Analysis Race

The Movement for Black Lives Sharpens Focus in Trump Era

Rachel Anspach

The repressive political climate ushered in by Donald Trump’s presidential election has galvanized organizers to engage a range of tactics.

In August 2016, the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) released “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice.” The product of a year’s work by more than 50 Black liberation organizations, the policy platform included demands to end the criminalization of Black communities, to divest from the punishment industry and invest in healing and supporting Black people, and to end zero-tolerance education policies.

Today, while the movement’s goals remain steadfast, the repressive political climate ushered in by Donald Trump’s presidential election has galvanized the movement to engage new organizing tactics. According to the organizers Rewire.News spoke to, these tactics include bolstering progressive, anti-corporate candidates and increasing voting and civic engagement to grow the movement.

“The platform is a long-term, visionary imagining of what the world could be and what kind of demands we want,” said Marbre Stahly-Butts, director of Law for Black Lives and a member of the Policy Table Leadership Team. The world envisioned by the movement, as stated in the platform, is one where the “full humanity and dignity of all people is recognized” through “working together to create and amplify a shared agenda.” But, as Stahly-Butts noted, that vision could take decades to realize. As such, organizers are focusing on policy and organizing goals that can be advanced in the present while working toward that longer-term vision.

The policy table’s strategy following the release of the platform was to identify areas where immediate work could create positive change, which would also advance some of the movement’s longer-term policy goals.“We thought about intervention points that could build toward some of the bigger visionary pieces of the platform, while building power, building alternative institutions that help our people, and increasing political awareness around these issues,” said Stahly-Butts.

The major “intervention points” the coalition is focusing on now include: the cash bail system, environmental justice, reparations, invest-divest (divesting from institutions that harm Black people and investing in those that support them), and electoral politics.

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Advancing at the local level, much of the organizing work overlaps and ties together these goals. In Florida, the Dream Defenders are campaigning for Amendment 4, a ballot initiative to restore the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people. Currently, about one in four Black Florida residents are disenfranchised by Florida’s voting law. The organization is also engaged in a campaign against GEO Group, the country’s second largest private prison company, which is headquartered in Boca Raton and makes large campaign contributions to candidates in the state and elsewhere. GEO is also an important target because it links Black liberation to immigrant rights: The company is Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s largest contractor with over $400 million in federal contracts to run immigrant detention centers and prisons.

“GEO’s business motive is to further criminalize our communities and create more pathways to prison so that they can fill up beds and justify building more prisons. They give all this money to politicians, who then make policies around prisons and policing,” said Rachel Gilmer, co-director of the Dream Defenders. “Our politicians in Florida are all in bed with corporations. That’s who they feel beholden to, and so we need to build a groundswell from the bottom up of folks who are going to say, ‘No, actually you are beholden to us, and if not, we’re going to vote you out.’”

The national campaign to end cash bail represents another multipronged strategy to empower Black communities targeted by the criminal system, pressure politicians to serve the interests of communities rather than corporations, and raise public awareness about the harms of the punishment industry. “Bail for us is a real entry point,” said Stahly-Butts. “As we rethink and reconstitute our pretrial systems, we are also moving toward de-incarceration, a new version of public safety, and at the first point of entry, actually reducing the number of people who are being engulfed by the system.”

The bail campaign came out of a M4BL convening in January 2017, where Mary Hooks, co-director of Southerners on New Ground (SONG) proposed the idea of the Mama’s Day Bail Out. Organizations in the National Bail Out collective—which includes SONG, Dream Defenders, Color of Change, and the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund—have now bailed out over 250 Black people in a series of national bailouts that began on Mother’s Day last year.

In addition to the bailouts, the bail collective has conducted public education to raise awareness and build pressure against the use of cash bail. They have offered direct services to the individuals bailed out, most recently launching a fellowship with financial support and organizing training for 20 of the mamas bailed out through the campaign. The bail collective has also supported legislation against cash bail and pressured district attorneys and prosecutors to reduce their reliance on cash bail. In partnership with local organizations, Color of Change is leading a national campaign to combat for-profit bail companies, which it launched in May 2017 with a comprehensive report on the cash bail industry.

