5 pitfalls Black Lives Matter must avoid to maintain momentum and achieve meaningful change

There are steps the Black Lives Matter movement can take to carry on the remarkable energy it has built—and steps that could cause it to disappear.

SOURCEWaging Nonviolence

In just over a month the Black Lives Matter whirlwind has shaken things up. Change is afoot far and wide — from NASCAR to the NFL, from racist statues being torn down to corporate posturing and statements of solidarity. And there is momentum for core shifts: cities promising some reduction of funding for policing, Minneapolis considering disbanding police, and the Movement for Black Lives’ recently introduced the BREATHE Act, which offers a map on how to turn the values of the movement into concrete federal policy.

To the cynic, many of these acts are symbolic and may disappear when the pressure dies down. To the hopeful, these represent shifts — including the widespread participation of white people — that signal real meaningful change in our culture is underway.

Whatever you believe, there are steps the movement could take to carry on that energy — and steps that could cause it to disappear. Based on my work in numerous movements, here are some key perspectives to hold onto.

Don’t measure success with growing numbers

The movement has to be very careful about which yardstick gets used to measure “success.”

Traditional politics is best at measuring which way the wind is blowing. Movements are about changing the headwinds of our time.

Capitalism teaches shareholders to look at how much money has been made and how many new plants have been opened. The goal is constant growth. That’s not a good yardstick for movements.

The most obvious way this sneaks into our thinking is when we ask ourselves: Are the number of protests growing? Are more people in the streets? Is more money coming into movement organizations?

Movement success shouldn’t be measured that way.

Another yardstick for progress that we are taught by traditional politics involves the current strength of the legislation we support. Do we have a bill with lots of sponsors? Do we have cross-party support? Do we have editorial support from the Washington Post and New York Times? Is our bill seen as politically likely to win?

To be clear: having these things can be good. But traditional politics is best at measuring which way the wind is blowing. Movements are about changing the headwinds of our time.

Radical bills often look unpalatable — until they pass. Movements go through ups and downs — so if the movement clings to these yardsticks too much during the ups, it can be devastating when they come back down.

Therefore, emails highlighting huge numbers at protests, or getting endorsements from major newspapers, might unwittingly set the movement up for failure by teaching people to defer to those yardsticks.

An alternative movement yardstick was put out by Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan years ago, which outlined the natural ups and downs of movements, which typically progress through three steps:

1. Prove there is a problem.
2. Prove the failure of established institutions to solve the problem
3. Prove our alternatives are better than inaction.

The movement has finally, successfully convinced the nation that there is a problem: Black lives don’t matter to this country. A growing percentage of the public is now accepting that police — as a whole — are not up to the task of respecting Black lives. These are two huge successes.

The movement’s messages instead could focus on shifts in the cultural mood, the changing narrative — even the clarifying vehemence of our opponents! Because next, we have the daunting task of proving that our alternatives — while not perfect and with their own growing pains — are better than inaction.

Don’t think movements are synonymous with protests

One of the most tricky moments for activists comes when the near daily protests in the streets fade. It’s hard to predict when this moment of the whirlwind will slow down. We’re in a pandemic where there is no “normal” life to return to — there are few jobs, no school, and for some of us no places to hang out and socialize.

But eventually it will happen. Protests will get smaller or disappear. The media will be quick to say the movement has ended. In fact, quite ignorantly, the front page of CNN already quotes people saying it!

Savvy movements accept that numbers may be smaller in street protests, but take solace in the solidifying of movement language, concepts and support in mainstream society.

Movement historian Vincent Harding talked about the Black freedom struggle as a “river.” While this moment has new twists — like widespread participation by white people — movement rivers have some predictable ebbs and flows.

When the movement uprising moves beyond the turbulence of the whitewater, there will be versions of backlash. The media will forget that any change has happened and eventually turn their attention elsewhere. Testing any easing up of the public outcry, politicians and corporate leaders will tiptoe away from their previous stances. As the number of protests dwindle, the exposure of frontline protesters to police retaliation will increase. Wins will become much harder to achieve. All this emboldens the opposition to return to the old status quo.

The movement should let people know this now, so they’re not unprepared.

In response, the movement may attempt riskier and bolder actions to try to remake the glory of the whirlwind. If that doesn’t work (and it rarely does), protesters can have a sense of failure, potentially leading to toxic internal power struggles.

Savvy movements, however, accept that numbers may be smaller in street protests, but take solace in the solidifying of movement language, concepts and support in mainstream society. They dig in and proceed to the task of campaigning for radical reforms where they can — and convincing more people to embrace the revolutionary changes needed.

As Tamiko Beyer writes, “Street protests grab headlines, and there’s a tendency to focus almost solely on policy and electoral politics as the pathway to change.” But there are many other roles to play in supporting a movement, some of which I explore in “Building A Movement To End the New Jim Crow,” an organizing guide to accompany Michelle Alexander’s acclaimed book “The New Jim Crow.”

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Don’t be disappointed with the failure of cheap reform 

Not wanting to appear too tone deaf to public outcry, Senate Republicans put together a reform bill. It was awful: using “training” to limit chokeholds and “reporting” to try to stem the wave of police violence. The movement can be glad it failed to gain energy.

Not to be outdone, House and Senate Democrats put together their own reform bill. This too barely even nibbled away at the fundamental power of police or the structure of our criminal injustice system. Making chokeholds illegal? Limiting the transfer of military-grade weapons? More police training? That’s nowhere near the problem. Thankfully, it appears destined to fail as well.

One response to these legislative losses is movement anxiety and feelings of failure or hopelessness. Maybe the government simply does not care. Maybe we cannot win. Maybe we have already lost.

