The following excerpt is from an article appearing on Dissentmagazine.org and was reprinted on EBONY.com with permission.
Over the past month, organizers in the Black Lives Matter-Minneapolis chapter have been demanding information and an investigation into the shooting and killing of twenty-four-year-old Jamar Clark, an unarmed Black man. They have asked for the names of police officers involved, an independent federal investigation, and the public release of video footage depicting the shooting. While the officers’ names have been released and a federal investigation is now underway, the fight over the release of the video continues to escalate.
“The demand to release the tapes is one that resonates deeply with the community, as the city of Minneapolis has a culture of violence it is unwilling to address,” said Miski Noor, an organizer with BLM-Minneapolis. “How are we to trust a system that continues to prioritize and benefit from Black death, and then hides, alters, or destroys the evidence of such action?”
The latest demand to #ReleaseTheTapes in Minneapolis fits into a pattern of demands by activists organizing under the banner of Black Lives Matter. Some observers claim that if we want to create a world in which Black life truly matters, activists will need more specific demands that will have a greater impact. But the movement for Black lives has repeatedly shown the strengths of a different kind of strategy.
The demands of the movement so far have been diverse and not necessarily unified. On the one hand, the demand chanted on the streets of Ferguson and New York was “simple,” as Johnetta Elzie put it in the New York Times: “Stop killing us.” In late August 2014, the social movement organization Ferguson Action released a long list of demands that went widely unnoticed. Nonetheless Oprah Winfrey and Al Sharpton criticized the movement for failing to articulate clear demands.
Calls began to emerge from different sectors of the racial justice movement for body cameras, civilian review boards, and data collection on police shootings. Elzie and Deray McKesson launched Campaign Zero in August 2015 to provide policy proposals for police reform. In September, Alicia Garza of Black Lives Matter and R.L. Stephens of Orchestrated Pulse had a back-and-forth in In These Times, in which Stephens criticized what he perceived to be the primary demand of the movement: asking politicians to utter the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” Garza responded by saying that the point of the exercise wasn’t simply to repeat the phrase, but to “expos[e] where candidates stand as it relates to Black people.” Garza’s rebuttal illustrates how Black Lives Matter’s strategy has operated: its rallying cry is used to dramatize where both the public and those in power stand.
Black Lives Matter’s successful entry into the public consciousness is largely due to their rallying cry. In traditional political organizing demands are often “instrumental” and aimed at a specific policy change. Instrumental demands are chosen based on their winnability within the limitations of an existing political context (a budgetary increase or decrease on a particular issue, for example) or by the benefit offered to a narrowly defined constituency (a union fighting for a neutrality agreement from an employer). While instrumental demands are essential for organizations and their members, they often fail to reach a broader public. The campaign’s terrain is limited to one between an organization and key decision-makers, and the debate can be too technocratic to keep the public’s attention.
But much of the Black Lives Matter movement has chosen a more indirect and symbolic route. Instead of the instrumental approach, movements and large-scale mobilizations often pursue symbolic demands that center the moral crisis at the heart of their struggle. These demands are not framed by their policy impact, but by how they “dramatize for the public the urgent need to remedy an injustice,” write Mark and Paul Engler in their forthcoming book on social movements, This Is an Uprising.
On the whole, the primary demand of Black Lives Matter has been a moral one, as put by both Garza and Elzie: justice for those killed by police officers and an end to police violence in Black communities. This is how the media and the public have generally understood the goal of Black Lives Matter. Thousands of people across the country have rallied around this simple idea, causing a dramatic shift in the political climate and public consciousness regarding racial inequality in our country. Before events in Ferguson, 46 percent of Americans believed that more changes were necessary to ensure that Blacks and whites had equal rights. After a year of protests, the Washington Post found that 60 percent of Americans think the country needs to change to address racial inequality. Today 53 percent of whites believe changes must be made, compared to just 39 percent in 2014.
The numerous symbolic actions taken by Black Lives Matter—large marches, die-ins, blocking traffic, and even disrupting the speeches of presidential candidates—have shifted public opinion. These high-profile actions have not necessarily focused on receiving a concession from a particular decision-maker, but have instead tried to draw public attention to the issue of racism and compel ordinary people to take action—or at least choose sides.
Because of this change in the political climate, several municipalities have adopted reforms regarding police conduct, community oversight, limited use of force, independent review boards, body cameras, de-escalation training, ending abusive revenue generating practices, and prohibiting police departments from using military weapons. Other racial justice campaigns have also been boosted by the energy generated by Black Lives Matter. Campaigns for the softening of three-strikes laws in California, against the construction of a new jail in Philadelphia, and for “banning the box” that allows employers to see a candidate’s conviction records, all won important victories this year.
Perhaps even more important than the local and state-level changes that have already been implemented, there has been a huge shift in the public conversation regarding race and policing in the United States. All of the major Democratic primary candidates have been pushed to develop more detailed proposals on racial justice than any candidate did in 2008.
Foundations and community organizations have launched brand new funding opportunities and grants to fund racial justice projects.
And unions like the AFL-CIO and SEIU are talking about the connections between the movements for labor and racial justice. These victories by no means suggest that the battle to end racism in the United States is over. But it is significant that hundreds of thousands of people have been moved to protest in dozens of cities for a demand that symbolizes the worst aspects of racial inequality in this country: Black death at the hands of public officials.
How Black Lives Matter Fights in the Court of Public Opinion
After the Black Lives Matter-Minneapolis protestors’ demands for a federal investigation and to release the names of the police officers involved in the shooting were met (a week after protests began), the group shifted to calling for the release of the police video footage. The group launched their #ReleaseTheTapes campaign over three weeks ago as people began a sit-in outside the city’s 4th Precinct headquarters. #ReleaseTheTapes is in keeping with the crucial role that video has played in previous police shootings. By refusing to release the video, authorities in Minneapolis are following a precedent set by their colleagues in Chicago.
For a year the city blocked the public release of a video showing the murder of seventeen-year-old Laquan Macdonald, arguing it would interfere with an ongoing investigation. The video was eventually released after pressure from activists and the work of whistleblowers and journalists who pursued Freedom of Information requests. As Jamar Clark’s case heads to a grand jury, the movement powerfully demands that the value of Black lives be determined not behind the closed doors of a courtroom, but in the court of public opinion.
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