United States: Black Lives Matter movement grows stronger

August 12, 2016

“While police tactics and accountability measures are being examined, many black people are also questioning their safety and place in society,” the San Francisco Chronicle wrote on July 31. “They worry about the next time they interact with police, and about the difficult conversations they must have with their children.”

Black people make up 6% of San Francisco's population — and suffer 40% of the city's shootings by cops. The city's statistics on police stops of Blacks and violence mirror other cities, especially in the Midwest and South.

The two major parties' conventions occurred in July and showed the powerful impact of the three-year Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. At the Republican Party convention that nominated demagogue Donald Trump, the theme was that only white and “blue” (police) lives matter.

BLM movement leaders were demonised and called violent, anti-cop and evil.

At the Democratic Party convention that nominated war hawk Hillary Clinton, the emphasis was on “unity”. While nodding to Black Lives Matter, the focus was “All Lives Matter”.

Whenever the question was asked to delegates on the floor, the reply was to downplay a reality that Black lives for 400 years have mattered much less than whites.

Only the radical wing of the Bernie Sanders campaign mentioned the positive impact of the movement and defended its demand for real reform to the police and criminal justice system.

Anti-Black code words

“All Lives Matter” is code to attack BLM. It is in line with the worst traditions of the United States' long racist history. African Americans, who have suffered systemic discrimination, are told to wait for change — to “tone it down”.

Until the 1965 Voting Rights Act — a product of the civil rights struggle — Blacks faced legal segregation in the South, under the guise of “state rights”. Now, since the Supreme Court gutted the act in 2013, this system is being recreated.

The daily police violence against Black people is an extension of a long racist history that is rarely taught in schools. Police responsible for racist violence are rarely arrested or convicted.

This is why the movement to defend Black lives continues to grow stronger — and the demand “No Justice, No Peace” is heard from Oakland to Chicago to Dallas and New York.

Bloomberg Business Week quoted BLM co-founder Alicia Garza saying: “If we want to get to the place where all lives matter, “then we have to make sure that Black lives matter too.”

When Khizer Khan, the father of a Muslim US Army captain killed in Iraq in 2004, spoke out against Trump's anti-Muslim attacks, he made a rare point that few understand: the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution that gives citizenship rights to all Americans includes equal protections to all citizens.

The amendment was adopted after the Civil War and guaranteed former slaves their citizenship. It cannot be taken away easily, he said, even by an authoritarian figure like Trump as president.

Founding Fathers

The “Founding Fathers” who wrote the US Declaration of Independence and the Constitution knew that the documents — including the Bill of Rights — only applied to whites. The Declaration's famous “all men are created equal” was deliberately exclusionary — Africans were considered property like any other livestock.

Genocide/ethnic cleansing of Native American tribes was also legal.

Not until after the Second American Revolution (the 1861–65 Civil War) did a radical change to the Constitution occur with the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.

Blacks have always seen “American exceptionalism” and the Founding Fathers differently than whites. In his 1852 speech, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July”, Black anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass said: “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

Some Blacks fought in the Revolutionary War against British rule, for freedom. Others fought with the British colonialists.

After independence, the US federal government defended slavery, with the slaveholding states incorporating their right to keep slaves in the Constitution. When these states saw this “right” under threat, they broke with the union, starting the civil war.

Abolitionist example

The BLM movement stands in the tradition of the abolitionists who refused to compromise or tone down their demand to immediately end slavery.

The liberals of the day, including Abraham Lincoln, opposed human bondage but they respected the “rights” of slave holders. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 was a tactic aimed at defeating the Confederacy in the war. It only applied to slave states in rebellion. It did not immediately free all slaves in non-rebelling border states (for example, Maryland).

The US capital, Washington DC, was built primarily by slave labour. When First Lady Michelle Obama made this simple point at the Democratic Party convention, the far right attacked her. Fox commentator Bill O'Reilly said slaves were fed well and had decent housing.

The 14th Amendment set the framework for the next 100 years of struggle for full equality.

Blacks were not legal “Americans” until the late 1860s. Former slaves faced organised violence by state governments to take away that citizenship. The police, Congress and courts kept Black people as second class citizens — not just in the legally segregated South, but across the country.

Resisting this second class status has been a central feature of the Black freedom struggle. It is why middle class and wealthy Blacks — forced to live in segregated communities — had little choice but to join the movement or become agents of the oppressors.

Class divisions within the Black community widened after the gains won by the civil rights struggle in the 1960s. Wealthier Blacks can now live in previously excluded areas. This is why this sector generally represents the “tone down” critics of BLM.

Violent counter-offensive

In the aftermath of the abolition of slavery, the state pushed back hard to limit freedoms for African Americans. In the early 1900s, the ruling class had no problem with Booker T Washington, the leader of those who accommodated with the racist status quo.

However, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), formed in 1909, and other new civil rights groups challenged this perspective. Their leaders — whose main demand was an end to lynchings — faced hostility from the government.

The most concerted attacks were against the rising Black Nationalist formation led by Marcus Garvey. The urban-based Garvey movement (sometimes called “Back to Africa”) fought for freedom by demanding reparations and an end to police violence. In 1920, Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association claimed 4 million members.

Mass protests in the urban Black communities struck fear in the minds of whites and the ruling class. In the 1920s, the FBI launched two dirty campaigns: against Garvey's nationalism and the “Red Scare” against socialists.

In the Depression-hit 1930s, with the rise of militant labour struggles, African Americans were not explicitly covered in the Franklin Roosevelt-pushed “New Deal”. Then-president Roosevelt's Democratic Party included Southern segregationists, who resisted any law that weakened white power.

Big unions formed white-only locals in the South. Northern unions downplayed racism under the guise of “unity” to win over economic issues.

The new Federal Housing Administration, formed in 1934, increased housing discrimination. Low-cost real estate loans excluded African Americans. In World War II, white women were hired to work in war plants ahead of Blacks. A March on Washington Movement in 1941 pressed for jobs for Blacks.

It was only after World War II that segregation in the military was ended — by presidential executive order, as Congress would never have passed such a measure.

Mass action

The civil rights movement that arose in the 1950s used mass peaceful protests. Martin Luther King Jr understood that visible peaceful protests were key to facing down violence from the state and extralegal terrorist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan.

Building on such mass actions, militant groups in the 1960s, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panther Party and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in the Detroit auto plants sent fear into the ruling class.

Legendary revolutionary figure Malcolm X, who was assassinated in 1965, had a big influence on the younger generation of activists, who saw that legal rights alone did not resolve structural racism. Many became socialist-minded.

In the 1970s, Republican president Richard Nixon backed legislation for affirmative action and supported school desegregation laws. Nixon was no friend of Black rights. He acted because of the range of mass movements against war, racism, sexism and homophobia.

The political pushback and reversals of these gains began in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan and was continued by subsequent administrations. Barack Obama, despite being the first Black president, has never sought to reverse these attacks.

BLM movement

The vanguard leadership of the young women who started the BLM movement with the #Blacklivesmatter hashtag on Twitter, after the killings of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012 and Michael Brown in Missouri in 2014, continues to advance and has led to similar formations in other countries.

As in the past, the police, courts and state institutions have targeted these activists. The propaganda is classic obfuscation — like saying “reverse racism” to attack Black liberation, now it is “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” to belittle the idea that Black lives do matter.

The power of the movement is its breadth and the role of its dynamic women and men leaders. There is a simple objective — justice and respect for Black bodies, and arrest and prosecution of criminal cops.

After the two major party conventions, leaders from a coalition of grassroots BLM groups drafted a platform for the movement. Its preamble outlines the movement's aims: “Despite constant exploitation and perpetual oppression, Black people have bravely and brilliantly been the driving force pushing the US towards the ideals it articulates but has never achieved.

“In recent years we have taken to the streets, launched massive campaigns, and impacted elections, but our elected leaders have failed to address the legitimate demands of our Movement. We can no longer wait…

“We are a collective that centres and is rooted in Black communities, but we recognise we have a shared struggle with all oppressed people; collective liberation will be a product of all of our work. We believe in elevating the experiences and leadership of the most marginalized Black people, including but not limited to those who are women, queer, Trans, femmes, gender nonconforming, Muslim, formerly and currently incarcerated, cash poor and working class, differently-abled, undocumented, and immigrant…

“There can be no liberation for all Black people if we do not centre and fight for those who have been marginalised.”

The platform outlines a 10-point program, ranging from the rights of Black youth, immigrants, the LGBTI community and an end to mass surveillance of Black communities.

The platform features five other broad categories: support for economic reparations; demands to invest in Black communities and divest from forces that oppress Black people; for economic justice, community control and ending Black incarceration, community control; and independent Black political power and self-determination.

The detailed platform is the most important independent political action program since the National Black Independent Political Party and Black Power conventions in the 1970s.

The platform is an organising tool that takes the movement forward. It can win broad political support for fundamental change.

It does not rely on elections, even though individual activists may run for office. Elected Black officials stress working within the system and urge African Americans to join the electoral process. The BLM leaders know better.

Mass public actions are what bring real change. That is why their ongoing protests against police murders and violence, along with the new platform, points the way forward.

BLM is increasing the confidence of Black youth that what they do matters. The marchers who said, “It is not illegal to kill Black people in America,” are ready to press on until that is no longer the case.

[Malik Miah is an editor of Against the Current, where a longer version of this article can be read.]

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