How America's new generation of civil rights activists is mobilizing in the age of Trump
How America's new generation of civil rights activists is mobilizing in the age of Trump
Months before the now infamous Unite the Right march this summer, the 10 or so members of the Charlottesville chapter of Black Lives Matter heard that the largest white-supremacist rally anyone had seen in years was coming to their town. They leapt into action. First, they pleaded with local leaders – don't let this happen. Push it elsewhere. The city won't be safe. The police told the BLM members to stay home. But they couldn't. "We knew it would be the largest fascist gathering in decades," says David Straughn, an actor and writer and a member of BLM Charlottesville. "We had to get others to come help us defend the community." The group put out a call to action to as many BLM members as it could. And so, on Saturday, August 12th, at noon, when the rally began, BLM was ready.
"There was a strong BLM presence," says Tsara Nock, a University of Virginia student and BLM member. "But they didn't come in and say, 'We want to do our own thing.' They were here to see what the activists in Charlottesville needed." BLM set up safe zones with food and water for counterprotesters. But things quickly grew violent. "The white nationalists had weapons, shields, helmets," says Dr. Lisa Woolfork, a UVA English professor and BLM member. "They were there to intimidate. They were there to inflict harm, physical and mental harm." Straughn says, "The white supremacists, neo-Nazis and alt-right members hit people with sticks, threw rocks, threw bricks, sprayed clergy members with pepper spray in the face."
Every member of BLM who was there that day says they responded with nonviolence. "We came to march," Straughn says. "Some people assume Black Lives Matter is a violent organization, and we didn't want to give that impression. We came unarmed. We came with nothing but peace in our hearts and aggressive words for the Nazis. We knew that if we tried to engage them violently, we would be crucified by the media."
If BLM being described as nonviolent sounds strange to you, then you're probably watching too much Fox News. The movement has been wildly misunderstood partly because of how it's caricatured and demonized by right-wing media. "We absolutely don't consider Black Lives Matter a hate group," says Heidi Beirich, the head of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence project, which tracks hate groups. "Black Lives Matter is not a racist group; anyone can join. It's a movement to expand civil rights for the oppressed in this society. It's a peaceful protest against oppression. There's simply no equivalence between Black Lives Matter and a hate group. It's truly offensive to equate them."
The policy of nonviolence is shared by BLM activists around the country. "I refuse to cede the moral high ground to the supremacy we fight," says Brittany Packnett, an activist and co-founder of Campaign Zero, which aims to end police violence. "We don't need to become that which we are fighting."
As the white-supremacist rally was ending that Saturday afternoon in Charlottesville, Straughn was in the crowd, walking with a large band of counterprotesters. "We thought the day was won," he says. "We went to march down Water Street, chanting, 'Whose streets? Our streets!' We thought there was complete victory. It was a beautiful moment." For several blocks, he marched alongside a white woman he didn't know. He says he respected her for being out there, and as they walked he began to feel close to her. He didn't know until later that her name was Heather Heyer. "Then," he says, "we turned left onto Fourth Street and that's when the terrorist attack happened." A gray Dodge Challenger came racing through the crowd, crashing into dozens of people. "I was a foot away from Heather when she was hit," he says quietly. "I saw people in the air, and then I saw a car with a bashed windshield right in front of me. I looked down and saw Heather bleeding from the leg. I saw her eyes fluttering. I saw her eyes roll to the back of her head, and I saw the life pass from her body. For five or six seconds, I forgot how to scream, and then I screamed, "Medic!" as loud as I've ever screamed in my life."
The attack in Charlottesville changed everything. We saw the racist fringe that usually hides in the corners of the Internet emerge to show its power. They were American terrorists sending a message to the nation – we're here, we have numbers, we have weapons, be afraid. And the president of the United States answered by repeatedly signaling that he's not discomforted by them. "He is in very real terms their president, and he constantly affirms that," says Melina Abdullah, professor and chair of Pan-African studies at California State University, Los Angeles, and one of the founding members of BLM L.A. "Trump is the white supremacist in chief."