Launched in October 2017, the Electoral Justice Project (EJP) aims to build Black voting power ahead of the November elections through funding organizers to work in Black communities and creating a support hub for organizations doing electoral work. “The Electoral Justice Project is a Black radical political project that will connect M4BL’s public policy demands and national platform to the electoral work happening around the country,” said Rukia Lumumba, a co-founder of the project and executive director of the People’s Advocacy Institute. “Our resistance must be inclusive of all tactics available to us, including voting and civic engagement.”

The EJP will support organizers and local organizations doing electoral work through providing training resources, technical support, and tailored research and to help identify ballot initiatives and races having the greatest impact in their communities. In addition to running a central “help desk” to provide support to M4BL organizations, the EJP is providing funding and training to 12 Black organizers working on key races across the country. They have also held 35 town halls to identify the most pressing policy issues facing Black people, and launched #WakandaTheVote and #WrinkleTheVote earlier this year to register Black voters after the release of Black Panther and Wrinkle in Time, respectively.

The project has focused on races in politically contested states including Arizona, Florida, Maryland, and Missouri. In Phoenix, EJP organizers supported Maria Teresa Mabry’s run for justice of the peace, which Lumumba says was responsible for bringing 2,000 more people out to vote last month and galvanizing “Black, brown, and queer” community organizing around electoral politics in one of the most conservative states in the country.

“Part of using elections as a tool for movement building is that we can’t just tell people to ‘go vote in November’ and that’s the end of it,” said Gilmer. “We have to be like, ‘Go vote in November, and join the movement, and what are you doing the day after the election that’s going to keep putting pressure on politicians once they’re in office to fight for this agenda that we’ve put forward?’”

Like its other core projects, the invest-divest work applies to many areas where M4BL organizers are seeking political change. Organizers in the coalition are attuned to “making sure that we’re taking money out of a system that’s been punitive to our people and putting it into community controls and supportive purposes,” explained Stahly-Butts. In Chicago, the No Cop Academy campaign is pressuring Mayor Rahm Emanuel to use the $95 million he has slated to build a new police academy to instead invest in community spaces and mental health services. As another invest-divest strategy, the Center for Popular Democracy, Law for Black Lives, and BYP100 have investigated local budgets across the country to see where resources are going and pressure politicians to move funding from policing to supportive services, such as education, housing, and mental health resources. Their Freedom to Thrive report broke down 12 local budgets and found that cities spend 20 percent to 40 percent of funds on policing, compared to negligible amounts on supportive services and housing.

The reparations campaign calls for “reparations for past and continuing harms,” including redlining, mass incarceration, and wage discrimination. The campaign is currently focused on reparations for marijuana-related incarceration, particularly in states where cannabis is now legal or decriminalized. Meanwhile, the environmental justice work has focused on the uneven, racist responses to natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey in Houston, and how to combat “food apartheid” through community control of the production and distribution of healthy foods.

While the national political climate seems bleak, with an extreme white supremacist administration in the White House and the resurgence of white nationalism across the United States, the movement has seen crucial victories. In February, activists in Atlanta pushed through an ordinance that curtails the use of cash bail for low-level offenses. Philadelphia passed a similar resolution, which moved the city away from using bail for low-level misdemeanor charges. Just last month, the #ByeBob campaign in St. Louis ousted Bob McCulloch, the prosecutor responsible for the decision not to file charges against Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot unarmed teenager Mike Brown. The Dream Defenders’ Defund GEO campaign succeeded in pressuring all the Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidates, as well as the Florida Democratic Party, to pledge to reject donations from GEO and their lobbyists.

It can feel hopeless to witness politicians and white nationalists spread violence and hate on a daily basis. In the face of this dehumanization, the M4BL is working harder than ever to change the political reality and to bring more people into the movement. “There’s a lot of folks around the country who are just disillusioned and feel like this is just the way the world works,” said Gilmer. “So a lot of what we’ve been trying to do is get people to actually believe that another world is possible and that world is worth fighting for.”

For today’s Black liberation movement, the world they envision can only be realized through what the platform describes as a “complete transformation of the current systems, which place profit over people and make it impossible for many of us to breathe.”

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