Breathe. It’s actually good news.

The 1960s student sit-ins against segregation did not immediately result in legislative wins. Even after the peak event of the March on Washington, it took another year for the 1964 Civil Rights Act to pass. That gap in time was full of legislative maneuvers to try to offer the most watered-down bill possible.

The Movement for Black Lives has already taken a tremendous step forward, not waiting around for politicians to keep proposing bad policies but instead presenting their own alternative proposals. They are demanding a radical defunding of police and pouring money into services for the Black community.

The upcoming phase of the movement requires stopping cheap reforms and advancing these radical proposals. Once the public demands action, the opposition wants to know how little they can do to get us off their backs. They therefore offer the easiest actions — the ones that require the smallest change — first.

The opposition’s job is to offer the easiest reforms; our job is to teach society why that’s not enough.

The dance with these cheap reforms is more complex than simply shaming them for being insufficient.

An early concession by the police during this uprising was the symbolic act of police kneeling. Parts of the movement responded differently: Some praised the cops for breaking ranks and challenging their own. Others condemned the cops for doing the least possible while still retaining their guns, their immunity and their intent to kill.

Because I’m an educator, I’m aware that when learning a new paradigm, two contrary things need to happen. People often implement the easiest reforms first — like a baby learning to walk. If people are met with only negativity, they can get discouraged. So people need some encouragement.

They also need to be challenged. Few people move into a new worldview casually; it often involves heat and painful reflection. 

Divergent movement responses speak to these different aspects. Therefore, it’s insufficient to just condemn reforms as not being enough. Showing the way with encouragement for steps made also matters.

This dance is not simple. It’s painful if Black folks are always left doing the condemnation. Or if the different responses attack each other for not saying the same thing. With bad legislation, foot-dragging politicians and bureaucratic intransigence, the movement will thankfully get lots of practice and have many opportunities for teachable moments.

From the vantage point of teachable moments, the movement can embrace these cheap reforms as a chance to clarify, educate and do political education. The opposition’s job is to offer the easiest reforms; our job is to teach society why that’s not enough.

Don’t assume Biden will save us — think of him as a balloon

If you really believe Biden will save us, then you and I need to have a long talk.

But even if we know in our hearts that Biden won’t save us, many of us place too much emphasis on the November election. Don’t get me wrong, I expect to do my share of phone calls to turn people out to vote. But after Nov. 3, I plan to be right back in the streets. I hope you will too.

When Obama was elected, far too many of us waited for him to give us marching orders on health care. The result was a few measured wins, but not the revolutionary change we needed.

Thankfully, few of us believe Biden will be a transformative president. That disbelief may be a gift for the movement, if we use it to take strong leadership and lay down the criteria for victory. Movements should dictate values, not elections.

Those in social movements should see politicians as balloons. A balloon follows the wind. If you blow on it, it can be pushed one way or the other. Politicians follow the wind as well, readily changing their opinions and stances.

But politicians are balloons tied to a rock. If we swat at them, they may sway to the left or the right. But, tied down, they can only go so far. Instead of simply batting at them, we should focus on moving the rock, which is people’s activated social values.

Depending on the makeup of our government, the string on the balloon might be longer or shorter. But politicians know they can only be pushed so far one way or the other. If they absolutely violate the activated social norms of their constituents, they are in trouble.

Politically speaking, our job is to activate those values — and showing up on the streets Nov. 4 is a good way to start.

Don’t assume our legislative process can’t work, but don’t depend on it

Governance in this country is a big problem. During my lifetime, virtually no big problems are being solved at the federal level. Pick any episode of the 90s TV show “West Wing” and the problems from that era are still around: immigration, gun control, climate change, partisan gridlock, the Electoral College and the list goes on.

This isn’t how all countries work. In Western Europe, where they continue to have governments that function more democratically, the elites have been forced to confront big challenges. They are using the pandemic to accede to some demands of the climate movement and outlaw some of the worst carbon polluters, while each level of our government is passing the buck to someone else until blame finally lands on individuals for not wearing masks.

This is one of the classic signs of an empire in decline. Like Rome or the British Empire, the government is unable to address its core problems. The pandemic has exposed the U.S. government’s fatal inability to protect its own people. In short, our government may not be up to the task of instituting the kind of radical change needed.

This decline is beyond left or right, Democrat or Republican. The U.S. empire is cracking. Its ability to control countries’ elsewhere is eroding; its sway in international politics and ability to control the global economic order are in retreat. The decline is speeding more and more erratically — as our financial and corporate elites cling to the support that Trump offers them, even in the face of his narcissistic inability to grasp facts, pursue coherent policies, or lead the nation). 

The movement may face the possibility that there’s a lack of political ability to pass meaningful legislation under this current system. In the face of this decline, Black Lives Matter may need to be ready to join other movements in a “movement of movements” to prepare for a revolution in this country.

That doesn’t mean the movement shouldn’t fight each legislative fight and try to win at each local campaign it can. It has to because our lives depend on it — and that’s a vehicle for moving more people into our corner. 

But federal, state or local campaigns may not be able to give what the movement wants — especially because the system is too decrepit or weighted down by fanatical devotion to the empire. We should be ready to think about what kind of changes we need so we might actually have a functioning, fruitful, lively democracy. 

Movements get nurtured when we do these things — when we teach people it’s more than just protest and numbers but about winning over the hearts and minds of the people. Movements win when they stop being in reactive mode to politicians and instead move them like balloons. And movements really win big when they ask for changes they want and prepare the people to understand that the system may need revolutionary action to pull it off. If we do all these things, we’ll have an even stronger, more resilient and powerful movement.


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