We now live in a world where white supremacists are trying to become mainstream, and the Oval Office is winking at them. A country where Attorney General Jeff Sessions' Department of Justice is uninterested in police reform because he's focused instead on doubling down on the endless and racist drug war, adding private prisons, and reducing the scrutiny of police departments while arming cops with the military's guns and tanks. Meanwhile, the president publicly jokes that cops should be more physically aggressive with suspects and repeatedly attacks NFL players who dare challenge the status quo by quietly kneeling during the national anthem.
But BLM activists say they are fighting a problem much bigger than Donald Trump. Even when a black man was the so-called leader of the free world, there was a rash of incidents around the country in which police officers were videotaped killing unarmed black people. The injustice became harder and harder for the mainstream culture to ignore. It is BLM – grandchild of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the Sixties – that emerged from the grassroots to articulate that these deaths were not a disconnected series of events but part of a national, systemic problem that flows out of institutional racism.
Even as the movement has done much to raise awareness, the killings they are protesting show no signs of abating. "In 13 of the 100 largest cities, police kill black men at higher rates than the U.S. murder rate," says activist and Campaign Zero co-founder Sam Sinyangwe. "Black men in many cities face a higher risk of being killed by police than the average American has of being killed by anyone." And the policy and tone of the Trump era suggests more violence and more vulnerability ahead. "What shifted under a Trump regime," Abdullah says, "is there'll be much less opportunity to work with people in any level of administration. And we expect a trickle-down effect in policing as far as making police feel empowered and emboldened to unleash themselves on the black community."
Addressing America's police-violence problem requires a monumental restructuring of the status quo, including changing the use-of-force policies in police departments, employing body cameras, hiring more officers who live in the neighborhoods they patrol, combating institutional racism and bringing about a new understanding of how black bodies are perceived. Any of that would be hard to achieve under any president, but it feels impossible when the leaders of the executive branch see black Americans as little more than a tool to energize their voters. In both policy and rhetoric, this White House will be hostile to Black Lives Matter and classify its activists as all but enemy combatants. So how does BLM function in the Trump era?
One thing it does not do is regret 2016. BLM chose not to endorse a candidate in the election, and many members say that Trump's win did not make them wish they had. "The virus is white supremacy," Packnett says. "We need to focus on the white supremacy that grew Trump in the first place." Rather than looking to elected officials, BLM members seem determined to rely on themselves to force change. "It would've looked very different under Hillary Clinton," Abdullah says, "but it wouldn't have been any kind of ushering in of black liberation under her either. You can't rely on those in elected office to move us toward where we need to be. We choose to exercise a muscle that says our power and our liberation relies on us."
For more than a year, I traveled around the country, from New York to St. Louis to D.C. to L.A., interviewing BLM members about how to go forward when sitting at the table of power is not possible. The BLM people I spoke to are responding to being shut out of federal conversations by taking action on the local level. That means engaging with lawyers to defend those who are stopped by police, shutting down highways to force attention on issues of racial justice, raising awareness of the problems and potential solutions with websites like joincampaignzero.org and creating safe spaces where black people can feel affirmed. They care about rewriting laws as well as nurturing spirits, caring for each other and teaching their children that a different future is possible. Being in the movement is, for many, like having an all-consuming second job that strains both body and spirit. "We're all exhausted," Packnett says. "Not just because I'm working for years and not sleeping, but we're also just emotionally taxed. We're dealing with black pain and black death all the time." Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of BLM, says, "Having to deal with so much death so often is pretty traumatic. Having a movement makes me feel like I'm actually doing something instead of sitting around waiting for black people to die."
The first meeting of what would become the Black Lives Matter organization was held on July 15th, 2013, two days after George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin. "It was in L.A.," says Abdullah, "in this black artists' community called St. Elmo Village. That's where Patrisse was living at the time." Cullors is one of the three founders of the BLM organization, along with Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza. That first meeting came soon after Garza's now-famous "Love Letter to Black People" was posted on Facebook. It included the phrase "our lives matter." Cullors reposted it with the hashtag #Blacklivesmatter. But the notion that the hashtag magically went viral is a bit romantic. "We didn't just call for Black Lives Matter and it turned viral," Cullors says. "We were having discussions. We built platforms on Twitter, on Facebook and on Tumblr. Opal helped really develop the communications plan so that it could go viral." The nascent group was called "Justice for Trayvon Martin Los Angeles."
