The Black Lives Matter movement did not begin in Ferguson, Missouri. But when Mike Brown, 18, was killed by former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014, the movement gained new momentum that, two years later, has made a new generation of black activists and organizers a force to be reckoned with in the 2016 election.
A year ago, Republican hopefuls wouldn’t address the movement during a presidential debate, and Democratic candidates stumbled to say “Black Lives Matter.” Yet today, the Democratic Party’s criminal justice platform seems to be a result of the pressure mounted by activists, while Donald Trump defines himself as the “law and order” candidate by exploiting common misunderstandings of what the movement is.
Regardless of party affiliation, the effects of the movement for black lives are impossible to ignore, two years after one of its most galvanizing flash points. Here are seven pieces to read to learn more about how the movement has shaped this complex political moment:
Activists pushed Bernie Sanders — and therefore, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats — on criminal justice
Today, the Democratic Party, led by Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine as her running mate, has a more robust criminal justice platform than would have been expected a year ago. A part of that is thanks to Bernie Sanders, who pushed Clinton left on criminal justice issues.
1) But as Adele M. Stan wrote for the American Prospect, this was in large part because of the opportunity seized by activists to push Sanders beyond the boundary of his class-centric revolution, and the progressive movement’s myopia on race issues:
Amid the fallout from Sanders’s tone-deaf responses, many in his cult-like and largely white following questioned the protesters’ motives and choice of venue for airing their grievances. Never mind that their man handled himself badly; it was all the protesters’ fault for being rude, for not appreciating Bernie’s correctness on every issue, for not thinking strategically. Others in the greater progressive and liberal communities complained of a self-destructive bent in the left wing, essentially imparting the message that if the black protesters would only behave, the white people who front the Democratic Party would take care of them.
All of these responses prove just why the Netroots presidential forum was exactly the right place for the women of Black Lives Matter to have staged their protest: A lot of white progressives just don’t get it. Sure, they’re against those killings of black people, and all. So shouldn’t that be enough?
Watch the dash-cam video of Sandra Bland’s arrest, and it becomes very clear why it’s not.
Until we all do get it, the kind systemic change needed to protect the rights and lives of black people is virtually impossible. Black people alone do not comprise a powerful enough chunk of the populace to make this a top issue for the general election; shaming candidates while they stump for primary votes is an effective way to push a solution to the targeting of African Americans by the state onto the agenda of Democratic presidential hopefuls.
Lezley McSpadden: “I want a leader who is willing to take the steps to reform a justice system that dehumanized my son”
One of the pivotal movements of the Democratic National Convention was when the mothers of those who were killed by police or died while in police custody, known as the Mothers of the Movement, spoke on why they were choosing Hillary Clinton this election.
"This isn’t about being politically correct. This is about saving our children," Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, said.
2) Lezley McSpadden, Brown’s mother, wrote a powerful endorsement letter to the Clinton campaign prior to the Missouri primary in March, asserting that Clinton was the leader “willing to take the steps to reform a justice system that dehumanized my son.” She added:
Since August 9, 2014, I have wondered where do we go from here? I have made it this far by my faith, but we need more than faith. Our criminal justice system is broken and damaged, and it left broken hearts and damage in our communities. Fixing this will require time and commitment of someone who wants to make things better for us all. I want a leader who is willing to take the steps to reform a justice system that dehumanized my son. I want a leader who will now honor my son’s life and fights for our children’s futures. I want a justice system that is fundamentally based on fairness for everyone.
Republicans stoke the flames of the Ferguson aftermath in political campaigns
On both the national and local level, a number of Republican politicians are placing their bets that fears sparked by the Ferguson uprising, which followed Brown’s death, particularly around protest against police brutality, will help them win political office.
4) As Maggie Severns reported for Politico, this year’s election for governor will be one in which Republican candidates use Ferguson to make the case that they are better equipped to lead than Missouri’s Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon:
But for many people in Missouri, especially the approximately 600,000 Republicans who expect to vote in the GOP primary Tuesday, the lesson of Ferguson is not that the police used too much force, it’s that it used too little. Ferguson, to them, was an embarrassment: preventable chaos that tarnished the name of the otherwise orderly St. Louis suburbs. Those nightly images of lawlessness, in their eyes, were an indictment of the weak-kneed way Democratic Governor Jay Nixon let protesters and outside agitators run amok, looting without apparent consequence. This governor’s race, the first major statewide contest since the unrest, is the first chance Missourians have had to register anger that has only grown since the summer of 2014.
The movement proves its staying power — with or without politicians
Even though politicians are taking hard-line stances on the Black Lives Matter movement and criminal justice reform in the 2016 election, activists and organizers have demonstrated that justice does not depend on the November election.
5) One part of this is recognizing the limits of endorsements, as Alicia Garza, one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter organization, told the Associated Press last September:
"Black Lives Matter as a network will not, does not, has not, ain't going to endorse any candidates," Garza said. "Now if there are activists within the movement that want to do that independently, they should feel free and if that's what makes sense for their local conditions, that's fantastic. But as a network, that's not work we're engaged in yet."
In the future, the organization may become more involved with candidates and parties, and even run candidates, she said, but added that "we're not there yet."
"It's too early in the development of the network and it's too early in the genesis of the movement to rally around anyone in particular who hasn't demonstrated that they feel accountable to the Black Lives Matter movement or network," said Garza, who also works with the National Domestic Worker Alliance.
"What we've seen is an attempt by mainstream politics and politicians to co-opt movements that galvanize people in order for them to move closer to their own goals and objectives," she said. "We don't think that playing a corrupt game is going to bring change and make black lives matter."
The movement for black lives, as catalyzed by the events in Ferguson, have left an indelible mark on both major parties.
6) Similarly, Samaria Rice, the mother of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer, issued a letter refusing to endorse any candidate:
While I’ve continued to push my state’s officials towards real changes, several Presidential candidates have said my son’s name in their mouth, using his death as an example of what shouldn’t happen in America. Twelve year old children should never be murdered for playing in a park. But not a single politician: local, state or federal, has taken action to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Instead of plans for justice and accountability, I have been shown several plans for criminal justice reform, none that address my experience of the entire system being guilty. Those plans don’t address the many ways elected officials become exempt to accountability and the legal flaws that allow them to extend that exemption to cops who kill. These plans do not get rid of the trauma of knowing that my tax dollars help pay the salaries of the police officers that killed my son.
7) Politicians will continue to make their case for the White House on the backs of the movement for black lives. But the recent reveal of a policy platform by a coalition of more than 50 activist organizations proves that the push for racial justice and equity that Brown’s and others’ deaths symbolized is one that can last, long after the election.
As Vann Newkirk II wrote for the Atlantic:
This platform and others like it counter that criticism by giving disparate groups of activists ways to coordinate their demands. “We felt that it was important not to just have policy ideas,” Bonsu told me, “but also provide examples of model legislation and something that you can tangibly take to your elected official, whether it be at the federal level in Congress or at your state legislatures or your city council.”
It remains to be seen whether this platform will lead to policy changes or changes of heart, even among liberals. The larger influence of the movement is still disputed, and the platform’s more controversial elements may limit its potential to sway large audiences and politicians. But the development of the Movement for Black Lives platform and the increasing political organization of a range of black groups indicate that Black Lives Matter is not just another bit of disruptive political ephemera, but a movement that is learning and building as it expands. In a political moment crowded by violence, failed political revolutions, and the rise of white populism, Black Lives Matter not only endures, but advances.