By James Taichi Collins
Black Lives Matter is arguably the most massive political movement since the civil rights era. A recent poll by Civics Analytics indicates that “15 million to 26 million people in the United States have participated in demonstrations over the death of George Floyd.” According to a Morning Consult national poll, the Black Lives Matter movement has a 61% favorability rating – up 24 points since 2017. Pew Research says the BlackLivesMatter hashtag has been tweeted almost 50 million times on Twitter from May 26 to June 7. Beyond these impressive statistics, the movement has prompted UCSC professor emerita and former Black Panther, Angela Davis, to remark that even she has “never witnessed sustained demonstrations of this size that are so diverse.” Today, no cause has lifted the public’s moral consciousness as much as Black Lives Matter has.
Despite such overwhelming support for BLM, political elites have stifled the movement and ignored its main demands. Yes, cities across the country have paid tribute by emblazoning the words “Black Lives Matter” across streets, and activists have succeeded in toppling statues of racist figures. While these symbolic gestures are undoubtedly critical in building public consciousness, we must ask ourselves: Where are the major political victories? Why have we seen so little progress in achieving the primary demands of the movement, such as defunding the police? What exactly is getting in the way of substantial policy changes?
Although the Democratic Party has paid lip service to Black Lives Matter, its nominee for president, Joe Biden, has outright refused to support defunding the police. When recently given a chance, the New York City Council – America’s most prominent bastion of progressive politics – rejected cuts to the police budget and resorted to smoke and mirrors to deceive the public. In Washington, D.C., which doesn’t have a single Republican on its Council, Mayor Bowser actually called for an increase in the police budget. Even in the city of George Floyd’s murder, the charter commission halted plans to disband Minneapolis’ police department. One of the rare exceptions was Seattle, where the council voted to cut the police budget by 14% ($3.5 million) for the remainder of 2020. But even Seattle’s legislative victory was a far cry from the 50% budget cut activists were demanding. Socialist City Councilmember Kshama Sawant – the only member that supported deeper cuts – suggested that her colleagues were already working to roll back even these minimal changes.
We find the same thing when we look at other calls for reform besides defunding the police. While most states across the country painted “Black Lives Matter” on their streets, only Colorado has moved to end qualified immunity, which shields law enforcement agencies from being held accountable. Other states have begrudgingly implemented more familiar tactics, like requiring body-cameras and implicit bias training. These are merely lukewarm responses, as studies suggest that they have little to no effect on reducing police violence. More robust and meaningful criminal justice reforms have yet to happen, as black bodies continue to fall victim to state-sanctioned terrorism.
Compare this situation to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which had nowhere near the level of public support that Black Lives Matter now enjoys. The 1963 March on Washington was the setting for Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Though this event is now recognized as one of the most memorable moments in U.S. history, before the march, only 23% of Americans had a favorable view of holding such a civil rights demonstration in the nation’s capital. When a 1966 Harris Poll asked white respondents if they felt “demonstrations by Negroes on civil rights have helped more or hurt more in advancement of Negro rights,” only 15% said they helped, while 85% said they hurt. Despite its comparatively weak level of public support, the Civil Rights Movement was able to secure a series of monumental legislative victories, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. At the time, President Johnson was well aware that these changes were taking place without great public enthusiasm. When signing the Civil Rights Act into law, Johnson admitted to an aide that he was committing political suicide, saying, “We [Democrats] have lost the South for a generation.”
So what made the Civil Rights Movement so successful, and why haven’t we seen the same kind of tangible results from the Black Lives Matter movement?
There is one possible explanation: unlike it did during the Civil Rights era, the United States government no longer cares about its international prestige and thus has no external incentive to meet Black Lives Matters’ demands.
Concurrent with the Civil Rights Movement, the United States was in the middle of the Cold War. Liberal Democrats like Truman, Kennedy, Johnson — and even Republicans like Eisenhower — were forced to act on civil rights not out of genuine moral concern for Black lives but rather to save face on the world stage. The widely televised civil rights protests – not the gross injustices that made them necessary – were considered harmful to the country’s veneer of moral superiority. As Mary Dudziak writes in her informative book, Cold War Civil Rights, early efforts to pass Civil Rights legislation by the political elite were, in large part, “motivated by a desire to placate foreign critics.” (p.251)
The Cold War was a war of ideas fought at a time when many African and Asian countries had only recently gained independence from their Western European colonizers. Many were deliberating whether to side with the Soviets or the U.S. bloc. Having images circulating of Black Americans’ violent suppression did not help the United States appeal to these newly formed nations that were primarily made up of people of color. The high profile terrorization of Black Americans made the Soviet case more attractive and served as a propaganda gift for the Communist cause.