That first meeting lasted more than three hours in a cramped room. Shamell Bell, a Ph.D. candidate and a choreographer who remains part of BLM, says, "It seemed like an Underground Railroad type of meeting. It seemed like something powerful was going to happen." About 30 people were there, most either friends of Cullors, a longtime activist, or Abdullah, a professor whom several women said they look up to as a "spiritual mom." "Many of us were tired and disturbed by the lack of recognition towards the killings of black people by vigilantes and law enforcement," Cullors says. "We were tired of it not leading the news. We were tired of it not being a part of the conversation around racial justice. We were like, 'What are we going to do next? What's the strategy?'" They talked about fighting against the construction of more jails in Los Angeles. They discussed defunding law enforcement. They considered boycotting Nestlé for its involvement with ALEC, the conservative policy group behind Stand Your Ground. They talked about Marissa Alexander, who was not protected under the same Stand Your Ground law that factored into Zimmerman's acquittal and was in prison in Florida for firing a warning shot in an attempt to escape her abusive husband. (She has since been released.)
"Even then, it was not just about Trayvon but the very different ways that Trayvon Martins appear," says Bell. They discussed direct actions that they knew would have an impact. "We were very deliberate about how we wanted the organization to unfold," Abdullah says. "So there were some basic principles." One of those was, "We don't want to disrupt our space, we want to disrupt the spaces that represent those forces who are oppressing us," she says, meaning: Their protests should take place in white neighborhoods. "We decided we wanted to do a march," Abdullah says, "and we did it in Beverly Hills intentionally because that's what represents white-supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative capitalism."
At the first meeting, they also talked about how to create something that would last. "We were intentional about wanting to build a movement, not a moment," Abdullah says. "We really wanted to push for a new vision instead of just protesting," says Cullors. "Protesting is super important, but we wanted to be protesting with a set of demands, protesting with a strategy." All 30 people who were at that initial meeting are still involved with the organization.
Over the following year, Justice for Trayvon Martin worked to create chapters in other cities and spread its message. Then, on August 9th, 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri. There had been other tragic, controversial killings, but one big difference in Ferguson was that after the shooting, Brown's body lay in the street for more than four hours. Crowds gathered and took photos and videos that went viral. Brown's body, laying in the hot summer sun for hours, communicated a lack of respect for his life – which was received as a lack of respect for all black life. "It was a disrespected death," says Kayla Reed, a St. Louis resident who joined the Ferguson uprising on day one. "It is repulsive that he had to lay there for four and a half hours and that his own grandmother had to plead that a sheet be put over his body."
Brown's killing sparked massive protests, and the police pushed back in harsh ways, imposing a curfew, forcing protesters to march rather than stay in one location, tear-gassing them at times. The story dominated the national news for days. People from around the country saw what was happening in Ferguson and decided to join. "I was looking at what was happening on the news and I was looking at what was happening on Twitter, and there were two different stories," says DeRay Mckesson, who was then working in the Minneapolis public-education system and has become an activist and co-founder of Campaign Zero with Packnett and Sinyangwe. "On CNN, I saw crazy protesters, and on Twitter, I saw pain. I was like, 'I'm just gonna go.'" He got in a car and drove nine hours to St. Louis, then found a place to stay through Facebook. Many people have similar stories. "The NAACP didn't send their special-ops team," Mckesson says. "The churches didn't organize in the way we thought they would. We had to figure it out." They ended up protesting in the streets of Ferguson for more than 300 days, and the lessons they learned, the credibility they gained and the media attention they got – all of that led to Black Lives Matter exploding into a national movement.
Several days into the protests, members of Justice for Trayvon Martin traveled to Ferguson to lend their support. Cullors and Abdullah were among them. "We were very intentional about that visit," Cullors says. "We brought only people who had specific skill sets. We brought youth workers, we brought medical doctors, we brought healers, we brought alternative media, we brought lawyers." They also brought signs, some of which said "Black Lives Matter." (Abdullah says around the time they went to Ferguson, Justice for Trayvon Martin changed its name to Black Lives Matter.)
