#BlackLivesMatter is a new kind of movement

#BlackLivesMatter is not an organization.   It is a movement inspired by Twitter and Tumbir accounts.   The founders and leaders exercise no power over it.

Its effectiveness—or lack of effectiveness—will be a test of whether decentralized and networked movements, enabled by social media,  will be more effective than the hierarchical, disciplined organizations of the past.

The Twitter and Tumbir accounts were launched by three black women friends in California—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi—after the killing of the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2013.

blacklivesmatterB8NekGarza said they wanted to counter the idea that such tragedies were part of the nature of things, that there was nothing that could be done about it, except for black people to try to avoid behavior that would trigger violence by police and others.

A protest movement sprang up around the “Black Lives Matter” slogan, following the killings of Michael Brown, John Crawford III and Eric Garner the following year.  Garza, Cullors and Tometi found themselves the leaders of the movement, which, however, was an informal network they did not control.

This was a very different kind of movement from the NAACP as I knew it in my youth—an organization where you joined, paid membership dues, elected officers in a chapter which in turn elected directors of a national organization.  Or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was run by black male ministers, who imposed strict standards of behavior on their followers.

Garza, Cullors and Tometi are different from the leaders of the civil rights organizations of 60 years ago in another respect.  They are women.  Garza and Cullors “identify as queer,” and Tometi is the daughter of Nigerian immigrants.

This, too, is something new.  Black women, from Harriet Tubman to Rosa Parks, have been important to the civil rights movement, and so have gay men such as Bayard Rustin, but they kept in the background.

Cullors, Tometi and Garza

Cullors, Tometi and Garza

Garza, Cullors and Tometi were influential activists prior to #BlackLivesMatter.  Garza was executive director of People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), a poor people’s organization in the San Francisco Bay Area, and special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which represented nannies, housekeepers, caregivers and the like.

Cullors was director of Dignity and Power Now, an organization to help incarcerated people, and Tometi was executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, which advocated for black immigrants.  All three women say it is just as important to take up for black poor people, black gays, lesbians and trans-gendered people and black unauthorized immigrants as for black people in general.

I can see advantages in a networked movement over a centralized organization.  The network is not paralyzed by bureaucracy.  It allows people to take constructive action without getting someone else’s approval.

The drawback is that nobody can be sure who speaks for the organization.  Anybody can do anything in the name of #BlackLivesMatter, and the whole movement is responsible in the eyes of the public.  Does this matter?

#BlackLivesMatter activists were challenged by Hillary Clinton to give her a list of proposals.  They didn’t do so.  They said it was her responsibility, not theirs, to find a way to end the needless killing of black people.

I don’t agree with these particular activists, but I can understand their attitude.  It is easy to imagine them submitting a list of proposals to a president, governor or mayor, who then implement them in a half-hearted way that is bound to fail, and blame #BlackLivesMatter for the failure.

Another activist, DeRay Mckesson, has joined with others to produce a list of specific proposals on a web site callee Campaign Zero.   Some Black Lives Matter supporters question what right he has to speak for them.

Then again, did the women who disrupted Bernie Sanders’ and Martin O’Malley’s speeches represent #BlackLivesMatter as a whole?  Those are questions built into the very nature of the Black Lives Matter movement.


Black Lives Matter: Not a Moment, a Movement web site.

A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement by Alicia Garza for The Feminist Wire.

#BlackLivesMatter: the birth of a new civil rights movement by Elizabeth Day for The Guardian.

Who Really Runs Black Lives Matter? by Ben Collins and Tim Mak for The Daily Beast

We The Protesters web site.

Campaign Zero web site and policy recommendations.

Campaign Zero: Black Lives Matter activists’ new comprehensive policy by German Lopez for Vox.

The Success and Controversy of #CampaignZero and Its Successful, Controversial Leader, DeRay Mckesson by Darren Sands for BuzzFeed.

Black America’s “gaslight” nightmare: The psychological warfare being waged against Black Lives Matter by Brittney Cooper for Salon.

I was a civil rights activist in the 1960s.  But it’s hard for me to get behind Black Lives Matter by Barbara Reynolds for The Washington Post.

I’m a black civil rights activist.  Here’s what people get wrong about #BlackLivesMatter by Vann R. Newkirk II for Vox.

Think Out Loud: The Emerging Black Digital Intelligentsia by Michael Eric Dyson for The New Republic.

Support the Black Lives Matter Movement, a Unitarian Universalist 2015 action of immediate witness.

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