Magazine article Dissent

The Class Politics of Black Lives Matter

Magazine article Dissent

The Class Politics of Black Lives Matter

Article excerpt

While the concerns raised by the Black Lives Matter movement reflect the experiences of most black Americans, they also extend beyond these communities. It is imperative that all progressive and left forces pay careful and respectful attention to this growing movement and its bold confrontation with state power. Its message is, in part, that there can be no real economic justice without racial justice.

Black Lives Matter, which includes nearly a dozen black-led organizations, is as much an example of a U.S.-based class struggle as Occupy Wall Street was. To focus on the black poor is not to ignore others who also endure economic inequality. In speech after speech, the leading voices of this movement have insisted that if we liberate the black poor, or if the black poor liberate themselves, we will uplift everybody else who's been kept down. In other words, any serious analysis of racial capitalism must recognize that to seek liberation for black people is also to destabilize inequality in the United States at large, and to create new possibilities for all who live here.

It is significant that many of the leading organizers in this movement have clear class loyalties, analyses, and roots in labor and other economic justice campaigns. Jasson Perez of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) used to work for SEIU. The three women who launched the original Black Lives Matter hashtag in 2012, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrice Cullors, are all professional organizers working with domestic workers, with immigrants, and against prisons respectively. Cullors, a co-founder of anti-incarceration organization Dignity and Power Now, insists that "BLM ... is not just about respectability politics . . . it's about incarcerated and formerly incarcerated black people. It is about access to shelter, food, and mobility."

In explaining her organization's strong support for the Fight for $15 campaign, BYPIOO's Charlene Carruthers insisted that the movement is "about racial justice AND economic justice." The Dream Defenders' Umi Selah (formerly known as Phillip Agnew) has drawn parallels between racist violence and inequality in the United States, and the violence carried out by the U.S. military overseas. In a recent interview, he said he'd like to see the U.S. government "not engage in wars where we perpetuate an economic system that ruins democracy around the world," and that movements must understand this. Alicia Garza has stated hopefully that "for the first time in a long time, we are talking about alternatives to capitalism."

Not only have some of the most vocal and respected members of this current cohort of organizers embraced economic justice demands, they have also recognized the many ways inequalities can exist within a movement, and have made statements about the importance of female and LGBTQ leadership. As the Black Lives Matter website reiterates, its politics go "beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all." This is an unapologetic intersectional analysis reflecting the work of black women radicals and feminists such as Sojourner Truth, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, bell hooks, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Beth Richie, Cathy Cohen, and Beverly Guy-Sheftal.

In a 1991 documentary entitled A Place of Rage, the black feminist poet June Jordan called upon young black activists to reclaim "rage" as a tool for social justice. …

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