‘The conversation is the protest’ — how Black Lives Matter forced us to imagine a world without police

Momentum organizer Nicole Carty discusses how the movement built consensus on racial justice and the strategy needed to make the goal of defunding police a reality.

SOURCEWaging Nonviolence

Prior to the historic groundswell of protest over the last two weeks, many in the media had written Black Lives Matter’s obituary — either lamenting or celebrating is supposed demise. But that narrative was clearly premature. 

Not only was the movement not dead, it was simply progressing through the natural life-cycle of all successful social movements. There are stages where the masses are out on the streets, inevitably followed by quieter — but no less important — periods of strategizing for the next phase of the struggle. In the case of Black Lives Matter, it dramatically shifted the conversation and public opinion in its direction through waves of protest, and then began carefully laying the groundwork for the current mobilization. 

As the conservative economist Milton Friedman famously wrote, in times of crisis “the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” By developing its bold policy platform in 2016, called the Vision for Black Lives, the Movement for Black Lives deftly articulated alternatives to be taken up during the next crisis. Their call for divesting from police — and reallocating that money towards meeting people’s basic needs — helped mainstream the demand to defund police that is now at the forefront of protests across the country. 

Over the last decade, Nicole Carty has helped many of the most powerful movements to advance racial, gender and economic justice — from Occupy Wall Street to the Movement for Black Lives — develop their strategy, narrative and vision for a better world. She is also a core team member of Momentum, and is currently developing a movement to bring about truth, reconciliation and reparations in the United States. 

I spoke with Nicole about what has inspired her over the last two weeks, how the movement can evolve to ramp up pressure over the long haul, and why Minneapolis is poised to lead.

Why do you think the response to Floyd’s killing, in particular, has been so dramatic and brought so many more people out who wouldn’t normally get involved?

It has been seven years since the movement began. The Movement for Black Lives’ critique of police brutality and systemic racism in the United States has had years to build and grow and fester. If people were confused in 2014, in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing, there’s a lot more consensus and support for the movement now. 

And the video is so grotesque, undeniable and obviously horrific that it firmly re-establishes that there is a problem with policing in this country. This violence also happened on top of this global pandemic that’s already affecting in disproportionate ways Americans who are Black and brown. That Black people have to deal with police violence on top of a pandemic which is already disproportionately affecting them as a result of years of white supremacist policy has really pushed people to realize we have deep problems in this country. 

Are there any particular moments or actions that you’ve seen over the last week that have inspired you and that you’d like to see replicated or scaled up?

Nicole Carty at a recent protest in Brooklyn. (WNV/Nicole Carty)

We’ve had a lot of protests all over Brooklyn. I live in Crown Heights with long-term residents who have experienced police brutality and so many other forms of systemic racism. Seeing these massive, diverse crowds showing up around this issue that they know so well — and watching the reactions of people — has been something really special and beautiful. The way people are called into this moment to stand up for Black lives has been really inspiring. And more tactically, I’ve seen a couple of spontaneous actions where white people have stood in front of Black protesters to protect them from police. 

The movement is opening people’s eyes and has already changed the whole conversation, like how Occupy shifted the way people think and talk about inequality. 

The conversation is the protest. The protest is the conversation. People think, “Oh, it’s just symbolic.” People are being transformed by the protests and getting deeper and sharper around these conversations that they don’t usually have. At the protests people are talking about what’s broken in the world and what needs to be fixed. The same thing is happening with people who are watching these marches on the news. So protest is focusing the conversation and opening up space to talk about these societal issues in millions of conversations across the country. 

Police across the country have, not surprisingly, reacted with brutality and excessive force to largely peaceful protests. What can folks on the ground do to make it more likely that police violence will backfire and further fuel the movement?

We need to seize and strengthen the critique that police are actually the ones escalating the situation. That is being done by people capturing videos of police overreacting and instigating violence against protesters. People now know that police do escalate. That was less clear to the general public five years ago. But now, even journalists who are in these protests have experienced the police escalating protests. That means they are less likely to publish their usual “protesters and police clash” headline. 

Early on, the media’s obsession with looting and property destruction by a small minority was muddying the narrative. How can the wider movement distance itself or limit the damage from this dynamic?

The numbers speak for themselves about how people are protesting and how they’re reacting. Black people are illuminating this choice the media is making by focusing on what they deem “looting.” The movement has enough power to launch a critique around why a journalist would focus on the acts of a few people rather than large masses of people marching. There is also an analysis that is more widespread that property is not equivalent to human life. Most of the businesses that have been negatively impacted in the protests are massive corporations. Not only does the public know that they are not going to have their bottom line altered, they are beginning to tie that the fact that these corporations rig the rules in their favor to not pay taxes, which is part of the reason we are in this mess to begin with.

In what ways do the protests need to evolve to put greater pressure on those in power and sustain the level of energy and engagement over the long haul? 

What’s happened in Minneapolis in many ways is creating a road map. A lot of state-wide and local work is going to follow in its wake. You also have a powerful example you can point to and say, “They’re taking it seriously, so we can do it in New York, Los Angeles or Portland.” That is where these conversations are already starting. 

