The Limits of “Black Lives Matter” as Slogan & Movement

The “Where Do We Go From Here” moment has arrived. Is there a way the movement can bring real pressure, or is it destined for a dead end?


As a slogan/hashtag/rallying cry, Black Lives Matter has been extraordinarily successful in unifying people and putting a lot of focus on the crimes of the police. Even though the pace of murders by police does not appear to have slowed, it’s at least encouraging that names are finally being named, and there are some prosecutions occurring that would not have occurred in the absence of the movement. The “Black Lives Matter” phrase itself has a lot of rhetorical force, and its spread has generally been tremendous. But it seems as if the movement is spinning its wheels a bit, uncertain of how to proceed in order to reach its goals, which also remain undefined. It has turned to somewhat bizarre tactics, like regularly protesting Bernie Sanders rallies. And it has produced a powerful public rememberance and grieving process for victims of police, but so far we don’t know how to actually reduce the number of victims. I don’t want to trivialize the movement’s gains or tell it how to run itself, but I want to observe a couple of core weaknesses that limit the likelihood of its success.

First, if we analyze what it means to protest that “Black Lives Matter,” I think it ironically concedes too much power to white people. Black lives obviously matter to people with black lives, and obviously do not matter much to the police. The demand here is that the police recognize the fact that black people are correct in insisting that their lives matter, and for the police to begin to behave as if this is so.

The difference between multiple meanings of “matter” makes this a bit confusing, since “matter” can refer to both personal dignity and empirical social significance. Dignity is self-created and cannot be taken or given. Significance measures my worth according to the opinions of others. “I matter” and “I matter” can have two different connotations, one true and one false, even given the same set of facts. I do not matter (because I am insignificant and powerless in my society) but I matter (because I nevertheless have dignity.) The Black Lives Matter slogan attempts to imply both the dignity meaning (Black people have dignity no matter what) and the significance meaning (Black people ought to be treated as having significance), one being descriptive and one being aspirational.

Yet in both these respects, the Black Lives Matter slogan itself becomes a demand for recognition from white people. Dignity should be measured personally and not by the opinions of others. And significance should not be asked for, but built, since asking for an increase in significance reaffirms and legitimizes the power of those who  claim the right to determine social significance. But a Black Lives Matter protest requests these things. “I matter, and I demand you acknowledge that I matter, which you currently do not do.” That kind if demand requires the demander to have strong interest in the opinion of the demandee. The Black Lives Matter slogan isn’t being directed at black people, who already know that fact. It’s a demand that someone else affirm the dignity and worth of black people. It seems to be begging the state/white people/the police.

A protest demanding recognition of dignity is somewhat odd. If I am, say, abused and demeaned by someone, who treats me as if I have no worth, is the best way to assert my worth to stand outside of his house with a sign saying “I have worth”? Most would probably admit that this implies the abuser is the one with the power to determine my worth, when my worth exists independent of what my abuser thinks. Of course, it will be replied that “Black Lives Matter” intends precisely to insist that worth exists independent of the opinions of power; it is saying that “black lives matter whether you like it or not.” But if that is the case, who are the signs and hashtags directed at convincing?

(By the way, I feel the same about the wearing of Sunday clothing and the holding of “I Am A Man” signs during the first civil rights movement. The natty suits were supposed to persuade white people that black people were clean, dignified Americans. I don’t want to say the tactic shouldn’t have been used, since the struggle was an urgent one and effectiveness was important. But there was something to Malcolm X’s critique of the civil rights struggle, that it was asking instead of taking.)

Instead of a humble request for white people to admit black dignity, then, it might be better to orient a movement around exactly what its real demands are. In the case of Black Lives Matter, I take that to be more along the lines of “End Racist Police Violence.” That doesn’t demand any kind of recognition, because recognition is (1) merely symbolic and (2) not even a desirable symbolic concession. Ending racist police violence is very specific. Success cannot be faked. With Black Lives Matter, those in power can say “I hereby declare that black lives now matter.” Have you therefore won? If we all sing a song together about how much we believe one another matters, will we have changed the situation that first brought this all about? Absolutely not.

Among liberal and left-wing activists, there’s sometimes a suspicion of creating demands. This tendency seems to have solidified during the “demandless” Occupy movement, but it has its roots in the 1960’s, like the “Demand the Impossible” graffiti of the French May ’68 student movement. The suspicion comes from the same impulse Malcolm X had: if you demand something, you’re acknowledging that someone else is the one who has the power to give it to you. You are, to use a fashionable meaningless academic verb, “reifying” their power.

