Black Lives Matter, youth militancy, and resistance

—Sekou Franklin

[Note: This piece was originally published on Atlanta Blackstar.]

Almost 100 years ago, the Harlem intellectual Hubert Harrison celebrated black resistance to racialized violence in the essay “As the Current Flows.” He described it as making white mobs take “their own medicine” as blacks fought back against vigilante groups in urban centers at the height of the Red Scare. The “New Negro spirit” or militancy, he believed, represented a fait accompli in American politics, or a permanent mode of black defiance against an oppressive system and its black accommodationist leadership.

The protests surrounding the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others raise the question of whether they will be this generation’s fait accompli. The Black Lives Matter movement can potentially reshape the national dialogue around race, class and the criminal justice system. It can also deepen the commitment of young and older grassroots leaders to racial justice and participatory democracy. Though young blacks make up a large number of the participants in the protests, the movement has further galvanized a large contingent of non-blacks such that it may lead to a new kind of rainbow coalition.

Almost 20 years ago, I lived in a San Francisco neighborhood that experienced its own police killing of an unarmed black man named William Hankston. Residents were especially outraged that it occurred near a day-care center where two dozen school-age children witnessed the incident. The killing ignited minor scrapes between black youth and the police. Yet after the anger subsided, the protests stopped as the victim’s family and the police department began a legal battle that lasted several years.

My front-row seat at the Hankston incident shaped my immediate response to the protests in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting. I thought the protests would end or be corralled by black leaders and that the protesters would eventually go home. I was wrong. Instead of diminished protests, they continue to spread throughout the country including in places as dissimilar as New York and Alaska, as well as dozens of cities outside the United States.

By all accounts, activists and communities at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement have a policy window or political opportunity to advance serious reforms of a broken criminal justice system, and to connect these reforms to economic justice policies that can improve the lives of the working poor. There is already evidence that the resistance has made a difference. Moderate racial profiling measures are currently being debated in state and local legislative bodies. Congress just approved the Death in Custody Reporting Act, and the Justice Department announced new rules to reduce racial profiling by federal law enforcement officials.

Yet despite the incredible courage and youthful energy of the protesters, it is unclear if these protests will lead to life-altering improvements for working-class communities beyond the moderate reforms that were just approved. Black Lives Matter activists are up against entrepreneurial police commissioners that have different management styles than earlier police chiefs such as the Bull Connors, Frank Rizzos, and William Parkers that ran big-city police departments from the 1930s-1970s. Whereas the latter group publicly championed jackboot, racialized policing strategies, most of today’s big-city police superintendents (and district attorneys) have perfected the art of political stagecraft and are particularly skilled at building allies in the black community. These officials, working hand-in-hand with powerful economic interests, have built in most cities a “cradle to prison” regime — biracial or multiracial governing coalitions skilled at moderating racial discord in the aftermath of incidents involving police misconduct.

We don’t have a definitive answer as to what makes movements such as Black Lives Matter a fait accompli or a permanent mode of resistance. What distinguishes movements and youth-based insurgencies that foment transformative change from those that are contained has puzzled movement activists and scholars more than many of us would like to admit. Yet young activists should pay attention to some signposts as they attempt to sustain the Black Lives Matter movement in 2015.

Intergenerational activism

Although the recent groundswell of activism has its own unique character and historical roots, it is part of a long tradition of youth militancy that dates back nearly a century. In the 1920s, black college students revolted against the oligarchic leadership that presided over historically black colleges and universities. A decade later the Southern Negro Youth Congress, a radical youth formation that attracted young activists such as James Jackson and Sallye Davis (Angela Davis’ mother), organized young people in support of economic justice and voting rights initiatives. The 1950s and 1960s gave birth to the Youth Marches for Integrated Schools; the sit-in movement of 1960 that attracted more than 50,000 young protesters; and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, as well as the Student Organization for Black Unity. Young activists helped to propel the Pan-African and black feminist movements of the 1970s as well as the South African divestment movement of the 1980s. And, the Black Student Leadership Network set up dozens of freedom schools in low-income communities during the early-mid 1990s.

Despite these earlier movements and others not mentioned, we still have a lot to learn about black youth agency. Many older black activists believe that the strength and dynamism of black and multiracial movements in the 1960s have been under-researched or inaccurately reported. Some activists even believe that the overall framing of black youth agency — and the media’s obsessive attention to the divisions between adults and the youth — was initially framed by academicians whose experiences and research were shaped by white-led and western European student movements. Some believe assessments of white student activism were mistakenly reinterpreted or misappropriated to evaluate black youth agency. Whether true or not, the limited research on black social and political agency has inhibited the academic and activist communities from challenging common assumptions about youth activism.

Also frustrating is the media’s focus on adult/youth divisions within the black activist community in its portrayal of the Black Lives Matter protests. This attention has been partially fueled by young protesters themselves. Corporate and even the most movement-friendly media have little understanding of grassroots organizing, how protests are planned, and the actual science or strategic planning that goes into sustaining movement campaigns. The adult-versus-youth narrative, which is quite predictable and unsettling, thus takes away from deeper stories about the brilliance and tactical innovation of the young Black Lives Matter organizers.

