8 Developments of the Black Lives Matter Movement Most People Don't Know About
This weekend, tens of thousands of people took to the streets nationwide to demand justice for victims of police brutality and unify around the message that black lives matter. While most Americans may have heard about the protests that drew large crowds in New York City, Washington, DC and the Bay Area, unconventional actions that received less attention in the press are also propelling the movement forward. In their struggle to dismantle the systemic violence communities of color face, activists are experimenting with new tactics and ideas to advance the fight.
Here are eight developments to know about.
1. Young Ferguson activists interrupt Al Sharpton’s DC event.
Al Sharpton's National Action Network held a Justice For All march in Washington on Saturday, which drew more than 10,000 people. But its scripted, scheduled format deviated from many recent Black Lives Matter rallies, in which people were permitted to speak even if they didn’t organize the event. So the National Action Network was in for a big surprise when a group of young Ferguson activists interrupted the rally and took the stage. NAN activists tried for several minutes to get the protesters offstage, but were met with loud chants of “Let them speak!”
Ultimately, they allowed Johnetta Elzie of St. Louis to speak. Elzie, who protested in Ferguson for more than 100 days, explained that young people started the movement and it needs to continue that way. She later told the press: “I thought there was going to be actions, not a show. This is a show."
Many young black activists who have been fighting the struggle on the ground share this sentiment. They don’t want the movement to be co-opted by older civil rights leaders who are mostly interested in pursuing inadequate reforms. As Stephen Thrasher wrote in the Guardian, “A movement of, for and about everyday people doesn’t necessarily require reenacting MLK’s greatest hits. It requires new kinds of protest nationwide.”
Watch Elzie speak:
2. Hundreds of protesters deviate from planned marches.
In another effort to create their own path in this movement, hundreds of protesters broke off from the planned marches in NYC, DC and Oakland, Calif. to form their own protests on streets that weren’t “permitted.” In DC, a small group left the march to stop traffic in major intersections in the city’s downtown area. Following the Millions March in Oakland, about 200 protesters continued through the streets of the city, briefly shutting down a tunnel leading to the island of Alameda. Police eventually kettled protesters, arrested them and put them on buses. Hundreds of people from the Millions March in NYC left the action that drew 30,000 people and marched about nine miles to the Brooklyn public housing unit where the NYPD recently shot and killed 28-year-old Akai Gurley.
3. Protesters continue disrupting business as usual.
On Monday, protesters with the Oakland-based Blackout Collective, an all-black direct action collective, chained themselves to Oakland Police Department headquarters, effectively locking down the department. About 200 protesters gathered in solidarity. White allies joined in the protests by chaining themselves together and blocking off the intersections leading to the department. Asian allies blocked another set of doors to the department. Latino allies and elderly activists also blocked streets. One activist replaced the flag in front of the OPD with one bearing the faces of those killed by police violence. Police made 25 arrests for "obstructing and blocking a public safety building and delaying a police officer." Police were forced to use bolt cutters to break the chains on the headquarters’ doors.
Activists in Oakland have been experimenting with various direct action tactics to stop “business as usual.” They have disrupted the Bay Area’s major public transportation service, BART, multiple times and have also held rallies at popular brunch spots. Activists in NYC have disrupted holiday shoppers at large stores in Times Square like Macy’s, Toys’R’Us and H&M, in addition to holding massive die-ins at Grand Central Station. On Monday, NYC protested outside Gracie Mansion, where Mayor Bill de Blasio was hosting a Christmas party.
Watch this video of Monday’s protest in Oakland:
4. Black organizers show white allies how to demonstrate solidarity.
Oakland’s Monday protest provided a clear demonstration of how non-black allies could show support for black organizers as they lead the charge in this fight. A photo taken from a public organizing meeting in Boston illustrates the national conversation taking place about how white people can display solidarity with the movement.
5. Activists are reframing white narratives around “violence” and “#AllLivesMatter.”
Some white voices have co-opted the protest message “Black Lives Matter” by using the hashtag and refrain “#AllLivesMatter.” At Saturday’s rally in Oakland, one poet set the record straight by explaining the particular terror that black people live with. In a powerful poem, she said, “All lives will matter when black lives matter.” She also discussed the white narratives around violence. Dialogues around the meanings of violent or peaceful protests have reemerged among organizers across the country. Meanwhile, the mainstream media continues to focus on the vandalism and few windows that get broken during protests—sometimes by white outside agitators—rather than on police killings.
Watch her speak:
6. Black women play crucial role in leading movement.
In a recent Guardian piece, Hannah Giorgis writes about how women are leading protests in the Black Lives Matter movement. She wrote about how Erica Garner, Eric Garner’s daughter, led a protest march and die-in last week. As Giorgis points out, numerous actions and organizations have been created by women, including Saturday’s Millions March in NYC and the Ferguson grassroots group Millennial Activists United.
Women’s basketball teams from Notre Dame and UC Berkeley, respectively, wore T-shirts that depicted the message “I Can’t Breathe” and the names of victims of police killings. Black mothers of victims of police killings also traveled to DC last week to talk about their stories at a Capitol Hill briefing and in a meeting at the Department of Justice.
7. Police experiment with different tactics, too.
Organizers with the Black Lives Matter movement aren’t the only ones experimenting with various organizing tactics; so are police are. While police in Berkeley, like those in Ferguson, used tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful protesters, NYPD officers used military-grade sonic weapons to disperse protesters in the city. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, "The LRAD can reach decibel levels as high as 162. For comparison, a normal conversation is usually 60 decibels, while a lawn mower can reach to 90 decibels. A level of 130 decibels is typically considered the average pain threshold for most humans." The National Lawyers Guild wrote a letter to the NYPD police commissioner demanding a review of the devices and calling their use unconstitutional.
In Oakland, an undercover white California Highway Patrol officer pulled a gun on protesters. CHP’s chief defended the officer’s actions, saying he will continue to use plainclothes officers to infiltrate protests in order to gather information.
At Oakland’s protest on Saturday, one speaker said it is the responsibility of protesters to get organized because the police are already doing so. She said protests, tactics and raising awareness are important, but "they have to be tied to strategic, calculated and long-term organization." She continued, "If you're not in one, join one or start one. Make a plan—because they have one. They are sitting in a very well-funded think tank right now figuring out how to squash this. ... They're going to figure out a way to squash this if we are not organized."
8. The movement continues.
Activists nationwide are getting organized to sustain the movement. In terms of direct action, Ferguson Action lists upcoming planned actions on its site. Organizers in the Bronx have planned an #ItStopsToday rally for Thursday. On Tuesday, the UC Berkeley Black Student Union will also be cohosting a rally prior to the city’s final city council meeting of the year. Many other actions are likely to happen either spontaneously or without much public notice for effective civil disobedience.
The Black Lives Matter movement is developing into a powerful fight against racism and police violence. The best way to sustain the struggle is to let young black organizers take the lead.