Black Lives Matter has scored concrete victories in its latest incarnations. In the second part of a path-breaking early analysis of the movement BLM activist and sociologist Michael Billeuax looks at the battles won and challenges ahead.
Results and possibilities
The uprising seems to be ‘working,’ in the two respects generally implied: First, the ideological terrain, the war for ‘hearts and minds,’ and so on; second, the policy response, although these results are much more tenuous and mixed.
a) Hearts and minds. Available polling suggests massive support for the demonstrations. Support was strong, notably, at the start of the protests, when the ‘rioting and direct confrontations with police were much more heavily emphasized by the media and more prominent in fact. According to a pair of now often-cited Morning Consult polls, in the first weekend of the uprising, 54% said they either strongly (30%) or somewhat (24%) supported the demonstrations; only 22% reported strongly (14%) or somewhat (8%) opposition to them. Since then, support has grown, and opposition has shrunk: 63% support (37% strongly, 25% somewhat); 19% oppose (11% strongly, 8% somewhat). Support has grown across the board – irrespective of race (white or Black) or political affiliation (Republican, Democrat, Independent). This support is not simply reserved for “good” protests: another poll (Monmouth) found that 54% of Americans felt that the protesters in Minneapolis were justified in burning down the police precinct building.
The Morning Consult poll contained a curious result, cited approvingly by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton in his widely panned NYT op-ed: despite the fact that a majority of Americans supported the protests, a majority also supported calling in the US military to help police quell the protests. But support for such measures were falling: in the polling period from 31 May -1 June, 55% supported sending in the military; by 3-5 June, that had fallen to 42%. Donald Trump actually threatening to send in the military is almost certainly what made the difference: among Democrats, support for sending in the military went from nearly 50% before Trump’s threat, down to 20% afterward; there was virtually no change in support among Republicans.
The victories of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2014-16 were mainly on the ideological terrain. Polling at that time shows a marked increase in consciousness around American racism – more reporting that they considered it a serious problem, that they believed the country had a long way to go in solving it, and so on. The present uprisings are clearly building on that foundation – in particular, they are a moment of mass education on the politics of police and prison abolition. Two weeks ago these were fringe theories of subsections of a tiny left; today they frame the debate. Besides that, the fact that the demonstrations, even with their ‘diversity of tactics, have enjoyed such widespread public sympathy and legitimacy is a major victory indeed.
b) Policy outcomes. Much more provisionally we can say that the demonstrations are having their desired effect in the realm of policy. On this front there has probably been more progress in the last week than in the rest of the previous twenty years combined. On the other hand, that is not saying very much. Some of the victories, while important, are as significant for indicating the power of struggle as they are for demonstrating the absurd latitude and impunity officially granted to police in America. These fall broadly into two varieties: sanctions and funding cuts.
First, sanctions. Off the bat, the four officers who murdered George Floyd were fired on May 26 – almost immediately. More important, they are all facing criminal charges that carry a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison. There are no guarantees on a conviction, and even fewer on actually getting the maximum sentence.
More police are getting fired and charged for misconduct, including the police chief of Louisville after David McAtee was murdered by police during the demonstrations. The two police in Buffalo, NY who shoved an elderly man to the ground, causing him to hit his head on the concrete and producing one of the uprising’s most haunting viral videos, have been arrested. An officer of the NYPD who slammed a small woman to the ground, causing her to have seizures and sending her to the hospital, has been arrested. It is safe to say that these and other instances of brutality would likely have gone unpunished without a mass movement.
Municipalities also are, in some cases, moving to limit the powers of police. “Breonna’s Law,” named for Breonna Taylor, has passed in Louisville, restricting – although not eliminating – the power of the police to perform ‘no-knock’ warrants of the sort they carried out before murdering Breonna in her home. A version of the same law has been proposed at the federal level.
Second, funding cuts. Most significantly, the call to dissolve the police department altogether has been considered by the Minneapolis City Council. As of 7 June , after Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey was forced to take a ‘walk of shame’ after refusing to verbally commit to the policy, the council has a veto-proof majority for disbanding the department. There are vague notions about what would replace it, and it is possible that what the city comes up with is an essentially rebranded police force; at any rate, they currently seem to be stalling. Nevertheless one must imagine that the Minneapolis Police Department is more politically vulnerable than it has ever been, and this is probably the single biggest victory of the uprising to date. It is unprecedented.
