This is the year Black Lives Matter grew from a grassroots, ad-hoc agitator to a potential political powerhouse. And with Joe Biden as president-elect, its leaders are seeking to expand their influence beyond the streets — and into the corridors of Washington.
The summer of protests against racial injustice and police violence brought millions to the streets under the banner of Black Lives Matter. It also gave the international movement significant corporate and political muscle, which leaders used to launch a nationwide voter mobilization effort, registering and turning out millions of first-time voters. Armed with an infusion of cash, they launched a political action committee in October — a move that signals their readiness to deal in the mainstream political arena.
Next on their agenda: Barnstorming Georgia to get out the vote for the Senate runoffs on Jan. 5. The control of the Senate is on the line and with it, any hopes for the sweeping reforms of the Black Lives Matter political agenda.
“The ballot is actually an essential tool to our movement,” Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors said in an interview. “We are both marching and protesting. And we are going to the voting booth. Those are multiple tools in our toolbox to change our system.”
But changing the system won’t be easy. As an organization, Black Lives Matter deliberately eschews a central leadership infrastructure, which makes forming consensus around their policy goals more complicated. It doesn’t help, either, that there is growing animosity among Democrats toward the movement. Many blame calls to defund the police — one of activists’ central talking points — for their down ballot losses. Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter leaders argue Democrats aren’t pushing hard enough with criminal justice reform, coronavirus relief and a major police funding overhaul.
"Black Lives Matter, through media and social media, can organize marches all across the world,” said Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther. “However, can Black Lives Matter get a bill passed in the House of Representatives? No, I don’t think so."
The BREATHE Act is one example of this dynamic in play. In July, leaders with the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 50 social justice organizations affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement, unveiled the four-part legislative proposal, which calls for mitigating police violence through divestment from law enforcement and investment in communities of color. The proposal was backed by Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), but efforts to get it on the DNC platform in August failed. It remains atop the movement’s list of legislative priorities.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, drafted in response to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, represents Democrats’ efforts to meet protesters’ demands halfway. The bipartisan bill, introduced by Congressional Black Caucus chair Karen Bass (D-Calif.), would end qualified immunity in civil rights suits against police, form national standards for officers’ use of force and establish a database to track officer offenses. It passed the House in June and is unlikely to pass the Senate, which drafted its own unsuccessful version.
Jessica Byrd, a political strategist and lead organizer with the Movement for Black Lives, said the bill is a positive sign but “not enough,” because it does not address police budgets or the harm wrought on overpoliced communities, which tend to be communities of color.
“The idea that you need to make murder illegal when murder is already illegal, is ridiculous,” Byrd said. “We aren’t going to take our eyes off of that. And we’re not going to allow people to tinker around the edges and tell us that it’s progress.”
“We want to be heard and our agenda prioritized”
In the weeks leading up to Election Day, lead organizers with the Movement for Black Lives strategized how they would respond to its outcome.
If Joe Biden lost, leaders and strategists said, they planned to focus on local races, fighting to elect reform-minded mayors, city and county commissioners. If he won, they would spend the first 100 days of his administration urging him to enact reforms that millions of protesters had been calling for in the streets.
Hours after the presidential race was called, Cullors sent Biden and Kamala Harris a letter requesting a meeting. In it, Cullors made it clear that she and movement leaders intended to hold their administration accountable to their demands.
“We want to be heard and our agenda to be prioritized,” Cullors wrote. “We issue these expectations not just because Black people are the most consistent and reliable voters for Democrats, but also because Black people are truly living in crisis in a nation that was built on our subjugation.”
Leaders with the Movement for Black Lives say they plan to push the Biden-Harris administration to immediately end cash bail and grant amnesty to protesters targeted by the National Guard under President Trump. Any stimulus bill Congress passes, they argue, should specifically provide relief to the Black, Latino and Native communities disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus.
In the meantime, Cullors said she’s yet to hear back from Biden or Harris.
Tlaib, who supports Black Lives Matter, said she is optimistic about the chances of police reform passing under a Biden administration. The Black Lives Matter movement will not let up on pressuring a Biden administration, she said.
