I want to first commend Black Lives Matters for your willingness to stand in the face of danger and speak truth to power. As young people, you are indeed the heirs apparent to resistance organizations from the not-too-distant past.
But as I survey American political landscape in the context of the current election for President, I cannot but notice the absence of Black Lives Matter from the front lines of this important battle for power.
I listened recently to spokesperson Darnell Moore, spell out the group’s position on the Presidential elections. Darnell recently told Amy Goodman on the Democracy Now radio program that Black Lives Matter would take no position on who was running for President. The many groups around the country under your banner decided that Senator Bernie Sanders‘ platform on economic justice did not place sufficient emphasis on race and racism, and so Black Lives Matter would sit out the election. They would wait until the election came to them.
Let’s analyze this approach. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have polarized this election unlike any Presidential campaign in the last 100 years, drawing from the same group of people: those who are alienated from the traditional political structure. Sanders has pushed the conversation to the Left, while Trump has done the same to the Right, with Clinton trying to sound like Sanders but staying close to the traditional power elite. There is a struggle to capture the minds of the American people along the spectrum of Left to Right, including the coalition that elected Obama for two terms, to which Clinton feels she is entitled. And Black Lives Matter ought to be in this struggle, with Sanders.
This is a moment in history that will come and go, with or without your input. Your claim for the need to inject a distinctly black and brown agenda into the race is legitimate and can be realized better at this time than at any other since the Civil Rights Movement. But you need to be in the struggle for power, to enforce it.
The parallel is SNCC in the South beginning in the 1960s. No, organizations like SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) never endorsed a candidate, but they did make a conscious decision to do more that engage in direct action demonstrations against Jim Crow racism, by developing local power bases in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia around issues of voter education and registration. CORE, SCLC, the NAACP and SNCC formed the Council of Federated Organizations in 1962, and organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party as an alternative to the Democratic Party in 1964. The MFDP challenged the regular Democratic Party for seats at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, NJ that year. SNCC went on to help organize another independent political party, the Lowndes County Freedom Party in Alabama (1965), whose symbol , the black panther, inspired another group of young people on the West Coast to form the Black Panther Party.
None of this would have been set in motion without engagement in a struggle to get black people to see the vote as a legitimate means of empowerment; along with various forms of direct action that were equally as necessary.
Within the next 40 days, there are 14 primary elections, mostly in the South and Southwest. This is the home of many Evangelical Christians, who support the Republicans. And it is the home of thousands of black voters (and potential voters), most of whom support Clinton over Sanders. Sanders nor Clinton can win without the support of these black votes.
Sanders’ message may not have put a black enough face on poverty, nor emphasized the role of racism as an independent source of exploitation of black people. Economic determinists always believe that racism will be cured through enactment of an economic justice platform, which just isn’t so. But this reality needs to be voiced by the people, and they need organizers among them to help them understand and make this clear, first and foremost to our friends. For example, Sanders wants to break up the big banks and separate investment and commercial banking. But there is no automatic guarantee that smaller more limited banks will do less redlining and commit less fraud without action by the President, and pressure from black and brown people, and friends from all races.
So my suggestion is as follows: Get involved in the struggle for power on this high level. Sanders needs you to convince black and brown people that he is the candidate they can trust, and to bring them out to vote. Black Lives Matter is the most visible black-focused organization that can help mobilize people of color of all ages, but especially the youth, looking at his call for free education in public colleges and universities; universal single payer health insurance; increased social security benefits and minimum wage; a massive federal jobs program. All of these solutions will help black and brown people as well as white. But in the negotiation with Sanders for your support, make him acknowledge what you believe to be specific additional remedies for black and brown exploitation. He can’t afford to ignore the power of your voice, with the potential of your boots on the ground.
So: (1)Bring your organized membership to the South; (2)knock on doors; (3)explain the Sanders Platform, including the newly developed remedies for the black and brown communities that you negotiated; (4)collect names; (5)stay behind, once the primaries are over; (6)build your base in as many locations as you have trained organizers; (7)and begin to build an organization that will have the strength to make your demands a reality
Seize the opportunity, and grow.
Junius Williams is Director of the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers Newark, and author of the book, Unfinished Agenda, Urban Politics in the Era of Black Power.