Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Haymarket Books, 2016), and assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University. The widely-acclaimed book surveys the historical and contemporary ravages of racism and persistence of structural inequality, arguing that this struggle against police violence holds the potential to reignite a broader push for Black liberation. Activist and scholar Cornel West called her book “the best analysis we have of the #BlackLivesMatter moment.” The movement, which emerged under the first African-American president, faces a new situation with the election of an openly racist and xenophobic president, Donald Trump. Ashley Smith interviewed her in late November to discuss the legacy of the Obama era and the prospects for struggle under these new unexpected circumstances.
We have to start the interview with the disastrous election of Donald Trump. It will shape the politics of a whole new period in the US and indeed the world. One of the striking factors was the decline in the Black vote for the Democrats and Hillary Clinton. Why was Obama not able to mobilize the Black vote in support of Clinton on the same scale as he did in 2008 and 2012? What does this mean about Clinton and her policies?
The election of Trump is a catastrophe. And it’s the fault of Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment whose policies were so bad that they depressed turnout from their own base. That alone seemed to tip the scales to Trump. One of the ironies of this whole mess is that out of all constituencies, the Black vote was the most secure for Clinton. In the end, 89 percent of the Black vote went for her; that was down from 93 percent for Obama in 2012. Given the scale of inequality that defines much of Black life in the United States, I think Clinton and the Democrats are lucky that they got such a high percentage; in reality they have done little to deserve such support.
The most astonishing thing about this election is the drop in turnout for the Democrats. Clinton’s vote total was 4 million votes less than Obama’s in 2008 and about 100,000 fewer than his in 2012. There is also a larger story about the inability of the Democratic Party to rally people who backed Obama in 2008 and 2012. Many of these rejected Clinton in 2016 and voted for Trump even though he’s a racist, sexist, buffoon, an incompetent idiot who clearly has no idea what the hell he’s doing. That says something not only about those voters but also about the Democratic Party.
One of the most important things we’ll have to look at is what Black millennial voters did, both those who participated in the election and those who didn’t. In 2008 and 2012, Obama was able to capture an unprecedented number of young Black voters. This didn’t happen for Clinton. While she polled significantly higher than Trump in all the pre-election surveys, in the event she got only lukewarm support from young Black voters; they held their nose and voted for Clinton and did so with low expectations. And this fact, regardless of the respect and deference they show toward Obama, is the clearest sign of what Black young people think about his two terms in office.
With each successive dead body from police killings, people have lost a sense of hope in the Democrats. That experience of police terrorism is on top of their economic impoverishment of the Black working class. There’s been very little to show for having a Black president the last eight years to redress Black people’s social and economic conditions.
There was one candidate in the Democratic Party that did speak to these issues—Bernie Sanders. And, in one of the other stories that have almost been lost, is the high Black millennial vote for Sanders in the Democratic primaries. While he was late in addressing racism and police brutality, he did so in the end and connected those issues to his core message against class inequality in this country. As a result, 44 percent of young Black people voted for him compared to 32 percent for Clinton. In exit polls during the primary, they listed police brutality and racism as their number one issue; they listed economic inequality as the second major concern.
But the Democratic Party establishment did everything they could to block Sanders from winning the nomination, and they succeeded. So Black people and young people were offered this terrible “choice” in the general election between Clinton and Trump. Of course Black voters were not going to vote for Trump because he’s openly racist, but their disappointment in the Democrats meant that many stayed at home. Those that did vote for Clinton did so with great skepticism and profound lack of enthusiasm.
The main takeaway coming out of this disaster is the brokenness of American politics, of the American political system. Every four years we’re offered this so-called choice between the party of bigotry, racism, and xenophobia and the party of elitists and high-tech billionaires who don’t care about what is happening to ordinary people— Black, white, or Latino— in this country. The election raises real questions about how we go forward because we face a terrifying right-wing administration coming into office with a plan to attack all of us.
Trump’s appeal to open bigotry is one of the disturbing developments in this election. He cast aside the Republican’s dog whistle for a foghorn that blasted racist appeals everywhere. He connected that with promises to restore lost manufacturing jobs and raise workers’ living standards. In doing so, he increased the Republican percentage of votes from union households from 40 percent in 2012 to 42 percent in this election. What does this mean for the politics of race and class in America today?
