Grassroots Organizing in Black Lives Matter

Liberty and justice for all. These principles are so central to the foundation of our country that they define the entity to which we pledge allegiance. The democratic republic our forefathers built was meant to preserve the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of all its citizens. Yet a vast majority of citizens today are dominated and their needs invalidated by the elite and wealthy few. In the past few years, this oppression has been brought to the forefront of American consciousness through a series of murders and police brutality of black men. In response to these atrocities, a movement began to take shape online that attempted to organize active opposition to domination of underprivileged black communities. Black Lives Matter began as a hashtag, but grew into a movement based on principles of grassroots democracy, and employing tactics that demonstrate what large-scale organizing may look like in the future.

Jeffrey Stout’s Blessed are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America examines grassroots democracy in the Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation, a self-described “network of broad-based institutional organizations building power to revitalize our democracy for constructive social and economic change” (“West”).  By providing vignettes of community organizers’ successes and failures, Stout takes a wide lens look at the present state of democracy in America and what is necessary for an average citizen to affect change in his or her community.

Stout purports the power of the elite is dependent on the “inaction of others and the resignation that lies beneath it” (Stout, 278). Big business depends on top-down, hierarchical organization. It is in their best interest if everyone else remains unorganized, isolated individuals. It is best for the elite if we believe our best chance for change is “by casting a vote every four years for a candidate who promises something called change” (Stout, 278).

Southwest IAF is an organizer’s group throughout the southwestern U.S. The organizer’s job is to establish and train citizens’ organizations where the community has a grievance and feels oppressed. Organizers themselves are not leaders of individual organizations, but instead are responsible for regions and keeping active the groups within them. This organization of the leaders helps keep citizen’s groups connected and establishes a big enough network to have substantial pull and influence if necessary. Stout is careful to emphasize the importance of growing slowly and allowing the communities to establish change, otherwise the process becomes no longer democratic.

To help ensure this, the primary formula for establishing a new community organization is: 1. Analyze the power structure in play in the community, 2. Talk to an institutional official, for example the pastor of a prominent church in the area, and evaluate the needs of the community, 3. Find leaders – citizens angered about the injustice being done who have some authority or credibility within the community, 4. Reach out to professional organizers, if any exist in the area, to plug the new organization in to a larger existing support structure 5. Begin internal organizational activity, starting with holding one-on-one and house meetings to ask what the community issues are and start to build a collective consciousness of the power structure creating oppression.

Grassroots democracy is coordinated action relying on interpersonal connection. This is why the one-on-ones and small meetings are so vital. Affected citizens share their stories, and the raw emotion contained in the story and in their face triggers mirror neurons that allow human beings to empathize. The strength and commitment of the organization breaks down when leaders become complacent and stop calling for meetings, as Stout saw in one of the Arizona branches of Southwest IAF.

The key here is to discover and cultivate good leadership, because “Only when it can be demonstrated that leaders authentically speak on behalf of others is a citizens’ organization able to influence and contest the decisions of elites” (Stout, 128). Stout’s philosophy of leadership is hierarchical, insomuch as leaders are mentored by local organizers, who report to regional organizers, and so on. But the authority to lead is not arbitrary or based on wealth. Instead, it derives directly from the citizens’ group as “earned and accountable authority” (Stout, 94). Stout calls Southwest IAF and organizations like it cellular democracies, in which relationships among the citizens’ groups are formed without a “vertical, top-down, unidirectional model of authority” (Stout 106).

The Black Lives Matter movement seems to have a similar cellularly democratic structure, with the exception of a fairly clearly defined National power base made up of the founders and their direct associates. As a more goal-oriented movement, Black Lives Matter requires a more defined, cohesive identity than most broad-based grassroots organizations, particularly when so much contention exists over who is actually involved in Black Lives Matter and what their demands are.

Founded by community organizers Alicia Garza, Patrice Cullors, and Opal Tometi after the murder of Trayvon Martin and acquittal of George Zimmerman (Ruffin), the #BlackLivesMatter movement was predisposed to look like grassroots organizing from the start. Garza, Cullors, and Tometi were not taking on just another power system in their community, however. They wanted to address law enforcement and political attitudes toward black men nationwide, and they did not have the time to go community to community nationwide to grow and cultivate citizens’ organizations. They saw the national outrage was present and fresh, and they capitalized on it by beginning a strong sociopolitical presence online in social media forums. Rather than embracing a charismatic, top-down structural model like many preceding freedom rights groups, #BlackLivesMatter engaged in collective planning and visibly incorporated groups that were typically marginalized in black movements, such as women and the LGBTQ+ community.

