It’s a big day for the new civil rights movement known as Black Lives Matter. Up until now, the movement had famously opted to forgo hierarchies in favor of a diffuse coalition that more resembled Occupy Wall Street than, say, the ‘60s-era Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. The movement’s decentralized approach has been criticized in the past, and its activists have butted heads with both civil rights leaders and the Obama administration. But on Monday morning, Black Lives Matter made a decision to be a movement with a plan, a platform, and concrete demands.
In a statement released by more than 30 organizations (and endorsed by an additional 50), BLM released six platform demands and “key solutions”—a list of more than 40 policy recommendations, including demilitarizing law enforcement, unionizing unregulated industries, and decriminalizing drugs. A centralized wing of the movement for black lives, M4BL Policy Table, has been working on the demands for a little over a year, according to Thenjiwe McHarris, who is part of the M4BL Policy Table Leadership team.
This is a really, really big deal. By shedding its previous identity as a largely reactionary, structureless movement, Black Lives Matter seeks to definitively lead the national discussion on the safety, health, and freedom of black people. Painting the movement with a broad brush is a seismic shift. And it’s a shift that Occupy Wall Street never put in motion, a failure which many point to as the reason for the movement’s eventual dissolution. The list of demands set forth by M4BL explicitly unifies organizations across the United States—and though the goals are purposefully lofty, it’s a significant move towards harnessing the power of local groups into something bigger.
“The heart of what the movement is, is people and organizations across country coming together and becoming a united front for the purposes of co-creating a vision for black lives,” McHarris said. And while McHarris acknowledges that the movement for black lives has largely been non-hierarchical, she says that “it’s not a leaderless movement, it’s a leaderful movement.”
Perhaps the most recognizable of the M4BL’s demands is to “End the war on black people.” Listed under this demand is an immediate end to the criminalization and dehumanization of black youth. The Black Lives Matter slogan and network, originally a response to the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2012, really crystallized during protests in the wake of 18-year-old Michael Brown’s death in August of 2014. Even though before today there had not been a formal national message, the struggle to ensure the safety of young blacks has always been a tenet of the movement.
“If we also believe in a radically different world where policy matters, we have to push ourselves for transformative demands.”- Thenjiwe McHarris
The other demands listed on the M4BL’s site are just as big in scope. “If we also believe in a radically different world where policy matters, we have to push ourselves for transformative demands,” McHarris said. “As opposed to the reactionary reforms that don’t address root causes to the issue.”
Those demands include reparations to black Americans for “past and continuous harms,” “invest-divest,” a list of orders that include investing in education by reallocating police funds, and an immediate and retroactive decriminalization of drug and sex-work offenses. Also part of M4BL’s platform is Economic Justice, with a policy recommendation to end the Trans-Pacific Partnership and renegotiate all trade agreements. “Global trade policy, strongly supported by the U.S., is structured almost exclusively around the needs of capital, rather than people,” the platform reads. “So trade barriers are lowered through changes in tariffs to ensure easier flow of capital and goods or regulations that protect local economies, workers or the environment are often weakened to address the needs of an international competitor in a market.”
Perhaps most striking in M4BL’s list of demands is Political Power. A central tension in the movement has been between those who favor organizing outside the political system and others, like DeRay McKesson (whose organizations are not listed as participating members in M4BL), who have courted politicians and political insiders. Some of the demands under Political Power—an end to the criminalization of black political activity, a call for publicly financed elections—make clear that Black Lives Matter will continue to operate outside the confines of Washington, or at the very least, is not taking a position to be more involved in the politics.
“This platform is a product of a number of meetings and conversations and the work of a number of folks around the country. It’s not a handful of organizations, but a significant amount of people who helped inspire the vision,” said McHarris.
The M4BL’s timing couldn’t be more perfect. On the heels of a long, hot summer of violence, at a time when a presidential candidate is retweeting white supremacists, Black Lives Matter’s new phase is coming not a moment too soon.