Funding cuts to police departments are now being promised or suggested in other major cities, such as Los Angeles and New York City. These cuts would not represent fundamental shifts. The proposed cut in Los Angeles is $150 million out of a $2 billion budget; in New York, $700 million out of $6 billion. But these, again, represent a shift in political momentum. Whether that shift is durable or ephemeral remains to be seen, but nothing else so far had ever done it. On the other hand, in Austin, the city council has voted to increase the police department’s budget – it remains to be seen how many cities will, in the end, choose a response that is more concessionary than repressive, and almost certainly most will have some balance of both.
Other local victories are piling up; school districts, universities, and other services are cutting contracts with police departments, reducing police department revenue, not to mention people’s contact with the police.
Lawmakers in Washington, from both parties, appear to be getting ready to propose the scaling back or elimination of programs that transfers excess supply of military weaponry from the Pentagon to local police departments.
Otherwise, in the South, local and state leaders are bowing to the pressure to remove statues memorializing leaders or soldiers of the Confederacy; a victory that is by definition symbolic, but significant. In Philadelphia, the statue memorializing Frank Rizzo – former Philadelphia mayor, racist police officer, and opponent of school desegregation – was removed, after having been badly vandalized by demonstrators (if the city hadn’t gotten it, the people would have).
Mirroring the organization of the police, all these victories are primarily local. If the movement has a central demand, it is the defunding of the police and the diversion of those funds to meet community needs; this demand will need to be won city-by-city, and therefore makes systematic national coordination of the movement difficult.
2. The labor question. The labor movement, by and large, has been silent and complicit. In the Washington DC uprising, demonstrators vandalized and set fires at the headquarters of the AFL-CIO, in potent condemnation (or perhaps simple confusion, in any case leading union structures are not seen as part of the solution). Within the labor movement, activists are beginning to raise the question of the police unions, who generally function to compete against other municipal services for funding and seek to maintain and expand police impunity. Many have raised the demand that the AFL-CIO expel the international representing police officers, the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA); a petition to this effect is circulating. Of 700,000 or 800,000 active duty police in the United States, the IUPA has a membership of about 100,000. That makes it considerably smaller than the powerful Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which has some 375,000 members, and the IUPA does not organize some of the most important and pattern-setting departments, such as the NYPD, whose rank-and-file officers are organized by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA). These more powerful organizations – FOP, PBA – are not within the AFL-CIO, and as such are “outside” of the official labor movement, blunting the potential impact of a movement to expel police unions. Besides the IUPA, a few police departments are represented within other AFL-CIO affiliates: the Association of Federal, State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has some police and corrections officer unions; so too does the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE); and my international union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Union jurisdictional lines have become virtually incoherent in the American labor movement, and activists are having to do considerable research just to find which of the dozens of internationals might incidentally have unionized some cops, some place.1 This makes the disaffiliation movement more complicated but not intractable; isolated police unions within the other big public sector internationals may be relatively easy to toss out.
The issue here is largely, but not merely, symbolic.2 Where police unions are affiliated to the AFL-CIO, they are represented in the federation’s local organizations (central labor councils, or CLCs), and the municipal workers as a whole – including the police – can bloc together as a whole for increased funding from the city. In localities where the police are affiliated, expelling them from the federation would mean the rest of the municipal unions would be in a position to explicitly treat them as competitors for funding, rather than allies. The most promising movement in this regard is the decision by the Executive Board of the King County CLC to issue an ultimatum to the affiliated Seattle Police Officers Guild saying that if they fail to meet demands by 17 June they will be expelled. The Writers’ Guild of America-East has also unanimously passed a resolution calling on the AFL-CIO to expel the IUPA – they have set the precedent.