As I’ve indicated, there’s something valuable in this impulse. Practically speaking, however, it can be suicide, especially when you’re not actually building something instead. If you want to reject the ability of the “power structure” to decide whether you win, then you have to be building some alternative form of power, or else you will simply be resigning yourself to being crushed. This was the civil rights movement’s response to Malcolm: Okay then, how are you going to build black political power? And it was Malcolm’s weakness that he didn’t have a good answer. His own political organizations foundered; rhetoric about self-defense will only carry you so far. That’s not completely fair, since if Malcolm had lived, he might have managed to create something meaningful. And in fact, the Black Panthers can be seen to have embodied what Malcolm advocated: a self-defense organization that provides aid to communities (medical and childcare), keeps people safe by resisting the police, and terrifies the establishment. But the Black Panthers were destroyed, in large part due to government infiltration and suppression, though also partly because of inherent weaknesses in their philosophy, poor organization, and self-defeating acts. You have to be very good at what you’re doing in order to shun the entire process of making demands.

In the case of Black Lives Matter, though, a “no demands” defense of their current direction does not really work. As I pointed out, they’ve already indicated their willingness to make demands. The whole movement is built on a demand, a demand for black lives to matter. So it might as well make its demands concrete, and insisting on meaningful differences in the real world.

Thinking of things that can be asked for is not difficult. Halve the prison population within five years. Drastic changes to the sentencing structure to reduce future sentences for all crimes. Decriminalize all drugs, massive new funding for diversion and treatment programs.The end of law enforcement officers’ qualified immunity from lawsuits. A nationwide ban on criminal record questions on job applications. The extensive redistribution of wealth by race, so that white households no longer have an average net worth 13 times that of black households. Nationwide debt forgiveness for poor people. A basic income. Guaranteed parity of school funding. Citizen oversight committees for every local police force, with the power to fire officers.

“If BLM is about black people, it needs to expand beyond policing, and if it’s about policing, it needs to expand beyond black people.”

In fact, just end the police. Break up police forces into their component functions, so that they are no longer an enormous violent Leviathan. Give the investigative functions to courts, have a traffic agency handle traffic offenses, let trained professionals deal with the mentally ill so that the police don’t end up putting bullets in them. The cops with the badges and the guns should be a tiny group, used only in true violent emergencies. Stop having cops show up where medics or social workers are what’s necessary.

Demand some of these. None of them. Any of them. But if the movement reorients itself around pushes for some actual goals, it will at least have the chance of accomplishing something, and won’t lose steam. Demanding that a long-shot socialist Democrat start tweeting the slogan might be achievable, and might also even be helpful. (I understand why the left should demand that the left-wing candidate have a good race platform, though excessive disproportionate, hostile attention to Bernie seems like it will do nobody any good.) But even assuming the maximum level of possible impact for that tactic, it is still many steps removed from any actual underlying improvement in the society.

If the movement is focused on policing, it also needs to move beyond Black Lives Matter to include a wider swath of victims. I understand why BLM has reacted with visceral hostility to anyone who replies that “All Lives Matter.” After all, during a protest about the fact that black people are being discounted, it must be infuriating to see white people immediately expand the group under discussion to include themselves. Nevertheless, it does need expanding, perhaps to “all oppressed lives.” Otherwise, where are Native American lives? Disabled people’s lives? What about police victimization of the homeless, like the death of Kelly Thomas? The police have many targets, and while black people might suffer disproportionately, it is important to find a way to incorporate the death of Robert Saylor, the man with Down’s syndrome whom police attacked and killed in a movie theater. (I explained this point more here.)

It’s also acceptable to say that Black Lives Matter is not a policing protest, but a protest about the lives of black people. I think at the moment it tries to be both. But if it’s specifically about black people, then there are other issues than policing it needs to address. The wealth gap is an important one of these. So is the continuation of job and housing discrimination. So is unequal access to healthcare and groceries.

So, if BLM is about black people, it needs to expand beyond policing, and if it’s about policing, it needs to expand beyond black people. Of course, my own preference is for it to be both of these things and more, to integrate itself into a broad left-wing movement that pushes for the elimination racist violence by the state and the radical rearrangement of the economy to eliminate the hideous excesses of the rich and make sure that people of nonwhite races are not disproportionately consigned to struggle and debt.

Let me emphasize again that I do not want to chastize or instruct Black Lives Matter. I only want to make a prediction, which is that simply mobilizing a large number of people under the banner, rallying them regularly in American cities and chanting the slogan, will not produce useful outcomes. It will be tempting to believe that the movement is winning, because more people are paying attention and Hillary is meeting with them and Bernie has put up a good web page. But paying attention towards what? Meeting towards what? If a plan is formulated, if a vision of the ideal world is articulated, then we might begin to take small steps in its direction. Otherwise, it will be difficult to sustain momentum indefinitely. How many deaths will be stomached before the chant for dignity morphs into a demand to finally end the police?

Author: Nathan J. Robinson

is the editor of Current Affairs.

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