During his senior year, Donald Abram put a lot of his energy into the Black Lives Matter protests that roiled the campus at Pomona College in California last fall.
It was in many ways a political coming-of-age for Mr. Abram, who grew up in the South Side of Chicago, raised by his churchgoing mother and grandmother. He joined a host of fellow students last spring and fall, participating in “die-ins,” marching on campus, and giving voice to grievances that he and other Black Lives Matter protesters were loudly proclaiming to both school administrators and the country as a whole.
Now a divinity student at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., however, Abram has not been nearly as politically active, even during one of the most raucous and polarizing elections in modern U.S. history. Part of the reason is the pressure and time constraints of graduate school, he says. And though he sees the outcomes of the elections on Nov. 8 as incredibly important, he says supporting a political party does not have to be his primary focus as a politically-engaged citizen.
“We’ve tried to use the political channels through liberal Democrats, who control most of urban cities, but we haven’t really been heard,” Abram says. “Therefore we’ve had to use extra-political means to call the attention of liberal Democrats.”
Like others involved in Black Lives Matter, he cites one of the recent Wikileaks emails in which a Democratic congressional staffer lists a behind-the-scenes set of “best practices” to deal with BLM activists. These encouraged Democratic representatives to “lead from behind,” have “limited” group meetings, and “don’t offer support for concrete policy positions.”
Indeed, the ethos of the Black Lives Matter movement is in many ways part of a larger culture of grievance that is reshaping American politics. And like many of the supporters of Mr. Trump, the movement’s younger activists maintain a deep distrust of the powers that be, from the media to big corporations and the traditional power structures that shape the country’s party politics – each of these often seen as “rigged.”
Though it began as a street protest movement after the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 -- taking on greater urgency after the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and other black men at the hands of police in following years -- Black Lives Matter has since become a wider-ranging social movement including an “intersectional” coalition of the marginalized – a coalition that has more than any other group turned grievance and distrust into a politics of disruption.
“They’re calling attention to their concerns and their issues on their own terms, not the terms given to us by the political establishment – i.e., voting, voting registration, lobbying, etc.,” Abram says. Whether it’s through a sit-in, a “die-in,” or the shutting down Lake Shore Drive in Chicago or the interstate highway in St. Louis, he continues, “the point is to disrupt.”
'Individuals need to be represented'
Yet these kinds of “extra political” methods have in some ways set the younger generation of Black Lives Matter organizers against their civil rights forebears. This older generation of activists could be seen, too, as part of a traditional power establishment, rooted in the leadership of clergy with deep ties to the Democratic Party. Indeed, these voters’ overwhelming support for Hillary Clinton during the primaries in many ways provided a singular bulwark for the status quo during a year of profound disruption.
“I’m just at the generation where I felt that that the issues are about attaining political power,” says Randal Jelks, professor of African-American studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, noting that the talk among many of his friends is that the politics of the Black Lives Matter generation is often “annoying.”
“This is a system of representative politics – individuals need to be represented,” says Professor Jelks, who’s working on a documentary on the poet Langston Hughes. “They’re not thinking about, well, how much are we spending on the Pentagon, and how much are you spending on education – how to influence these kinds of questions with more systematic approaches.”
Even radicals from the 1960s, too, such as the former chairwoman of the Black Panther Party, Elaine Brown, have offered scathing critiques of the movement and its slogan-driven protests.
“The next wave of young people running out here, who are complaining and protesting about the murders of young black men and women by the police all over the country, they will protest but they will not rise up in an organised fashion, with an agenda, to create revolutionary change,” Ms. Brown told the British magazine Spiked in a piece commemorating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther party.
The rise of 'intersectionality'
For those involved in Black Lives Matter movement, however, the views of their elders entirely misses the point of the values they have embraced – values that indeed depart from those of the civil rights leaders of the past.
Indeed, the website representing the nationwide network of individual chapters, notes that it “goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis[gender] Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all.”
Abram agrees. The civil rights movement of the 1960s “wasn’t focused on feminism and women’s liberation, the men had to come first,” he says. “However, BLM is saying, no, we think we have to fight for liberation and freedom on all fronts for all people at all times. We are not selectively choosing who we fight for and when we fight for them.”
Often called “intersectionality,” this focus on broader spectrum of marginalized people has made the movement’s concerns much broader than American policing and the recent killings of black men, activists say.
For all the national attention it often gets, the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement’s politics of disruption, ironically, often overlap with some of the values of the right: decentralizing power and focussing on local, rather than national solutions.
The movement maintains a deep commitment to the integrity of local chapters, rejecting top-down leadership. In conversations, many activists call theirs a “leaderfull” movement of equals – a legacy of the Occupy Wall Street movement. They organize intentionally at a local level, without visible national figureheads or charismatic leaders to represent them.
“Whenever these critiques of Black Lives Matter not being organized comes up, it’s essentially true in that they’re not nationally organized in the traditional sense,” says Louie Dean Valencia-García, lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University, and an expert on youth protest movements. “Maybe they’re not that particularly invested in specific political outcomes such as elections, but they are a force within this election debate to be sure.”
“They’re trying to think a little more broadly – how do you affect not just political change, but really social change and cultural change,” Valencia-García says. “It’s not just about trying to change political structures, but trying to change the socio-cultural realities that people are experiencing first, and to make these experiences visible.”
Still, in August a coalition of more than 60 organizations issued a six-plank platform under the aegis of “The Movement for Black Lives.” These include a return to “Community Control” of the “laws, institutions, and policies that are meant to serve us – from our schools to our local budgets, economies, police departments, and our land.” Another plank advocated “independent Black political power and Black self-determination in all areas of society.”
With this emphasis upon on self-determination, the Black Lives Matter movement has mastered the revolution that digital media, itself a decentralized and nonhierarchical phenomenon, has played in modern modes of political activism.
“Through social media – FaceBook, Twitter, Periscope, Instagram – I think we are able to get our stories out on our own terms,” Abram says. “People believe it’s better to follow those who are on the ground giving live updates, because we know that often the way things are reported in mainstream media are different from the ways that protesters themselves experience it.”
Yet a politics of disruption, in the end, is meant to be transformative, not simply confrontational, he says.
“It’s so that people, their daily routine will be disrupted, and hopefully they will be pushed toward thinking about why this is happening,” Abram says. “And then think about ways in which they can be involved in ensuring that whatever grievances are being expressed in these demonstrations, are being resolved in a way that is just and fair.”