Radical Momentum: Two Complementary Visions for the Future of Black Lives Matter

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The process leading up to the launch of the web-site “The Movement for Black Lives” and the policy papers associated with it, began in earnest last July and eventually drew the participation of over 60 civil society and community groups. The platform came almost exactly one year after another organization,“We the Protesters”, released Campaign Zero, the first major policy proposals to come out of the Black Lives Matter protests, mainly dealing with police and criminal justice reform.

Along with “The National Black Political Agenda for Self-Determination”, in which a variety of other individuals and groups calling themselves the “Black is Back Coalition” offer a 19 point plan for addressing many of the same issues in a more concise form, these policy documents should finally silence the critics who have long claimed the wider movement lacks direction.Also, these platforms are wide-ranging enough and, I think, in some ways intended, to be picked up and used by diverse groups internationally facing their own struggles.

Because many of the proposals put forward for police and criminal justice reform bear similarities to the work of Campaign Zero, our focus here will mostly be on other aspects of these platforms that are likely to get less coverage in the weeks ahead even in alternative media, especially so close to a U.S. federal election.

While the main focus of both is on African Americans, they are not viewed in isolation from others and the plight of Indigenous and undocumented people receives special attention in many of the proposals. There’s also a strong emphasis on the unique challenges faced by marginalized groups within communities of color, including women, the incarcerated, LGBTQ citizens and youth.

Although many of the problems addressed in both platforms are unresolved issues from 50 or more years ago, there are interesting additions unique to our own time, such as demands for ‘universal, affordable and community controlled’ internet access, continued net neutrality and an end to gentrification.

The Movement for Black Lives’ platform, under the title, “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom & Justice” is split into six categories: End the War on Black People, Reparations, Invest-Divest, Economic Justice, Community Control and Political Power. Each category has specific policy proposals at all levels of government that can either be read on the site or downloaded in PDF form.

There are also ample outside resources provided, allowing for further study of the ideas presented and a page that allows activists create their own campaigns. While there is some repetition and overlap between the categories listed above, this is to be expected when creating such a comprehensive platform.

Programs for Justice

Some readers may have a problem with the call for reparations, a goal that features prominently in both platforms, but this is probably the result of  years of right wing propaganda that have made many people see the concept negatively, as a handout rather than an issue of justice for past and current wrongs. When we consider that the average wealth of an African-American household is $7,113 while the median white household has $111,146, it should be easy to conclude that something radical needs to be done to address this disparity.

Despite this, the authors offer solutions that will benefit all citizens. One of the widest ranging proposals in this section is the call for a Universal Basic Income (UBI), an idea that is growing in popularity throughout the world and that would help create a more just and equal society.

Although just a few years ago this idea would have been dismissed as unrealistic, now, “Finland and Canada are running small pilot experiments, and… a charity is conducting a large scale test in Kenya and Uganda.”

The Movement for Black Lives’ section dealing with UBI offers several ideas on how to pay for it stating, “The revenue could be generated by multiple sources which would require structural reforms to the tax code including higher taxes on the wealthy, taxes on public goods like air (carbon tax) or on certain industries (financial transactions tax), or a dividend based on distributing resources from a common-owned asset (like oil).” As the authors note, the latter program already exists in Alaska, whose citizens receive an annual oil dividend.

Other ways to pay for such programs are offered by both groups. For example, Point 5 of the National Agenda for Black Self Determination, “Roll Back and End Mass Black Incarceration”, makes the point that “one out of eight prison inmates on the planet is a Black person in the U.S.” and demands that “every U.S. incarcerating authority must take immediate steps to roll back the national prison and jail population to 1972 levels”. This would free up a lot of money that could be spent not only on re-integrating former prisoners, most of them non-violent drug offenders, but also in building constructive programs like the UBI.

Radical Approaches to Education

The right to education is a running theme throughout the Movement for Black Lives platform. These policy ideas, some transformative, some incremental, appear in four of the six categories and address many issues from free post secondary education for all to increased funding for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

There’s also a lot of material for learning in the policy papers and resources provided. For example, its been some years since I read the US Constitution but I either didn’t remember or never realized that the document itself and its amendments don’t contain specific language guaranteeing free education to all citizens, as explained in the section ‘Invest-Divest’.

The call for an amendment to the constitution guaranteeing this right to all citizens, itself in line with Article 26 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, seems like a reasonable call. Whether the U.S. Congress under either party could be mobilized to work towards realizing this noble goal is another story.

Although much shorter, the National Black Agenda hits on the same issues with Point 13, “The Right to Free Education Through Post-Graduate Level”, emphasizing community control of schools through local boards and an end to both for profit schooling and “philosophies of teaching that put profit over human development”.

Dismantling the Warfare State

What little coverage the Movement for Black Lives has received in mainstream outlets has mainly revolved around one long paragraph in the section dealing with American foreign policy and the military. This demands that support for Israel to the tune of $3 billion dollars per year be suspended until it meets its commitments under international law. They also note that 75% of this money goes to the procurement of American weapons, further enriching large corporations who export misery to the Palestinian territories and throughout the world.

While some groups might not like some of the language used, this should be an opportunity to open up a further discussion about the suffering of the Palestinian people which is long overdue, especially in the United States, rather than an excuse to condemn the Movement and its proposals in their entirety.

This somewhat hysterical focus on Israel also allows mainstream commentators to ignore the larger critique of US foreign policy found in both platforms. From talking about Africomm expanding its operations, to soft imperialism in Haiti and Honduras to the US military’s environmental footprint, the Movement for Black Lives demands that the money being spent on militarism be brought home to the benefit of America’s poor and working classes, especially traditionally marginalized groups.

For its part, Black is Back dedicates three planks to curtailing U.S. militarism, including one on Israel, one on ending proxy wars in Africa, Asia and Latin America and one on reparations from Europe and North America to Africa to help that continent get over the legacies of imperialism and neo-colonialism.

The money that could be saved by curtailing US military spending is staggering, to take just one example not mentioned in either platform, the F35 ‘fifth generation’ fighter project will cost at least $2 trillion dollars over its lifetime and has so far only produced planes that are mediocre in comparison to the F-16 brought into service during the 1970s. Needless, to say these costs have been borne by American taxpayers.

Cuts to military spending, along with ending mass incarceration, especially by de-criminalizing drugs and sex work as the authors make clear, could allow these funds to find their way back into the communities that need them most and pay for large scale infrastructure projects, creating millions of jobs in the process. As a Canadian I can tell you, while our system is far from perfect, it’s possible to provide quality healthcare to all citizens regardless of their economic circumstances, something emphasized in both platforms.

Some may argue that these proposals are unrealistic but I believe that they are aspirational. It’s not enough for those of us on the left to be perennial critics, although there is plenty to criticize. We must be brave enough put forward our ideas, as both these platforms do. The best part is, most people like them, something Bernie Sanders’ campaign proved over the last year.

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