Apart from the matter of formal disaffiliation, there have been some promising signals from the labor movement. On May 28, the Amalgamated Transit Union 1005 in Minneapolis refused to cooperate with the police to transport officers or arrested protesters. Transit Workers Union 100 in New York did the same on May 30, and ATU 85 in Philadelphia on 2 June. On 4 June, Metro Boston made the order for such refusal. In Madison, the teachers’ union (Madison Teachers Incorporated – NEA) reversed their previous support for the use of police officers in schools and demanded funding for more counselors, psychologists, nurses, and social workers. James Bennett, the opinion editor for the New York Times, has been forced to resign for the decision to publish Tom Cotton’s “send in the troops” call, thanks in large measure to the pressure of the newsroom, organized by the WGA.
a)The Trump Administration. There was some speculation bordering on panic at the start of the uprisings that they would only play into Trump’s hands and help him win re-election in November. The disorder, it was thought, would provide him an opportunity to cast himself as the guarantor of law and order, the protector of communities threatened by the mob, and so on. On the contrary, these uprisings have been a disaster for the Trump Administration.
b) Schism with Military. Trump, on 1 June, used police violence to clear the peaceful protesters – clergymen among them – from the White House grounds, and marched with his entourage to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where he held up the Bible and threatened to send in the military to quell the riots. The military openly repudiated him. Former top Pentagon official James Miller announced his resignation from the Defense Policy Board the following day, citing Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s support of the St. John’s stunt, followed by Esper himself saying on 3 June that he did not agree with Trump’s invocation of the Insurrection Act. On 2 June, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley – who had joined Trump’s entourage on the march to St. John’s – published a memo to the other Joint Chiefs rebuking Trump’s invocation, possibly for the purpose of saving face, reminding them of their duty to uphold the Constitution (he would later apologise for joining the walk). Over 280 former senior diplomats and military officials signed a letter, sent to Foreign Policy, condemning Trump’s response. Trump himself had to back off. The key protest came from James Mattis, Former Defense Secretary (Jan 2017-Jan 2019), who denounced Trump tout court in the press, saying that the current situation is due to “three years without mature leadership,” and that “we can unite without him.” Former Trump White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (2017-19) concurred with Mattis, and said of the notion that the military ought to be sent in that “the troops hate it.” Other Joint Chiefs issued public rebukes as well. Trump was humiliated, isolated, and spent the remainder of the week quiet.
c) Party disarray. The crisis in the Repubican Party that Trump already represented has deepend with the uprisings. The “Never Trump” wing of the party is sponsoring brutal anti-Trump election ads such as this one. Colin Powell, Secretary of State in the Bush Administration (2001-2005), announced his endorsement for Joe Biden on 7 June. Mitt Romney, the same day, marched to the White House alongside evangelical Christians who were all chanting “Black Lives Matter.” Other Republican politicians (for example, Rep. Will Hurd of Texas) are either participating in the demonstrations or taking care to voice their support for them.
d) Public opinion. An ABC News/Ipsos poll finds that only 32% approve of Trump’s handling of the response to George Floyd’s murder; 66% disapprove. Trump’s approval ratings proved inexplicably robust over the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic; this may be what does him in, instead.
2. The Democratic Party. The Democrats’ largest barrier to success in November may be itself, and in particular its candidate for president. At an event on 2 June, Joe Biden offered one solution to the problem of police brutality – they ought to be trained to shoot unarmed people “in the leg instead of the heart.” It remains to be seen how this kind of total failure to read the room affects voters’ willingness to turn out for him, but as a demonstration of the inadequacy of the Democratic Party as a serious alternative to the horrors Americans have endured under a neoliberal regime, it is just a bit ‘on the nose.’ More significantly, Biden has explicitly positioned himself, as of 8 June, as opposing the defunding of police – the central redistributive demand of the uprising. To the extent the uprising has elevated this issue into the defining political issue of the year, this hesitation on the part of the Democratic Party’s candidate may fail to generate the needed turnout for victory. Biden’s own responsibility for creating the conditions that protesters want abolished is becoming more public, and could be a serious liability. For the moment, though, that liability is outweighed by the absolute throttling the uprising is giving to Trump, reflected in a growing advantage for Biden in national polling.
