Black Lives Matter: New Tactics for the Trump Era

The Black Lives Matter movement hasn’t gone quiet–it’s just engaging with electoral politics in new ways, says Dani McClain of The Nation

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Story Transcript

AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Black Lives Matter emerged in response to a series of killings of unarmed Black Americans. The movement has forced the country to confront racial injustice in a way that hasn’t been seen in years. But in the age of Donald Trump, where does it stand today? The question is explored in a new cover story for The Nation magazine. It’s called “The Future of Black Lives Matter” (“Can Black Lives Matter Win in the Age of Trump?”) by the journalist Dani McClain. She is a contributing writer to The Nation, and a fellow at The Nation Institute. Dani, welcome.

DANI MCCLAIN: Thank you for having me.

AARON MATÉ: Talk about what you looked at.

DANI MCCLAIN: Well, I think what we know is that in the period beginning really in 2013 with the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, we began to see a huge uptick in activity on the part of black racial justice organizations. We began to see a lot of young black folks leading a kind of new iteration of racial justice organizing, really calling for police accountability, calling for a real examination of white supremacy and racism, both within the criminal justice system but in other aspects of US society as well. Beginning in that summer of 2013 through really I think the 2016 presidential primary season, BLM and conversations about race really were very present in mainstream conversations. We saw conservations about the death of Eric Garner or of Michael Brown or of Sandra Bland. These were part of our public discourse with organizers from BLM organizations really centered in these conversations.

All of that began to change, I think with the 2016 presidential election and then of course in this current moment of Trump and his people being in the White House. So, I was curious to look at was where has BLM organizing gone? I think if you listen to many people tell it, they’ll say that BLM has either disappeared or they have kind of squandered whatever energy and power that they’ve built over the past several years. That just didn’t really match up with what I was hearing from sources, so I wanted to write a story that explored that.

AARON MATÉ: Right. You know, in terms of the impression that’s been put out there, there was a recent piece in BuzzFeed that talked about Black Lives Matter being in a state of disarray beset by internal riffs and funding issues. But you spoke to organizers who gave you a different picture. What are the key initiatives that you found they’re orienting themselves toward now in the age of Trump?

DANI MCCLAIN: I think one thing that’s important to remember is that when we say BLM, when many people say BLM, they’re really talking about a kind of constellation of black led racial justice organizations. Someone might talk about BLM and really they’re talking about the work of the Black Youth Project 100 in Chicago, or they’re talking about the work of the Dream Defenders in Florida or they could be talking about the work of various BLM global network chapters whether that be in Oakland or New York or DC or elsewhere. Charlottesville is one of the examples that I explore in the story. What I saw as I began to talk to organizers was that people are doing different things. I mean, one thing I was reminded is that this is, many people within the movement consider it a leaderful movement. No one’s really in a position to say “Okay, all of us are going to do this one thing.” There is no one charismatic leader at the head giving everybody else marching orders.

That said, I did see a new kind of interest in electoral politics coming from a number of groups. There are people doing a lot of voter education and voter organizing in places like Lansing, MI and St. Louis, MO, which is one place where I really drilled down and told story about voter organizing there. You see this kind of new interest in electoral politics happening but you also see the same kind of direct action and protest being used in other places that I think BLM was really kind of known for in this period between 2013 and 2015. There really is a kind of diversity of tactics and a variety of approaches being used.

AARON MATÉ: The case of St. Louis Black Lives Matter activists getting involved in the mayoral race there. Can you talk about that?

DANI MCCLAIN: Yeah. I talked to an organizer there named Kayla Reed. Kayla is part of a group called St. Louis Action Council, which is a group of young black people who came together in the wake of the Ferguson protest. What Kayla told me was that she and those who she works with began to get really interested in electoral politics. They were….a circuit attorney, which is the top city prosecutor job, is an open circuit attorney race. They decided “Let’s get involved. Let’s teach ourselves what the circuit attorney actually does. Let’s begin to interview these people who are running for the office.” They asked them questions about where do you stand on issues like cash bail, the school to prison pipeline and marijuana decriminalization? Then based on the answers that we’re getting from candidates, let’s decide who we want to support.