The first thing to say is that Donald Trump promised the sun and moon to ordinary white people. He boasted that he was going to make America great again. That does appeal to something in the consciousness among white working-class people. That’s very different for Black people in the United States. There’s never been a period in American history that Black people can point to as our heyday. That’s not true for white working-class people. The post-World War II decades were a period when the concept of the American dream had flesh put on its bones. It meant something and that still resonates. People remember that; perhaps not in their own lifetime but certainly in their parents’ and their grandparents’ lifetime.
Trump was able to tap into that memory. But that appeal was and has always been connected to the idea that some people can do better if others are doing worse. This is an old strain in American politics—the belief that if you’re not doing well it’s not because there’s something intrinsically wrong with capitalism; it’s because of the presence of immigrants, Black people, or some other group of people who bear responsibility for the decline in your living standards.
Trump is obviously conning people. His strategy to make America great is to close down all these trade deals and create jobs through massive tax cuts for the rich. It’s a classic trickle-down economics, which has never worked in history. The idea that if you give rich people more money they will create a higher standard of living for everyone else is preposterous. As a result, he will be forced to double down on racism and scapegoating to deflect attention, white workers’ attention, from the real causes of their economic suffering. That’s the central contradiction of white supremacy. It was never intended to make all white people supreme; it was intended to disguise the deep class antagonism that exists in the white population.
This underscores why it’s impossible to view race and class separately. They work together. Some people say you have to focus on economic anxiety alone to explain Trump’s appeal. Others say that the real reason for Trump’s victory is racism and racial superiority. But I think you have to put those two things together. Economic anxiety creates the conditions for demagogues like Trump to use racism to explain them away.
You can’t say that all the white people who voted for Trump did so because of racism for racism sake and that white people inexplicably hate African Americans, Muslims, and Mexicans, and that it has nothing to do with their economic reality. We have to look at how the political establishment regularly and systematically invokes and stokes racial antagonism as a way to explain the economic conditions. That’s obviously what we’re witnessing now with Trump. But his racism will not address white workers’ economic predicament. It is in that space that there is opportunity to create a multiracial opposition to Trump’s racism and his economic con game.
But in order to do that, you need a left that does not just denounce groups of workers as hopelessly racist, but instead engages with them to counter Trump’s racist appeals and redress their genuine grievances. To me that is the biggest challenge; we don’t have a left that has much connection, influence, and capacity to address the working class, and particularly the white working class. All too often, the Left has had a condescending and dismissive attitude toward white workers. That just leaves it open for the Right to come in and provide their own explanation for why their lives in the richest country in the world are so bad.
In the aftermath of Trump’s victory, Clinton, Obama, and then much of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party struck a conciliatory tone toward the incoming president. What’s your reaction to this and why have they done this?
It is disgusting. We have been told for the last year that this man is a fascist, that he is uniquely dangerous, that he is unfit to be president, and that we cannot entrust him with the nuclear codes. They have painted a picture of him as a monstrosity; and then literally within twenty-four hours of the election they told us to bury the hatchet, turn the page, and unify in the hope that Trump succeeds. How can they demand we give him a chance when he vowed to force Muslims to register with the state, ban Muslim immigrants and refugees from coming into the country, build a wall along the US-Mexico border, deport undocumented immigrants, and make stop-and-frisk a national policy for policing? How can we give him a chance when his entire political agenda is steeped and rooted in racism, reaction, and terror against communities of color across this country? To be honest, it is dangerous for these Democrats to be saying this.
The Democrats’ other motive is just naked self-interest. Talking about the need to repair a relationship with Donald Trump means that they avoid any introspection. Turning the page means not only turning the page on the divisive election, it also means turning the page on what the Democratic Party did. To look at that would implicate these actors who are telling us to move along and unite for the good of the country. They want to ignore their total complicity with the economic and social status quo and their total failure to redress the multiple grievances that have built up over the last forty years, and especially since the Great Recession.
Clinton planned to run as a competent manager of the system until Bernie Sanders forced her to address the real issues in American society. Remember last fall she mocked Sanders, saying that he was offering people fantasies. She said the Democrats had to be pragmatic and get things done through a slow, deliberative process. That was the heart of her campaign; she positioned herself as a trained, competent, technocratic bureaucrat and ridiculed Sanders as an idealistic yahoo who wanted to take the government back forty years to redistributive policies that she and the rest of the New Democrats had rejected as out of step with the Washington Consensus.
