Today’s progressive movements must learn from Black Lives Matter—and join together

A coalition of movements that joins a future whirlwind moment to win the struggle can at last make racial justice a reality.

SOURCEWaging Nonviolence
Image Credit: CNN

As the response to the killing of George Floyd has expanded to all 50 states, it has become a broad social movement — with demonstrations even taking place in small, majority-white towns where Trump gained a majority in 2016. As the Washington Post reported, one of those small towns in Ohio hadn’t seen a march since the Ku Klux Klan held one 20 years ago.

The gratifying news is that the public gets it, more than ever before. A new ABC News/Ipsos poll found that by June 4 three-fourths of those surveyed believed Floyd’s killing not as an isolated incident but part of a broader problem in the treatment of African Americans by police. This number includes more than a majority — 55 percent — of Republicans.

Early achievements

One of the largest positives of the movement might be the skill with which activists linked police violence to other areas of historic racial injustice in jobs, housing, education and health care. That analysis was echoed in many arenas, as people continue to take a deeper look at their own institutional practices and vow to make changes. Even NASCAR has announced it won’t let fans wave confederate flags at the races.

Unlike one-off protests, which are essentially fleeting expressions of opinion, this movement shows the superior leverage of a direct action campaign. A campaign is a series of nonviolent actions, keeping the heat on, escalating the pressure, and giving time for minds to change and more allies to climb on board.

Despite the pandemic, people demonstrated in the streets across the country. Two weeks of actions so changed the landscape that even Republican members of Congress scrambled to find some way to respond. All of today’s progressive movements can learn from this movement’s persistence in the streets.

Continual use of direct action illustrated the point of the demonstrators when police responded with more violence. As in the 1960s civil rights campaigns, this movement’s refusal to back away from direct action swelled its ranks because the police in real time gave added fuel. The violence of the military in front of the White House helped as well. Lee Smithey and Lester Kurtz show how this works in their book “The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements.”

All of that was supported by the increasing clarity by demonstrators on the importance of nonviolent discipline. That fact enabled the movement to occupy the moral high ground, despite Donald Trump’s pathetic wielding of the Bible in front of a church he doesn’t go to.

The earlier Black Lives Matter movement prepared for this current whirlwind moment by analyzing the systemic nature of the oppression.

Some believe that the widespread impact of the uprising came from the rioting that happened in its first few days. It’s too early to form an evidence-based opinion about May’s events, but we do have research that gives us insight into the likelihood that rioting helps us make positive change.

Omar Wasow, a professor of politics at Princeton who studies protest movements and their effects on politics, examined 137 violent protests following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April, 1968. He found that in the counties closest to the riots, the vote in November for Republican Richard Nixon for president increased 6-8 percent over the expected count for those counties. Nixon was running on a “law-and-order” platform, and won.

Another Princeton researcher, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, looked at the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion, which she says was more similar to what we experienced in May than the 1960s riots. As she wrote in the New Yorker, “Democrats responded to the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion by pushing the country further down the road of punishment and retribution in its criminal-justice system… The Democrats’ new emphasis on law and order was coupled with a relentless assault on the right to welfare assistance.”

Of course, there are Black people who share the widespread belief among whites that violence is the force more powerful. American culture is almost reverential when it comes to belief in violence. But there are also Black people who count the cost to the working-class Black community.

A week ago, I was the only white person in the room when a circle of working-class Black family friends were eating and chatting around my kitchen table. Helicopters were still passing over my house and police cars blared sirens up my street responding to rioting and vandalism at the nearby shopping district in West Philadelphia.

The conversation burst into emotional condemnation of rioting. They talked indignantly about what the burned-out stores meant to them: jobs lost to people they knew, Black small business owners forced to close, old people with no drugstore left for getting their medicines.

They also talked about the increased chance of gentrification as richer white people buy properties and turn them into expensive condos. Why, they wondered, don’t Black neighborhoods matter?

The whirlwind

The events of the last weeks are what Mark and Paul Engler call a “whirlwind” in their book “This Is an Uprising.” It can happen at any moment.

Movements can make a whirlwind more likely by initiating a direct action campaign, as when Martin Luther King’s coalition initiated the Birmingham, civil rights campaign of 1964. But we’re not really in charge of history. Obviously the whirlwind can, as in this case, happen without anyone’s intention, especially if society is in a period of volatility and polarization like right now.

For the groups that have been working for years against racial injustice by police, the challenge becomes reaching out to weave together a network that includes the new leadership now emerging.

Activists in the gun control, climate and other movements may well experience a whirlwind after yet another disaster. When it happens, it helps to be prepared. The most successful social movements I know developed clarity in three areas: analysis of the problem, an envisioned big-picture solution and a strategy for getting from here to there.

Each of the progressive social movements operating in the United States today has the same problem: its most formidable opponent is the economic elite.

The earlier Black Lives Matter movement prepared for this current whirlwind moment by analyzing the systemic nature of the oppression, seeing violent policing as a symptom as well as abrasive cause.

In 2016 the Movement for Black Lives also made a historic break with the vision-aversion that had paralyzed activists since the 1980s by publishing a vision, also called its platform. Supplementing that vision is the recent work of the Institute for Policy Studies on behalf of the Poor People’s Campaign.

How other movements can join in

Each of the progressive social movements operating in the United States today has the same problem: its most formidable opponent is the economic elite that, according to the Princeton “oligarchy” study, runs the country, whichever political party is formally in power.

The people fighting for climate justice, peace, gun control, the full freedom of people of color, immigrants, women and LGBTQ people, economic equality, civil liberties and educational opportunity all find their most effective and far-reaching proposals blocked by the same source.

It is difficult for the leaders of those movements to ally on a national level at this time; they compete for attention, funding, support from Democrats, and so on. Most movements work within their own silos, creating a highly convenient situation for the oligarchy that maintains its dominance by divide-and-rule.

Together, we can come far closer to the goals of each than we can separately.

Additionally, the American culture of competition energizes the belief that “my issue is the most important.” To offset that advantage held by the economic elite, we need a cultural advantage of our own: a vision broad enough to show how the values of each of these progressive movements will be expressed in a new society.

In the countries that have taken major strides in racial justice, equality, climate adaptation, democracy and individual freedom, movement leaders found that, indeed, the oppressions that marked their times were intersectional. They created a vision that drew disparate movements into coalition.

I tell their story in my book “Viking Economics.” They found their envisioned structures were synergistic: The new policies interacted in ways that made the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Although those countries are not utopias, they took a giant step toward King’s vision of a beloved community.

That giant step is what’s needed next. The initiative of the Movement for Black Lives needs to be picked up by others. The vision can be enlarged to advance key goals of each of the progressive movements operating today.

Together, we can come far closer to the goals of each than we can separately, because the united power of many can overcome the resistance of the 1 percent. A coalition of movements that joins a future whirlwind moment to win the struggle can at last make racial justice a reality.


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George Lakey co-founded Earth Quaker Action Group which just won its five-year campaign to force a major U.S. bank to give up financing mountaintop removal coal mining. Along with college teaching he has led 1,500 workshops on five continents and led activist projects on local, national, and international levels. Among many other books and articles, he is author of “Strategizing for a Living Revolution” in David Solnit’s book Globalize Liberation (City Lights, 2004). His first arrest was for a civil rights sit-in and most recent was with Earth Quaker Action Team while protesting mountain top removal coal mining.