On November 24th, 2014 hundreds of New Yorkers gathered in Union Square patiently waiting for the announcement regarding the Ferguson grand jury’s decision on whether to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the murder of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. When the announcement came down, tears rolled down a woman’s face as shouts of “No Indictment!” and “The Killer Walks!” echoed through the crowd. Anguished wails soon turned to chants of anger as the demonstrators tore down the barriers that caged us in the park and we set off up 14th street. That first night, protests were allowed to march around Manhattan for five hours going as far as Harlem and the Brooklyn Bridge. The next night, four separate marches turned out thousands more than the night before resulting in the shut down of three bridges, Time Square and Grand Central Terminal.
Ever since, there have been near daily protests against police brutality all claiming Black Lives Matter. The newly burgeoning movement gained significant traction after the non-indictment of Officer Pantaleo regarding the chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island. All across the nation, mass protests broke out in solidarity with the two martyrs for justice especially in places where unarmed black men were recently killed. Cleveland witnessed civil unrest after the killings of 12-year-old Tamir Rice and 22-year-old John Crawford. Actions include marches, shut downs, occupations, die-ins, walk-outs, targeted arson, rioting and skirmishes with the police. In Seattle, protestors threw bottles at the police. The East Bay has seen the most escalation with riots in Oakland and Berkeley. The protests seem to gain momentum which each police-related story to spread virally through the media. This entry serves as an introduction to the current social movement in the hopes of combating media distortion through the presentation of a coalesced body of ideas that can serve as an educational tool for those who are unable to participate themselves.
Black Lives Matter is a populist/left-wing social uprising against police brutality, mass incarceration, institutional racism and structural poverty drawing on a historical tradition from the Civil Rights and Black Power struggles of the 1960s. It has attracted a wide range of political diversity from liberal reformers to veteran revolutionaries. Demands can range from implementation of body cameras to abolition of the prison-industrial complex. Liberals and radicals alike have called for an end to the War on Drugs.
The movement is generally characterized by distrust and even contempt with local state entities with many calls for Federal and independent prosecutors to investigate the deaths of unarmed black men across the United States. Broader characterizations express a systemic rejection of state security forces showing contempt even for FBI, National Guard, CIA and NSA officers alike. Basically, anyone in a uniform is met with spite.
This movement also expresses a broad anticapitalist tendency with an emphasis on shutting down business as usual until justice has been appropriated. This is best exemplified in the chant, “If the Killer Walks, America Halts.” The original calls to Indict America drew in a record number of participants helping activists channel their anger toward a larger system that they see as responsible for the historical racism that allows for white policemen to murder black youth. Protestors have targeted centers of commerce such as malls, shopping centers, downtown marketplaces, and gentrified neighborhoods. Similarly, they shut down and occupy roads, highways, and bridges to disrupt the flow of capital through the disruption of daily routine.
The timing of Black Lives Matter conveniently began during a holiday season when a large amount of economic consumption would took place. This situation virtually guaranteed that BLM would be witnessed in public spheres by large numbers of people while also attacking a significant source of profit for large retail companies. The movement’s success could actually be measured through the loss of sales. Other related issues such as prisoner abolition, minimum wage raises, and rent control neatly intersect with this movement.
A small but vocal part of the movement can be characterized as anti-fascist. In Ferguson, activists defended themselves from the rightwing survivalists and vigilantes as much as they defended themselves from police. In cities, this translated to the condemnation of municipal police alliances with overtly white supremacist forces. The NYPD suffered relentless comparisons to the KKK. Public rallies have drawn racist white reactionaries to confront the activists. The recent tension between Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD characterized as a coup by some pundits in combination with the strict discipline enforcing the Blue Code of Silence shows that larger police forces do have the capability and potential seize control of a city militarily if the uprising grew beyond the Mayor’s control.
Black Lives Matter is horizontally organized, virtually leaderless and emotionally angry. Unlike Occupy Wall Street that came before it, this movement sparked in the context of a focused issue that could personally resonate with the lived experiences of oppressed people’s. Occupy’s “99% vs 1%” rhetoric did not capture the multitudes and complexities of class inequality and its target was too symbolic to foster any meaningful results. Rather, with BLM, resistance against police could be seen as a struggle against low-wages, foreclosures, and gentrification. If I could emphasize one outstanding feature of this movement, I’d say its activists have the most precise sociological imagination since the movements of the Civil Rights Era.
