Tuesday night will bring a pivotal moment of the presidential race when the mothers of black men and women who have been killed by gun violence or in police custody will take center stage at the Democratic National Convention. This night may not only further humanize an essential civil rights struggle, but it may also turn a distinctly anti-political movement led by Black Lives Matter into a force that engages more directly with electoral politics.
Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner; Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother; Maria Hamilton, Dontré Hamilton’s mother; Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis; Lezley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother; Cleopatra Pendlton-Cowley, Hadiya Pendleton’s mother; and Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland are all scheduled to speak on Tuesday. The founders of BLM, who have chosen not to support a candidate, have not been invited to speak.
In the weeks leading up to both conventions the tension surrounding the BLM movement has dramatically increased following the tragic deaths of law abiding African Americans and police officers from across the nation.
The Republican National Convention spent a week demonizing, slandering, and undermining the movement by painting it as a terroristic entity that champions anarchy and harm to police officers. Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke celebrated the fact that no police officers were convicted for the death of Freddie Gray, and led the audience in cheering “Blue Lives Matter.” And regular renditions of “All Lives Matter” were cheered to the rafters at the RNC. They projected a message of BLM vs. the police and demanded an absolute, unquestionable fealty to the police in the name of law and order.
The Democrats, by featuring these mothers, are clearly looking at matters from the other point of view. And not everyone is thrilled about it. The Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police has even stated that the group is “shocked and saddened” that these mothers have been chosen as speakers at the DNC.
The dangerous, mob-like fervor of the Republican National Convention and its divisive, fear-mongering rhetoric has made the stakes of Tuesday night’s speeches incredibly high. America needs to see the tragic origins of these unintended representatives of this vital movement, so that they can see beyond the GOP’s destructive rhetoric. America needs to understand that all the mothers speaking at the DNC would much rather be at home with their children, who were taken too soon, rather than addressing the nation and describing their sorrows. Our society needs to grasp the fact that these women are speaking as a collective because they know that the fears they’ve had for their children’s safety is a reality that they and countless other black mothers, fathers, and families equally share. This is not an isolated struggle, but a collective push for equality, justice, and advancement for black Americans.
However, expanding America’s collective understanding of this struggle is not enough to bring about the change that our society greatly needs. Throughout this election cycle the BLM movement has been at odds with both political parties as they championed their belief in civil disobedience to create the change they desire. Segments of the movement such as Deray McKesson’s Campaign Zero have tried to engage with politicians, but BLM and their network of autonomous chapters located across the nation have consistently projected an apolitical ideology.
BLM and the majority of the movement have been focused around expanding empathy through showing the humanity of black life and organizing peaceful protests following the tragedies that befall black Americans as their humanity is ignored. Remaining apolitical, and challenging each party and all of America to become more humane and equitable serves the dual purpose for BLM of maintaining a pure message that has not been sullied by political affiliation, and also expressing a disapproval of America’s entire political structure.
BLM has never inspired its supporters to vote or endorsed a candidate, and some supporters have even encouraged others to abstain from voting.
Yet as the tension and violence grows in our society, and pundits regularly draw parallels between our present struggle and the civil rights era of the 1960s, today is not the time for African Americans to champion abstaining from voting and shun the rights our forefathers earned for us in a previous era. Civil disobedience coupled with collective disenfranchisement will not bring about the change that America needs. Fortunately for America, and the Democrats, many supporters of the BLM movement have already seen the flaw in this agenda.
During the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton won the lion’s share of the black vote, but people regularly overlooked why, where and how much of the black vote she won because it was widely anticipated that she would win it by a sizable margin over Bernie Sanders. Additionally, BLM’s rhetoric and the low voter turnout for the primaries—black voter turnout dropped by roughly 14 percent—made most people, myself included, wonder if the Democrats could sustain Obama-era levels of black voter participation.
However, despite the overall dip, black voter turnout actually increased in the states with a large BLM presence. In Florida, Missouri, Illinois, and New York, black voter turnout increased by 258,000 votes, or 21 percent, compared to 2008. Following the deaths of Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Missouri, Laquan McDonald in Illinois, and Eric Garner in New York, BLM has maintained an active presence in all of these states. And these supporters of BLM have chosen to extend their activism beyond the streets and into the ballot box.
BLM has unexpectedly become a significant political movement that is propelling Clinton’s campaign. Tonight may be the time that this movement officially becomes political and emboldens African Americans to show up to the polls in record numbers. This transition may occur without the support of the women who founded the movement, but instead by those women whose tragedies have enraged a nation. For BLM and black voters, the most effective method of civil disobedience—especially in the face of Republican demonization and fear mongering—is what it has always been: the act of voting.