Black Lives Matter and related racial justice groups protesting across the United States since the killing of George Floyd face a more difficult challenge than the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the antiwar movement of the early 1970s did — they need to transition from protest to policymaking without losing momentum. Comparatively, the earlier movements had it much easier. A major focus of the civil rights movement was outlawing discrimination in public facilities and ensuring the right to vote, and the goal of the anti-war movement was to bring the troops home. While difficult to carry out, these goals were clear.
There are other groups, for example, the NAACP, Race Matters, Friends and Peoples Defense that have been visible at some of Columbia’s street activities over the past month that will make policy agreement more difficult. Even what to call the events suggests that 2020 is different than previous years. Are they protests, demonstrations, riots, teach-ins, marches, rallies or social gatherings? Some of each it appears, depending on the particular day and location.
Black Lives Matter might be more of a slogan, a protest chant, a fundamental belief and a yard sign than it is a political organization. The movement was formed after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013, and it gained national attention protesting the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. While there are currently 16 chapters in major cities, with none in Missouri, Black Lives Matter is not a unified organization with a leadership hierarchy. In fact, the movement’s aim is not to have national leaders but to promote the nurturing of local community leaders.
The concerns, but not the goals, of street activities are clear: to prioritize eliminating racism, to reduce police brutality and abuse particularly toward black men, to highlight more subtle forms of racism such as microaggressions, and to spotlight the legacy of slavery on artifacts in public places.
The nationwide protests have affected American culture, such as the elimination of objectionable images on some consumer products, removing Confederate flags from NASCAR events and proposing to rename military bases presently named after Confederates.
The mobilization of younger people and newcomers to public protests will have a long-term impact, if they stay involved in the political process. All participants have certainly heard repeatedly that registering and actually voting is a minimum requirement of citizenship.
The 2020 anti-racism events have already had an impact on American public opinion. Polls show support for police reforms has increased and that white Americans increasingly see police behavior towards Black people to be too aggressive and discriminatory. Two weeks ago, an Associated Press-NORC poll found that 70% of respondents believe that police officers involved in injury or fatal misconduct cases are “treated too leniently by the justice system.” Forty-one percent felt this way in 2015.
Overall, 48% of Americans believe “police violence against the public is a serious problem,” up from the 32% in 2015. Similarly, 39% of white Americans say police violence against civilians is an “extremely or very serious problem,” compared to the 19% of white Americans who agreed in 2015.
Less than a third of all Americans say that police departments need minor (25%) or no changes (5%) compared with the 29% calling for a “complete overhaul” and 40% saying they need “major change.” Black respondents are about twice as likely to call for a major overhaul than whites are (57% compared to 26%).
A majority of both Democrats and Republicans favor seven out of 10 reforms but differ mostly on reducing funding of police with only 7% of Republicans and 41% of Democrats supporting reducing police funding. The survey did not ask about “defunding the police,” which is frequently mentioned at street activities.
For the 2020 anti-racism street events to have major and lasting impact on American public policy, activists need to focus their proposals and appeal to the appropriate policymakers. Most importantly they must identify and work with allies. Protesting is confrontational; policymaking is coalition building.
The 2020 protests are certainly the cause of the House of Representatives considering and passing a police reform bill. With the Senate controlled by the Republicans, it is unlikely that major police reform, such as eliminating police immunity and requiring a national registry of “the use of force,” will pass.
Black Lives Matter supporters should be working now to shape the Platform Committee of the Democratic National Committee.
The Rev. Al Sharpton announced a march in Washington, D.C., to take place Aug. 28, the 57th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, to “restore and recommit that dream.” This would be a natural venue for Black Lives Matter to mobilize supporters.
Many police reforms, as well as education proposals, are state and local issues. The 2020 anti-racism activists should reach out to Missouri’s Legislative Black Caucus and the local NAACP and Minority Men’s Network to gain support for shared ideas.
While “defunding the police” and “abolishing the police” seem to have become favorite mantras of 2020 street activists, those expressions will probably have to be put in storage as did “Hell no, we won’t go” and “Draft resisters, Unite” during the anti-Vietnam war movement because they generate opposition to the main goal. My first year in college while I was working on campus education reforms, a professor told me “politics is the art of the possible.” I didn’t know exactly what he meant but disliked it. Fifty years later, I still dislike it, but I understand what he meant. Social culture and politics are a complex web. The challenge for the 2020 anti-racist movement is to keep an eye on influencing both of them.