So they’re happy to move on because any real assessment of this debacle would call into question the entire Democratic Party and the fact that their policies and message are completely out of step with this country. The election proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt. Their leadership has little to no assessment of this disaster and they deny their responsibility for it. They can’t explain why they lost, why voters didn’t turn out, and why they lost so many votes in their key constituencies, especially among workers and union members.
In the last analysis, they didn’t provide people with any reason to vote. That’s largely because the party accepts the free market framework, stands for the status quo, and they don’t have anything to offer people. All they can say is that “America is already great.” That’s an empty vacuous slogan that rings hollow when you’re trying to figure out how to pay your debts, how to pay your mortgage, how to pay for the escalating cost of rent, and when your wages are either stagnant or going into decline. Their empty slogans don’t pay the bills.
Let’s turn back to Obama’s election, the impact of his administration, and its meaning for Black politics. Back in 2008 Black people reacted to his election with jubilation. What’s your assessment of his two terms in office?
Obama was able to tap into a deep desire for dramatic change to overcome our country’s economic inequality and poverty. The massive support for his election was driven by the horrors of the Bush administration. Young people in particular may not be aware today of how bad it was under Bush. It was endless war, a ramping in historic proportions of the security state through things like the Patriot Act, and the avowal by the government that they would trample over our basic rights in the pursuit of the so-called War on Terror. They used that as a cover to intensify their war on all of us domestically and assert their imperial hegemony internationally, especially in the Middle East.
Bush used 9/11 to quell what had been a developing resistance to his agenda after he stole the 2000 election. Remember, at the end of the 1990s and the Clinton administration, there had been the beginning of a quite successful campaign against racial profiling and the prison industrial complex, and against the idea that the police could target people on the basis of race or ethnicity. Well, that idea was rehabilitated in the aftermath of the 9/11, because it was now a tool of the War on Terror.
For a time, Bush was able to get away with incredible abuses. His government reacted to the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans with a collective shrug. But resistance began to develop through struggles such as the Jena 6, which was a movement to fight racism in Louisiana. Broader than that, Bush’s wars triggered a mass antiwar movement. His wars produced disaster for everyone, and he found himself utterly discredited. Also, the Republican’s vicious attack on immigrants triggered an explosion of opposition in 2006.
All of this produced the enormous outpouring in support of Obama in 2008. He transformed his campaign from a run-of-the-mill, humdrum presidential run into something that seemed like a social movement. During Obama’s primary against Hillary Clinton, he gave speeches invoking the abolitionist movement, the sit-down strikes of the 1930s, the struggle for gay and lesbian liberation, and most importantly, the civil rights movement. He tried to align his campaign with these historic upsurges from below against the status quo, against the mainstream, and people believed him and responded by voting him into office.
Of course he was very vague about what he was actually promising. Nevertheless, his campaign and election to the presidency decisively shifted political discussion from the Bush administration to something very different. This was a time when the American economy was literally in a free fall. We were embarking on the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. In that context, people had huge expectations of change led by Obama and the Democrats. His slogans for “Hope” and “Change doesn’t come from Washington but to Washington,” “Yes, We Can,” and “Sí Se Puede” projected Obama’s presidential run as a revolt from below against the establishment.
In some ways Obama’s campaign was quite similar to what Sanders did in this year’s primary election. Obama’s election in 2008 was based on an unprecedented voter turnout among African Americans and voters overall. And he achieved something historic in the minds of African Americans. After his victory, 70 percent of Black people said that Martin Luther King’s dream had been achieved. African Americans had extraordinarily high expectations for change.
But almost immediately, Obama did two things that sent a signal that he would govern very differently than he ran. First, just like he is doing now, he reached out to Republicans. He was overly concerned with making compromises with the Right. That meant prioritizing his relationship with congressional Republicans above and beyond anything else. Second, he signaled that he was not going to be “Black America’s president”—that he was president of the entire United States, not just Black people.
