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Many people could easily conclude that Black Lives Matter is a collection of reactionary rallies. They may see it as nothing more than temporary protests against isolated incidents of police brutality rather than a permanent movement. This perception is categorically false to those who organize, rally, and endlessly work to make Black Lives Matter a formidable civil and human rights movement.
However, corporate media outlets and white middle-class Americans will eventually grow tired of talking about racism and police brutality. Black Lives Matter will fall from national consciousness, especially among white liberals, unless it generates an extraordinary amount of attention. The expression “the revolution won’t be televised” is antiquated. It will definitely be televised and Black Lives Matter needs to be on every television set.
Sustainability is important for the movement. It risks dissolving and its goals are less likely to be achieved if it cannot mobilize large numbers of people. This requires significant media attention, which it is currently not getting because of the election. Members of the movement are thus in danger of being marginalized and pushed underground. To help prevent this outcome, Black Lives Matter should endorse Bernie Sanders.
The movement has instead decided to not endorse any presidential candidate. Meanwhile, large numbers of blacks are voting for Hillary Clinton. This trend would make sense in any other election cycle; however, there is a genuine progressive candidate on the ballot. By not endorsing Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter is missing an extraordinary opportunity to spread its message to potential supporters, thus endangering its longevity as a serious movement.
Darnell Moore, a journalist and member of the New York City chapter of Black Lives Matter, presented a valid request of Sanders, one that could understandably be echoed by the larger Movement for Black Lives. In an open letter, Moore asked the presidential candidate to “listen to black people.” He suggests that Sanders try to better understand the “intersection of racial inequity, economic disenfranchisement, workplace discrimination and much more.” This is a valid point and Black Lives Matter has definitely put pressure on Sanders to recognize the needs of people of color.
But what about putting pressure on Hillary Clinton? The movement has certainly engaged her in conversations (and protests), but is there a better way to pressure her than by endorsing her opponent late in the primary season? We have already seen Hillary move towards Sanders on a lot of positions. Certainly a more powerful Sanders will push her further.
Moores’ letter was penned on August 14, 2015, months before the first primary. There has been ample time to pressure Sanders to consider the demands of Black Lives Matter, and he has responded, but there will be no more time to pressure him if he drops out of the race. The movement should endorse him before it is too late; thus putting further pressure on Hillary.
If the movement can join other progressive groups to organize protests against Donald Trump, it can also join other groups to support Bernie Sanders. Black Lives Matter and the Sanders campaign each gain from a coalition: Black Lives Matter could acquire much needed support from white liberals and Democrats, and the Bernie Sanders campaign could gain access to thousands of highly organized activists across the nation.
The movement has already brought much needed awareness to critical issues, such as racism, mass incarceration and police brutality, and it is enacting positive changes across the country, but it could create even more awareness and enact greater change if it embraced a candidate with a national platform.
The goals of the movement would not hinge on Sanders winning in November. The movement could still remain leaderless, but change would be much easier to achieve with Bernie Sanders as president than Hillary Clinton or any Republican candidate.
On March 9, 2016, Democracy Now! hosted a discussion about which candidate progressives should support in the presidential election. The show featured Cornel West, who endorses Bernie Sanders; Dolores Huerta, who backs Hillary Clinton; and a founding member of Black Lives Matter, Milina Abdullah.
Abdullah gave three reasons why Black Lives Matters has decided to not endorse any presidential candidate. She said, “The first is that neither Bernie Sanders nor Hillary Clinton has a strong command of the particular issues related to race in the specificity of black oppression. Neither has been willing to really invest the time or energy to develop plans that really get black folks free.”
Sanders fully admitted that he does not know what it is like to be black, but anyone who questions Sanders’ racial blind spot should look at what he was doing fifty years ago during the Civil Rights movement. He was arrested in 1963 for protesting segregation in Chicago, and he participated in the historic march on Washington the same year.
Likewise, his progressive agenda, including affordable health care, free college tuition and livable wages, is certainly related to black oppression. A progressive agenda (read: a socialist agenda) would reduce economic inequality, which is the root cause of many issues that Black Lives Matters is addressing. Sanders does not know what it is like to be black, but he has an agenda that can help solve problems in the black community. A close examination of neoliberal economics, Wall Street deregulation, and unequal distribution of wealth reveals that race alone does not fully explain many problems in the black community, so surely the solutions go beyond race as well.
