How Obama sabotaged the protest movement…
“The Obama administration had a virtual “open door” policy when it came to activists. Their strategy was to make busyness and constant engagement look like progress. This meant having regular contact with activists, empanelling a national policing commission, and empowering the Department of Justice to initiate investigations and compile reports on egregious police departments. And yet, throughout this flurry of activity, it was hard to grasp what was changing. Where was the impact?
The Democratic Party sought, with some urgency, to resolve these issues so that progressives could then turn their full attention to the 2016 election. This meant that the liberal establishment constantly questioned the motives, structure, and demands of the movement in hopes of moving things along. “Who are your leaders?” “What are your demands?” “Give us a solution!” were some of the questions — or rather accusations — directed at the most visible leaders of the movement.
Dinner With the President
This style reflected the influence of non-governmental organisations, which measure the effectiveness of activism or organising through a lens of efficiency and tangible results. There was pressure to come up with solutions or policy initiatives as a more “real” and measurable way to confront the issues with policing. When some activists chafed at this particular framing, they were attacked as purists.
For example, when a black activist from Chicago named Aislinn Pulley refused to go to a closed-door meeting at the White House in February of 2016 because she doubted the sincerity of the Obama administration, President Barack Obama personally called her out.
Obama said, “You can’t just keep on yelling at them and you can’t refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position . . . The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room and then start trying to figure out how is this problem going to be solved. You then have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable — that can institutionalize the changes you seek and to engage the other side.”
The president’s comments did have a hearing in some parts of the movement. The Black Lives Matter movement was not uniform in its thinking, strategies, or tactics. And those divergent ideas about political objectives and the process through which the movement should arrive at its decisions were deeply contested within the movement. Some activists welcomed White House access and believed it meant they were getting a hearing at the highest level. Brittany Packnett, who was active in St Louis and Ferguson in 2014, explained why she and others participated in the meeting with Obama:
To gain the liberation we seek, there remain many critical moments for action and we are wise not to limit the legitimate ones. Our fights will never be won at the policy table alone. Protestors assume risk, build organic democratic accountability in the streets and force organized tactics to take hold. Organisers mobilise the people with strategic and direct action to push systemic change in institutions and policies. Policymakers and institutional leaders are influenced by all manner of people continuing to mount pressure in every space possible to see lasting change . . . I believe this movement’s collective, varied work can and has moved mountains but it will take every one of us and every tactic at our disposal to win the freedom we seek.
For others, there were misgivings. Aislinn Pulley, the Chicago activist that Obama chastised for refusing to meet, had a vastly different vision of change compared to the one offered by the president. She wrote an open letter in response to his criticism of her:
I could not, with any integrity, participate in such a sham that would only serve to legitimise the false narrative that the government is working to end police brutality and the institutional racism that fuels it. For the increasing number of families fighting for justice and dignity for their kin slain by police, I refuse to give its perpetrators and enablers political cover by making an appearance among them . . . We assert that true revolutionary and systemic change will ultimately only be brought forth by ordinary working people, students and youth — organising, marching and taking power from the corrupt elites.”
Five Years Ahead, Do Black Lives Matter?
Five years since its inception, a look at what the Black Lives Matter movement accomplished and the important work it left unfinished.