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How Black Lives Matter can move beyond a hashtag

What does the future hold for Black Lives Matter?


Barrett Holmes Pitner

Internet Culture

As the Democrat candidates fiercely compete for the black vote in the hopes of winning the upcoming South Carolina primary, one voice has been noticeably absent from the fray.

Black Lives Matter, which dominated the discourse on race in America last year, seems to have completely fallen off the radar in recent weeks and months. The silence has made some question the relevance, staying power, and vitality of this pivotal movement.

As a movement that sprung to life in the form of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter following the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, few would have anticipated its rise to prominence as activists in the struggle for equality. Few understood the organizing and galvanizing impact that Black Twitter can have, and so Black Lives Matter was born and focused on marches and protests in 2014 to highlight racial inequalities in America, and in 2015 they confronted presidential candidates to find out how they intended to combat racial injustices and systemic oppression.

And in 2015, the debate between “black lives matter” and “all lives matter” dominated national conversation, with presidential candidates quickly learning the lesson that “all lives matter” was an inadequate position if they wanted to win the black vote. By the end of 2015, Black Lives Matter decided to organize itself into a viable entity and not just a rag-tag group of passionate African-Americans on social media who were fully committed towards working to advance black life. A website was created, they started releasing statements on issues, and took up the position of not endorsing a presidential candidate or even officially engaging in politics.

BLM wanted to remain apolitical and focus on the power of community organizing, and structured and peaceful civil disobedience to bring about change in the black community and America at large. And while this approach may resonate inside the black community, it has left many other Americans scratching their head. In early 2016, as we head towards a pivotal election year, BLM has almost become a non-factor in one of the most racially divisive presidential campaigns in modern memory.

It seems as though the movement has disappeared, and many people wonder if the future of Black Lives Matter will more resemble the Occupy Wall Street or of the Tea Party movement. 

It seems as though the movement has disappeared, and many people wonder if the future of Black Lives Matter will more resemble the Occupy Wall Street or of the Tea Party movement. Occupy Wall Street now dominates the annals of history, and the Tea Party movement is dominating the presidential race. Which way will BLM go, or is there another path entirely to pursue?

A recent article in The Nation,A Concrete Plan to Make Black Lives Matter,” attempts to confront this recent dilemma by discussing how an organization called the Agenda to Build Black Futures has released a comprehensive agenda that lays out potential road maps for combatting issues that disproportionately harm black communities. Yet the Agenda to Build Black Futures is not BLM. They may fall under the umbrella of the Black Lives Matter movement itself, which can be almost any organization that supports the message #BlackLivesMatter, but they are not part of the actual organization called Black Lives Matter.

To some, the creation of the Agenda to Build Black Futures could be viewed as a successful progression of the Black Lives Matter movement, since it has spawned the creation of an organization that intends to fight for the principles of the movement. And to others, it will be seen as a confusing setback for the movement because this movement has been dominated by one name Black Lives Matter, and any other name will be viewed as an unwanted distraction.

Activist, Twitter personality, and Baltimore mayoral candidate DeRay McKesson’s Campaign Zero is another one of these organizations that has either emerged or splintered off from Black Lives Matter. Campaign Zero encouraged organizing, civil disobedience, and laying out an agenda or policy proposals like BLM and other organizations within the Black Lives Matter movement, but they also encouraged becoming political and working with politicians to create the necessary change in black communities. McKesson’s decision to run for mayor demonstrates the organization’s ideological commitment towards political engagement.

Again this could be viewed as a victory for the Black Lives Matter movement but not for BLM the organization. As an African-American, the growth of these new organizations and campaigns from the Black Lives Matter movement are both encouraging and frustrating.

Without clear messaging and engagement in the daily political discourse, it is easy for others to view the movement as becoming a dwindling force in American politics and society. It is easier to perceive BLM and the Black Lives Matter movement as on the cusp of fading away like Occupy Wall Street instead of growing in political importance like the Tea Party, but I’d venture to say that the Black Lives Matter movement, and the many organizations that have emerged from it, intends to follow neither of those paths.

The Black Lives Matter movement presently appears to be reminiscent of the 1960s civil rights movement, where there were numerous factions all simultaneously competing with one another while also striving together collectively to end racial oppression in America including ending segregation, increasing education opportunities, removing voting restrictions and more for African Americans. That time period is more known for the black leaders who defined it such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and not for any particular organization that controlled it. Yet it is also known for the many different organizations that played a significant role in creating change and advocating for black advancement such as the NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and even militant groups such as the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam.

Without clear messaging and engagement in the daily political discourse it is easy for others to view the movement as becoming a dwindling force in American politics and society. 

The Black Lives Matter movement seems to be attempting to traverse the path of pioneering African-American civil rights trailblazers of yesteryear, so viewing the movement along an Occupy vs Tea Party spectrum, which is dominated by mostly white voices, might be an inadequate comparison. However, the problem with attempting to emulate previous successes is that you may overlook some of the progress brought on by the success. In the case of BLM and some of the other groups that have emerged from the Black Lives Matter movement, this inclination to remain apolitical and not engage with politics appears to be one of such flaws.

African-Americans have always been a disenfranchised group of people in America, and they have never had a government that worked on their behalf. There have always been numerous obstacles preventing blacks from voting or obtaining elected office. Therefore, an apolitical ideology was always the norm. It is impossible to have a political organization when the society in which you live in actively prevents you from participating in the political process.

African-Americans and African-American organizations have a long history of being apolitical, but this was not because disengaging from politics was the best way to meet our goals. It was because the reality of our forced political disengagement required us to pursue other methods for engaging in society and fighting for civil rights.

In recent years, the easy access to the Internet and social media, and the prevalence of digital cameras on our mobile phones has made it easier for African-Americans to communicate across the country and capture instances of abuse. Yet taking the movement beyond the cyber and even in-person organizing structure, and into the political realm is the next necessary step to build upon the progress of previous generations.

Despite the many concerns about the viability of the Black Lives Matter movement, it most certainly is not going away anytime soon, but it may resemble a movement from the 1960s instead of the 2000s. However, for it to have the impact it desires, it can still resemble a modern-day civil rights movement, but it will need to break free of its apolitical ideology, and fervently engage in this incredibly important presidential election.

Barrett Holmes Pitner is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist and columnist who focuses mostly on race, culture, and politics, but also loves to dabble in sports, entertainment and business. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, National Journal, the Institute for War & Peace Reporting and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @BarrettPitner or visit his website

Photo via Tony Webster/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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