President Obama critiqued Black Lives Matter, not at home, but at a town hall in London, England. In what I deem to be one of his more cringe-worthy moments, in the ironic setting of the former seat of colonial power, President Obama illustrated what goes wrong all too often when activism and power merge: reductionism and the pursuit of respectability politics.
“As a general rule, I think that what, for example, Black Lives Matter is doing now to bring attention to the problem of a criminal justice system that sometimes is not treating people fairly based on race, or reacting to shootings of individuals by police officers has been really effective in bringing attention to our problems. One of the things I caution young people about, though, that I don’t think is effective is, once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or the people who are in position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them, and you can’t refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position. The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room, and then to start to figure out how is this problem going to be solved? You then have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable that can institutionalize the changes you seek and to engage the other side and occasionally to take half a loaf that will advance the gains that you seek, understanding that there is going to be more work to do, but this is what is achievable at this moment, and too often, what I see is wonderful activism that highlights a problem, but then people feel so passionately, and are so invested in the purity of their position, that they never take that next step and say, “OK, well now I gotta sit down and try to actually get something done.”
It is most unfortunate to hear our president engaging in the reductionism of what, by all accounts, rises to the level of human rights and criminal justice crises. It grates to hear “the problem of a criminal justice system that sometimes is not treating people fairly based on race,” when the number of Americans we now know were killed by police, predominantly Black Americans, is over a thousand each year and, to date, there is still no central database that keeps track of police shootings across the nation. This doesn’t include the fact that these killings, for the most part, have gone unpunished, by a criminal justice system that is rigged to protect police and abet prosecutorial misconduct, through a combination of prosecutorial discretion and secret grand juries.
Then, as Lawrence Ware and Lauren Whiteman write in their essay, “Tell the Negroes to Wait: President Obama + Black Lives Matter & Compromising with White Supremacy“:
“We aren’t asking President Barack Obama to hold a sign with the words Black Lives Matter—we don’t need the spectacle of support. We need actions that stem from support. He needs to take advantage of the last few months of his presidency and use his bully pulpit to call attention to the issues BLM activists are protesting.. Not lecturing those dying on how to die quietly.”
Indeed, this administration has been long on personal expressions of sympathy, but has come up very short in instituting even a modicum of policy designed to move towards the relief from victimization by police forces and municipalities of millions of Black Americans trapped within jurisdictions around the nation, and a restoration of civil rights for millions more incarcerated in this nation’s prisons, at times for decades, for crimes that should have amounted to no more than a misdemeanor. Under such circumstances, the demurral that this presidency isn’t a Black presidency, but an American one just doesn’t hold water. Blacks as Americans, are discriminated against as no other group of Americans. If not this president, then which? That is the mission Black Lives Matter has been on, with its confrontations at election events.
The Obama administration has not been proactive when it comes to seeking to redress police brutality and mass-incarceration through reforms. While one can’t discount the power of Congressional obstruction, one cannot silently gloss over the fact that few have been the efforts by this administration to put forward any kind of civil rights and criminal justice reform agenda, even as Black Lives Matter was at its most active and gaining concessions from political candidates. Change came to Ferguson, Missouri at the very high cost of loss of life. Thanks to intensive activism locally and mass-protests nationally, changes have begun there, but are still a work in progress.
Ferguson was not an aberration. There are many more towns and cities in which oppression is the norm, with no relief in sight. Nothing should stop the Obama administration from taking what platform planks from either Senator Sanders or Secretary Clinton that can be acted on by executive order, and pushing Congress to enact in to law some of the reforms proposed by Sanders and Clinton. In the last few months, Congress has shown an interest and willingness to act on criminal justice reform. Yes, President Obama has done some in the area of releasing prisoners, but his gesture was more symbolic than substantive.
More can and should be done in the last months of his presidency. No one would blame President Obama were he to put forth a bold civil rights challenge in front of Congress and such a challenge not to be answered in the affirmative. It seems unlikely, with as dismally as the GOP is faring with minorities, that it would refuse to answer all challenges. Any progress in the areas of civil rights and criminal justice would be welcome by millions who have been suffering.
Obama’s commentary in the U.K. comes weeks after he met for the first time, at the White House, with African Americans leaders who were supposed to represent establishment civil rights leadership and the new movement for civil rights. The White House event was billed as a meeting with Black Lives Matter and representatives of the previous generation of civil rights activists, but when one examines the list of attendees, neither of the three founders of Black Lives Matter or regional work group leaders were on the list of attendees.
Included in the meeting with President Obama will be:
Aislinn Pulley, Co-Founder and Lead Organizer with Black Lives Matter Chicago
Brittany Packnett, Co-Founder of We The Protestors and Campaign Zero and a member of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing
Deray McKesson, Co-Founder of We the Protestors and Campaign Zero
Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of Color of Change
Deshaunya Ware, Student Leader of Concerned Student 1950 at University of Missouri
Carlos Clanton, President of the National Urban League Young Professionals
Mary Patricia Hector, National Youth Director of the National Action Network
Notably absent was Aislinn Pulley, leader of Black Lives Matter, Chicago, and the only invitee who has an official connection to Black Lives Matter. In an op-ed, Pulley explained the many reasons for declining to attend:
“I was under the impression that a meeting was being organized to facilitate a genuine exchange on the matters facing millions of Black and Brown people in the United States. Instead, what was arranged was basically a photo opportunity and a 90-second sound bite for the president. I could not, with any integrity, participate in such a sham that would only serve to legitimize the false narrative that the government is working to end police brutality and the institutional racism that fuels it. For the increasing number of families fighting for justice and dignity for their kin slain by police, I refuse to give its perpetrators and enablers political cover by making an appearance among them.”
