Wednesday night, just minutes before the deadline, the 30-year-old civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson filed to run for mayor of his hometown of Baltimore, and, in coordination with the The Baltimore Sun, Washington Post, and The New York Times, announced his campaign on Medium. The announcement, which had been rumored for a few months, comes at a vital time for the broader Black Lives Matter movement of which McKesson has become the most visible face.
While it started as a Facebook hashtag that gained currency after neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman was acquitted for shooting unarmed teen Trayvon Martin to death in Sanford, Fla. in Feb. 2013, Black Lives Matter—a plea not that only black lives matter, or that black lives matter more, but simply that black lives matter, too—has become a rallying cry to protest near-daily fatal police interactions with African-Americans. It exploded when unarmed teen Michael Brown was shot to death in Ferguson, Mo. a year and a half later. Brown’s death led to protests in Ferguson; those protests were met with stunning force from police; and the televised police response compelled Mckesson to drive to the St. Louis suburb before quitting his school administration job in Minneapolis, Mn. and fully committing to protesting himself. With every publicized instance of a black life taken by a police officer around the country, Black Lives Matter’s popularity and influence grew, and as one of its most prolific chroniclers and then its biggest media star, Mckesson’s popularity and influence grew alongside. In the last two weeks alone, he has appeared on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah to talk about Black Lives Matter and in Stephen Colbert’s chair on The Late Show to talk about white privilege.
Even as Mckesson’s star rises, though, there are fewer protests than before, fewer Black Lives Matter protesters at those protests, and fewer media outlets covering them. A year and a half after Brown’s death and following winter weather, media saturation, fatigue, and the public becoming increasingly desensitized to watching people being shot to death by cops on video, there’s been a decline in Black Lives Matter’s influence. In November 2014, two Cleveland police officers drove up to a 12-year-old black boy named Tamir Rice playing in a park with a toy gun, and shot him dead at close range. The execution was captured on video, but in Dec. 2015, a grand jury did not indict the officers. Protests in response were subdued. Last month, Flint, Mich. made news when the nation caught wind that the state had been poisoning its impoverished, majority black population with contaminated water for over a year and a half. There were a couple of sparse protests in Lansing, but not much else.
The momentum Black Lives Matter was able to gather and harness has dissipated, and it certainly feels like the movement is dying. One person with close ties to Black Lives Matter and Mckesson recently took it even further, telling me simply, “Movement is dead.”
If the Black Lives Matter public protest movement is dying or dead, that doesn’t mean it had no successes, but to identify them, you have to identify its goals. This is difficult, because Black Lives Matter is a broad rallying cry but also the name of a discrete movement created and led by three women—Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza—in Oakland after Martin’s death. Shortly thereafter, they created an organization with the same name and chapters all over the country. Mckesson, an avatar of the broader movement, works independently of the organization and operates as the face of a smaller faction called We The Protesters. This has led to lots of infighting, largely built around clashing egos as well as disagreements on goals and how to best accomplish them.
The organization stated its purpose on its website ...
Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.
... while Johnetta Elzie, a woman Mckesson met in St. Louis who became one of his best friends, protesting partners, and now closest advisors, succinctly stated their goal when the two were profiled in The New York Times Magazine.
“Our demand is simple,” she said. “Stop killing us.”
This demand has not been met. According to the Guardian, police killed 303 black people—about one every 29 hours—last year, at twice the rate of Hispanics and two and half times as often as whites. Per the Washington Post, police shot 990 people to death total last year and 83 people so far this year, which puts law enforcement right on pace with 2015. They’re killing Americans at the same rates, same as always. In the starkest sense, measuring success by lives lost, Black Lives Matter has largely failed. But if the purpose of Black Lives Matter was to bring awareness to ongoing police brutality, it’s been successful. Just before Thanksgiving last year, Chicago’s police department became the target of national attention and outrage after footage was released of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald being shot 16 times and killed by officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014. That attention and outrage led to the firing of the Chicago’s police superintendent and promises of reform—the kind of thing that hasn’t always happened in that city. Through its focus on police brutality, Black Lives Matter has also brought awareness on broader state violence against black communities and the mechanisms that enact this violence.
A month ago, my colleague Hamilton Nolan wrote a piece about how the tax code is the main force driving a wedge between the richest and poorest Americans, and how the Republican Party exists to allow the richest Americans to manipulate it to their advantage. Another such force is the student loan system. Another such force is the national minimum wage. They are all in different ways expressions of a free-market ideology that argues that the best way to help the poor is to help the rich get richer, sweeping money to the wealthy at the expense of the impoverished, a disproportionate number of them minorities and immigrants. This ideology is expressed as law; the law functions to abet theft.
