Letter from the US: Black Lives Matter is demand, not a plea

September 6, 2015

#BlackLivesMatter activists Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford stormed the stage as Sanders began speaking and demanded an opportunity to address racial injustice. Seattle, August 8.

There is a lull in the large mass mobilisations associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, but the campaign targetting racism and police brutality remains central to politics in the US.

Protests organised by the movement were held in 14 cities in August to draw attention to violence against transgender women. At least 17 transgender women have been murdered this year, the majority women of colour. The demonstrators chanted “Say Her Name” and recited the names of the murdered women.

In Ferguson, Missouri, there was a commemoration on August 9 of the police murder of Michael Brown one year ago on that date. With writer and activist Cornel West behind them, Brown’s family stood over the freshly repaved patch of Candfield Drive where Brown was shot.

Also attending were relatives of Eric Garner and Oscar Grant, two other Black men who died at the hands of the police in Staten Island, New York, and Oakland, California, respectively.

Brown’s father said, “This moment was sponsored by Darren Wilson” — the cop who killed Michael and got away with it thanks to American-style “justice”. Other speakers echoed the demands of Black Lives Matter for fundamental change.

Tensions were high as police mobilised for the event. In the evening, cops in military gear confronted about 100 young people, and opened fire — critically wounding Tyrone Harris. The cops claimed Tyrone fired at them first, but no police were wounded and many do not believe them.

At a subsequent protest against the shooting of Harris, another African American, Mansur Bey, was gunned down and killed by police, who claimed Bey pulled a gun on them.

Another protest was called over this murder, which police in riot gear attacked using smoke bombs and tear gas. At least nine people were arrested as people fought back.

The cops “deployed aggressive, militarised crowd control responses that brutalised peaceful protesters and transformed portions of our community into a war zone,” said Montague Simmons of the Organisation for Black Struggle.

St Louis authorities have reopened criminal cases against about 1000 demonstrators, bystanders and journalists arrested during last year’s protests in Ferguson after Brown's killing.

At the August 9 rally commemorating Brown, Erica Garner, whose father Eric who was strangled to death by a cop last year, applauded the Black Lives Matter activists who climbed on stage with Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders the day before.

Such interventions have targeted the rallies of presidential candidates of both capitalist parties — not just those of the self-described socialist Sanders, but also rallies for Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Jeb Bush. Many more such actions can be expected as the long and drawn out election campaign continues.

Discussing the event Erica Garner referred to, in an August 12 The Nation article Kai Wright wrote: “On August 8, to mark the pending anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, two Seattle Black Lives Matter activists interrupted a Bernie Sanders rally and, in the lexicon of the movement, shut it down.

“The event was planned to highlight Sanders’ fight to protect Social Security and Medicare; Sanders later said he’d also intended to ‘talk about the issues of black lives’ if he’d gotten the chance.

“Instead, he ceded the microphone, for the second time this summer, as people in the crowd hurled invective at two black women who dared to challenge their policies.

“The two activists, Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford, stormed the stage as Sanders began speaking and demanded an opportunity to address racial injustice in Seattle. After a negotiation, the event organisers agreed to give Johnson the microphone.

“The crowd overruled that decision, erupting in boos. Johnson attempted to shout over the boos. She ticked off local examples of racial injustice — educational inequities, police violence, displacement in black neighbourhoods — and challenged the largely white crowd to ensure that black lives matter in these debates.

“The booing intensified. She began to cry and called the hecklers racists, which elicited more booing. Her primary demand was a moment of silence in honour of Michael Brown’s death, in which the crowd participated unevenly.”

Both Sanders and Clinton have scrambled to adjust their rhetoric in face of these interventions, but neither calls for the prosecution of killer cops.

Sanders has the most ground to regain. During the Baltimore confrontations between Black Lives Matter protests and the police in Baltimore a few months ago, he supported the cops, saying they had a “difficult job”.

In addition to shifting his rhetoric, he has hired as press secretary Symone Sanders, a Black woman with roots in racial-justice organising.

Wright wrote that Symone has “spoken openly about challenging Sanders to understand the link between racial and economic oppression, and she’s rejected the idea — advanced by many, including Sanders — that the Black Lives Matter activists have misplaced their efforts in protesting him.

“‘Do I think everyone in the movement agrees with the way the protesters commanded the stage today? No,’ she told BuzzFeed in Seattle. ‘Am I going to condemn the protesters for standing up and expressing themselves? No. Because their voices matter.’

“Sadly too many of Sanders’ white supporters disagreed, in telling vitriolic terms. Following the Seattle protests, Johnson and Willaford posted a statement on Facebook explaining their action.

“In the responding comments, people defending Sanders call the women ‘bitches’, ‘nits’, a ‘disgrace’, ‘hood rats’ and more. Conspiracy theories have circulated that they were corporate plants, or far-right evangelicals, or Sarah Palin moles — anything other than self-actualised activists making a demand of white people who profess alliance.”

Wright concluded: “Some argue that the reaction, both at the rally and in social media, is proof that Bernie’s Black Lives Matter critics are alienating allies.

“This misses a crucial point of the movement: It is not first about white people or their potential allegiance. It is a statement of power, not a plea for help.

“Black Lives Matter is first and foremost about black refusal to accept politics as they stand — left, right or centre. Those who are asserting the value of black life have placed it above the property rights of Ferguson and Baltimore residents, above the rituals of holiday commerce, and yes, above the inspiring surge of a socialist presidential candidate.

“Successful movements have always discomfited those invested in the status quo, including progressives. White people of all stripes will be challenged, even shaken by this movement. That is a cost worth bearing.”

It is interesting that an article in the left-liberal Nation understands the Black Lives Matter movement better than those socialists who are being sucked into the capitalist-controlled Democratic Party through the Sanders campaign.

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