None of the other names on this list represent actual Black Lives Matter leaders. The most prominent young Black figures to attend were activists Rashad Robinson of Color of Change, and DeRay McKesson, who is now running for mayor of Baltimore. Neither Robinson or McKesson are, nor have they ever been, members of Black Lives Matter. Aislinn Pulley’s name was listed in many press reports but, as you can see above, she most famously declined participation.
But President Obama, in his London, England town hall, specifically referred to a Black Lives Matter civil rights movement with which he’s never actually met. Could it be he threw them some shade because of Pulley’s refusal to meet? Considering the issues at hand, that should not matter. Moreover, weeks after the famous meeting, one would be hard pressed to refute Pulley’s reason for declining to attend. Has that meeting resulted in any new policy that fulfills even one of the demands made by Black Lives Matter?
It hasn’t. But it has resulted in President Obama’s criticism of the movement for not espousing a set of more respectable behaviors to go with the movement’s success. In short, Obama invoked, again, respectability politics as a means to resolving Black Lives Matter’s agenda. An odd admonition, given the president’s own lack of success with respectability politics and getting a very recalcitrant Republican party to work with him. Odder yet is the notion that respectability would or should be the antidote to wrongful arrests, prosecutions, convictions, and executions of Black people. Dr. Martin Luther King addressed respectability in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail:”
“I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses.”
In a free country, I shouldn’t have to talk or act like you in order to earn my civil rights. As a constitutional scholar, who better than Barack Obama to understand the insidious and racist nature of respectability politics as it is encouraged by a white supremacist system and its enablers?
It seems Pulley was right about the meeting amounting to not much more than a photo-op. As for her indignation, who can blame her? She represents a city, the President’s home town, that is undergoing some of the worst violence seen in years, horrendous police brutality cases, embattled mayor and a police chief who was made to resign in the wake of the Laquan McDonald case, massive school closures in areas of the city that need more – not less schools, and on… What Chicago needs is a reboot of its leadership and former White House Chief of Staff, now Mayor Emanuel is an integral part of the problem. Had Emanuel not enjoyed the support of the White House, but also that of the Democratic front-runner in the Democratic primary, he’d have resigned already.
What of the rest of Black Lives Matter? The movement’s profile went up as the Democratic primary was beginning, with lots of the shouting President Obama was pointing to in his comments. That shouting has translated into several developments:
- a new, very potent tactic for movements for social change to intervene in the political process through the application of very public pressure on power structures
- the most progressive platform for racial justice ever put forward by a political candidate, resulting from a combination of pressure and direct dialogue
- the galvanization of millions in local and nationwide direct actions, via mass-protests
- change in the form of local legislation
- the removal of elected officials from office who have been identified with protecting and abetting police violence
Have these achievements by themselves solved even the most pressing problems identified by Black Lives Matter? No. They haven’t. Far more is needed. In order to radically transform racial injustice into justice, profound systemic changes are needed, in all areas of government – particularly those that have the most direct and long-term impact on the largest number of citizens. President Obama is right in the sense that a plan is needed. Where he is wrong, however, is in placing the onus solely on Black Lives Matter to produce all the proposals with his expectation that the movement should content itself with what incremental change it can politely win for itself.
The next president, whoever that will be, will certainly be white, with a mandate in front of them and campaign promises in the rear view mirror. Black Lives Matter should not ease up on the pressure it has been applying on politicians. That pressure not only needs constant adjustment, but more sweeping demands should be made, not only in the areas of criminal justice and police reforms, but also economic justice, and education, especially in the coming general election. Demands should be made with a long-term view to solve problems and make the kinds of transformative changes that will make it impossible for oppressive government to be tolerated by future generations, across race, gender, and the generations. Demands to transform our education system from what it is now, to one that spreads the whole truth to all of America’s children.
Days after his passing, it is most appropriate to include here a clip of artist Prince in conversation with Tavis Smiley about the profound influence of a video clip he saw of civil rights activist Dick Gregory talking about chemtrails:
For as far as we say we’ve advanced, we have so much farther to go just to plant the seeds of knowledge needed to bring about consciousness among America’s whites. Without knowledge, there can be no consciousness. Without consciousness, there can be no progress. Thus far, knowledge has been limited and, with it, so progress has been curtailed.
As for Black Lives Matter, it is my hope that they will push for more bold sweeping reforms across the board, while growing the movement and working with cross-racial civil rights groups to effect change from the grassroots on up, at local, state, and national levels.
Keep on saying It loud and proud: Black Lives Matter!
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