Certainly, generational divisions permeate all protest waves. They did in the 1930s, almost a forgotten period of black youth radicalism, and they were pervasive in the 1950s-1970s civil rights and black power movements. However, the intergenerational dimension of these movements is actually a testament to the vitality of black political agency. The cohesion between young activists and long-standing community leaders, many of whom are unrecognized and barely mentioned in movement media portraits, is certainly more fascinating than the clashes between young radicals and the black establishment.

Take for example the dominant narrative in movement circles about generational divisions between SNCC and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s SCLC. SNCC may have been the most important youth-based movement organization of the twentieth century. Its intimate relationships with older, indigenous activists or what Charles Payne calls “local people” was more reflective of its organizing philosophy than its battles with the SCLC. Herbert Lee, Amzie Moore, Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry, and Gloria Richardson were older leaders who joined or allied with SNCC.

On the other hand, a network of young activists bolstered some of SCLC’s militant action.  James Orange joined SCLC in his late teens, and was one of the unsung heroes of the Selma voting rights campaign despite being younger than most SNCC members. (The Selma movie inaccurately portrays Orange as the same age as other SCLC staff members, but he was actually in his early twenties at the time and younger than SNCC chairperson John Lewis.) Diane Nash and Bernard Lafayette, both young organizers in the Nashville civil rights movement and the freedom rides, traversed between SNCC and the SCLC. The SCLC also coordinated Septima Clark’s Citizenship Schools after the collapse of the Highlander Folk School. The Citizenship Schools mirrored SNCC’s freedom schools and surely was championed by young activists who were critical of the SCLC and adult leadership.

Indeed, many young activists have no problem working in intergenerational movement infrastructures as long as seasoned or older activists respect their voice and autonomy.  Young organizers also need older activists to leverage their resources and expertise to prolong militant youth action. What young people oppose is the doctrinaire and seemingly anti-democratic wing of the black leadership class. Even Ella Baker’s critique of the SCLC and adult leadership, as recounted in Barbara Ransby’s groundbreaking book, “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement,” was less about generational divisions than the class orientations and bureaucratic inertia of the mainline civil rights groups.

For the purposes of the Black Lives Matter protests, the most useful example from Baker’s life may be how she used her position in the SCLC and her close ties with other social justice groups to develop an alliance of student and youth activists. Many activists are familiar with the story of SNCC. It was formed at the tail end of the 1960 sit-in movement that targeted racially segregated, public accommodations. After the sit-ins, Baker pulled together young activists for a national gathering at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., in what became SNCC’s founding conference.

A national dialogue

A similar national gathering involving Black Lives Matter organizers and seasoned community organizations — from the Lost Voices, League of Young Voters, Black Lives Matter, Dream Defenders, BYP 100, Hands Up United, Center for Community Change, Organization for Black Struggle, Movement Strategy Center, Millennial Activists United, NAACP Youth & College Division, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Project South, Highlander Research and Education Center, National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, Ferguson Action, Southern Echo, and leading hip-hop activists — would have the potential to break new ground for 21st century resistance movements.

However, a major concern is that some of the Black Lives Matter activists are caught up in what used to be called a “freedom high” and many actions — die-ins, hands up postures and road blockades — lack strategic planning and are failing to tell real stories of how working people are adversely affected by the criminal justice system. Because some actions are ritualistic, some local initiatives or networks have done a poor job connecting the Ferguson and Staten Island grand jury decisions with local policy demands.

A national gathering could give the lead organizers the opportunity to strategize and think more systematically about leadership development, training and storytelling. It could give young people deeper connections with indigenous networks in working-class communities of color. It could encourage them to extend the organizing sphere to small cities and rural communities that are also plagued by police misconduct and racially disparate inequities in the criminal justice system. The gathering could also allow young people to link grievances about criminal justice irregularities to economic justice claims.

Admittedly, creating a national alliance has its shortcomings. It takes resources, funding, and the lead organizations would inevitably have to grapple with racial and ideological divisions in the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet, not having a national dialogue or gathering could damage the long-term prospects of youth activism. Professor Matthew Countryman was a young organizer in the South African divestment movement during the 1980s. Similar to today’s protest wave, the divestment movement experienced an outpouring of student and young activists, who organized actions at more than 100 universities in the United States. The movement also pressured lawmakers to adopt the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, Congress’s most authoritative attack against the South African regime. Yet, as Countryman wrote in the Nation essay, “Beyond Victory: The Lessons of the Divestment Drive,” the movement “grounded to a halt largely because of serious organizational and strategic weaknesses.” Influential divestment activists religiously guarded their autonomy because of well-understood suspicions of cooptation. They then rejected attempts to build a broader political base or national alliance that could unite young activists and leverage the resources to extend movement building activities.