The problem, of course, is that the economic crisis was having a disproportionate impact in African American working-class communities. More than 240,000 Black people lost their homes as a result of the downturn. Black wealth plummeted to $11,000 per household compared to $140,000 per white household. You can document the catastrophic impact of the Great Recession with an avalanche of statistics. But Obama refused to address these Black grievances with specific policies; he offered no particular programs to stop the disproportionate ways the crisis affected Black communities.
In reality, Obama did not do much to help working-class people as a whole, let alone Black people. He bailed out the banks and corporations at the expense of ordinary people. That’s what he actually did. While he was betraying us all, he rhetorically claimed that his stimulus would create a rising tide that would lift all boats, that generic programs intended to stem the crisis would inevitably have a positive effect on Black communities. But actual developments showed this to be wrong. The economic recovery has had very little impact on Black communities. Black unemployment is still twice that of white unemployment. Even though it’s no longer 16 percent as it was a few years ago, it’s still at 8 percent officially. But even more significantly, the quality of jobs is far worse than before.
All of the bipartisan attacks on state and federal employment have gutted the jobs that were the bedrock of the Black working class. The US Post Office used to be the main employer of Black America. That is no longer the case. We have also witnessed the dramatic decline in employment of Black teachers. That was one of the few vehicles that Black workers had to achieve the semblance of a middle-class standard of living. All of this has been chopped away. So today Wal-Mart is the main employer of Black Americans. This has had a devastating toll on Black incomes; today 55 percent of Black workers make less than $15.00 an hour.
That economic crisis in Black America has produced, as it always does, a social catastrophe. The combination of the bipartisan assault on the public infrastructure and the privatization of public services have devastated people’s lives. African Americans have historically called on the state to intervene to redress the rampant racial discrimination in the private sector. With the cuts to state programs, African-American lives have been put in peril. The privatization of public services or their complete elimination has compounded the issues that already existed because of the decline in wages, quality jobs, and therefore Black living standards.
Amidst this neoliberal privatization, the state’s bipartisan public policy of last resort has been aggressive policing as a way to contain the crisis in Black communities. This has led to an epidemic of police violence. We don’t know exactly whether the numbers of people killed by the police is higher or not because of the systematic refusal of the state to count police abuse and police killings throughout the country. But we know that payouts for lawsuits related to wrongful deaths and police misconduct have risen consistently over the last five years.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that police killed an average of over 920 people a year from 2003 to 2011. We also know that there were over 1,100 police killings last year and we’re on pace for over 1,200 police killings this year. The numbers appear to be rising in the last several years. This is not an accident. It is the murderous result of turning to the police to control the crisis in Black communities through arresting people, ceaseless surveillance, harassment, and profiling—including stop-and-frisk—and enveloping people in a maze of fines and fees. All of this is a means to impose social control through making people permanently indebted to the system.
And all of this has happened under a Black Democrat in the White House. Indeed, the Democratic Party oversees the immiseration of Black people and Latinos in every major city in the United States. They are the ones that are at the helm. So it is no surprise that there is disillusionment and even animus toward the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton. Remember Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton were the architects of the destruction of welfare and the turn to law and order in the 1990s. All of this creates a deep cynicism, not just about the Democratic Party but also about the governing institutions in the country. These institutions barely have a positive impact; they seem to, and really do in the main, have a negative impact on people’s lives.
That explains why some prominent Black leftists refused to support Clinton in the election. Some like Michelle Alexander argued that the Democrats did not deserve the Black vote. Others like Cornel West and Marc Lamont Hill came out for Jill Stein. What impact did this have and is there any sign of the development of a broader Black left independent of the Democratic Party?
The constituent elements of an independent Black left and indeed independent left in general are there. The question is what can pull them together in a coherent way that will enable them to pose as an alternative to the existing political structure, that is, to the Democratic Party? I don’t know. That must be more seriously considered now because it is undeniable that the Democratic Party is in complete crisis. This is not just a shock to ordinary everyday people. It is a total shock to the party itself.
Unfortunately, what that means is we’ll see a power struggle over who will lead the Democratic National Committee (DNC). If the Democrats are smart they will choose the Black Muslim congressional representative from Minnesota, Keith Ellison, to lead the DNC; he would be able to tap into these networks in Black Lives Matter and the broad political periphery around it. Who knows if they’re that smart? They may just go with Howard Dean who is a horrible healthcare lobbyist, just a run-of-the-mill insider hack. His appointment would just be a repetition of the same problem.