Black Lives Matter incorporates a variety of influences from past movements, most recently labor campaigns, solidarity actions and to a lesser extent, Occupy Wall Street. While its leaderless structure, Internet savvy members, and use of human microphone are odes to the past, these new protests have many new features having learned from the mistakes of past movements.
Flash Mob Rallying
Activists are extremely savvy with the latest social media trends often using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to organize actions. Facebook events have especially aided in quickly drawing large masses of people into the streets. The horizontal networking allows for anyone to join in and follow the movement. Continuous updates through twitter help give live coverage to the movement and creation of media spectacle.
Shying away from the occupation, maintenance, and defense of space tactics that characterized Occupy, activists use marches as the primary tool of protest . The march itself has become the base of operations with auxiliary actions usually stemming from the initial rally. Activists move from street to street, careful not to congregate in one area too long lest get enclosed by the police. These mass flows of people change direction suddenly without deliberation and organizers constantly tweet new locations and targets for actions. The marches move so fast that the NYPD often falls behind. The marchers only break ranks to execute a die-in or occupation usually for a few minutes and then meld back into the streets. The intense pace of how this coalesces helps break down the barrier between spectator and participant, allows the marcher’s ranks to swell as it progresses and prevents large numbers of protestors from arrest.
The primary tactic of the movement is to disrupt the system of exploitation that historically oppresses black people while simultaneously drawing attention to the cause. In an almost 21st century incarnation of Propaganda by the Deed, activists specifically target capital to attack profit accumulation and raise the public awareness about police violence. If large companies, politicians, and power players cannot continue business as usual, then they are forced to confront the issue. Malls and holiday shopping centers are the prime targets for protestors. These businesses are seen to profit off the expendable lives of black youth and the continued consumptive lifestyle distracts white Americans from the systemic racism that pervades their society.
Highways and bridges are also prime targets for disruption as they are the veins of the city that keep the fuel of urban culture alive. This is done to break the spectacle of capitalism by disrupting daily routine to the point that the city is effectively shut down. When routes of transportation become blocked, people can’t go to work, trucks can’t deliver goods, appointments are missed and the relegation of work-flow behavior becomes shattered. This in turn could inspire those formally trapped within the confines of routine to join the marches as can be evidenced by couples leaving their tour buses and taxi drivers pumping their fists in solidarity. While a general shutdown has yet to occur, its myth provides the creative energy that fuels mass shutdowns and demonstrates a goal the movement strives to attain. New York could still effectively run during even its largest demonstrations but the level of disruption still generated enough media attention and even cost the city thousands in overtime pay for police forces.
Most recently, the protests have begun to target media forces and specific companies that are directly opposed to the movement’s goals. Fox News and the New York Post have been targeted for misrepresenting the nature of the movement.
Black Lives Matter displays a conscious level of diversity through its solidarity with other protest movements around the world. The very first groups that helped organize Ferguson solidarity protests came from Palestinian groups that were active during the Gaza conflict in the summer of 2014. Since September, the Palestinian solidarity groups remain the most connected to Black Lives Matter organizers in fomenting a conscious sociological connection between the oppressed peoples of Palestine and the historically oppressed peoples of the United States. Occupy Central’s Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong became another source of inspiration for the movement as many could see their struggle for democracy in a system that similar disenfranchised Hong Kong citizens. Ferguson October actions coincided with protests in Iguala, Mexico over the disappearance of 43 student activists in that country. Since then, mass civil unrest erupted all over Mexico and many Black Lives Matter activists empathize with how the drug war that ravages black youth in America has even starker consequences for those living in Mexico.
All of these protests practice solidarity through a recognition of a fundamental corruption with systems of governance and more importantly as a rejection of neoliberal policies that led to militarization of security forces in the name of combating drugs and crime.
A range of different groups have been key to organizing a majority of the actions since November. Among them are various Occupy-oriented groups, socialist and worker’s parties, union groups, and an assortment of anticapitalist groups.
People’s Power Assemblies – This group has been at the forefront of organizing actions in this movement. Expanding on its minimum wage struggles from earlier in the Fall, PPA rallied its members around the police killings turning out heavy numbers for the Darren Wilson non-indictment protests in November as well as organizing walk-outs and teach-ins in early December. As a broadly leftist organization, its members overlap with a host of various activist groups, political parties, and labor unions.
OWS S17 & Assorted Occupy Affiliates – OWS S17 serves as a communications page to coordinate different events and actions in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. It represents a coalition of Occupy particularly, Alternative Banking and Occu-Evolve, and mainly organizes rallies and teach-ins. The group has led the organizing efforts behind the Grand Central sing-in and protests against News Corporation among being a constant presence at the dozens of marches in December. OWS S17 hosts meetings every Friday at 5:00pm at 60 Wall Street.