There is some indication that leading activists involved in Black Lives Matter are dialoguing about how to sustain the movement beyond the initial wave of actions. On January 22nd these activists coalescing under the moniker, National Collective of Black Organizers, released the report, “State of the Black Union: The Shadow of Crisis Has Not Passed”. The brief outlines twelve, broad demands for America that reflect the sentiments of the Black Lives Matter movement.

However, eleven out of twelve demands mirror the resolutions and policy recommendations already advanced by mainline civil rights and black groups such as the NAACP, Urban League, National Action Network, Congressional Black Caucus, National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials, National Black Caucus of State Legislators, and Nation of Islam. The only point of contention between the collective and mainline organizations is perhaps the former group’s critique of President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. The collective criticizes the exclusion of women and LGBT youth from the initiative, and instead urges Obama to reorganize it into the Our Children’s Keeper program. What’s missing from the brief is a detailed assessment of how the collective’s demands differ from those endorsed by preexisting black and civil rights groups.  Also missing is a concrete plan that connects young activists with indigenous and older activists living in struggling black communities, and working with residents who need immediate or specific policy interventions to address their material conditions.

Cross-sector movement alliances

In reality, the recent protests are part of a larger multi-layered and cross-sector protest wave. The Moral Monday movement initiated by the North Carolina NAACP has lasted a year and a half and is now in a dozen states. Another promising movement is the Show Me 15 — a $15 per hour wage for fast food workers — that has spread to 200 cities. Show Me 15 activists are mostly low-wage workers, people of color including a large representation of black women, and young people. These worker activists offer a counter-narrative to the politics of respectability that positions students, middle-class or sanitized activists at the forefront of movement campaigns.

Fortunately, we can look to the Ferguson/St. Louis region to understand the benefits of cross-sector movement building. Some organizers on the frontlines of the restaurant boycotts in St. Louis joined the Ferguson protests. Some of the St. Louis/Ferguson worker activists then traveled to my home state of Tennessee to stand on the picket lines with boycotting fast-food workers. The cross-fertilization between criminal justice and economic justice movements is potentially one of the transformative outcomes of this current wave of protests.

Cross-sector alliances have already produced deeper conversations between diverse activists. They have allowed for movement borrowing or the sharing of strategies and tactics between different groups adversely affected by the “cradle-to-prison” regime, including black youth activists concerned about racial profiling and racially-based police killings, low-wage restaurant workers whose economic mobility is inhibited by prior histories in the criminal justice system, immigrant rights advocates who fight against racial profiling programs such as 287(g) that have led to the mass detention of undocumented residents, and young homeless rights activists whose constituents are heavily policed and pushed out of high-density and commercial development corridors.

The role of the academy

If Black Lives Matter, Moral Monday, Show Me 15, and other movements are going to be viable responses to inequality then black social scientists must be integral to this struggle. There are multiple roles that they (we) can play including assisting young activists with press releases, op-eds, fundraising initiatives and research.

During the protest waves of the 1930s-1940s and the 1950s-1970s, there was a partnership between resistance movements and hybrid academicians (or scholars who had one foot in movements and the other one in the academy). Ira De Reid, E. Franklin Frazier, and Charles Johnson belonged to a cadre of black scholars commissioned by the American Council on Education in the 1940s to study the challenges facing black youth. Their pioneering studies provided a broader context for shaping radical youth organizations such as the Southern Negro Youth Congress.

The National Conference of Black Political Scientists was also established in 1969 as an outgrowth of the civil rights and black power movements. More recently, black political scientists have been on the frontlines of anti-poverty and labor campaigns, movements to abolish the death penalty and reverse wrongful convictions, public health initiatives, LGBT movements, voting rights campaigns, and other social movements. The Moral Monday movement’s official training manual further encourages its state or local affiliates to partner with “activist scholars” as a key component of movement building.

The Current Flows

In looking back at the period that shaped Hubert Harrison’s perspective, one might very well conclude that he was wrong in his prediction that America was on the horizon of a black fait accompli or permanent mode of black resistance after World War I. Although black students revolted at their universities in the 1920s, the protests were relegated to a small contingent of the middle-class. Harrison’s optimism notwithstanding, Jim Crow stiffened and Northern racism persisted. Racial terrorism also increased and black life worsened under the Great Depression.

The events in the first half of the twentieth century underscore how difficult it is to sustain civil resistance beyond the initial outbursts or wave of protests. Ella Baker understood this challenge. She rejected the notion that the 1960 sit-in movement would continue to self-procreate even though the movement attracted tens of thousands of students.

After the initial wave of sit-ins, she and others rededicated themselves to organizing, planning, leadership development, intergenerational movement building, and experimentation in order to convert youth insurgents into a formidable political force in the 1960s. As such, if the Black Lives Matter resistance is going to be a protracted struggle instead of an episodic one, its leading voices must follow Baker’s instructions. Only then will we know if the movement is the fait accompli for this generation.

Sekou Franklin is the author of After the Rebellion: Black Youth, Social Movement Activism, and the Post-Civil Rights Generation (NYU Press, 2014).