When Does a Surge Become a Movement?

By Glen Ford

The most important constituency in this struggle – the “street” – has caused the rulers to fear an actual insurgency in Black America.

The incipient movement that rallied national Black resistance to police repression in Ferguson, Missouri, turns one year old on August 9, the anniversary of Michael Brown’s execution-by-cop. Unlike children, movements must earn the names by which they will be remembered by history. The nationwide, grassroots-based and largely youth-led push-back against a thoroughly racialized U.S. criminal justice system is still too politically inchoate to rank as a proper “movement” – such as “Black Power,” “Civil Rights,” or “Anti-War.” ­­­­­

The phenomenon was initially known by its place-name, as activists – as well as those whose job is to tame and subvert activism – converged on Ferguson like a Mecca of resurgent Black (and assorted radical) militancy. Soon, the surge took on the name of the most effective hash tag in the clamor of digital agitation: #BlackLivesMatter.

In January, #BlackLivesMatter issued a State of the Black Union manifesto endorsed by a range of organizations, from the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, whose 2012 Operation Ghetto Storm report documented the “state-sanctioned” extrajudicial killing of a Black person every 28 hours, to the Dream Defenders, a Florida-based activist youth group that came together in the swell of outrage over Trayvon Martin’s killing, in 2012 (as did #BlackLivesMatter). The manifesto is a broad condemnation of U.S. social and economic inequalities (“The current state of Black America is anything but just”) that centers the endorsers in the Black radical tradition – which, despite the general drift to the Right in the United States, remains a place of respect and legitimacy in the Black political spectrum.

#BlackLivesMatter’s list of 12 demands is consistent with the progressive Black political legacy. The document demands full employment at a living wage; an end to all forms of discrimination, “decent housing fit for the shelter of human beings and an end to gentrification”; access to “affordable, healthy food” in Black neighborhoods; an “aggressive attack” on all measures that disenfranchise communities; quality education for all, including the teaching of Black history in public schools; and an “end to the military industrial complex that incentivizes private corporations to profit off of the death and destruction of Black and Brown communities across the globe.”

Four demands focus on the criminal justice system: “an immediate end to police brutality and the murder of Black people and all oppressed people”; “an end to the school to prison pipeline”; “freedom from mass incarceration and an end to the prison industrial complex”; and “release of all U.S. political prisoners.”

Clearly, the #BlackLivesMatter organization and the groups with which it is engaged are attempting to advance a broad social agenda for a renewed mass Black movement, with the criminal justice system at the forefront of agitation and urgency. Most of the signatory groups had sent representatives to a White House meeting in December, where President Obama made a show of empathy with Black grievances. The “State of the Black Union” document included a demand for “a racial justice agenda from the White House that is inclusive of our shared fate as Black men, women, trans and gender-nonconforming people. Not My Brother’s Keeper, but Our Children’s Keeper.”

The #BlackLivesMatter group is adamant that the aspiring movement be led by Black organizations – a position consistent with that arrived at by the cutting edge formations of the last great Black mass movement, in the mid to late Sixties. Although non-Black, Left organizations have played a huge role in maintaining the momentum of what came to be called the “Black Lives Matter Movement,” the issue of Black self-determination is paramount, affecting every aspect of political struggle, but especially the lethal conflict between Black communities and the armed guardians of the State: the police.

Two generations ago, the U.S. Black “Liberation” Movement, as its most militant participants called it, was demolished by a pincer force of federal and local police repression, on the one hand, and the demobilizing pressures from a new cohort of aspiring Black office holders and business people. They counseled Blacks to move “from the streets to the suites,” via Democratic Party politics and individual upward corporate mobility. This “Black Misleadership Class” – as we at Black Agenda Report call it – spent the next 45 years as full partners in the creation of a national mass Black incarceration regime that has wreaked havoc on every aspect of Black life in the United States, from employment to mortality rates to educational attainment, savaging the very cohesion of Black society.

Law professor and author Michelle Alexander calls the post-Sixties regime “The New Jim Crow.” I prefer, the Mass Black Incarceration State, a juggernaut whose reach is so pervasive in Black society, that one out of eight prison inmates on the planet is an African American.

Officer Darren Wilson pulled the trigger, but the Mass Black Incarceration State killed Michael Brown – and uncounted thousands of others.

The current mass Black incarceration regime – a kind of preemptive counterinsurgency infrastructure – differs from past regional mass Black incarceration policies in that it is massively funded and coordinated by the federal government. Since roughly 1970, mass Black incarceration has been the national policy of both political policies, including the Black Democrats that have wielded nominal power in many U.S. cities during this period. The full scope of Black Democratic complicity in state repression of their fellow Blacks was revealed on June 19 of last year, when 80 percent of Congressional Black Caucus members (32 out of 40) either voted to continue Pentagon transfers of military weapons and gear to local police departments, or abstained. Less than two months later, the world saw the Pentagon’s weapons turned against the citizens of Ferguson, and the movement-in-the-making began.

The most important constituency in this struggle – the “street” – does not issue position papers or lists of demands, although it does have some representation in groups like Ferguson’s Hands Up United. Yet it is this constituency that, more than any other, has caused the rulers to fear an actual insurgency in Black America. The street expressed itself through arson in Ferguson when, on the night of November 24, the St. Louis County prosecutor announced there would be no indictment of the cop that killed Michael Brown – at the very moment that President Obama went on television attempting to mollify Blacks. In late April, the Baltimore “street” responded in much the same way to the death of Freddie Gray – a reminder that this component of the “movement” has the potential to render large American cities ungovernable.

Such a credible threat is the only means to achieve anything resembling Black community control of the police, a goal championed by organizations affiliated with the Black Is Back Coalition for Social Justice, Peace and Reparations. The Black Is Back Coalition, which convened a People’s Grand Jury and a national conference in Ferguson, maintains that Black community control of police “is a democratic demand that pushes our struggle forward toward self-determination, the highest expression of democracy.” However, genuine community control requires disconnecting the local police from the national Mass Black Incarceration State apparatus that was erected two generations ago to terrorize and contain the community, and subordinating the cops to the people’s direct will. This will never be achieved absent the extra-legal threat of insurgency.

In addition, all meaningful change in power relationships between the police and the people will be resisted, tooth and claw, by the Democratic Party’s operatives in Black America. Given that the vast bulk of Black elected officials are Democrats, and all of the established Black civic organizations – most notably the NAACP, the National Urban League, and Al Sharpton’s National Action Network – are annexes of the Democratic Party, the fight against police repression must be largely an internal Black political struggle. It must be a battle against the Democratic Party, the half of the ruling duopoly that is hegemonic in Black America, yet is as responsible as the Republicans for the creation and maintenance of the New Jim Crow.

Inevitably, the Democratic Party’s influence will permeate the Movement for Black Lives conference that will convene in Cleveland, July 24 through 26, when, according to the organizers, “a new crop of freedom fighters” will “begin the creation of a collective mission that matches the intensity, scale, urgency, and promise of the moment.” Some project that a thousand Black people will attend the event, which is said to have a budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars. If there is to be truly substantive debate about changing actual relationships of power between the police (meaning, the U.S. State) and Black America, then we should expect to see serious lines drawn on issues of principle, strategy and tactics. That’s how one knows that a real “movement” is emerging – when serious people strongly disagree about an issue of overarching importance. Out of such heat, comes fire and genius and, eventually, new leadership, on an all-consuming mission.

Then, finally, the resulting “movement” will earn a name that history will respect.

Glen Ford is executive editor of Black Agenda Report. He can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com.