Trayvon Martin Organizing Committee – The New York chapter of the Trayvon Martin Organizing Committee has led the way in militant disruption tactics that helped characterize the movement from the beginning. Initially formed after the not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, the chapters of TMOC seek to build a coalition of anti-authoritarian/anticapitalist organizations to directly confront and uproot white supremacy through a diversity of tactics. TMOC called for #IndictAmerica rallies to take to the streets the day after the Darren Wilson verdict helping spark the national movement. The group also shut down Manhattan bridge during the Eric Garner protests in early December. Lately, TMOC has been raising money for the bail and legal fund for detained comrades for their alleged involvement in an incident on the Brooklyn Bridge during the Millions March NYC on December 13th. If you’re afraid of liberal co-optation or interested in marching with the radical left, follow TMOC for further actions and updates.
Revolutionary Communist Party -The Bob Avakian personality cult and self-described Maoist political party has actually been a central contributor to the movement’s numbers. With every rally they attend, they bring with them large numbers and enough signs to mount an effective protest. Though some of its members may try to derail the movement’s leaders for their own recruitment efforts, no one can deny the contribution they’ve made to the marches.
Socialist Alternative – This independent third party helped get Kshama Sawant elected to the Seattle City Council and push for a $15-an-hour minimum wage changing the national conversation. Fast food and retail store workers have since engaged in strikes across the country for this new standards. The New York chapter remains dedicated to the city’s fast food movement and seeks to connect the struggles of the black experience to a larger struggle for working class liberation.
Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation – The New York City chapter of Black Rose/Rosa Negra has been active in the protest scene since the Federation first formed in the Fall of 2013. The organization draws inspiration from the traditions of anarchist communism, anarcho-syndicalism, revolutionary feminism, queer liberation, abolitionism, anti-racism and various liberation movements around the world. Recently, they helped organize the anticapitalist contingents of the People’s Climate March in September and the Millions March NYC in December. The group’s current campaigns focus on prisoner support as well as organizing working class opposition to mass incarceration and the police state.
Black Autonomy North East – BANE organized the first march in the immediate aftermath following the shooting of Akai Gurley by Officer Liang in Brooklyn, NY. As part of the Black Autonomy Federation, BANE combines traditional Black Panther community organizing with militant direct action emphasizing a decentralized organizing structure. The Federation hopes to develop autonomous democratically organized cells for black liberation described as “building a new world in the shell of the old.”
Revolutionary Student Coordinating Committee – The RSCC is a student run organization seeking to unite radical youth through the CUNY education system in New York. The group characterizes itself as an anticapitalist, anti-imperialist, proletarian-feminist organization. The RSCC has been active in numerous actions through December and helped shutdown the FDR Drive during the Darren Wilson verdict protests.
Take Back the Bronx – This group formed out of the Occupy movement in response to the building of condos and pricy housing in the South Bronx. New Yorkers see the Bronx as the last borough to go through the process of restructuring undertaken by realtors in an effort to attract wealthy whites at the cost of driving out the people of color who already live there. Take Back the Bronx tirelessly challenges police brutality through community social programs, “cop-free” block parties, and copwatching patrols in order to combat gentrification in the borough.
National Lawyers Guild – This league of volunteer lawyers monitors protests for evidence of police brutality and records arrestee information to assist activists when they’ve been nabbed during a protest. They can be identified by their neon green caps. Look for them if you have any legal questions regarding your rights during a demonstration or political action. If you are ever arrested during a protest call the New York hotline at 212-679-6018.
“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”
“Fist up, Fight Back”
“This is what democracy looks like”
“Whose streets? Our streets”
“NYPD KKK, How many kids did you kill today?”
“Indict, Convict, Send those killer cops to jail, The whole damn system is guilty as hell”
“Back up, Backup, We want freedom, freedom, All these racist ass cops we don’t need ’em, need ’em”
“How do you spell racist? N-Y-P-D”
“Who do you protect? Who do you serve?”
“No justice, No peace (No racist police)”
“Turn it up, Don’t turn it down, We’re doing this for Mike Brown”
“Hands up to the sky, We’re doing this for Akai”
“If we don’t get it, Shut it down”
“When they say ‘Get back’, we say ‘Fight back!'”
“If we don’t get no justice, then they don’t get no peace”
“No justice, no peace, take it to the streets and fuck the police”
“Black Lives Matter”