A #BlackoutBlackFriday mall protest

#BlackLivesMatter

Photo by A #BlackoutBlackFriday mall protest

Is Today’s Black Activism Sustainable?


Since Michael Brown's murder in August, we've taken to the streets in force. But without a clear central message and emerging leaders, the movement may be at risk of fizzling out.



In the week since St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s announcement that a grand jury would not be indicting Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown, activists have been trying to extend the movement beyond the front lines in Ferguson.

Last Friday, there was the Black Out/Black Friday boycott, which asked individuals to not spend any money with major retailers during the post-holiday-sales frenzy that usually occurs the day after Thanksgiving. The purpose of the boycott was to demonstrate the collective buying power of African Americans—the same group who experiences a disproportionate amount of injustice in this country. It was designed to be a unifying act that would ultimately lead to a strategic demonstration of power and put pressure on those who lead our government and judicial systems (because it’s naïve to think that they don’t have a vested interest in the economic boost that happens over the Black Friday weekend).

As boycotts go, it was a worthy effort, but one fraught with challenges that made it relatively easy for the media—with all its skewed perspective, agendas, and influence—to deny its impact. The reasons why these challenges were so prevalent are many but all are born from what I call the unintended “side effects” of the civil-rights protests and boycotts of the 1950s and ’60s. They are reasons that most of us don’t want to admit, much less address.

While it appears that the heart of activism is beating fine, with the protests popping up all around the country over the last week and the countless think pieces written to challenge the systemic problems faced by people of color, I would submit that the lack of effective strategic organization and coordination around these efforts limits their impact and sustainability. There’s a bigger BOOM to be had. A bigger boom MUST be had—particularly in light of the fact that as recently as yesterday, yet another cop was not held responsible for killing a Black man: Eric Garner. Writer and activist Kevin Powell alluded to this in a recent Facebook post: “You cannot just have boycotts without some serious education happening, explaining to people on the ground, in your community where you live, or via social media, etc. 1) what the word boycott means 2) what Black Friday is, exactly, because not everyone knows 3) why we should boycott, what the purpose would be, how long it would last, and what the objective would be. This is why the study of history and previous movements and organizations is mad critical.”

And there are plenty of boycotts and actions to study: The Montgomery Bus Boycott; Jackson, Mississippi, boycotts; the Greensboro, North Carolina, lunch-counter sit-ins.

“Some serious studying of past organizations via books, documentaries, conversations with elders/seasoned leaders/organizers” is necessary, according to Powell.

There were basic structural problems with Black Out/Black Friday: Who were the central organizers, for example, and how was the boycott to be implemented? As in the case of many movements nowadays (e.g., Occupy Wall Street, Libya, social media was integral in pushing this effort. I personally found out about the boycott through my social-media networks and forwarded information as I received it. However, the information I received and forwarded was highly varied. On my timeline alone, one that is generally filled with socially conscious and active writers, artists, and organizers, there were multiple images, numerous hashtags, and several conflicting instructions regarding how to participate. There were folks saying that it was to be held only on Friday while others who said it was to extend through the weekend, including Cyber Monday. Some said you could support both Black-owned and small businesses, while others said support only Black-owned. The lack of clarity and inconsistencies created a kind of confusion that is not the hallmark of successful campaigns. And as much as social media can be driver, particularly with youth, there is still a need for people on the ground who are spreading a message that is consistent with those who may not utilize social media regularly.

Powell continues, “If we are serious about doing something, I recommend starting with regular teach-ins no matter where you live, so there is a real sharing of knowledge, information, ideas, strategies, and a commitment to just one thing, that will challenge oppression, that will challenge injustice. It may very well be a local boycott where you are. It may very well be acts of civil disobedience and protest. It may very well be your starting a new organization … but we need to remember that all movements are local, and if successful then they will spark movements in other places, becoming national and global.”

Are there leaders who can do this? Are there organizations that are doing this? Sure, there are a number of individuals and organizations, both online and on the ground, who are actively involved in trying to coalesce the community around issues. The Dream Defenders is one such group actively working on the ground to organize peaceful protests in Ferguson and elsewhere. Online, the #notonedime movement, led by Rahiel Tesfamarian, founder of UrbanCusp.com, has begun to mobilize a more significant drive to encourage the support of Black businesses as an act of economic protest against injustice. Bloggers such as Luvvie and AfroBella used their substantial platforms to make people aware of the boycott and alternative shopping options. Epiphany Fellowship, a multi-ethnic church near Temple University in Philadelphia, recently held an “Engaging Race Issues” Q&A for the community to offer an outlet for those who were frustrated or angry with the grand jury’s decision in St. Louis, and what should be the church’s response.

This is all a great start. But unless there emerges a more consistent message across these organizations, one that’s carried by a few stand-out individual leaders who are solely dedicated to the issue of injustice and specifically, police brutality against people of color, the possibility of the effort fizzling out is also way too great.

So despite those who are organizing the larger community around these efforts, I still don’t know if there are enough of us doing this work. Unlike during the ’60s, the silence from the Black church as a collective is devastatingly deafening. Some of the predominantly Black organizations (fraternities, sororities, and community groups) seem to have shifted their priorities inward to deal with some of the organizational issues that threaten their existence and reputations. Also unlike in the ’60s  when predominantly White organizations such as the United Automobile Workers Union, the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, and individuals like Rabbi Joachim Prinz, stood alongside the leaders of the civil-rights movement, some White people of influence appear hesitant to align themselves with today’s movements, most likely for political reasons.    