Would Black Lives Matter endorse Sanders if he were black? What if he experienced all the harsh problems that black people face? Is it conceivable that he might derive the exact same solutions? If the answer is yes, then supporting him should not depend on race.
Abdullah’s second reason for not supporting Sanders (or Clinton) is that monetary interests of a two-party system are “hugely problematic and are disempowering and oppressive to black people.” This is a fundamental truism. It is true for individuals of all races and social classes across the political spectrum, and it is especially true for poor people of color. Pulitzer Prize winning author Chris Hedges echoes this argument in an op-ed for Truthdig. Hedges denounces the Sanders campaign because the senator promised to support the eventual nominee for president, which will undermine Sanders’ volunteers and erase his political movement. Hedges writes that transforming the Democrat Party establishment is impossible, and that real power lies in the military-industrial complex, Wall Street, corporations, and the surveillance state. This argument is powerful and cannot be denied.
However, voting for Sanders does not equate to supporting the two-party system or any other source of power. In fact, Sanders is gaining enough support to run as an independent. What is wrong with achieving national electoral power? Surely building a revolutionary movement involves voting.
People of color recently demonstrated their electoral power in Chicago by defeating Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. This was ushered in by grassroots efforts organized by Black Lives Matter. The same result was accomplished in Cleveland, demonstrating the power of voting against a candidate, but what about voting for someone with an actual progressive agenda on a national level?
Abdullah’s third argument against supporting a candidate has to do with democracy going beyond electoral politics: “We know that the revolution won’t come at the ballot box and the revolution won’t be televised. The revolution will be on the ground, when the people rise up and demand something better, something more imaginative and something more visionary.”
Again, Abdullah is discussing a powerful idea. She is saying that Black Lives Matter is addressing problems that no politician can resolve. Racism, poverty, and inequality are systematic problems that require a formidable mass movement that is sustainable over a long period of time. Fundamental solutions will only come when consciousness rises to a new level, and change will come from individual actions. Accordingly, large numbers of people must be mobilized and organized at the grassroots level.
This argument is compelling, but it should not be used against Bernie Sanders—because he says the same thing. He advocates for a political revolution that includes more than just voting in November, and his message is mobilizing people across the country. Black Lives Matter desperately needs to keep its message of social justice in mainstream consciousness. Is there a better way of accomplishing this goal than by showing solidarity with a presidential candidate who makes the same arguments and who has millions of supporters?
Milina Abdullah certainly does not speak for every member of Black Lives Matter (or for its various network groups), but she and other leaders of the movement across the nation certainly have influence. They can persuade others to vote for a president who supports their cause. It is wrong not to. It is antithetical for a social movement to be neutral during an election with a socialist and a fascist on the ticket. The choice is black and white.
This does not mean that Black Lives Matter should channel all of its energy into the 2016 election. This would unavoidably set an end date for the movement, and it would put too much faith in a politician (a white politician). This would be a mistake. If Obama’s presidency offers any lesson, it is that electing a president alone does not achieve the goals of a grassroots movement. Obama channeled eight years of anger during the Bush administration into the ballot box. He sold the idea that casting a vote could somehow produce systemic change, and Americans bought it. The grassroots political organization around his campaign was enormous, but after the election it evaporated, along with the antiwar movement. Channeling anger into a dead political system neutralized a political revolution before lasting change could occur. The president himself recognized this possibility and urged the nation to continue mobilizing following his election.
There must be continuous left-wing opposition regardless who is president. Black Lives Matter must be unyielding even if Sanders wins. Putting too much faith into one election can neutralize a movement. However, it is important to have the right person in office. Elections can determine the direction of the nation, and supporting progressive candidates who promote affordable college, accessible healthcare, and livable wages is imperative. Change is not guaranteed if he is elected, but it is more likely to happen under a Sanders administration than any other.
There are formidable left-wing movements across the nation. There are huge pockets of resistance to fracking, standardized testing, Arctic drilling, minimum wages, and so on. Each movement has various achievements and setbacks, but there is no long-term, sustainable movement with clear objectives. Movements, such as Occupy Wall Street, bring attention to critical issues, but each one comes and goes with no fundamental change to the system. Black Lives Matter is in danger of joining this list. It risks marginalizing itself with identity politics. Perhaps the left should stop dividing itself when there are clear opportunities to do otherwise.
This is an important time in the election season. The second half of the primary includes several blue states where Sanders could do well; he already had landslide victories in Utah and Idaho. He has vowed to stay in the race until the convention, meaning there is still time for Black Lives Matter to impact the election.