Black Lives Matter joins a long line of protest movements that have shifted public opinion -- most recently, Occupy Wall Street

No politician has captured the spirit of Occupy like Bernie Sanders. Can he do the same with Black Lives Matter?

Published August 15, 2015 1:29PM (EDT)

  (AP/Elaine Thompson)
(AP/Elaine Thompson)

Throughout American history, advocates for racial justice and economic justice have sometimes been at odds, but they’ve also found common ground. In recent weeks we’ve watched this tension play out in a surprising way, when Black Lives Matters (BLM) activists disrupted Bernie Sanders rallies to demand that the socialist senator from Vermont focus more attention on racial inequities.  

Since the BLM movement emerged a year ago -- in reaction to the killing of an unarmed teenager by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri – it has stirred controversy, particularly on the right. Many conservative commentators considered the young BLM activists too angry, unruly, confrontational and divisive. But BLM's attack on Sanders split progressives. Many progressive activists cheered the BLM’s protest, but others criticized them for going after Sanders rather than targeting more conservative candidates.  

In a short period of time, BLM has proved to be amazingly effective and influential. Despite having little funding and relatively few activists, the movement has helped inject the issue of police misconduct and the broader racial bias of our criminal justice system into the political debate. There’s been no sudden upsurge of racial profiling, arrests, beatings and killings of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers. Instead – thanks in part to BLM -- Americans have simply become more aware of the problem. The names of the victims of police abuse – Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and others -- have been seared into the national consciousness.

By introducing the phrase “black lives matters” into our culture – primarily through the use of social media but also by engaging in protest and civil disobedience – BLM has shifted public opinion. A new Pew Research Center poll discovered that the number of Americans who believe that changes are needed to give African-Americans equal rights has swelled from 46 percent to 59 percent just in the past year. Among white Americans, the number has increased from 39 percent to 53 percent. Among Republicans, it spiked from 27 percent to 42 percent. This growing awareness has triggered calls for reform of police practices by politicians from President Barack Obama to local mayors.

That BLM met with initial skepticism and criticism should come as no surprise. This happens to all protest movements when they first appear. When four black college students organized a sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 1960 to protest Jim Crow racial segregation, even many black and white liberals thought that they were too radical. But their actions galvanized a new wave of civil rights protest. Within a few months, the sit-in movement spread to dozens of cities throughout the South and the activists started a new organization called the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Its growing base of supporters played key roles in the freedom rides, marches and voter registration drives that eventually led Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Many SNCC activists became key leaders in subsequent battles for social justice, including congressman John Lewis and Marion Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund.

The same dynamic occurred when feminist groups in the 1960s and 1970s began protesting against male-dominated institutions, when environmental activists sought to shut down nuclear power plants, and when ACT-UP organized “die-ins,” rallies and other disruptions to raise awareness about the AIDS epidemic. Ideas that were once considered “radical” moved from the margins to the mainstream, changing both the culture and public policy.

The most recent counterpart to BLM is the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. In September 2011, a handful of activists took over Zuccotti Park in New York City to draw attention to the nation’s widening wealth and income gap. The protests quickly spread to cities and towns around the country and changed our national conversation. At kitchen tables, in coffee shops, in offices and factories, and in newsrooms, Americans began talking about economic inequality, corporate greed, and how America’s super-rich have damaged our economy and our democracy. Occupy Wall Street provided Americans with a language—the “1 percent” and the “99 percent”—to explain the nation’s widening economic divide, the undue political influence of the super-rich, and the damage triggered by Wall Street’s reckless behavior that crashed the economy and caused enormous suffering and hardship.

