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#BlackLivesMatter: Making a Moment into a Movement

“I want to live until I’m 18…You want to get older. You want to experience life. You don’t want to die in a matter of seconds of because of cops.”

– Aniya, 13, marching in Staten Island, New York, 2015

Anti-racists today have a strange challenge, a struggle that is at the core of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s forthcoming book,  From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.

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President Obama has said racism is “no longer endemic, or sanctioned by law and custom.” Can America be racist if there’s a Black man in the White House who says racism is dying? Can America be racist with its two consecutive Blacks serving as the leading attorneys in the nation?

Taylor argues that, yes, America can be racist despite Black leaders, and in fact such superficial gains for Blacks mask far-reaching structural discrimination in housing, education, employment, and policing. Meanwhile, the news media by and large serves as a microphone for cultural racism. After the Ferguson police left murdered Michael Brown’s body in the road for four hours and kept back his parents by canine and pistol, the New York Times declared Brown was “no angel” as he occasionally smoked marijuana and sometimes listened to rap.

Alicia Garza coined the phrase “Black Lives Matter” but there are those who protest against those words. Why do you have go and say Black lives matter? Don’t all lives matter?

“All lives matter” is the oppressor’s refrain after calls for justice. It’s what settlers told the Indian tribes, it’s what Nixon told Vietnam protestors, and what Israel asks America to say about Palestinians. Columnist Arthur Chu popularly wrote that emphasizing “all lives matter” as opposed to Black Lives Matter is like someone running through a cancer research fundraiser yelling, “there are others diseases too!” It’s overtly racist.

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation works as an informed and soulful guide to what has happened and what’s next for people involved in the struggle. Taylor’s book shows there is an understandable perception that Black lives do seem as if they are disposable to the U.S. government. According to the CDC, Blacks are seven times as likely to be killed by police than whites.

A major theme of Taylor’s work is the dilemma posed by supposed allies working against rather than for the struggle for racial equality. To that end, Taylor identifies racism as having three historical molds: a biological form (certain races are “naturally” superior) and newer, often misguided concepts of color blindness, (race is artificial), and a “culture of poverty,” (perceptions of Black laziness, excuses, diet, absentee fathers, etc.) The latter narrative, she says, “works to deepen the cleavages between groups of people who would otherwise have every interest in combining forces.”

In an effort to guide the next, more inclusive mass movement, Taylor dissects the tangling of class and race in American history. Karl Marx’s letters to Abraham Lincoln and Lincoln’s thoughts on Blacks revolting against racists after the war are intriguing to examine in light of today’s world. In one of his lesser emphasized quotes, Lincoln called the Civil War “a unholy war of property against labor.” Taylor does extensive work tracking the similarities between communists, labor, and the Black Panther Party. Taylor, though, never really makes clear if its Fanon-esque armed struggle or political pressure that will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Moreover, readers are left to wonder whose movement will fight against the fact that America boasts 5% of the world’s people, 25% of the world’s prisoners, and Blacks received 20% longer sentences as whites for the same crimes. Whose movement will liberate college students from lifetimes of debt? Whose movement will demand a living wage? Whose movement will argue for universal healthcare in a country where a large majority of all new AIDS diagnoses go to Black women and Blacks are three times as likely as whites to get stroke, prenatal disease, and diabetes?

In the strongest sections of her book, Taylor critiques President Obama and well-known civil rights leader Al Sharpton. “Since Obama came into office, Black median income has fallen by 10.9 percent to $33,500, compared to a 3.6 percent drop for whites, leaving their median income at $58,000.” Obama, a Black from working-class background espouses the damning “culture of poverty” racism. He explains his My Brother’s Keeper initiative as “not some big new government program…[but] a more focused effort on boys and young men of color who are having a particularly tough time. And in this effort, government cannot play the only—or even the primary—role.” Like many leftists, Taylor is disgusted that, “We are led to believe that a man who can direct drone strikes in the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan…is powerless to argue, fight, and champion for legislation and the enforcement of existing laws and rights in the interest of racial justice.” Indeed, “Hope” and “Change” are quickly becoming the ironic meme that Truman holding up “Dewey Defeats Truman” is in today’s history books.

Meanwhile, Sharpton has lost face in the Black radical community. His arrival in Ferguson felt as belated as it did foreign. While eulogizing Michael Brown, his harshest words were reserved for the protestors. Weeks later, he ended up comparing the protestors there to pimps and hoes. His National Action Network, people are realizing, crafts myopic, single issue agendas that fail to place police brutality into the larger scope of economic and racial inequality.