In 1947, President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights reported that domestic civil rights’ status was a serious obstacle to achieving its foreign policy goals. Then-Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, stated that “racial discrimination in the United States remains a source of constant embarrassment to this Government in the day-to-day conduct of its foreign relations.” (Dudziak, p.101) Even a certifiable racist like Truman (who frequently used the N-word), recognized how important this issue was in promoting the United States’ image as a free and democratic nation. To whitewash America’s original sin, in the aftermath of World War II, Truman signed an executive order to desegregate the U.S. military. By today’s standards, this may seem like a very modest concession. But in the election year of 1948, when Truman faced threats of insurrection from Dixiecrats like Strom Thurmond, it was a politically risky move. His willingness to take this political gamble was indicative of this more substantial threat from overseas.
Of course, these attempts to “clean house” domestically were not enough to restore the country’s international prestige. The Soviet Union and its sympathizers continued to highlight the immorality and viciousness of institutionalized racial discrimination in the United States. The Soviets often deflected critiques of Stalin’s own human rights violations with propaganda catchphrases like, “and you are lynching Negroes!” In 1949, the U.S. embassy in Moscow reported that the Soviet press consistently highlighted racial discrimination in the U.S., “seeking to build up a picture of an America in which the Negroes are brutally downtrodden with no hope of improving their status under the existing form of government.” (Dudziak, p.38) Initially, President Eisenhower refrained from publicly endorsing the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. It wasn’t until images of the Arkansas National Guard blocking nine black students from entering a segregated high school were broadcast around the world, that the Republican president sent in federal paratroopers to escort the “Little Rock 9.” Referring to the Little Rock crisis, Eisenhower recognized that, “It could continue to feed the mill of Soviet propagandists who by word and picture were telling the world of the ‘racial terror’ in the United States.” (Dudziak, p.130-131) Illustrating this, then-Ambassador to the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge, wrote to President Eisenhower that they “lost several votes on the Chinese Communist item because of Little Rock.” (Dudziak, p.131) James Baldwin even remarked in his classic The Fire Next Time that “Most of the Negroes I know do not believe that this immense concession [to desegregate schools] would ever have been made if it had not been for the competition of the Cold War.” (p.87)
Concern over Communist propaganda continued when Kennedy succeeded Eisenhower. 1960, the year of Kennedy’s election, is known as the “Year of Africa” because seventeen African nations gained independence from the colonial powers. Although Kennedy had little interest in Civil Rights when he took office, he was troubled by how the foreign press covered such atrocities as the savage beating of the Freedom Riders by White Supremacist mobs. Before the onslaught of reporting, Kennedy had no sympathy for the Freedom Riders, whom he felt were “embarrassing him and the country on the eve of the meeting in Vienna with [Soviet Premier] Khrushchev.” (Dudziak, p. 158 -159) From a public relations perspective, Robert Kennedy was also concerned about the demonstrations against segregation, saying, “It’s bad for the country. It’s bad for us around the world.” (Dudziak, p.179) Only after footage of the Birmingham protests spread across the globe, showcasing children being firehosed and attacked by police dogs, did then-Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, push for Civil Rights legislation. “Hostile propaganda,” Rusk warned, “might be expected to hurt us more than it has hurt us until now.” (Dudziak, p.185)
This trend continued into the Johnson administration and ended when the Civil Rights Movement started to shift towards Black Power, Class struggle, and anti-Imperialism. Once Martin Luther King, Jr. condemned the Vietnam War in his famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech and launched the Poor People’s Campaign, the movement became a threat to capitalism and was shut down by liberals in the North. Prominent Democrats began to vilify him as a “traitor.” He was virtually excommunicated by LBJ. And the FBI under J. Edger Hoover was tapped to send undercover agents to infiltrate and sabotage the Poor People’s Campaign in cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Washington. (Garrow, p.607)
However, for a brief period from 1960 to 1968, the Civil Rights Movement had a series of momentous victories in large part due to earlier efforts to leverage the nation’s concern over its international prestige. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, the NAACP and the Civil Rights Congress petitioned the United Nations with now-famous speeches like “We Charge Genocide.” The Southern Christian Leadership Conference threatened to appeal to the Commission on Human Rights of the U.N. to pressure Eisenhower to take action against lynchings in the South. (Garrow, p.118) These actions led to the movement’s peak in the 1960s when influential figures like Malcolm X and James Baldwin made trips overseas and embarrassed the U.S. by speaking out about the actual state of racial discrimination back home. Displays of international solidarity accompanied the 1963 March on Washington as regional protests occurred at several U.S. embassies and consulates. (Dudziak, p.192) According to Civil Rights leader James Farmer, even the Freedom Riders intentionally tried to attract white supremacist mobs in the hopes that it would create “a situation that was headline news all over the world, and affected the nation’s image abroad. An international crisis, that was our strategy.” (Garrow, p.156)
Now, compare the context of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s to that of today. Is there a Cold War going on? Are we fighting a “communist threat”? Can a country that elected a TV reality show host as president be expected to care about its image around the world?