Although many Americans disagreed with its disruptive tactics, the OWS movement nevertheless helped change public opinion. About three-quarters (74 percent) of Americans—including 84 percent of Democrats, 72 percent of independents, and 62 percent of Republicans—believe that corporations have too much influence on American life and politics today, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll. A Pew Research Center survey found that 60 percent of Americans believe that "the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy." Eighty-four percent of Americans think that money has too much influence in politics. Slightly more Americans (85 percent) want an overhaul of our campaign finance system. Seventy-three percent of Americans favor tougher rules for Wall Street financial companies and 58 percent of Americans support breaking up “big banks like Citigroup.” Sixty-nine percent of Americans—including 90 percent of Democrats, 69 percent of independents, and 45 percent of Republicans—believe that the government should help reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else. Eighty-two percent of Americans—including 94 percent of Democrats, 83 percent of independents, and 64 percent of Republicans—think the government should help reduce poverty. A recent poll by Hart Research Associates found that 75 percent of Americans (including 53 percent of Republicans) support an increase in the federal minimum wage to $12.50 an hour by 2020. Sixty-three percent support an even greater increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020.  

Even after local officials had pushed Occupy protesters out of parks and public spaces, the movement’s excitement and energy were soon harnessed and co-opted by labor unions and community activists. The past two years have seen an explosion of worker unrest, especially among Wal-Mart employees, workers at fast-food chains, janitors, and hospital workers. In response, a growing number of cities – including Seattle, Kansas City and Los Angeles – have adopted municipal wages significantly above the federal standard of $7.25 an hour. Even Wal-Mart and McDonald's reluctantly agreed to boost their starting pay. Perhaps the most telling sign of OWS’s success is an action taken Aug. 5 by the staid federal Securities and Exchange Commission. Beginning in 2018, the SEC will require publicly traded corporations to disclose the pay gap between their chief executives and their workers.

Soon after OWS started, politicians began echoing its concern about widening inequality. President Obama delivered several major speeches on the topic. But nowhere can the impact of the Occupy insurgency be better seen than in the fumbling efforts of some Republicans candidates – in 2012 and this year -- to tap into the national mood without sounding too anti-business and offending their corporate sponsors.

No politician has captured the spirit of OWS as well as Bernie Sanders. Indeed, the Sanders surge – inspired by his relentless attacks on the political influence of the “billionaire class” and Wall Street banks, widening inequality, the declining living standards of the middle class, persistent poverty, and the rising cost of higher education -- is the political expression of the OWS movement. He’s called for raising the federal minimum wage to $15, breaking up big banks, providing tuition-free higher education, and nominating Supreme Court justices who will overturn the Citizens United ruling that equates money with free speech.

Whether or not he captures the Democratic nomination, his campaign’s growing momentum has already shifted the public debate, pushing other candidates, including Hillary Clinton, to adopt more progressive positions. Sanders’ call for a “grass-roots political revolution” has inspired tens of thousands of Americans, including many young people, to participate in electoral politics, some for the first time.  

At the progressive Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix in July, BLM activists interrupted a town hall meeting with Sanders and Martin O’Malley, another Democratic presidential aspirant, demanding that they present "concrete actions" for addressing racial injustice. "Your 'progressive' is not enough," said Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter. "We need more."

On Aug. 8, BLM protesters disrupted a Seattle rally defending Social Security to which Sanders had been invited. Seconds after he took the stage, BLM protesters grabbed the microphone from Sanders. Many in the audience booed while one of the protesters addressed the crowd: "My name is Marissa Janae Johnson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Seattle. I was going to tell Bernie how racist this city is, filled with its progressives, but you already did it for me.” Johnson led a four-minute moment of silence in honor of Michael Brown and demanded that Sanders release his plans to reform policing. When it appeared that Johnson would not give back the microphone to Sanders, the organizers decided to shut down the rally. Sanders never got a chance to speak.

Sanders was taken aback by the criticism and the tactics. Some of his supporters were angry that the BLMers would attack and embarrass the Democrats’ most progressive candidate, arguing that his economic policy agenda would disproportionately help African-Americans. Why not focus their anger on the Republican candidates or on Hillary Clinton?

