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From protests to progress: Can Black Lives Matter become an effective agent of change?

Political scientist Dr. James Taylor. photo: john zipperer

After Black Lives Matter activists disrupted a speech by candidate Bernie Sanders, one activist told reporters that she didn’t do it to get attention from white people. That left some people scratching their heads. Wasn’t getting widespread attention what protest movements are all about? What’s going on with this movement? And what does it mean for Americans — African-American and otherwise?

To get insight into the movement, we spoke with Dr. James Taylor. Taylor is a professor of political science and the director of the African American Studies Department at the University of San Francisco, and he is a lecturer in African American and African diaspora studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also the author of the highly regarded 2011 book, Black Nationalism in the United States: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama.

In the past couple months, Black Lives Matter has attracted major attention, with BLM stopping the Bay Bridge, Mayor Ed Lee has been shouted down at public appearances, and even regarding Beyonce’s performance during the Super Bowl half-time. For people watching all of this and wondering what’s happening, could you explain?

Part of what’s happening is sort of a breakthrough moment for an emergent generation of African-American leaders in the same tradition of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, the Black Panther party in Oakland. They are [responding to] the needs of the community in crisis.

The Black Lives Matter movement is largely organized by women and a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered cohort. Black Lives Matter is a many-layered thing, and a couple of the layers have to do with gender and sexuality, and prison politics and the disappearance of black men; there’s been national media reports about the disappearance of 2.2 million black men. If the mass incarceration regime was not so impactful in black lives, you wouldn’t have the movement marching on their behalf; but if you did, you would have more African-American men participating in it. Clearly you would have more young men from the same age cohort who are most affected by the mass incarceration regime. Those young men are gone. I’m wondering to what extent, if these men who are absent are the traditional male heterosexual leaders who have come up every generation, if there wouldn’t be more of an internal conflict among women who would have to go against these men.

That’s what Black Lives Matter has done. It’s cleared the path of the older generation to the political parties; they’ve taken on specific leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. They are filling the vacuum that is created by the disappearance of black men. And without that, they would not be leading.

You have talked about this as a reaction against the black church.

Generally, from the plantation economy all the way through every major movement up through [Martin Luther] King, the black preacher played a significant role. Black Lives Matter [confronts and is] reproducing what they see as the [leadership] of the black church. They are interested in undermining this tradition of leadership as much as the white oppression they see through police brutality.

Many people are not aware of the LGBTQ element of the Black Lives Matter movement. Once they do find out, it runs headlong against the long, organic ideology of black Protestantism. So Black Lives Matter is at war with the black church, because of its own commitment to a democratic, desexualized, and desacralized — to undue its religious nature — political moment.

In your view, what can or should Black Lives Matter activists do now that they have people’s attention?

They should pick up the books of the Black Panthers and realize their true credibility in the communities [was] testing for sickle cell, food programs, even the women-infant-children programs. They had amazing programs. What J. Edgar Hoover saw as the most threatening part of the Black Panthers movement was those programs.

What people see in Black Lives Matter is they only raise the issues and don’t engage in the transformative cultural politics — in music, in art, and then the political follows.

Homosexuality generically is alien to black Protestant traditions. Black Lives Matter as a lesbian and gay movement, if it is clearly that, stands to confront the same obstacles as these other movements where black Americans never embraced it because it was alien to their black Protestant traditions.

Huey Newton said the more Black Panthers started to talk revolution [and] in particular when the Black Panthers began to criticize the black church, “We defected from the community.”

If Black Lives Matter wants to have relevance, it cannot attack the black community at its core. They cannot attack the black church in ways that are out of norms of the black community.They should learn from what the Panthers did well. That is still doable. My son plays basketball in Oakland; there was so much food at this school to feed the community, they were lined up around the corner. I’m talking about truckloads of fresh, healthy food. If Black Lives Matter wants to have credibility, it has to either embrace the community organizations where they are or produce its own that will substitute for the black church. In other words, Black Lives Matter would have to become almost a clearinghouse political and social force in black lives, on the ground level where people are, where people can see lives changing as a result of their programs.

What can the community point to in general that the Black Lives Matter movement has benefited them in terms of concrete, kitchen-table questions about resources?

They are definitely impacting the attitudes about mass incarceration. Many of the Black Lives Matter leaders are going to make personal decisions that will eventually lead the movement still on paper in place, and these people will get positions as teachers and in think tanks, and they’ll eventually disappear. They will be resented and they will resent the black community.

Do others outside of the African-American community have a role to play in this movement, particularly on a local scale?

They find themselves struggling with the same issues of the last generation. The Black Power movement was the breaking point. What is the role of white liberals, for radicals in our movements? In the 1960s, the answer was they have to get out.

Black Lives Matter was originally an internal community discussion that got media attention and wasn’t expecting to manage the conversation. If it has any chance of going forward in terms of white allies, it will have to figure out what it thinks the role of white allies are. To maintain credibility even with whites, they will have to find some credibility in the black community as anything more than as an entire [group of whiners].

I’m sort of torn about that. It’s too abstract — like the concept of racism is too abstract to mobilize people around it. To mobilize white people around issues of white privilege [is too abstract]. It would be advantageous to mobilize around organizations of similar interest, coalitions. “No permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests” has to be the way Black Lives Matter goes forward to have sustainability for over a decade.

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