Ferguson protesters were photographed holding the signs, and over time media began referring to the protests as Black Lives Matter. Since Ferguson, BLM has grown into a comprehensive modern civil rights movement that sees civilian interactions with police as one part of a systemic problem. Some say there are thousands of active supporters in both the movement and the organization, but it's hard to know how many people are involved. "There are about 40 recognized chapters in the networks," says Aaron Goggans, an essayist, poet, organizer and movement strategist. "Most of them have a core team from about four to 15 members. That's core leadership of a few hundred people, with probably thousands of people who would say that they roll with BLM." There are also groups around the U.S. and even in Canada and the U.K. calling themselves Black Lives Matter X – insert a city name. "If you include donors, volunteers, people joining list servs, then you are probably looking at active support in the tens of thousands," Goggans says. "If you include people who come to our [events], then it's a whole lot more. If you count all the things that people say are BLM events, then the number gets really high." There have been groups that claim an affiliation with BLM but are not in alignment with its guiding values – such as empathy, diversity, justice, globalism, and being queer- and transgender-affirming and unapologetically black – and have been harmful to the movement. To become an official chapter, local leaders would contact BLM staff and fill out an application to be reviewed by the network, but BLM suspended further chapter approvals in 2016.
Decision-making about specific goals or direct actions is made at the local group level. There is no national leadership; it is diffused among autonomous chapters and its structure is not entirely clear to outsiders, by design. The members I interviewed discussed a range of ideas, from imagining transformational new systems to address the inequality and oppression in society to more specific and immediate policy goals. For some, imagining new systems includes radical ideas like abolishing the police force. In BLM circles, it's referred to as being an "abolitionist." "It's not that the police are bad at doing something good," Goggans says. "It's that they're good at doing something very bad. The system is not reformable – the entire thing needs to change." Some say they foresee neighborhoods policed by unarmed community members instead of by the state's armed guards. Others admit that they're unsure what a post-police world would look like specifically, but for them the current situation is so untenable that anything else is preferable. But they also know that the problem is greater than the moment when an officer confronts a black citizen. "The question isn't about that moment," Cullors says. "If we sort of rewind time, what resources did they have in that neighborhood? Do they have access to after-school programming? Do they have access to career development? I'm talking about really basic things that can lead to different life choices for black people, that can lead to a different experience and a different interaction with law enforcement."
Sometimes resistance doesn't look like a political act – sometimes it looks like people in a park talking about their dreams. Each Sunday afternoon in Washington, D.C.'s Meridien Hill Park, also known as Malcolm X Park, Black Lives Matter members come together in the same shaded spot to celebrate what they call Black Joy Sundays. They listen to African music and burn sage as they talk, dance and sing. The rule is just do whatever brings you joy. On the Sunday that I visited with them, people were making signs with messages of self-esteem or kicking around a soccer ball or playing cards. On a nearby tree was a large sign proclaiming this as a "Black Only Healing Space where we can be affirmed in our blackness and cultivate a shared sense of black joy." Beneath it is a handout explaining why this needs to be a black-only space: It isn't about oppressing white people, it's about black people getting a space where they can feel free. "Spending time in a space being loved by black people is revolutionary and valuable," says Erika Totten, who is a spiritual life coach and a committed member of the movement.
The stress and anxiety of living in a nation that promises liberty and justice for all but struggles with letting black people have those privileges, a nation where a significant portion of the country is openly racist, including the commander in chief, all that can cause deep spiritual pain. BLM considers that part of its purview as well. Members are not here just to agitate for political rights, they also see the need to soothe souls. "What I'm seeing is symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder," says Totten. "If you're not experiencing any joy, you're going to be defeated, you're going to be angry. If you're only focused on resistance, it's just not healthy."
BLM offers all sorts of ways to resist – members speak of doing "movement work," a phrase with a very elastic definition. It can mean making calls, organizing meetings, engaging with lawyers, doing interviews, creating art, building websites, tweeting facts or just helping fellow members get by. "I consider part of my movement work to be watching my friend's kid every other Friday so she can go on date night with her husband, because that helps her be sustained and be stronger," says Goggans. Of course, movement work also means direct action. One part of direct action is, as Goggans describes it, "Shutting things down."
