JURY OUT

Black Lives Matter Is a Movement, But It’s Not a Player

They’ll vote next week in Ferguson, where BLM first came to national prominence. The cultural shifts—for better and worse—are undeniable.

03.11.16 5:01 AM ET

Next Tuesday, Missouri will host its presidential primary, and in this racially divisive election season, it is essential that we reflect on the events on Aug. 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, that shocked a nation and helped galvanize the growing Black Lives Matter movement.

The killing of Michael Brown forced many Americans to re-examine race relations, policing, and criminal justice. The city of Ferguson became a mecca for Black Lives Matter activists to unite and to help sustain a national movement that could potentially impact the 2016 presidential race.

Yet after nearly two years of demonstrating, protesting and organizing, the BLM movement still struggles to make a substantial difference in this pivotal election. This failing also may not be due to American society’s unwillingness to listen to the message of the movement, but instead to ideological philosophies within the movement that may have inadvertently scuppered its progress and impact.

The BLM movement began the election season as the primary voice representing African Americans via their “Black Lives Matter” instead of “All Lives Matter” campaign, and their strategy of confronting presidential candidates to ask about their criminal justice and systemic racism reform policies. But those actions were at the front end of a long campaign, before any votes had been cast. The meat of an election season is about how a group’s or an individual’s message influences people to vote, and on this front plenty of questions still remain for BLM.

Between the Democrat candidates, BLM supporters have been divided up between both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, with younger voters leaning toward Sanders, and older ones Clinton. Even notable families in the BLM movement have been spilt along these lines. The daughter of Eric Garner, Erica Garner, supports Sanders; but the slain man’s mother, Gwen Carr, supports Clinton. One imagines this split would have been the same if BLM never even existed.

Arguably Sanders may have benefited more from the BLM movement, but it is hard to determine if his support among young African Americans, who comprise much of the movement, has more to do with his racial justice policies, which he announced after being confronted by BLM protesters, or his overall appeal to young voters that transcends racial divisions.

I’d say that the rise of BLM has forced Sanders to emphasize his civil rights record and tailor his messaging to a black audience, which he had never needed to do before. Additionally, BLM has emboldened African Americans to criticize the criminal justice policies of Bill Clinton’s presidency. This has harmed Clinton and helped Sanders, but it is still far from an endorsement of either candidate or a clear policy position by the BLM movement.

Much confusion still exists around the structure, goals, and influence of the movement, and people still wonder if it will eventually resemble either the Tea Party or Occupy movements. Personally, I see the movement attempting to follow an altogether different path similar to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which united African Americans around our struggle for freedom and aspiring for higher moral ideals in America. That movement also did not have a central representative who spoke for the entire movement, and had various factions competing and exploring different approaches for black empowerment while also championing a higher moral purpose.

The recent Justice for Flint event, which occurred on the same night as the Academy Awards, displayed this inclination to hearken back to the civil rights era of the past to bring about positive change in the present. It raised over $150,000 to benefit the residents of Flint, who have been poisoned by their own government. Stevie Wonder was in attendance alongside singer Janelle Monae. Ava Du Vernay, the director of Selma, was one of the event’s organizers. Attendees celebrated the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. and quoted James Baldwin. And while no one should criticize this event, we all would be hard pressed to show how this gathering substantially impacted black voters in the Michigan primary, held a week later.

Sanders won a surprising victory in the Michigan primary, but it is hard to say how BLM contributed to that victory. Clinton still won 65 percent of the black vote in the state, and by most accounts the large turnout of Muslim Americans in Dearborn helped lead Sanders to victory in addition to his usual strong showing amongst younger voters.

This is the dilemma that confronts the BLM movement at every turn. On the one hand there’s an empowering and galvanizing event like Justice for Flint, and then on the other we are left struggling to find the substantive impact these events have had on our body politic.

Clearly, there has been a cultural shift, and many Americans are becoming more receptive to discussing racial inequalities than before, and I believe we can attribute much of this shift to the BLM movement. However, the foil to this shift could be the political rise of Donald Trump, who has been supported by a horde of disgruntled white Americans, including the KKK and neo-Nazi groups. This mass of America is more prone to view BLM as a terrorist group that challenges authority and the police, and as a result this America has united around an authoritarian candidate and showed up to the polls in record setting numbers.

Frankly, Trump could equally be described as the first presidential candidate spawned from the Birther movement. So as of now, a political movement intent on delegitimizing America’s first black president could be exerting a greater influence in this election than a movement based around equality and black life.

And while Trump has surged ahead in the presidential race, to the consternation of most of America, the BLM movement remains intent on staying apolitical, anti-political, or aspiring to transcend politics. Last month, Aislinn Pulley, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Chicago, declined an invitation to the White House to celebrate Black History Month because in her eyes the event was a “sham that would only serve to legitimize the false narrative that the government is working to end police brutality.”

Pulley is certainly entitled to her opinion and has the right to refuse this invitation, but it does make one wonder if elements of the BLM movement are intentionally or unintentionally encouraging black Americans to disengage from the political process because politics or the government is a “sham” that does not actually work to improve the lives of black Americans and that activism supposedly is the best method for bringing about change.

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I have noticed this undercurrent toward disengaging in politics from the BLM movement for a while now, and I have cautiously waited to see if the movement could coalesce into having a decisive impact on this presidential race focused on increasing African-American engagement. Thus far the movement has been unable to do so, and it still remains difficult to decipher the cumulative impact of the movement upon this presidential race.

The transformative and transcendent aspirations of the Black Lives Matter movement have advanced discussions around race in this country and our society has desperately needed this change. But African Americans should be well aware of the reality that alongside our desire to transform America into a more equitable society has always come dissenting voices and factions who prefer authoritarian tactics and voter suppression to prevent this evolution.

For the BLM movement to have the positive impact it aspires to have, it may need to embrace the pragmatic side of politics and voting alongside their lofty ideals. Unfortunately, by the Missouri primary, we will most likely only see a continuation of the BLM movement’s perplexing and frustratingly nondescript role in this presidential election.