And those—Black and White—who are doing the work, who are taking the time to coordinate efforts like Black Out/Black Friday find that they’re spending so much time trying to keep the conversations going—helping people to not forget. They are on perpetual awareness duty because of America’s tendency to have ADD when it comes to social issues, and troll patrol on social media.

Another reason boycotts such as Black Out/ Black Friday may not be as successful as they could be, as boycotts of days long past, is a much more raw and heartbreaking truth: Too many of us are individualists. We’ve lost (or relinquished) our sense of community. Too many of us are too self-centered and too self-motivated to ever stop doing what we may want to do on any one day, much less longer.

Sadly, I don’t know of any present-day boycott or movement that could pull off what the Montgomery Bus Boycott did in 1955. I cannot see 90 percent of Black folks in any major metropolitan area agreeing to stay off public transportation for 13 months.

“Nope, it’s too cold outside,”

“I’ve got to get to work or I’ll lose my job.”

“What good will it do anyway?”

“I ain’t got time for all that.”

Is this a generalization? I suppose in some ways it is. But these were some of the comments heard from Black folks regarding the Black Friday boycott:

“I don’t care about a boycott. I need to buy some stuff for kids and get this TV. I need this for me.”

“It’s Black people who mostly work in retail and they could lose their jobs.”

(Sidebar: Many African Americans did lose their jobs for participating in boycotts of the past. There is a cost for change, for sure.)

“What’s the point of a boycott anyway? It’s not going to change anything really.”

This last comment is telling.

I suspect that this individualism is actually deeply connected to something much more insidious: resignation and hopelessness. Maybe we’ve become “all about me and mine” because we are simply tired of the injustices, the micro-aggressions, the constantly being told in subversive ways that we lack value, that we have a place in this country but no matter how high we climb, that place will always be under the feet of those who are whiter and richer than us. I get it. It’s exhausting. We are tired to the point of weakness. And that weakness can easily turn in to apathy. And that apathy is only a stone’s throw from resignation.

Given the current social climate, the possibility of collective resignation scares the daylights out of me. Resignation is a symptom of hopelessness. We don’t believe things can change. We don’t believe those who are in power will ever relinquish that power for the greater good.

And yet, I’m still not inclined to perform last rites over Black activism and pronounce it dead. Maybe it’s just on life support. Or maybe it’s actually alive and well but in desperate need of a more strategic approach in order to achieve longevity. It’s no longer hundreds people gathering in a church in Montgomery or a few thousand in Selma. It’s a few million around the world thanks again to social media. The coordination of this kind of effort, at this kind of scale, means dealing with all the loose ends that cannot be easily grasped and managed. How do you train a group this large in non-violent resistance like SNCC did on college campuses in the ’60s?

I honestly don’t know.

And this leads me to the point I only briefly mentioned earlier regarding the unintended consequences of the civil-rights movement of the ’60s. Today, we are advocating from the standpoint of progress. Some of us, many of us, have made it. My three degrees, one from a college that didn’t admit its first Black student until 1949, is evidence of the strides made. The president of our country being a Black man is an undeniable stride. Not a sign of a post-racial society, as some would have us believe, but significant for sure. However, for many, this progress—clearly rendered because of the blood, sweat and sacrifice of our mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers—clouds our vision of an even greater future. In truth, some of us just aren’t desperate enough for change. We got our houses. We have our picket fences. We send our kids to private school. We are comfortable and have isolated ourselves from our community behind our acquisitions. Others of us just aren’t really willing to give up our little bit for the greater good. If it’s not our child, if it’s not our town, if we work for some good white folks, then our attitude is “not my circus, not my monkeys.”

Today, the real question for those who desire change is not “What am I willing to do to effect change?” it’s “What am I willing to sacrifice to effect change?”

And that’s where many of us get stuck.

How many young Black boys have to die for us to unify; for us to refuse the scraps from the long-gone Master’s table and demand justice and equality across the board?

I do believe that if we are hoping to use our activism of today to strong-arm change, then we are absolutely fighting a losing battle. There’s another way.

At the core of this and other injustices perpetrated against people of color, is the fact that we are dealing with the wretched hearts of people. Hearts that can reason with itself that an 18-year-old kid deserves to die because he shoplifted (not robbed). Hearts that refuse to believe or are unable to discern the truth that no sane Black manchild in any urban area of America would reach into a police car to assault a police officer over being told to get on the sidewalk. A little back talk? Maybe. An eye roll or finger-flick? Possibly. But to assault a cop and then run face forward into a hail of bullets like Superman? Nah. But it’s hearts filled with stereotypes and assumptions that are as old as the country itself, hearts that see all Black men as “demons” to be vanquished … it’s these hearts that remain blind to the truth—even when it’s glaring.

Frantz Fanon said in his book, Wretched of the Earth, “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”

So maybe that’s the task of a new Black activist movement. Maybe the obscure starting ground is the hearts and psyches of those in our sphere of influence. As Kevin Powell said, “start local.” Work on the hearts closest to home, then spread out. Do this while pushing the faces of injustice—the Mike Browns and Tamir Rices and Eric Garners and the Trayvon Martins—onto every actual and virtual doorstep. Push them all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, D.C.—yes, I said it—until resistance from either side becomes futile.

And pray fervently that we are not too late. That our hearts have not gone completely cold. 

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