In this way, they are what many would call a broad-based organization. Black Lives Matter is largely made up of black citizens, and all leadership positions are occupied by blacks in order to properly represent the organization, its identity, and its authority, but the movement’s goal is not to be exclusive. Americans of all races have supported Black Lives Matter’s demand for change, and whites have staged protests as well, holding signs reading “White silence = violence” (Phillip). Black Lives Matter has a very strong feminist presence as well. Unlike traditional male-dominated social movements, Black Lives Matter was founded by three feminist women who actively encourage black women to speak out for their community. Founder Alicia Garza penned an article entitled “Herstory of the Black Lives Matter Movement” in which she very explicitly states the feminist goals of the organization:

Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes. It goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all. Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements. It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement. – (Garza, 2)

From the central organizing occurring on social media, local Black Lives Matter communities began to form nationwide as a sort of more specified citizens’ organization. The first major action of these groups was to organize a ‘freedom ride’ to Ferguson, Missouri, and this set the tone for future Black Lives Matter groups’ actions. These actions mainly take place in the form of protest, organized locally, regionally, and nationally through social media and conference calls (Ruffin).

One consequence of the almost logarithmic growth of the movement was a symptom Stout refers to as “all grass, no roots” (Stout, 128), in which growth is valued over establishing a community presence and identity. So many groups wanted to get on board that the goals of the movement became indistinct. One reporter put it bluntly: “In the process of trying to grow its message from a hashtag spawned by three activists into a national political movement, Black Lives Matter—a decentralized organization with official and unofficial Facebook pages, meet-ups, and blogs throughout America and the world—is splintering internally on how to express that message, and even defining what that message truly is” (Collins).

Despite these issues, Black Lives Matter continued to gain traction in the U.S. as well as abroad, and in 2014 was listed among “12 Hashtags that Changed the World in 2014” in Yes! Magazine (Weedston). By 2015, the Black Lives Matter movement had gained international supporters and unofficially dubbed the “Black Spring,” but orgainizations such as Al Jazeera (Beydoun). They compared the awakening of oppressed blacks in America to the recent Arab Spring that liberated Egypt, Tunisia, and Lybia.

Recently, much of the Black Lives Matter’s energy has shifted focus from the streets to the college campus. The movement’s goals have evolved to include greater diversity in student body and faculty on college campuses, an offering of ethnic-studies classes, and – as recently succeeded at Kalamazoo College in Michigan – the creation of intercultural centers that act as support systems for minority students. (Somashekhar).

The upcoming presidential election is already beginning to generate activity from Black Lives Matter, but not in the normative way of supporting the candidate most likely to give heed to their demands. Like Stout and other grassroots philosophers, Black Lives Matter recognizes that one man that is part of the political power machine will not be able to bring about large-scale change. They recognize that the potentiality for change is through broad-based organizing. The protests at Bernie Sanders campaign speeches emphasize this position. After the protests, Sanders issued a statement saying, “I was especially disappointed because on criminal justice reform and the need to fight racism there is no other candidate for president who will fight harder than me” (Hegg). The point of these tactics is to disrupt complacency so that other progressives at the rally might realize that while Sanders may have good intentions, it will never be enough to disrupt oppression in the system.

Black Lives Matter’s refusual to utilize typical channels of organizing, such as church structure or preexisting black-centered organizations has angered some, such as civil rights activist Al Sharpton, but the social media centric organizing tactics of the movement have been wildly successful, especially in regards to motivating the black youth of America. According to Sarah Jackson, a professor at Northeastern University, the civil rights establishment “emphasizes mobilizing people for rallies and speeches and tends to be centered around a charismatic male leader” (Demby).

Perhaps Black Lives Matter is taking democratic organizing a step further than even IAF in bucking traditional organizational systems. Social media creates opportunity for discussion and organization free of vertically organized systems, and yet it simultaneously reaches a wider audience than one-on-one meetings ever could. Does this mean that the human aspect of community interaction is lost? When a movement is centered so strongly around fighting a systemic disregard for black experience, the empathy cannot help but be conveyed, even digitally. The face-to-face interactions Stout requires are effectively translated into poignant stories that can be told nationally and even internationally, and because of the identity and more defined goal of the organization as a whole, any member can be emotionally receptive because of shared experience.

