Since police officer Darren Wilson killed Mike Brown in Ferguson on August 9, 2014, activists committed to the notion that Black lives matter have forced the public to face the realities of anti-Black police brutality in the United States. Through their organizing and uprisings, advocacy and analysis, we have learned the names and stories of many Black folks whose lives were unjustly stolen from their families by those sworn to serve and protect: Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and Tanisha Anderson, to name only a few.
Amid activist calls for officer accountability and widespread protests, police continue to harm and kill Black people while criminal charges against the responsible officers are dropped or never even filed. Just last week, the state dropped all charges remaining against three Baltimore police officers responsible for Freddie Gray’s death; this decision followed on the heels of the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in early July. Police took another Black life Monday, when officers fatally shot 23-year-old Korryn Gaines—and injured her 5-year-old boy—after a SWAT team arrived at Gaines’ home to serve a warrant for failure to appear for a traffic citation.
Given the unrelenting stream of police brutality and impunity, activists in the Movement for Black Lives are fine-tuning and expanding their political strategies. They seek to move away from the perception that Black Lives Matter is just about taking to the streets and calling for officer convictions following police shootings—and remind the public that their work is rooted in a far-reaching battle against the societal institutions that oppress and kill Black people.
On a national level, the Movement for Black Lives delivered a challenge Monday through “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice,” calling on the media, politicians, and the broader public to take note of the scope of their platform. The policy agenda—designed and endorsed by more than 50 organizations—includes demands for reparations; ending zero-tolerance education policies; immigration reform; and placing Black women, trans, and gender-nonconforming folks at the center of advocacy efforts.
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The agenda’s purview is much broader than police reform, but includes “demands to demilitarize police, to put community control over police in place, [and] to create real accountability between communities and police,” explained Color of Change Senior Campaign Director Scott Roberts, who is a member of the Movement for Black Lives Policy Table that brainstormed the material for the policy demands. “There is a big push to defund and divest from policing and invest in what I would call real solutions, which means investing in communities.”
According to Roberts, the agenda is critical because it counters “this narrative around what folks refer to as the Black Lives Matter movement, that folks don’t know what they want, that it’s just about protests, that people are just angry.” For politicians and journalists who are genuinely interested, it provides “the answer to the question of what this movement is about.”
Regardless of public perception, for organizers the movement has always been about more than police convictions. “Convictions have definitely been a focus of the movement. I mean, one of our chants has been ‘indict, convict, send that killer cop to jail,’” reflected Rachel Gilmer, chief of strategy for the Dream Defenders, who participated in the policy table with Roberts and others. “But the second half of that chant is ‘the whole damn system is guilty as hell.’”
For Black Youth Project 100 National Public Policy Chair Janae Bonsu—along with Gilmer and other movement leaders—part of the evolution of their goals for the movement has meant moving away from advocating for officer convictions altogether. “In the United States, the way our justice system is set up, the culture of punishment is so permeated,” explained Bonsu. “So when a cop has done something wrong, [convictions] are kind of just the knee-jerk response.”
Yet the U.S. culture of punishment is precisely what activists are striving to demolish. Many in the movement identify as abolitionists, who believe the prison system is an inherently unjust, racist institution that should be dismantled. “If we’re trying to work toward a world where our people are not arrested, convicted, and incarcerated, but rather looking to build other systems of accountability that center the people who were harmed, why would we advocate for incarceration and convictions of police officers?” asked Bonsu. “To do that would be—inadvertently or not—to perpetuate the system that we’re against.”
Activists agree that while individual officer accountability is important, it does not need to look like criminal proceedings. In a movement that actively centers victims and their families, framing justice as a conviction often leads families down a dead-end road. Closure and accountability can better be garnered from deeper-seated institutional goals, according to organizers.
Alternative forms of accountability proposed by the activists Rewire spoke to include pushing for officers to be fired; requiring officers to have personal liability insurance to cover civil settlements; taking funds for civil settlements directly out of the police budget; targeting police unions, contracts, and pensions; and establishing powerful civilian review boards. In addition to individual accountability, activists believe that systemic change is needed to defund and demilitarize police. Public resources currently dedicated to police forces should instead be invested in Black communities and local strategies for safety and justice.
The pathways to achieve these changes are still being developed by activists at multiple levels—in community meetings, cubicles, and courtrooms. While recognizing the critical role that public uprisings have played in this movement so far, Gilmer and other activists are actively working to expand the movement’s organizing focus. “Our movement has a systemic analysis, but we need a clearer strategy for how to advance institutional change,” said Gilmer. “We need innovative new tactics. We’re really good at rapid response and getting people out in the street. That’s awesome, but we also need to pivot toward deep community building, and we need to do the unglamorous work of organizing—knocking on doors, talking to people, bringing more people into the movement.”
Activists have been working within communities to realize alternative visions of justice and safety since far before Mike Brown’s death. Mainstream media, however, often ignore these efforts. “The focus of organizers has been building power bases, [increasing] political education around systemic violence/oppression, and crafting policy solutions that radically reimagine our systems of democracy, economy, and justice,” said Mychal Denzel Smith, writer for The Nation and author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching. “It’s more a matter of whether the same media that was interested in covering the tanks and tear gas will offer the same amount of camera time and ink to the ways organizers are making change.”
Organizers have forged alternatives to the criminal justice system, including the Audre Lorde Project’s Safe OUTside the System campaign to protect trans and gender-nonconforming community members in Brooklyn and Mothers Against Senseless Killings, who de-escalate conflicts in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side to combat community violence and police involvement.
At the national and local levels, activists are doing the often-unrecognized work to develop their vision for a just society, and bring that vision into praxis. The movement for Black liberation calls on U.S. society to embrace the humanity of people forced to build this country while classified as property, a burden that ideally would fall on the shoulders of those in power. Yet, as activists recognize, the beneficiaries of white supremacy are not likely to relinquish their privileges without outside pressure. In this struggle, as Smith reminds us, “movement politics are where they should be.” This nascent movement continues to develop its goals and strategies—but their commitment to center those most marginalized in the battle against the systems waging war on Black America remains steadfast.
“We have to keep in mind that this current iteration of the Black liberation movement is still in its infancy,” Smith continued. “But the work is being done.”