Black Lives Matter’s Leadership Dilemma

Black Lives Matter is an interesting social protest movement case study of leadership dilemmas. Co-founded in 2013 by three female organizers, BLM has no governing board, instead it coordinates with more than 150 organizations.

Laura Barrón-López of Politico” explains the decentralized structure in Why the Black Lives Matter movement doesn’t want a singular leader”.

“Instead of a pyramid of different departments topped by a leader, there is coordination and a set of shared values spread across a decentralized structure that prizes local connections and fast mobilization in response to police violence. Over the last eight years, the movement has steadily built a modern infrastructure on top of decades-old social justice institutions like the Highlander Center.”

. . . local connections and fast mobilization in response to police violence. More specifically:

“When George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer was captured on film, hundreds of organizations and thousands of activists were ready to launch protests in their cities. They pushed policy with local legislators and police departments and rallied people who hadn’t previously engaged in BLM protests. . . .”

One of the most compelling arguments for a decentralized, horizontal, or flat structure:

“There is no chairperson or candidate calling the shots in private or serving as a public rallying point. With no singular person to attack in tweets, President Donald Trump instead directed his ire and threats of violence at mostly peaceful protesters.

‘In terms of strategy — and this is very real that we have to be honest about this — it makes it harder for those who are against us to do what they did in the ‘60s, which is to target one leader,’ said Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund, a voter engagement nonprofit.”

BLM activists prefer “leaderful” to leaderless. Is it working? In some ways, definitely.

Barrón-López:

“Activists in cities all over the country are trading notes through the network as they pressure local officials to explore new public safety options, from doing away with police in schools to slashing budgets or reimagining police departments entirely.

Meanwhile, other portions of the movement are organizing bigger national actions. Woodard Henderson, along with the SEIU, the Fight for $15 advocacy group and other unions, orchestrated a strike for Black lives on Monday, with thousands of workers in more than 25 cities walking off the job.”

“But,” Barrón-López notes, “other national policy pushes growing out of the movement have inspired dissension within it.”

For example:

“One of the most widely known policy plans to come out of the Black Lives Matter movement is the “8 Can’t Wait” proposals from the racial justice group Campaign Zero. The package is composed of “restrictive use of force policies” for local police departments — including banning chokeholds, mandating de-escalation and warning before shooting — which the group argued would decrease killings.

. . . the release of ‘8 Can’t Wait’ in early June was met with swift criticism from a number of activists who felt the proposals did not go far enough in a climate where calls to ‘defund the police’ were gaining wider acceptance. Within a week, Campaign Zero co-founder Brittany Packnett Cunningham announced her departure from the organization in response to the backlash. Campaign Zero issued an apology on its website, saying its campaign ‘unintentionally detracted from efforts of fellow organizers invested in paradigmatic shifts that are newly possible in this moment.'”

To add to the complexity:

“The ‘8 Can’t Wait’ package has also faced opposition from the other direction, though: In Atlanta, the city council passed the package after the killing of Rayshard Brooks by police in a Wendy’s parking lot. But Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms — a Democratic vice presidential contender — vetoed the package, to the frustration of local activists.”

The New York Times reporting on Portland’s protests, “Cities in Bind as Turmoil Spreads Far Beyond Portland” makes me think more identifiable, individual leadership may be needed.

Again, some context. What are people protesting about in Portland?

“The latest catalyst was the deployment of federal law enforcement agents in Portland, Ore., whose militarized efforts to subdue protests around the federal courthouse have sparked mass demonstrations and nightly clashes there. They have also inspired new protests of solidarity in other cities, where people have expressed deep concern about the federal government exercising such extensive authority in a city that has made it clear it opposes the presence of federal agents.”

For example:

“In Oakland, what had been a peaceful protest led in part by a group of mothers proclaiming ‘Cops And Feds Off Our Streets’ devolved after dark as another set of protesters smashed windows at the county courthouse and lit a fire inside.”

The President is using images of nightly property damage and related violence to demean Democratic leaders and scare undecided voters.

Again, The Times:

“President Trump has seized on the scenes of national unrest — statues toppled and windows smashed — to build a law-and-order message for his re-election campaign, spending more than $26 million on television ads depicting a lawless dystopia of empty police stations and 911 answering services that he argues might be left in a nation headed by his Democratic rival, Joseph R. Biden Jr.

. . . The situation has left city leaders, now watching the backlash unfold on their streets, outraged and caught in the middle. Mayor Jenny Durkan of Seattle said in an interview Sunday that the city is in the middle of a self-fulfilling prophecy, with protesters infuriated by the federal presence in Portland smashing windows and setting fires, the very images of ‘anarchy’ that the president has warned about.”

Oakland’s mayor, Libby Schaaf, has been even more blunt:

‘I’m furious that Oakland may have played right into Donald Trump’s twisted campaign strategy. Images of a vandalized downtown is exactly what he wants to whip up his base and to potentially justify sending in federal troops that will only incite more unrest.'”

Biden’s campaign team doesn’t appear too worried about this because they believe the police issue is “being treated by many voters as a distraction by Mr. Trump from his faltering coronavirus pandemic response and the struggling economy.”

Scott Jennings, a veteran Republican strategist sees it differently, “If there is a danger for Democrats generically, it is if the Republicans are able to define them as being on the side of the anarchists in Portland.”

The Times adds, “For city officials, the challenge is more immediate than the November election — it is bringing an end to nights of clashes on their streets.”

The most recent protests add urgency to the leadership challenges:

“The focus on the federal agents in Portland has frustrated some activists who see the pushback against their presence as a distraction from the racial injustices that had been the focus of protests in May and June.

In Portland on Saturday night . . . some participants urged the marchers not to forget earlier protests against local police.

‘It’s complicated, it’s chaotic, and it’s a little hard for us to stay focused. We need to stay focused. We cannot forget this is also about the Portland Police Bureau.’ Kinsey Smyth told the crowd. ‘This is not about destruction, this is about rebuilding.'”

Illustrating confirmation bias, conservatives focus on the most violent protestors convinced they are the majority. Their more general criticisms of protestors demonstrate a depressing lack of appreciation for our nation’s history. Do they prefer the masses blissful apathy because they benefit from it?

BLM is an important extension of the American tradition of taking to the streets to highlight the glaring gaps between our stated ideals about equal opportunity, level playing fields, and most people’s daily realities.

BLM activists have made a positive difference and will continue to; especially, I think, if they reconsider their “leaderful” idealism and consider more conventional forms of organization.

But I’ll be happy to be proved wrong.

 

 

 

 

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