble; we would really need to be loving; we actually would need to be caring, show empathy and show humility around really what’s been going on in this nation for this period of time, for us to be in this moment [where] our political candidates are talking about Black Lives Matter.

Illustration by Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Oct 26, 2015, 1:07 pm CDT