Jeffrey Stout’s call for broad-based, grassroots organizing on the local level affects promising change in the democratic systems of individual communities. He is not hesitant to admit, however, that American democracy as a whole is sick, and “the imbalance of power between ruling elites and ordinary citizens is the principal cause of democracy’s current ills” (Stout 286). Community organizing is one thing, but how do organizers go about applying those concepts to a national or even international system? Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota believes Black Lives Matter is the answer:

#BlackLivesMatter can do what Occupy Wall Street started but couldn’t finish. It can unify and electrify a broad-based movement that combines the disparate but parallel movements for a fair pay, student debt, immigration reform, a new union movement, and a resurgence in democratic participation. Such a movement is what this time calls for, and I believe #BlackLivesMatter has the charisma, vision, and organizational capacity to spark another major reordering of American social and economic relationships. – (Edwards, 5)

The systemic marginalizing of groups such as the black community is a symptom of the larger issue with modern democracy in America. The few privileged are able to translate economic advantage into political advantage and dominate the masses. It takes broad-based organizing of the affected population to engender change and shift the balance of power to a more even distribution. It takes active, present democratic exercise to keep potential domination at bay. Otherwise, Stout says, “When we expect liberty and justice to appear miraculously, like fast food, without more rigorous forms of participation, definition, and sacrifice, we are like farmers who curse the dirt and pray for rain, but want ‘crops without plowing the ground’” (290).

While #BlackLivesMatter is what would be categorized as a social movement, it’s impact has been so far-reaching as to establish a viable, broad-based network that can adapt to changing issues concerning its population. Through direct tactics and vocal protests, Black Lives Matter is bringing to the forefront of American discussion the relatively academic idea that large-scale change occurs not through electing the right man to the White House, but rather by banding together peaceably and unilaterally to work against established and oppressive power systems. Though the movement is focused on a particular race of citizens, liberation of black lives means liberation of all lives and a shift of power that leads us closer to the idealistic principles on which our country was founded. We have a long way ahead of us, but Black Lives Matter demonstrates a successful international organizational structure in the mode of cellular democracy.

Works Cited

Beydoun, Kahled and Priscilla Ocen. “Baltimore and the Emergence of a Black Spring.” May 5, 2015. Aljazeera. <http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2015/05/ baltimore-emergence-black-spring-150504123031263.html>.

Collins, Ben and Tim Mack. “Who Really Runs #BlackLivesMatter?” Aug 15, 2015. The Daily Beast. < http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/08/15/who-really-runs-blacklivesmatter.html>.

Demby, Gene. “The Birth of a New Civil Rights Movement.” Dec 31, 2014. Politico Magazine. < http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/12/ferguson-new-civil-rights-movement-113906#ixzz3jJFDhWtx>.

Edwards, Sue Bradford and Duchess Harris. Black Lives Matter. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Abdo Publishing, 2016.

Garza, Alicia. “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.” Oct 7, 2014. The Feminist Wire.

Hegg, Stephen. “Tactics of Black Lives Matter.” 2015. Kcts9.org. <http://www.kcts9.org /programs/in-close/tactics-black-lives-matter>.

Phillip, Abby. “Protesting Racial Injustice While White.” Dec 11, 2014. The Washingtom Post. < https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2014/12/11/ protesting-racial-injustice-while-white/>.

Ruffin, Herbert. “Black Lives Matter: The Growth of a New Social Justice Movement.” 2015. Black Past.org. <http://www.blackpast.org/perspectives/black-lives-matter-growth-new-social-justice-movement>.

Somashekhar, Sandhya. “How Black Lives Matter, born on the streets, is rising to power on campus.” Nov 17, 2015. The Washington Post. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/how-black-lives-matter-born-on-the-streets-is-rising-to-power-on-campus/2015/11/17/3c113e96-8959-11e5-be8b-1ae2e4f50f76_story.html>.

Stout, Jeffrey. Blessed are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Weedston, Lindsey. “12 Hashtags that Changed the World in 2014.” Dec 19, 2014. Yes! Magazine. <http://www.yesmagazine.org/people-power/12-hashtags-that-changed-the-world-in-2014>.

“West Southwest IAF.” SWIAF.org. 2013. <http://www.swiaf.org/>.

Hannah Moseley