These tensions have existed in the Democratic Party for more than forty years now. Many on the left think we can grab the reins of the party and make it become this vehicle of social justice. The Democratic Party can return to its deep tradition of reconfiguring itself to co-opt and absorb its left flank and its left critics. But will it be able to do that now in a way that speaks to the insurgency that has erupted within the party and on its margins over this last election cycle?
Over 12 million people voted for an open socialist who disavowed everything they stand for. I don’t know if they can co-opt that, but I would not underestimate them. After all, this was the party of Southern slavery and it has managed to repackage itself as the party that stands for Black people. But the current leadership from Hillary Clinton on will have a hard time with this reconstruction. All she managed to come up with to entice Sanders’s base into the party was a few free public colleges. This is wholly inadequate amidst the crisis in people’s lives.
But out of fear of Trump, most of the Left, including Black leftists, collapsed into line behind Clinton or abstained from challenging this collapse at the end. For example Shaun King, who spoke quite passionately for Sanders and against the Clinton machine, in the end collapsed into the Clinton campaign claiming that “she had evolved.” Michelle Alexander spoke quite forcefully early in the campaign but then didn’t speak out again in the final months.
A few like Marc Lamont Hill and Cornel West stayed consistent through the election and in the aftermath. But they have been viciously attacked for doing so. Although I think there has been less of the third-party bashing because it is so clear that the catastrophe of this election is much larger than the third party challenge from Jill Stein and the Green Party. Her vote was fairly insignificant.
The intensity of the push to vote for the lesser evil in this election was as bad as I have ever witnessed before. It was far worse than the 2004 “Anybody but Bush” consensus that got behind Kerry. There was almost an underlying violence implied in the pressure to vote for Clinton. I can only imagine how bad it will be four years from now. Why? Trump is going to destroy the government. We might not have an EPA or a Department of Education. They’re going to lock people up; they will unleash the racists who are already beating people in the streets.
So the pressure to conform and stay in the party will be immense. They know that they need to say more than “We need to build ladders of opportunity” and claim, “America is the greatest place on Earth.” They are not completely stupid. That’s the problem that we always have in this country. The Republicans are the party of Neanderthals and they will always offer up a completely repugnant reactionary that the Democrats then use to pressure everyone to fall into line behind them.
So how do we build a left that can withstand that? It has to have the necessary politics, relationships, influence, and roots in the social and trade union movements. The potential is absolutely there. But the gap between what is possible and what is politically achievable is great. No one was happy with Hillary Clinton, but like always, most of the Left accepted the idea that we can’t build an alternative now. So we have to start a discussion now to lay the groundwork for building a genuine left-wing party.
But one of the problems is what you could call an Occupy hangover, where people are suspicious of organization. Too many accept the fact we are all separated from one another in our own silos; in which people have become accustomed to thinking “I have my own group where I do my own thing.” We need forces and organizations that are consciously reaching out to other people to say “We must collaborate.” It can’t accept the idea of everybody doing their own thing. That is not up to the task of taking on Trump.
He is a buffoon. But he’s turned his entire transition team over to the Heritage Foundation, Wall Street bosses, neo-cons, and far right figures like Breitbart’s Stephen Bannon. These people see this as an opportunity to smash and grab the state and country and remake it the way they have desired for the last forty years. Trump and the Republicans have total control over each of the wings of government.
This is not something that six of us chained together on I-95 can stop. We have to build serious organizations that bring together not just groups on the left, but we have to break into the labor movement. These are enormous challenges for a small, fractured, and internecine left that is often interested in bickering, pointing fingers, and self-righteousness to overcome. That’s our challenge over the next four years.
One of the most exciting developments during the Obama era has been the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement at the end of his second term. What’s your assessment of the causes, state, and prospects for this struggle?
The causes are as old as American capitalism itself. Police brutality is not new; it has always existed as long as Black people have been an urban population. The police have been used to discipline, brutalize, and terrorize Black communities. Police violence has always been the precipitant throughout the twentieth century of Black political resistance and rebellion and revolt. All the conditions for the recent emergence of Black Lives Matter have been building for the last two decades. It was laid during the Clinton administration back in the 1990s with their abolition of welfare, escalation of the war on drugs, and imposition of the New Jim Crow. All of this was intensified under Bush and his enlargement of an American police state during the so-called War on Terror.
