From the September-October 2015 issue of News & Letters
One year after the murder of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson, the Black Lives Matter movement continues to challenge racist U.S. society. Ferguson and St. Louis County police showed how little they had changed by arresting over 100 peaceful demonstrators on the anniversary. The manifest racism was only highlighted by the authorities permitting white right-wing “Oathkeepers” militia members to walk around town carrying assault rifles, while young Blacks were beaten and arrested for the mere alleged “suspicion” of having weapons.
At the commemoration of Michael Brown’s death, one activist commented that police have murdered over 700 people since the beginning of the year. (See killedbypolice.net.) This doesn’t include deaths in custody, which number in the thousands. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 4,446 deaths occurred in local jails and state prisons in 2013, the latest available data. More than one-third (34% or around 1,512) were ruled to be suicides.
CHALLENGING BOURGEOIS POLITICS
Young Black activists are determined to confront and uproot the racism that has disfigured this country, not only from its formal founding in a dirty compromise allowing slavery, but in its true foundations: an economic system built on genocide and forced labor. This was demonstrated once again in the challenge to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ supporters at a number of campaign rallies.
While some were critical of the intervention at Sanders’ Seattle rally by Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford, who seized the microphone to make their anti-racist statement, many more were driven to think. For one thing, at a rally focusing on protecting social programs, the young activists introduced a note of urgency reflecting the fact that countless lives are being destroyed through draconian cutbacks that reflect the inhuman logic of capital.
Behind Black Lives Matter is a demand for Black lives to be recognized as human lives. This is not reducible to the glib rhetorical statement “all lives matter,” which can be said by any politician, warden, or bureaucrat.
The Black experience brings forth a universal idea of what it is about human life—freedom, dignity—that matters for everyone. This is a concrete confrontation with U.S. history, including its latest chapter of unending capitalist crisis and the cancerous growth of a genocidal prison system. This movement reveals a strong sense of history.
CHALLENGING OURSELVES TOO
Young Black revolutionaries have begun by changing themselves. The Black Lives Matter movement has had a major effect upon a generation’s consciousness. This could be seen in the life of Sandra Bland, the young Black woman who died in custody in Waller, Texas, on July 13. She was pulled over by state trooper Brian Encinia, who accused her of not using her turn signal, although she was actually pulling over to get out of his way. Encinia escalated the incident to the point of brutalizing Bland, before illegitimately arresting her and placing her in the proven unsafe Waller County Jail.
The most powerful testimony against the lying trooper and the racist jailers has been Bland’s deepening revolutionary consciousness (see page 8). That can’t be confined in any cell.
The challenge voiced by the Black Lives Matter Movement recalls Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”
HUMAN FREEDOM IS THE GOAL
We have seen that even the first Black President has too often been more devoted to “order” than to human freedom. Black youth now are challenging not only “moderates,” but the system that demands of them moderation.
In doing so, they challenge their own movement to deepen its continuity with the history of freedom struggles that remain incomplete, and bring to completion this quest for a new society beyond racism, exploitation and oppression.