They did that in that race and they credit themselves with helping to usher into office St. Louis’s first Black circuit attorney. Kayla said that because they could see the power of this approach, they decided to use a similar approach in the mayoral race earlier this year and they got really interested in the candidacy of the city treasurer to Tishaura Jones. Similarly, they got involved with the candidates forum, they asked candidates questions. One thing that Kayla pointed out, this is one example why they were really excited about Tishaura Jones’ candidacy, Jones had rejected calls to hire more police officers and said instead “We don’t need more cops on the street. What we really need is to hire social workers to put out in the field alongside police officers.”

What Kayla Reed told me was with that kind of plank in her platform Tishaura showed us that she really understood this kind of invest/divest framework. What she was referring to was something called The Vision for Black Lives, which is a policy statement that the Movement for Black Lives put out last summer. It talks about the need to disinvest or divest from institutions that in their opinion harm Black people and instead invest resources into policies and practices that go toward the health and safety of Black people. In this one example of Tishaura Jones’ kind of plan for the city, they really saw someone who vibed with and agreed with their approach. That’s what they did there. It was really a kind of exercise in voter organizing, educating their neighbors about the issues and the candidates, and Tishaura did lose that race by just 888 votes but Kayla Reed really felt like that was a kind of showed their power. They intend to keep doing that kind of voter organizing in the future.

AARON MATÉ: On the issue of electoral politics, I want to put to you a criticism that I have heard. Now, admittedly just from White people, just from White supporters of Bernie Sanders who criticized Black Lives Matter for not endorsing him during the primary, saying that Black Lives Matter in refusing to engage with electoral politics at that time, that that was an act they say of political posturing. Now, again, I’ve only heard this from white people, but it’s a criticism that I’ve heard out there, so I’m wondering, you talked about this issue in terms of Black Lives Matter getting involved with the democratic primary. They gave you their take on what led them to stay out of it.

DANI MCCLAIN: Right. Exactly. I think a lot of this goes back to the appearance of BLM organizers at the 2015 Netroots Nation conference where you had Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders, two of the democratic candidates during the primary season there. Their speeches were interrupted by BLM organizers who were saying essentially you kind of talk a good game but what are you actually going to do to deal with these issues of police accountability and police killings of Black people. They were calls to saying her name. I think this was right after Sandra Bland was found dead in the Texas jail. What I heard from sources was you know, the democrats kind of just take Black votes for granted. They may even be willing to say Black Lives Matter but what we see in terms of what they do when they actually get into office is that they’re really not that interested in making good on whatever promises or really getting involved in and looking at the needs of our communities.

There was, many people pointed to what’s happened in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, where the Democrats were kind of scrambling to figure out how to appeal to the white working class voters instead of what BLM organizers who I spoke to said, really what would it mean if they looked at who their base is? Many of that is Black women and Black people, and really figure out how to respond to what Black people are calling for, really double down their efforts in those communities instead of seeking out this elusive Trump swing voter. I think what I saw was that as people are talking about moving into electoral politics, they’re very clear that what they want to build is a kind of independent Black political force.

One person, Jessica Byrd, who runs Three Point Strategies, she’s a political consultant. She said “We’re not doing this. We’re not starting these new kind of electoral political ventures because the Democratic party needs it,or because one candidate needs it. Tishaura Jones or Stacy Abrams needs it. We’re starting it because Black people deserve it. In other words, we’re building political power for Black people. We’re not doing anything necessarily to show our allegiance to Democratic party. We want to strengthen ourselves and more deeply educate ourselves and let the Democrats know that they have to actually put their actions where their mouths are and really fight for our votes.”

AARON MATÉ: The article is called “The Future of Black Lives Matter” (“Can Black Lives Matter Win in the Age of Trump?”) and it’s by my guest Dani McClain. She is a contributing writer to The Nation and a fellow at Rhe Nation Institute. Dani, thank you.

DANI MCCLAIN: Thank you.

AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.