The Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) began inauspiciously as a hashtag in the wake of the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Since then it has had a tremendous effect on American politics and culture. It captured national attention after its 2014 protests to the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY and has since become a presence, if not necessarily a constituency, in the current presidential election.
Defining itself as a spontaneous and leaderless movement, BLM has provided a significant public service in shining a light on the epidemic of authorized violence against African Americans. Moreover, it has used this particular issue to raise a larger awareness of the systematic wrongs perpetuated against Black Americans in such realms as education, criminal justice and employment. But many have questioned its ability to transform this consciousness raising into genuine political change. This criticism, voiced to some extent by both friends and foes, has usually taken some form of the question, "What does the movement actually want?" and the attendant desire to see BLM present a statement of principles or demands.
Yet BLM did not issue such a document for several years, fueling the concern or criticism that it might lack a certain maturity and sense of purpose. Today, however, the New York Times reported that the movement has been taking this project quite seriously. Reporter Yamiche Alcindor writes that 60 separate organizations associated with BLM have been working on such a document for a year and that it is now released.
The statement is called A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Freedom, Power and Justice. These kinds of manifestos are very difficult to pull off: to be successful, they must must inspire the converted, convert the skeptical and provide a link between the problems and the suggested policies. At the same time, the policies themselves are likely to define the way the movement is perceived: utopian and unrealistic suggestions will have little chance of becoming law, while insufficiently visionary demands are unlikely to address the deep structural problems that motivated the movement in the first place.
Having briefly looked over A Vision for Black Lives, I am very impressed with the way that it addresses these tensions. The document suggests that its authors are very interested in reaching a wide audience. It spares the reader the tedious theoretical concepts and language that characterize many leftist tracts, and even includes a glossary that briefly and clearly defines such terms as "patriarchy," "colonialism" and "capitalism." A Vision for Black Lives addresses the excesses of the genre by adopting a "both/and" approach by breaking the document into six broad concepts that provide accessible handles, while allowing those who are more interested to examine the more specific proposals details.
In my view, the broad platform is the more effective. Its six planks are "end the war on Black people," "reparations," "invest-divest," "economic justice," "community control" and "political power." These are clear and substantive, and they can function simultaneously as protests, proposals and points of consciousness raising.
Some of the policy proposals, on the other hand, land a bit on the utopian side of the street. This is not to say that they are not reasonable or justifiable, but that they may be so far out there that they could marginalize the movement. While the ending of capital punishment and of money bail may be ideas whose time has come, other proposals, such as free lifetime education and guaranteed minimum annual income for Black people, are unlikely ever to see the light of day.
When I was a history instructor, I sometimes assigned my classes to read the Socialist Party platform of 1912. I suggested that many of its seemingly commonplace proposals, such as an end to child labor, the ability of women to vote, and a five-and-a-half day workweek were quite radical in their day. My students came to understand that sometimes a policy that one generation views as completely insane strikes a later one as mundane. Of course, this is not always the case: the 1912 Socialists also wanted to take away the presidential veto, abolish the Senate and rewrite the Constitution. Good luck to Black Lives Matter.