Ironically, Obama’s election delayed the explosion of the movement. Why? Many thought he would address the problem, but he didn’t. It therefore exploded in the twilight of the Obama administration out of a combination of raised and unrealized expectations. He repeatedly dashed expectations that things would get better, while in reality things have gotten worse. And all that Obama did was blame Black people for their conditions.
He did this right at moment when the entire Western world is questioning capitalism for creating and perpetuating inequality and injustice. It was terribly disappointing to have the first Black president revert back to the tired mantra that blames Black people for not feeding their kids, for not reading to them, and so forth. It has been shocking and created a sense of despair.
The disappointment with Obama transfers to all the institutions in our society that we are told are the means through which you achieve change. They have not been able to deliver. For example, the Justice Department releases all these scorched-earth reports that detail in the most chilling fashion racism and brutality at the heart of American police departments throughout the country. But it changes nothing. Similarly, Obama convened a commission on twenty-first-century policing. They come up with fifty-nine recommendations in March of 2015. But only twelve out of 18,000 police departments in the US have agreed to implement any of those recommendations. And nineteen months later, the police have killed 1,500 more people.
All of this proves that the electoral arena and all the other institutional methods of change simply do not work. The system is almost completely nonresponsive to demands from African-American communities. As a result, people feel like they must take it upon themselves because there is literally no one, not even the Black president and all the other Black elected officials—right now the most in American history. None of these people have been able to intervene in a way to stop police killings but to also stop the descent of Black communities across this country into economic chaos, crisis, and all the social issues that arise as a result of that.
All of these developments triggered the explosion of Black Lives Matter. In my opinion, it’s the most important antiracist social movement in this country since the end of the Black insurgency in the 1960s and 1970s. For the last two and a half years, even faced with organizational weaknesses, every time there is a police killing that is videotaped and becomes publicized, thousands of people pour into the streets with handmade signs that say “Black Lives Matter.” They conceive of themselves as part of a common movement to stop police abuse and terrorism in Black communities.
That being said, there are tremendous challenges that confront the movement. The biggest one is how to pivot from exposing police violence as more than just an episodic exception or the actions of rogue cops, to building the kinds of networks across regions that can bring pressure to bear on state institutions to force them to change the way police relate to Black communities. That is a difficult thing to achieve because aggressive violent policing is woven into the system itself.
Also a complicating factor is the lack of central demands that can unite people across different areas to help create some sense of uniformity and connection between people in different locations. So it feels like you have different communities pulling in different directions. You have very localized and in some ways disconnected struggles, even though they’re under a similar banner. Part of that involves a process of political maturation that every movement must go through. So you have to have a level of patience in letting people figure things out. You cannot sit in a director’s chair and say do this and do that. People in the struggle have to figure it out.
Another challenge is retaining independence from the Democratic Party and Obama. He is intimately aware of what is happening in Black America and he was able to use his position as the first Black president and his familiarity and “insider status”, if you will, to gain an audience with activists. And many of these folks believed that their ability to access the president would bring change. So Obama has repeatedly invited people to the White House for a roundtable where he pops in with the Attorney General and the highest-ranking Black members of his administration.
This has meant that he has received very little criticism from movement circles. But there is a short shelf life to that strategy. After two and a half years, what has all of that access meant? For some people it has meant potential job opportunities to build a career. But for other people it has led to some level of disillusionment. It is in that context that the Movement for Black Lives put forward its manifesto of demands. It is a conscious effort of the left wing of the movement to define what is its politics and program. It includes not only demands against policing, but also support for the Palestinian struggle and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against the state of Israel, and a whole range of redistributive economic policies.
This program rests on a correct analysis that repressive policing is connected to the collapse of the public infrastructure in the cities and suburbs that Black people live in. That collapse and the social crisis that develops out of it is the pretext for the presence of police in Black communities. The document is signed by more than sixty organizations. That’s an important step.