Change does not start with politics, it starts with movements. Like all social movements, Black Lives Matter began in a unique historical moment, something Taylor brilliantly presents as a diverse series of events and sentiments. The Patriot Act foreclosed the years after September 11, 2001 and legalized racial profiling. It wasn’t until 2005 that Hurricane Katrina exposed a Third World country existed in America.

Bush’s response, too, was an affront to Black dignity that is still not forgotten. Harper’s December index revealed that the U.S. government spent $4.5 million more investigating the consulate attack in Benghazi than it did preparing for and responding to Hurricane Katrina.

In 2007, the Black community in Louisiana was galvanized into organizing the first in a series mass mobilizations the likes of which had not been seen in decades. The Jena 6 were six Black minors who assaulted a seventeen-year-old white boy. The hanging of nooses on their school’s property and an overzealous prosecution, (trying the boys as adults) led to some degree of public outrage. As criminals, however, the Jena 6 were not the best way to stimulate widespread sympathy.

In those years, discontent was often tied psychologically with George W. Bush. However, it says something essential that Occupy and recent police violence have come under a Black presidency. 2 million more Blacks voted in 2008 than in 2004, and with President Obama’s election, academia and the media declared a new “post-racial” era had begun. The year after Jena, twenty-two-year-old, face down, handcuffed, and unarmed Oscar Grant was murdered by police on New Year’s Day and this killing was captured by several smartphone cameras. Within days, thousands of people took to the streets proving wrong declarations made in magazines like Forbes that, “Racism in America is Over.”

The 2011 state execution of Troy Davis, decried by Amnesty International and European governments, came at a time when Obama said that he was not the president of black America, but of all of America. One week after the Davis execution, the Occupy encampment began. At times perceived as disheveled, Occupy was inclusive and decentralized in its ranks.

Trayvon Martin and recent police killings of Blacks coupled with the Black community’s discontent with its old guard of politics, sparked a new trend, a wide-spread willingness to join the struggle. Trayvon Martin committed no crime yet his dead body was drug-tested and George Zimmerman wasn’t. No effort was made to see if Martin lived in the area. It took police forty-five days to decide to arrest Zimmerman and after more than a year, he was found not-guilty.

Taylor argues that, “Black people in America cannot ‘get free’ alone.” Indeed, a collaborative cross-class, cross-race effort is a large part of the struggle. The book highlights the late-career class-consciousness of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She makes readers wonder, “Who is today’s Martin or Malcolm?” Taylor goes on to suggest that Black Lives Matter needs to collaborate with and embrace other minority movements to ferment change. She decries the idea that after the racist murder of three Muslim students at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2015, Black Lives Matter called #MuslimLivesMatter an appropriation. It says something about American shades of inequality when the only acceptable ad hominem attack on Obama is calling him Muslim, as if racists needed to find something “worse” than Black. It is sensible, based on both history and current events, there is no group more ready to destroy the status quo than the Black working-class, but Black Lives Matter needs to work to recruit Muslims, Native Americans, and Latinos, and continue to inspire female leaders.

It is interesting to consider who Black Lives Matter will endorse and to what length they will make that endorsement matter. Taylor says nothing about Hilary Clinton and briefly criticizes Bernie Sanders, only to later put forth ideas that mirror Sanders’s updated platform including broad coalition-building and changes in tuition and law enforcement. Taylor’s radical plans may sound alarming to potential protestors, but when nominally Black-friendly groups like Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and the Congressional Black Caucus receive millions from Walmart, McDonalds and ALEC who infamously subsidizes voter suppression and Stand-Your-Ground laws, than the decentralized mass-mobilization may be the most effective and realistic option for change. According to Taylor, only 36% of Americans believe police killings are “isolated incidents.”

Taylor alludes to the weaknesses of  Campaign Zero’s platform in light of deep-rooted discrimination in areas such as housing. Solving housing discrimination and its web of racism in employment, education, and policing requires a fight that Black Lives Matter activists have begun.

They are occupying police precincts, shutting down highways, public transportation, and ports of commerce. To spread the “occupy” methodology, perhaps teacher union actions in Black communities will be a future incarnation of protest. For now, the struggle lives on college campuses, at the workplace, and in the streets. And its ranks are growing.

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Daniel Larkins is a writer and teacher from New Jersey.

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