A core BLM tactic has been highway shutdowns. It's been used in Oakland, L.A., Denver, Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Toronto and many other cities. "The strategic reason," Goggans says, "is you have to make the gears of the machine stop working." He references the civil rights legend Bayard Rustin, who spoke of "angelic troublemakers" who are needed to make the system unworkable, to make the gears of the machine stop. "The only weapon we have is our bodies," Rustin famously said. "And we need to tuck them in places so wheels don't turn." What Rustin and Goggans are talking about is civil disobedience aimed at halting the flow of capitalism. The idea is that if protesters can slow the basic functioning of the capitalist system, even for a short time, then the system will be incentivized to negotiate with protesters in hopes of getting back to full-speed capitalism as quickly as possible.
It surely angers citizens to have their day interrupted by a politicized highway shutdown, even if it only lasts a few minutes. That risks turning potential sympathizers against the movement, but BLM members say the inconvenience of a few minutes of traffic is nothing compared to the pain of dealing with rampant black deaths by government agents. "The disruption piece is our way of saying, 'No business as usual,'" Cullors says. "'You're not going to keep killing us and think that you can just go about business as usual.'" BLM members are clear that for their protests to be truly effective they must be disruptive to those who benefit from white privilege. "This conversation has been happening between black people for centuries, and white people don't even have to acknowledge it exists," says Mica Grim, a BLM activist from Minneapolis. "When we shut down the highway, it forces the conversation. It's also our way of showing Middle America a little piece of the inconvenience that it is to be a person of color every day."
Goggans says there's also a deeper psychological impact: "It's about reclaiming our power." Goggans, who has participated in at least seven shutdowns, says they have changed his life. "There's some weird magical thing that happens when you shut down a highway. And once you taste that kind of power, you start to ask yourself, 'Why do I not feel this in every part of my life?'"
Highway shutdowns could become more frightening in the future. Republican lawmakers in at least six states have brought up laws that would protect drivers who hit protesters blocking traffic. None of the proposals have become law, but the willingness to consider indemnifying motorists against nonviolent protesters in BLM's highway shutdowns – as well as in traffic-blocking protests against Trump and the building of the pipeline at Standing Rock – has sent a message that was heard in the underground racist fringe where fantasies of hitting protesters with cars are shared online. It's not hard to see how all of this rhetoric could have contributed to the vehicular-homicide death of Heather Heyer.
Of course, a movement that spends a lot of time standing up to the police has come to expect retaliation. "I don't think black people living in America feel 100 percent safe any day of the week," Packnett says. "But when you intentionally confront oppression, you let go of even the semblance of safety that you may have had." Many members say that their phones are tapped and they have been surveilled and followed by police. There have been suspicious break-ins and strange cars parked outside members' homes. Cullors says her home has been raided twice by LAPD. She and many other members say they fear retaliation. "I think they're gonna try to kill me," says Pasadena BLM member Jasmine Abdullah. Cullors says that too. (The LAPD did not respond to a request for comment on this story.)
Despite the risks, they feel the need to keep fighting. "This work is too important to allow fear," says Reed, the St. Louis BLM member. Many echo that sentiment. "We don't protest because we want to, we protest because we have to," Packnett says. "We must create something different. We don't want our children and their children to be living with the same fear that we all are."
"We have to be visionary," says Abdullah about how BLM must function in the Trump era. "We have to see beyond the moment. Resistance is necessary, but it's not enough. We cannot let this moment tell us that all we need to do is stomp out white men with tiki torches. We have to do more than topple Confederate statues. We have to topple white supremacy, and to do that means imagining new systems."
But "fighting the system can be therapeutic," Abdullah says. "There is joy in the actual fight." Abdullah is a mother of three, and she beams with pride as she tells a story about her young son. In 2015, she was with BLM as they occupied LAPD headquarters for 18 days. Her boy was then four. "One of the hardest parts of an occupation is finding a restroom," she says, "and there's a restroom inside the LAPD building. So he started going into the building to use the restroom, and this big six-foot-four cop told us no. He puts his hand on his gun and to my four-and-a-half-year-old son, he says, 'You can't come in.' And my son looked all the way up at the cop and sits at the feet of the officer and starts meditating. He starts going, 'Ommmm.' And the cop backed off.
"I am very thankful to have a movement like this to raise kids in," she says, "because black children cannot be blind. There's no way to shield them from the reality of police abuse, so to be a part of the resistance movement, to be a part of BLM, is to say, 'We don't have to submit to it. You're not powerless.'"