If Black Lives Matter, #BlackLivesMatter Has To Grow Up

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This is not a lecture or an attack. Just want to get that out of the way, because, hey, a lot of what I do is that. But this is not that.

Black lives do, in fact, matter. But the movement promoting this idea, #BlackLivesMatter, seems to be at something of a crossroads and in my eyes, about to hit a stumbling block that has led to other social movements to simply die on the vine. This is an attempt, from my perspective to address those blocks and think about some remedies.

I want this thing to succeed. These policies and practices are bad for our country, but they are also personally obstacles to living the dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for me, a black man. So we need to fix it.

What Is The Point Of #BlackLivesMatter

If the point of the movement is to raise awareness, screw awareness. “Raising awareness” is the sign of a movement or idea that is unworthy of attention. We are aware of systemic racism, racial wealth disparities, race-based policing, and all the other issues. Americans in general are aware, and particularly black Americans. Everybody is aware. Similarly, this also cannot be about the validation of feelings. On an individual level personal validation of blackness is importance, but for the purposes of widespread social change – who gives a crap?

So then, what is the point of #BlackLivesMatter? On a practical level I believe it is about effecting changes in policies and attitudes with regards to America’s stance towards black (and brown) people. If so, there’s only one real way to get this done.

How Change Actually Happens

I think there are two fundamental problems with what feels like the dominant progressive perspective on how real, concrete change happens (not coincidentally, this is also the root of a lot of progressive disappointment in President Obama, but that’s a fight for another day).

If you just protest something, it isn’t going to change policy. I think this belief comes about thanks to the fairy tale manner in which social change has been discussed in America, particularly related to the progressive movement.

When Martin Luther King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SNCC, the NAACP and thousands of other organizations marched and demonstrated against racism, they didn’t simply protest against the concept of racism. Their direct actions were almost always targeted at some policy, whether within a city, state, or nationally. There were not civil rights marches to “raise awareness” of systemic racism. The protests were about: bus service, counter service, voter registration, education access, and on and on. They weren’t protests just to have a protest, but instead protests with a very clear “ask” of government, government officials, elected representatives and beyond.

Similary, the Vietnam War did not just end when protesters hit the streets in outrage. Neither President Johnson nor Nixon was swayed to end the war based on hippies and slogans and the like. The war ended — as it did in Iraq — when the American people got tired of losing their family members in a conflict that made no sense, or watched the coffins of young men get unloaded from cargo planes every day without fail. That’s what ended the war.

So in today’s system, simply protesting against politicians without asking them for something will not work. It didn’t work with Occupy Wall Street and it won’t work here.

The other issue is that people appear to think solutions come from politicians. In an ideal world, sure, our politicians would sit in a room with each other, put their thinking caps on and come up with a solution, then they enlist the support of others to make it happen.

In the real world, politicians do what outside forces tell them to. Democrats both under President Clinton and President Obama didn’t magically come up with the idea to do health insurance reform on their own. There has been longstanding pressure on Democratic politicians, for decades, to reform the system. When Democrats introduced and voted on the Affordable Care Act, it was the culmination of a pressure campaign.

For them to act, we can’t lambast – for instance – Bernie Sanders for not magically coming up with a plan to appease #BlackLivesMatter.

What instead has to be done is to present politicians with a slate of ideas/policies/laws — concrete ideas, not pie in the sky unicorn talk about “ending white supremacy,” etc. — and then hold their feet to the fire if they choose not to support the slate.

On the right, this has been extraordinarily effective. Grover Norquist’s group, Americans for Tax Reform, has a pledge that Republican candidates at all levels are pressured to sign. It is a promise never to raise taxes, under any circumstances. The carrot they are offered is that anyone who signs on will receive ATR’s backing in election and re-election. The stick is that ATR will go on the attack, pointing out their failure to sign the “no-tax” pledge. Politicians fear this, and widely sign on to the pledge.

The pledge and its implicit threat if you don’t support it, constantly hangs over the heads of conservative politicians. It informs the laws that they propose and oppose. Even if it isn’t top of mind, it is always there.

Concrete Steps For #BlackLivesMatter

I recently looked at what appear to be the demands of the movement, and they are both horribly constructed and general. They don’t make any sense. Politicians need things to be spoon fed to them. What the #BlackLivesMatter slate of policies is has to be decided and hashed out and simplified. It needs to ask politicians and policymakers to sign on. And it should be localized, either for city/county governments, state governments, and in federal law. These racial issues touch us at all levels of civic engagement, not just in Washington. In fact, as with civil rights, Washington is likely to follow the pack, not lead (which is another reason why confronting a presidential candidate is of limited upside).

So the key issues have to be identified and honed, then presented to politicians to see if they are on board. This presents a concrete “ask” for them. Now it is no longer about the tone in which Sen. Sanders did or didn’t address the issue at hand, or if Gov. Martin O’Malley said the right version of who’s lives matter, or if Hillary Clinton is being appropriately inclusive about black women in her speech or not. For optics those things matter, but they really don’t matter.

What matters is who signs on to the policy slate, and — AND — what they’re doing about it if they get elected. Simply signing a #BlackLivesMatter policy slate isn’t a hall pass. It means you’ve signed on to advocate for these issues. A politician who signs on can be expected to introduce legislation, co-sponsor legislation, at the state and local level sign laws and policies geared towards enacting those policy requests. And for those who don’t comply, the fear of electoral losses and cuts in their donor base should be baked in.

If they don’t fear you, you’ve lost again. There shouldn’t be a Democrat in America who doesn’t sign on, and frankly open-minded Republicans should as well. It isn’t about electing people of either party, but about electing people who will address these issues and deliver once they’re in office.

Politicians aren’t going to do this on their own. You have to drag them to the X on the map while also drawing the map itself.

The Clock Is Ticking

Changes like those I’ve described need to happen, the sooner the better. #BlackLivesMatter has approached critical mass, but risks deflating itself much like Occupy Wall Street and other temporarily buzzing movements did (I’d argue that this has happened to the Tea Party, which has been co-opted by the GOP mainstream and the hucksters who made a lot of money using it as a fundraising tool).

It isn’t enough to have Hillary Clinton and others say “black lives matter.” They’re aware of it, we’re aware of it. But now you need to pummel them into doing something that truly shows black lives matter and have them in fear of the consequences if they don’t enact what is being asked of them.

These social movements are important. They change the fabric of the American experience. This idea is more important than others, and it cannot be allowed to simply whither on the vine.

Ferguson protest in Memphis photo from Chris Wieland