We’re going to see people rallying around the demands to defund police, and doing the work to get people to understand why that is a demand that makes sense. And there are action steps being laid out to actually make that happen. 

Public opinion is not yet in favor of cutting funding to police departments. What do think activists need to do to move people in their direction for more fundamental change? 

For a lot of people — probably a good portion of the public — this is the first time they’ve heard of defunding, and they don’t understand it. So there’s going to be a lot of educational work around that, and it’s already happening. People get educated through action. People are going to do campaigns against the school boards in order to get police out of schools, and that is going to educate the public. 

Consensus around the problem takes time. In 2014, there wasn’t a consensus around police brutality or the unequal treatment of Black people by police. Now there is an overwhelming consensus that there are racialized problems in policing. There could soon be a new consensus around what it means to defund the police or abolition. We know it’s possible —  it’s already happened. People needed to get used to the idea. Defunding the police is the next thing that they can get used to. That shift is already happening.

Do you see more winnable short-term goals that can be mobilized around to build momentum for the bigger vision, or particular cities or states that the movement should focus on?

In Minneapolis they are going to holistically rethink public safety — they kind of are abolishing the police. But we’ll see what that means. Even getting that on record is a win for the movement because it shows what’s possible. It’s possible to rethink and reshape what this institution looks like and the role that it ostensibly plays — that of course, it is not playing. What else could actually meet those needs of the people better than this institution? Minneapolis is going to make the case for that kind of transformation in states across the country, and will be a real example to hold up. 

It’s hard right now to imagine federal action on this, given this administration, but we have an election in a few months. Trump’s full-throated opposition to the demands coming from the movement asking for racial equality could backfire against him. But it might also help continue the conversation for the next couple of months. 

Trump has bungled this so badly that he’s drawing more attention to the demands. Almost any other politician in his position, even a lot of Republicans, would probably be trying to calm things down, not fuel the fire. 

This is gasoline for his base. In the midst of a pandemic, which poses a threat to a lot of his base, Trump’s clarity around being against racial equality and upholding white supremacy is actually a dog whistle to his people. This is his bread and butter, and I can definitely see him drilling down on that. And that’s what’s different about this time around. He is the president, not Obama, and that could make things very different.

Calling out the military was a risky move for Trump. A lot of veterans and folks currently in the military are saying they’re not going to follow orders. 

It’s a major development. Part of Trump’s underlying assumption is that he doesn’t believe that Black people are really American. The reason why the military is saying no is because it’s unconstitutional for them to put down the First Amendment rights of Americans. They’re largely nonviolent protesters. It really has escalated and polarized the military, forced them to a breaking point. If this continues, I could imagine defections from Trump if he keeps trying to turn the military against the American people. He likes to do things to test, and this test backfired for him. His approval rating around this situation has really tanked.

Even though people are conflicted around using the military to put down “looters,” the public is not on his side on this one. So I could see him actually pull back and de-escalate and pivot. That’s kind of what he did in discussing these job numbers. But he often can’t resist being a white supremacist. So he could dig his own grave. 

These are familiar dynamics, reminiscent of the situation in other countries where governments have been brought down. 

There’s a lot of potential in this moment, but it could go different ways. There is the possibility that we will get burnt out and shift into more localized campaigns in the next couple of weeks. There’s a possibility that Trump might escalate and people will be further polarized. You could have millions of people outside the White House demanding he resign. 

What happens next will be determined by the strategy that is used to push it forward. The level of strategy and understanding — of move, counter-move and escalation — that the civil rights movement had was very high over many years. They often charted the potential moves of their opponents before even deciding to start a campaign. We’ll see if the current movement can do that. 

Because of the police killings in Minneapolis back in 2015 and 2016, there are already groups that have been doing this work on the ground for years. They’re not starting from scratch and seem to have a good base to build on. What is your read on the state of the organizing there?

I have a lot of friends in Minneapolis and was there last year. Their organizing community is really tight. There is a lot to learn from. I’m not surprised that they were able to move intentionally and in a unified way. They’ve been investing in their community and whole movement ecosystem, to make it possible to move clearly with this moment. They can point people to allies they know they can trust. They can speak the same movement language and know their funders. They are really well-positioned. Minneapolis a vision of what’s possible.

There is some concern that the protests could lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases. Are organizers doing anything to prepare for the inevitable criticism from the right?

On the federal level, it would be rich for them to blame this movement, which is essential work, for a spike in COVID-19, when their own completely botched response created the level of the pandemic that we have in the country right now. Out of their own selfishness, they created this whole mess, and they’re downplaying their culpability. 

And a corollary is that this is actually a movement about caring for people. You have a disproportionate number of Black people, Native people, Latinx people who are dying from COVID-19, because of generations of abuse. This movement is about life and living. They should say that.

What are the best ways for people new to activism — or those staying inside because they are immunocompromised — to get involved and support the movement?

This movement has always been online and offline, so there are a lot of ways to amplify what’s happening. Even getting into those Facebook conversations with your friends about police brutality and how we can end it in this country are part of the movement. The Movement for Black Lives is a critical place to plug in and donate to, but there are lots of organizations in every community that are doing really critical, essential work on these same issues. So look around.


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