Co-optation, “allyship”, and other activist concerns
The continued militancy of the uprisings is not guaranteed, of course, but lamentations that the movement has already been co-opted strike me as premature. To think that there was some revolutionary path that could have been taken if only the masses (or worse yet the left) had the audacity is pure voluntarism and wishful thinking; if one begins from that premise, any reform within the broad aegis of the current system signifies co-optation. Weeks into the uprisings, we are still seeing large demonstrations, continued popularity of the demand to defund police departments, and ongoing violations of curfews, at least up until the moment these were lifted. There are naturally going to be opportunist elements that attempt to become, or improve their position as, political brokers for the movement; placing themselves as negotiators and mediators who represent the ‘voice’ of the ‘community’ to city leaders, and so on. It is already happening in some cities, and in some cases it will certainly succeed. But the mere fact of de-escalation of tactics is not, on its own, evidence that the radicals have lost the struggle for leadership. Aside from the initial spark, the sustained militancy observed was as much the result of elevated repression (the curfews, etc) and police provocation; where the curfews are lifted and the police more restrained, the demonstrations are bound to take on a less confrontational character.
A movement’s risk of being co-opted is based on two factors. One is the ideological success of the movement, and in this way the tendency for elites to attempt to co-opt a movement is a measure of its popular support. When elites cannot take the avenue of naked repression – or, maybe more to the point, where that strategy is backfiring – they must deal with it while being seen as part of the movement, or at least as fundamentally sympathetic to it.
The other major factor is the organizational features of the movement itself. A movement organized in a nebulous way, with little internal coordination, with few people strongly adhering to particular demands or principles, is at much greater risk of co-optation than one that is more tightly organized, highly coordinated, fairly disciplined around clear demands, and so on. The essence of the matter here is: to what extent is the movement expressing a collective will, rather than a mere temporary aggregation of individual wills, soon to be scattered again. Mass organizations produce the former through more or less complicated and difficult processes of democratic deliberation, moral and intellectual education, alignment of members’ interests, construction of a sense of loyalty and unity of purpose, and so on. Without such organizations, movements are highly vulnerable to co-optation.
Along these lines, of course, this is a movement at great risk of being co-opted, for both reasons. Again, its popularity is remarkable. Democratic mayors all over the country are desperate to perform their understanding of systemic racism; their understanding that they can never ‘really’ understand it, as a white person; their willingness to listen, to learn, and to ‘elevate voices’. National Democratic leaders got together 8 Juneto pose for a photo-op donning kente cloths, and introduced federal legislation for police reform that, avoids the emergent central demand of the movement. Top Republicans, meanwhile, have at last been forced to concede that police are known to sometimes kill Black people for no reason. Mitt Romney is shouting “Black Lives Matter,” in the street; “All Lives Matter” is defeated. So there is undeniably a problem of co-optation here, but it is only a result of the uprising’s success up to the present; it’s a good problem.
The movement is also highly decentralized, very unevenly organized, and contains within it hugely variegated political traditions, as well as people yet ‘uninitiated’ to any of them. There is very little national-level organization to speak of, and probably less statewide coordination of any kind, apart from connections to sympathetic state and national legislators, precious few of them organically connected to the movement. In part, again, this – at least the decentralization – is a reflection of the way policing is organized. But beyond that, each city has its own local balance of forces, its own movement history, its own political and organizational traditions, its own score card of victories and defeats. We will see co-optations everywhere; we cannot all be Minneapolis, where even they are not without dangers of co-optation of their own, but where they covered a lot of ground by simply torching the precinct. We cannot all torch a precinct.3 In many localities there are already-constituted brokerage relationships between more or less self-appointed representatives of ‘communities’ and city leaders; they are well positioned to ‘speak for the community’’, and city leaders are more than eager to ‘elevate their voices’. This is not a good problem.
The risk of co-optation that comes from winning the war for sentiment is a risk we simply have to bear, almost no matter what. The risk of co-optation that comes from disorganization is one we will have to contend with, owing to circumstances beyond our control. But we do not have to bear it, and must struggle against it.
Serious recognition of the risk of co-optation borne of disorganization and the failure to create a collective will ought to entail some skepticism around ‘allyship’, or some of the more common notions of it in activist milieus. This term is generally used to describe (or prescribe) a position of relatively privileged movement participants or sympathizers in those movements; white people in Black struggles, men in women’s struggles, and so on. A great deal of breath and ink has been used up in statements and arguments on the proper forms of allyship.