“Growing up in Detroit and one of the most beautiful blackest cities in the country, one thing it taught me is that transformative change happens when we organize in the streets and it reaches Congress and it reaches the White House,” said Tlaib. “I’m an extension of that movement work.”
“You can’t stop the revolution”
This year, the movement helped secure a number of electoral wins, which, its leaders say, proves their political value to the Democratic Party. The height of the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer brought a surge in Democratic voter registrations by about 2 million, according to an analysis by TargetSmart. In addition to galvanizing record turnout in predominantly Black cities like Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Detroit, organizers in Georgia helped register more than 800,000 new voters to help deliver the state for Biden.
In January, they’ll be sending one of their own to Congress. Cori Bush, a nurse from Ferguson, Mo., will be the first Black Lives Matter activist elected to national office. Two other progressive candidates heading for Washington, Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Ritchie Torres (D-NY), are progressive allies of the movement.
What’s more, nearly a dozen major cities also elected progressive district attorneys, including Los Angeles, where incumbent Jackie Lacey was unseated by George Gascón, who ran on a platform promising to stop trying juveniles as adults and end the death penalty. In St. Louis, Kim Gardner, a circuit attorney who was among those who ran with the backing of the Black Lives Matter movement, said that protests in the city in the wake of the police killings of Floyd and Taylor “energized voters to vote and understand that these local prosecutor elections are important.”
“It reaffirmed the accountability of local prosecutors as well as the activist community to make sure they hold electeds accountable for what we know needs to be reformed,” Gardner said, citing police accountability as one of the top issues she’s vowed to address.
Any chance for Democrats to pass sweeping reforms, however, hinges largely on their control of the Senate, which is why Black Lives Matter activists are planning to travel to Georgia in the coming weeks. Democrats face considerable odds in flipping both Senate seats blue. That won’t stop their lobbying, said Maurice Mitchell, director of the Working Families Party, during a press call last week.
“Clearly, if [Mitch] McConnell is in control of the Senate, we anticipate that there will be some obstruction there,” Mitchell said. “But we’re going to — on the local, state and federal level — continue to push our demands, and then call on [Biden] to do the things that the president could do even without the ability to pull on the levers of the legislature.”
Biden has recognized the role that Black voters played in his election and promised to return the favor in his presidential victory speech. His “Lift Every Voice” plan for Black America aims to address racial disparities in health, the economy, education and criminal justice. His approach to police reform involves reinvestment in the COPS program, which calls for police departments to hire officers that reflect the racial diversity of their communities — a stark contrast from the invest-divest framework activists have been calling for. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Still, experts maintain that Black Lives Matter has already made significant inroads even if they are not immediately noticeable. In the long run, some argue, any legislation passed may very likely have its roots in the movement work completed this year.
“Biden and Harris can advocate for major reforms of policing while still appearing moderate by saying they oppose defunding the police,” said Omar Wasow, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University. “For some more militant activists, this might seem like a failure. But if Biden and Harris have been pulled further towards more significant reforms by the Black Lives Matter protests, then the activism made an important difference.”
Yet, there are still concerns that the movement’s gains could diminish even after the summer of protest, despite the bolstered national profile and increased support. Rush said he envisions a future in which Black Lives Matter, if it continues on its current trajectory, becomes “its own political apparatus” that will in turn make it “more compromising in its goals and in its virtues.”
“It happens all the time in every social movement,” Rush explained. “Every social movement carries with it the seeds of its own disintegration or its own disempowerment … [activists] become less relevant as agents of change. That’s just the reality. They gotta go through that.”
Still, Rush said, he feels that even as the movement’s influence waxes and wanes, he’s still optimistic about the progress made.
“You can stop a revolutionary but you can’t stop the revolution,” Rush said, invoking the words of his late comrade Fred Hampton. “Revolutionaries have a short lifespan. Revolutionary organizations have a short lifespan. Revolutions don’t.”
Laura Barrón-López contributed to this report.
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