Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Matters of Escalation: Reflecting on Black Lives Matter and A. Philip Randolph

I would like to thank the kind folks who shared insights and resources about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. You have been a great aid as I work to refine my thinking on BLM's strategy, tactics, and role in shaping public opinion.

[I would also like to thank those of you who shared some suggested songs for a soundtrack to accompany one of the future-iconic images from the protests in Ferguson, Missouri against that community's (and the United States') racist, as well as anti-poor and working class, police and criminal justice debt peonage system.]

With the passing of Julian Bond, my thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement (and social movements in an era of neoliberal surveillance and plutocracy) are still very much in flux. Social movement theory has evolved and grown past traditional understandings of mass mobilization to include concerns about "lifestyle" politics, symbolic action, new technologies, and how justice claims by the enfranchised and those folks otherwise included in the polity (and who may be "privileged" in other ways) complicate how we think about social change and power.

Black Lives Matter is a story of change and how a new generation of young lions is fighting back against injustice along the color line; yet, many of their goals are very traditional and solidly within the long Black Freedom Struggle. Politics is once again a story of continuity and change.

While the political opportunity structure and arrangements of power relative to the Racial State were very different during Jim and Jane Crow World War 2 America, as I continue to contemplate BLM's strategies and tactics, I keep returning to A. Philip Randolph and his proposed march on Washington to force Roosevelt to desegregate the arms industries.

If you have not read A. Philip Randolph's letter to Walter White, please do so, it is a precious and wonderful reminder that those people "who make history"--and I hate that lazy phrase, but cliches persist because they are often the best way to describe a given sentiment--are in many ways "regular folks" (the tone of the letter is authentic, serious but relaxed talk between colleagues and friends) just like you and me.

I am also very fond of Randolph's observation that:
At the banquet table of nature, there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold. If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything, and if you can’t hold anything, you won’t keep anything. And you can’t take anything without organization.
By implication, is BLM's decentralized nature a strength, weakness, or somehow contingent on the circumstance?

Is BLM too quick to use public disruptions and pressure to pressure Bernie Sanders and others to shift their talking points (and perhaps even stated policy goals when/if they are elected to higher office), when some behind the scenes pressure and the threat of public action and embarrassment could perhaps accomplish even more in the long term?

Moreover, once those politicians most susceptible to Black Lives Matter's strategy of protest and disruption make themselves immune to the latter's actions, to where does BLM escalate? Have they shown their hand too soon?

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