But an obvious question emerges with this program: What are the organizations, social forces, and strategies to win these demands? How do we actually build the struggle? Discussions are happening now over how to answer those questions. But there is a new urgency now with Trump’s election. There is some recognition of that in the movement itself.
We are also politically underequipped. I know that the Black Lives Matter network and Alicia Garza in particular has been explicit about the need for political training to complement on-the-ground organizing. We have to know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. We need to learn from history and theory to build a stronger movement.
And we have to overcome the organizational challenges the movement faces. Black Lives Matter is dominated by membership organizations. There is no place where you can just join the movement. For example Black Youth Project 100 has a pretty high standard of membership. It’s a dues-based organization. Black Lives Matter is a structured organization of which there are responsibilities of membership. We need larger and more fluid organizations as well where people can easily come together to organize.
The movement has to get more focused in its immediate goals. The most immediate concern being, how do we take on Trump? Trump has declared Black Lives Matter a terrorist movement led by terrorist organizations. With the looming appointment of Jeff Sessions as attorney general, this will present new and difficult problems including the personal safety of movement activists and leaders. Police unions backed Trump and will feel emboldened by his presidency. We can expect an end to the already anemic efforts at police reform, but when combined with a worsening of conditions in Black communities under a Trump regime; it is an explosive combination. We need larger coalitions with an emphasis on drawing new people into the struggle. And we need more communication across the country. To build the movement we need a higher level of unity, discussion, and collaboration.
There has been a debate in and around the movement about privilege politics. Many key figures like Robin D. G. Kelley and Angela Davis have stressed the importance of a politics of solidarity, of seeing the Black liberation struggle as bound up with a class struggle against capitalism. What is your assessment of these different political tendencies?
There is no doubt that the framework of “privilege” is the dominant politics of the movement. But I also think in practice that these ideas have been challenged by people like Kelley and Davis, and the hold of these ideas on people is loosening. I remember when I was writing my book, #From BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, there were intense acrimonious debates about who could use the hash tag and when other groups used it, was it a case of “appropriation.” The problem with this is that it missed how historically the Black movement has been a source of inspiration within this country and internationally as well. We can’t reduce that genuine inspiration to simply “copying” people, but in the context of a weak left and very little political generalization, people rightfully look to others for ideas, inspiration, and solidarity in how to organize their own struggles. We have to encourage it, not dismiss it.
And now with Trump’s election, we face a multiprong attack against oppressed and working-class people. All of this has pushed people more and more toward seeing the connections between issues and the need to stand together. For example, the struggle at Standing Rock to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline has emphasized the need for solidarity. And Black Lives Matter put out a very important statement in favor of that protest. They have sent people to Standing Rock. We have seen the same thing in Chicago and Los Angeles around anti-immigrant organizing. Black activists have come out in solidarity against the deportation and scapegoating of Latino immigrants.
It doesn’t mean that debate between the politics of privilege and the politics of solidarity has gone away. It still comes up, for example, around who speaks for whom and about what. And it comes up when people assume that we should have autonomous identity-based organizations that periodically come together. We can defend as principle the rights of oppressed people to organize separately, but we also have to challenge it in this era of Trump.
Trump has made it known who he is coming after. He’s put immigrants, Muslims, women, African Americans, LGBTQ people, and unions in the crosshairs. He and Giuliani have described Black Lives Matter as a terrorist organization, which is basically a pretext for heightened surveillance and repression. The idea that we will be able to defend ourselves from these kinds of concerted attacks from the state separately from other groups of people is nonsensical.
There actually has to be a political argument articulated for solidarity, and not just solidarity because it is good and makes us feel better about ourselves, but because it is an indispensable political strategy for us to defend what we have, let alone to mount a movement for reform. But we have to argue that and it must be won in the movement. My fear is in the immediate aftermath of this Trump debacle is that it confirms everyone’s common sense about ordinary white people in particular are the problem. I’ve seen a lot of people saying that whites should go organize themselves.
I understand where that comes from, but then there is the reality that we have to build a larger movement and that will include white people who reject this racism, want to fight it, and will also come to realize that Trump has no answers for the crises that their families are in, either. We have to have a movement that pulls those people in if we’re going to have the numbers and forces necessary not just to defeat Trump but Trumpism itself with all its racism, xenophobia, and sexism that his election will now institutionalize in the state.