Thoughts about Black Lives Matter in 2017

What a difference a few months makes. The Black Lives Matter movement was getting a lot of media coverage and popular support between 2014 and mid-2016. Multiple sessions at the American Sociological Association meeting were devoted to it. The Vision for Black Lives, prepared by a coalition named the Movement for Black Lives, rolled out in early August 2016 offered a comprehensive agenda for social change. It was clear that community activists, many of them in the trenches for decades, were seizing the moment and seeking to move into a proactive stance of planning campaigns for a variety of specific goals. Queer women were at the forefront of many parts of the movement, and it was offering an intersectional analysis that gave some special attention to trans people of color. The ideology from the core organizations had a strong somewhat separatist Black Power ideology. Whites were welcomed to be allies of the movement, but the movement itself was a Black movement, not an interracial movement.

That was then. Black Lives Matter has fallen off the national media attention radar since November 8. Black activists and activists from other minorities were heavily represented in the spontaneous protests in the first few days after the election, were prominent in Inauguration Day protest rallies, played a role in the big Women’s March rallies the day after the Inauguration, and continue to play a role in the ongoing protests against the Trump administration’s policies. They have not gone away. But they have been joined by the huge numbers of White women and men who have turned out to protest. Muslims and immigrants and transgender people (some of whom are Black, of course) are now the most visible targets of hostile policies and attacks.

The visible momentum has been lost for the Black Lives Movement, both for pursuing its broader agenda and for its core agenda of resisting violent and coercive police practices. The new president vowed to strengthen police repressive capacity, drew energy and support from the White backlash to BLM, and is likely to reverse the few gains that had been made in federal efforts to make police more accountable. FBI reports on the infiltration of some police departments by White nationalists had been soft-pedaled by politicians, anyway, and the current administration is moving strongly away from any implication that White nationalism or White terrorism are problems. Initial administration responses to huge peaceful White-majority protests were calls for massive repression of them. Any reasonable analysis has to predict a ramping-up of repression against the Black movement and Black protests until the political winds change. Further, the proposals for addressing a broader agenda of improving the economic resources and power of Black Americans run directly counter to the expected initiatives of the new president and the Republican majority in Congress. White liberal activists have shifted their priority to protecting their own interests or the rights of immigrants and Muslims. Those looking ahead to trying to reverse electoral outcomes in the future are pointing to White rural people (or White working class, or White middle class, depending on the analysis) as being a “forgotten” group whose interests were neglected in favor of the cosmopolitan elites and minorities. Once again, White working class people with their resentments of minorities are the swing voters who are likely to be courted by politicians.

Black activists are well aware of this. Black activists never discounted the possibility of a Trump victory and (I’ve been told) were planning for such an outcome in meetings in September. I was not at those meetings and cannot tell you their plans. Nor would I presume to give advice to the Black movement. Instead, I will offer some thoughts about what directions the movement might take and what this means for scholars and movement allies.

First, repression of Black people generally and Black activists specifically is likely to go up, to be worse than that directed against most other groups, and to be under-reported and under-noticed by White-dominated media and social networks. Mass incarceration will continue to decline, but aggressive policing will not. There is substantial research evidence of higher levels of repression of Black protests for any given level of disruptiveness, and substantial evidence that media portrayals and White responses treat any given level of disruptiveness as more “violent” than the same actions by Whites. Although Black Twitter played an important role in protests in recent years, I have heard Black activists and scholars close to Black activists say even before the election that they were assuming their social media networks were being monitored and they were being careful, and I expect that most movement organizing will be happening off camera and not be accessible via social media. Scholars and allies who are concerned about supporting the Black movement should seek alternate sources of information.

Second, there will be many pressures on Black people that will tend to put the movement on a defensive or reactive tack. Anti-Black (along with anti-Muslim, anti-Latino, anti-Asian, and anti-trans) assaults and intimidation incidents are likely to rise as White nationalists have felt emboldened by their recent victory. The movement to roll back affirmative action and diversity efforts, which has been operating steadily since the 1980s, is likely to continue. Economic policies are likely to worsen conditions for most people but especially those in segregated minority communities. I expect we’ll return to the state where the initiative is with the anti-Black movements, especially in the short run.

Third, most funding for protest movements is counter-cyclical. Most people give more money to protest organizations when their “team” is out of power. Money has been pouring into the ACLU, immigrant rights, and progressive organizations. (Just as money poured into conservative organizations in 2009 and 1993 and into feminist and liberal organizations in 1983 and 2001.) It is not clear how Black movement organizations will fare compared to other types of organizations in competing for White liberal funds, but I would expect at least some large donor money to be going their way.

Fourth, the thrust of action for specifically Black issues is likely to shift away from mass street protests, except that there will still be a potential for mass mobilization or even riots in the face of overt publicized police violence. But the proactive effort is likely to shift toward community building and community organizing. I’ve seen lots of discussions of the importance of self-care and survival and a recognition that there is a need to settle in for the long haul. People will continue building networks and planning strategy and doing political education, forming alliances with other groups to piece together programs to benefit their communities. Progress on police-community relations will likely be mixed to bad. Some police departments have embraced reform, and there is likely to be continuing progress where there are strong local coalitions supporting reform. Other police departments in different political contexts are likely to feel emboldened to continue or renew aggressive policing of Black communities.

Fifth, Black activists will be participating in mixed-race coalitions around electoral strategies and national issues, but are likely to feel that their concerns are being marginalized. Black activists are visible and active participants in the current (circa January and February 2017) protests against the Trump administration and are vocal in saying that they have a long history of resisting oppression and have no intention of giving up. Many White activists believe in a multi-racial coalition. Nevertheless, I predict that media coverage will downplay Blacks and Black issues and that there will be tensions along racial lines in anti-Trump and anti-Republican mobilizations. I would be happy to be proved wrong.

Finally, the mass media and non-Black scholars will lose interest in the Black movement and focus on the political contests among Whites. However, Black activists will be building on the renewed vigor experienced from 2012-2016 to deepen their strategy and theorizing and convert the young people newly recruited into the movement into lifelong activists.

Scholars tend to be slow to notice new social movements and to begin studying them when they are already at their peak. Movements continue after media attention turns away. There will still be a Black movement and Black activists even when they are not in the news headlines.

 

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