But ‘allyship’ goes considerably further. Indeed, it is essentially a self-help program. Like most self-help programs, it functions mainly as a hustle. Countless NGOs and consultants sell allyship trainings, workshops, seminars, webinars, lectures, curricula, and so on to professional or corporate organizations hoping to ‘do better’. Some of the ‘do’s and don’t’s’ in this self-help program are, again, perfectly sensible: attempt to educate oneself without putting undue burden on others, be open to criticism and willing to learn from mistakes, practice empathy and become aware of the advantages you may have in a situation relative to others, do not make it about you. In fact, when considered as a set of ‘everyday’ practices, this is all rather well-suited to encouraging good organizational culture at businesses and other workplaces.
This advice becomes something else when applied to the context of a political movement: a matter of who leads and who is led, and on what basis. It ought to go without saying that white people should not attempt to overtake leadership in the Black freedom struggle, or reduce the latter into some ‘bigger’ project, and so on. This is the utterly reasonable kernel at the heart of the allyship discourse. But, typically, allyship begins and ends with white people (or, in a formulation more consistent with the reality of American racial formation, non-Black people) ‘taking a back seat’, ‘staying in one’s lane, etc – that is, accepting an essentially passive role.
There is a dangerous, mistaken assumption at the core of this activist allyship discourse. That is that there is no division of leaders and led among Black people; that, rather, there is a Black ‘community’ and individuals who represent the ‘voice’ of that community. Put another way, there is an assumption that there is a ready-made and spontaneously constituted collective will among Black people, and no complex process whereby a collective will must be, and is yet to be, constructed. Who, for the white ally, speaks for the Black ‘community’? Most frequently, it is the people whose voices are most in a position to be ‘elevated’ that is, elevated by influential white people – the Black NGO executive director, the Black pastor, the Black professional at the head of a ‘community organization’, the Black elected official, the Black business owner and the Black business associations, the Black academics and journalists, and so on.
There were echoes of this assumption in the early condemnations of the vandalism, property destruction, and antagonization of the police that came along with the start of the uprising. These were, it was claimed, solely or at least primarily the actions of white people who were refusing to accept Black leadership, acting on their own, imposing their own goals or desires onto the movement, and so on. These condemnations could not last because it soon became evident that it was simply not true – the ‘rioters’ and the fighters of police were interracial everywhere. If indeed this represented a rejection of ‘Black leadership’, Black people rejected it, too.
The problem is essentially this: where white ‘allyship’ assumes a Black collective will, it underestimates the risk of co-optation inherent in the fact that there is no such collective will. In uncritically accepting whatever Black leadership emerges as the ‘voice’ of that collective will, white allies make themselves unwitting accessories to the co-optation of the Black freedom struggle.4
If it turns out to be the case that essentialist assumptions about the Black ‘community’ are undermined, this will be a major ideological achievement of the uprising in the field of racial politics. It will entail, at least, the recognition by non-Black radicals and supporters of the Black struggle of a serious dilemma that they must learn to navigate: if they must not attempt to themselves lead and direct the Black struggle, neither should they simply dispense with any political principles or standards in understanding, assessing, and participating in that struggle. Fortunately, the uprising itself has resolved the dilemma by offering forth a concrete demand: Defund the police. There is now no need for any ally of the uprisings to passively accept any leadership calling for less.
1From what I’ve been able to gather, for instance, the AFT represents some police in Kansas as a result of a statewide merger with another international (that is, those internationals have merged operations in Kansas, but not elsewhere), and their website lists a police union in the town of Columbus, Montana, population: 2,049.
2Although, of course, even the symbolic aspect is not “merely” symbolic. A refusal on the part of organized workers to see the agents of state coercion as a part of the working class would indicate a sense that workers must struggle against not only their employers but also the state, and would be a clear advance over simple “trade union” consciousness toward “class” consciousness.
3Perhaps. this sentence has been pushed toward obsolescence by facts on the ground. In Seattle demonstrators have forced American police to abandon a second precinct – East Precinct in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
4This is the same deal anywhere that people support and participate in struggles against oppression on some axis where they themselves are not oppressed; straight allies to LGBTQ struggles, male allies to women’s struggles, and so on.
Image: Thomas Hawk