This theft is, at it has always been in the United States, a function of white supremacy, a political system within which those who fit the ever-shifting definition of white enjoy more recognized human and Constitutional rights than those who don’t, thriving at the expense of others. The United States was built not just on the right of whites to land and to black-created wealth but to black bodies, which functioned as capital. Even after abolition, Jim Crow laws were designed to give the sanction of the state to violence against black citizens for the purpose of upholding white supremacy and the existing economic order. Here’s Isabel Wilkerson describing their effects in her book The Warmth of Other Suns:
Across the South, someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929, according to the 1933 book The Tragedy of Lynching, for such alleged crimes as “stealing hogs, horse-stealing, poisoning mules, jumping labor contract, suspected of killing cattle, boastful remarks” or “trying to act like a white person.” Sixty-six were killed after being accused of “insult to a white person.” One was killed for stealing seventy-five cents.
Laws that made things like quitting on the job, “acting white,” or insulting white people punishable by death were designed to enforce the divide between whites and the blacks who once occupied a servant undercaste and to deny those blacks rights granted to them under the Constitution after the abolition of slavery. And even after the Voting Rights Act ended this form of de jure white supremacy, the thing itself endured. A direct line follows from slavery to our present system of racially targeted law enforcement and mass incarceration, along all points of which the law has been used as a tool to defend the prerogatives of a racially-defined caste, governing the distribution of power and wealth. Where the law abets theft, those who enforce the law do as well.
In enforcing the law—in serving on the front lines of an ongoing if undeclared war the United States wages on its own citizens—the police enforce the status quo. Police officers brutalize and shoot people unjustly, destroying their future prospects and those of their families; they also arrest people unjustly, and in service of unjust laws, with the same effect. It’s unsurprising that those tasked with carrying out a kind of economic violence turn to physical violence as well.
One measure of Black Lives Matter’s success is the increasing access to information the public is enjoying. Before it, there were few major databases dedicated to tracking police brutality, which left the public without a vital index of how communities are policed. The Justice Department’s investigation into Brown’s death wouldn’t have happened without Black Lives Matters protests, and that investigation showed how Ferguson’s police officers, as a matter of policy, acted as pirates who exclusively targeted minorities to pillage, funding further pillaging. It was a spectacular and arresting example of what is happening in minority communities all over the country. Here’s another example, from The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates:
When the Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson examined incarceration rates in Chicago in his 2012 book, Great American City, he found that a black neighborhood with one of the highest incarceration rates (West Garfield Park) had a rate more than 40 times as high as the white neighborhood with the highest rate (Clearing). “This is a staggering differential, even for community-level comparisons,” Sampson writes. “A difference of kind, not degree.”
Today, white households have 16 times the wealth as black ones. There are many reasons for this; one is the racially targeted enforcement of racially targeted laws, which provide a figurative and literal barrier to the middle class. The poverty and high incarceration rates of West Garfield Park are the product of mutually reinforcing policies. Policing is not separate from widening economic inequality; it is integral to widening economic inequality.
Those policies are now an issue in presidential politics. Just as Occupy Wall Street forced wealth inequality onto the national agenda, so has Black Lives Matter forced police reform there. Barack Obama has addressed police brutality. Black Lives Matter protesters have interrupted presidential candidates as different from each other as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. DeRay Mckesson and other activists have met with Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Attention is being paid.
Of the remaining viable candidates, only Sanders seems sincerely interested in police reform, but his plan lacks real specifics, and anyway, it doesn’t matter. If Black Lives Matter has a fatal flaw, this is it. The movement has successfully captured international headlines, gotten the attention of nation’s first black president, and made its issue a national one. But no one working from the White House can enact or introduce police reform, even if they wanted to. It’s a local issue.
There are over 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, between the local, state, and federal governments. There is no overarching central organization or structure to which they’re beholden; almost all work autonomously. There is no mechanism in place with which to implement top-down change even if the public demands it, and it’s not clear it will. (The white supremacist police state as it exists now, after all, is best understood as an expression of the greater public will.)
Black Lives Matter is a cultural movement, even an awakening, but it holds little power without local legislative support and the actual control over budgets and bureaucracy that translates abstraction into policy. A run for the Baltimore mayoralty represents the next step for the Black Lives Matter movement, when activists and those sympathetic to it run for and win office at the local and state levels. Only then will there be any change. As Buzzfeed’s Adam Serwer recently wrote on politicians preying upon the country’s least powerful constituents, “There is no progress that cannot be rolled back if those who benefit from it lack the power to maintain it.”
In an early effort to present himself as more than a single-issue candidate, perhaps, Mckesson only mentions police once in his campaign announcement, and doesn’t speak about Freddie Gray or police reform at all. But he’ll be judged chiefly on his vision for righting Baltimore policing practices, much of which he and his group of protesters outlined last summer in a project called Campaign Zero. Not much is known about the motivation or seriousness of his run, but whether he’s running for office or attention or something else doesn’t much matter. His presence will make Black Lives Matter and police reform a more urgent issue in a major American city than before. Candidates will have to suggest visions either in line with or defined against his, which they’ll then be judged on and for which they’ll be held accountable should they hold office. This is the model, and the number of people who eventually follow it is the metric by which the success of Black Lives Matter will ultimately be judged.
It isn’t a national candidate vowing to end inequality and, with it, racism. It’s better than that. It might even work.
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