In Realpolitik, political elites do not prioritize the welfare of their citizens, but rather, the national security of the state. With no pressing national security threats like the one posed by the Soviets during the Civil Rights era, U.S. political elites no longer give a shit. As such, they don’t care if the international media chooses to broadcast images of Black people getting beaten and killed by police. They certainly don’t lose sleep over the near-constant onslaught of state-sanctioned violence being inflicted upon Black and Brown communities. The Cold War is over, and America rules the world. International prestige is no longer a priority.
So what can the Black Lives Matter movement do now? As much as we can learn from the Civil Rights leaders of the 1960s, we must also realize that we do not benefit from the same political context, and thus, the same tactics of mass marches and nonviolent direct action may not yield the same results. Kwame Ture may have been right — “In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience.”
Lacking external pressure, the movement must re-evaluate its tactics. Violence may seem like a morally and even legally defensible option. (For example, a legal defense for armed struggle against police brutality may be found in Protocol 1 of the Geneva Conventions, which sees the legitimacy of “armed conflicts in which peoples are fighting against colonial domination, alien occupation or racist regimes” as international conflicts. Thus, armed self-defense carried out by black liberation movements in the United States could be justified under international law.) Violence, however, is not a realistic option because, tactically, it would lead to an even more crushing political disaster. Quite simply, when it comes to violent confrontation, a civilian movement is no match for the increasingly militarized might of the police and other law enforcement agencies. The NYPD alone has $6 billion at its disposal, an amount larger than the combined military budgets of North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela. As Noam Chomsky states, “when confrontation shifts to the arena of violence, it’s the toughest and most brutal who win—and we know who that is.”
For tactical reasons, the movement must remain nonviolent, but it can re-imagine and redefine the scope of nonviolence. As organizers and activists, we have yet to deploy everything in our collective toolbox. For instance, the Black Lives Matter movement may now be powerful enough to attempt a general strike in certain cities. Since the current administration no longer cares about international embarrassment, such mass strikes are unlikely to humiliate the U.S. in the world’s eyes. However, if BLM can exert enough economic stress to approximate the threat to U.S. national security felt during the Civil Rights Movement, it can force the political class to move on specific demands, such as defunding the police.
Another short-term strategy could be electoral politics. For example, next year, the New York City Council will have 35 open seats. Defunding the police could be turned into a litmus test for any self-proclaimed progressive or Socialist running for seats on that council. Candidates pledging to cut the police budget by at least 50% could join together to form a Black Lives Matter voting bloc. The recent congressional primary win by Ferguson activist Cori Bush – arguably the most significant political upset of 2020 – demonstrates the current electoral strength of Black Lives Matter.
Though progress has been slow, BLM does have one advantage that the Civil Rights Movement did not have – overwhelming public support. Although it will be an uphill battle in an age when international prestige is no longer relevant, if we can depart from traditional tactics and dare to try something innovative, the movement could succeed in shifting policies as well as mindsets. As Assata Shakur writes, “it is our duty to win.”
Baldwin, J. (1992). The Fire Next Time (Reissue ed.). Vintage.
Dudziak, M. L. (2011). Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Politics and Society in Modern America (73)) (Revised ed.). Princeton University Press.
Garrow, D. (2004). Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Reprint ed.). William Morrow Paperbacks