On August 9th, it will have been two years since Michael Brown was gunned down by police in Ferguson. The killing of the unarmed 18-year old, college bound Black youth sparked the beginnings of a mass movement against white supremacy and state violence. Tens of thousands of Black Americans and their supporters have taken to the streets ever since to demand justice for every Black person murdered by the police. On August 1st of 2016, a coalition of organizations released demands on the state. The list of demands marks a turning point for a young movement that has come a long way since the summer of 2014.
The movement for Black lives began first as a mobilization to demand the indictment of killer cops. But the cases of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Rekia Boyd quickly taught the movement that the indictment of killer cops could not occur without a profound transformation of the US criminal justice system. The movement learned that all levels of the state work together to ensure police immunity. Police unions made it clear to the movement that they exist only to block any means of accountability for the genocidal crimes of its rank and file. At the top, the Obama Administration protected the police by refusing to use the Department of Justice’s powers to indict killer cops and keep record of their murders.
The movement was then forced to respond to the political leadership of the state. It made great strides when its young base rejected the Democratic Party’s Black operatives such as Al Sharpton. The Presidential election season posed another challenge. The movement was compelled to pressure the candidates, but mostly did so by demanding Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders come up with a “racial justice” platform. This move brought criticism from the Black left, which saw the actions taken toward the candidates as being collaborative and conciliatory in nature.
The vibrant conversation about strategy between the Black radical left and the emerging movement for Black lives resulted in the further political development of movement forces. The Black Lives Matter Network rejected the Democratic National Committee’s endorsement of the organization. Later in the election season, Network leaders announced that they would not be endorsing any candidate for President. However, movements are defined by their demands and not necessarily by what they reject. The movement’s progress over time has raised questions as to what ideas the movement will embrace and what concrete demands these ideas will produce.
The list of demands released at the beginning of this month represents an attempt to define the movement’s trajectory within the context of the political situation in the US. Demands such as community control of law enforcement agencies, universal healthcare, and divestment from the military to fund social programs are reflective of the movement’s political journey. Some, like the restructuring the tax code, merge the desires of the movement that backed Bernie Sanders with the movement for Black Lives. Others, such as the divestment in local law enforcement and prison institutions, defy the very legitimacy of the mass incarceration regime all together. Thus, the list of demands could potentially be a watershed moment in the development of the movement for Black lives.
Transitional demands contain both the seeds of revolutionary struggle as well as the possibility of reformist betrayal from the movement’s the leadership. The document clearly states that the demands are necessary for the liberation of Black Americans. However, demands challenge political organizations to agree upon a strategy on how to win them. Some so-called activists like DeRay McKesson have already chosen their path to so-called “victory” by appealing to the ruling class for patronage. The development of arevolutionary movement must take a radically different course.
During the Vietnam War, activists burned draft cards and protested en mass to delegitimize any patriotic notion of the war the US ruling class tried to promote among the masses. When the Black liberation movement formed in response to inadequate Civil Rights measures, organizations such as the Black Panther Party organized armed patrols to prevent police abuse of Black American communities. However, demands are not always achieved in the course of struggle. But how an organization fights for those demands has the potential to teach thousands, if not millions of people, about the true character of the US state.
The US state is the enforcement arm of capitalism, imperialism, and racism. The police, prisons, and military institutions that fight under the banner of the “American” flag protect the capitalist class by suppressing dissent and creating favorable conditions for capital. Since the 1970s, the crisis of capitalism has made Black labor virtually disposable. A rapid increase in the policing, imprisonment, and repression of Black people has thus been a necessary response to a deteriorating capitalist economy. Furthermore, the rise of the mass Black incarceration regime has as its main goal the total suppression of Black rebellion. This is why political prisoners such as Mumia Abu-Jamal and Russell Maroon Shoatz remain behind bars.
Mass incarceration is indeed the sharpest indicator of US societal decay. Black Americans also represent, as Ho Chi Minh blatantly observed in the 1920s, the most oppressed and exploited of the human family. So it should come as no surprise then that the movement for Black lives has been the first sign of a coherent mass movement in decades. What happens from here is anybody’s guess. What is certain is that the newly released demandsrepresenta watershed moment in the movement for Black Lives that could determine the course of the struggle for liberation and self-determination for years to come.