In effect, the BLM activists were holding Sanders to a higher standard. They expected more of him – and of his liberal and progressive (and mostly white) supporters. They countered that his focus on economic issues was insufficient. They insisted that he specifically address the racism of the criminal justice system and the problem of police abuse in the black community. And they knew that disrupting Sanders rallies would generate lots of media publicity for BLM.

BLM’s spat with Sanders reflects the persistent tension between “outsiders” and “insiders” in American politics. Outsiders engage in confrontation in order to get their voices heard and put new issues on the public agenda. Politicians have to decide whether to embrace or vilify the protesters and their issues.

In this case, BLM’s protests may have actually strengthened Sanders’ growing movement. Sanders -- who began his activist career in the 1960s civil rights movement when he was arrested for demonstrating  against segregated public schools in Chicago, and who, from the start of his campaign, has focused attention on the shockingly high unemployment rate among black youth --  moved quickly to address the BLM’s concerns. A week after BLM disrupted the  Phoenix gathering, Sanders spoke to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group founded by Martin Luther King Jr.,  where he said “black lives matter” and outlined a detailed set of initiatives to deal with racial inequality, which he posted on his campaign website.

Then he hired an African-American woman -- Symone Sanders,  the national youth chair of the Coalition on Juvenile Justice – as his press secretary.  A well-respected activist, Symone Sanders has spoken at recent Sanders rallies and helped the Vermont senator sharpen his message on racial issues. His most recent stump speeches at huge rallies in Portland, Oregon, Oakland, California, and Los Angeles have included specific references to police misconduct, mass incarceration, the GOP’s efforts to suppress voting rights, and “institutional racism.” His comments about racism have gotten some of the loudest and most sustained cheers from the crowd at these rallies.

Whether Sanders’ increasing emphasis on racial issues will attract more African-American voters and help him win his party’s nomination isn’t clear, but it was probably no coincidence that BLM did not disrupt Sanders’ rally in Los Angeles Monday night, and that the number of blacks among the 27,000 people in the crowd was considerably larger than in his other large events. On Tuesday, BLM protesters showed up at a Hillary Clinton event in New Hampshire and the following day the group interrupted a Jeb Bush rally in Las Vegas. Because BLM is highly decentralized, people with different political views, using different tactics, can claim to represent the movement, so it isn’t clear if BLM’s turn toward these other candidates is part of a national strategy, but it appears that BLM has made peace with the Sanders campaign.

By fusing the concerns of both BLM and OWS, Sanders is echoing Martin Luther King’s concerns with both racial and economic justice. “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter," he asked, "if you can't afford to buy a hamburger?" He believed that America needed a "radical redistribution of economic and political power" as well as a dismantling of America’s racial caste system. It is often forgotten that the August 1963 protest rally at the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, was called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and was funded primarily by donations from labor unions.

King was committed to building bridges between the civil rights and labor movements. Speaking to a meeting of Teamsters union shop stewards in 1967, King said, "Negroes are not the only poor in the nation. There are nearly twice as many white poor as Negro, and therefore the struggle against poverty is not involved solely with color or racial discrimination but with elementary economic justice."  He was assassinated in April 1968 in Memphis, where he had gone to support a strike of African-American sanitation workers.

Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter reflect two parallel, overlapping, but distinct branches of progressive politics. Their commonalities are greater than their differences. Like OWS and other major protest movements, Black Lives Matters seemed to come out of nowhere, but was in reality a response to long-simmering concerns. Like OWS, it has attracted significant media coverage and galvanized public opinion. Like OWS, it emerged as a loosely structured, bottom-up movement without much funding, with little mainstream support, and with young and relatively inexperienced leaders.  

But within a year, Black Lives Matter has helped catalyze a national conversation about racial injustice and cajoled the major Democratic Party candidates for president – and other offices – to focus more attention on these issues. Even if, like OWS, the BLM movement falls by the wayside, its impact, like OWS’s, will endure.

By Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame" (Nation Books).

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