The events of the past few months, now simply referred to as Ferguson, have touched off nationwide protests of a scale not seen in a half-century. From billboards to T-shirts, protest banners and news headlines – all emblazoned with the words #BlackLivesMatter – we are witnessing the makings of a social movement of the 21st century kind. The revolution that Gil Scot Heron famously said, “would not be televised”, is today, in fact, recorded and tweeted.
The Godfather of Rap and soulful Black Power poet and musician could never have imagined that a hashtag would be the rallying cry of a new generation’s quest for racial justice in the United States of America.
What a remarkable development in the midst of the 50th anniversary of the black freedom movement. What should be the eve of commemorating the final chapter in the century-long battle for citizenship rights by African Americans with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, now marks the prologue to a new human rights drama.
Black Power has given way to #BlackLivesMatter, the devolution of a movement for resources and recognition to a fight to exist, free of state-sanctioned violence. This is the “rearest of rear-guard positions one can imagine,” historian Andy Seal writes at his blog, “petitioning for the right not to die prematurely, a mark of retreat from the larger hopes and assertive agendas” of the 1960s and 1970s.
Or could it be that this is the wrong way to look at it? What if this moment is also a return to first principles: the necessary assertion of the humanity of black life by the democratic crowd beyond the legal fictions of equality?
The fierce critic, essayist and novelist James Baldwin was on to something when he marked the Emancipation Proclamation centennial in 1963. In a message to his nephew in the opening essay of The Fire Next Time, he foretold the flames of Ferguson. Much of the civil rights establishment at the time had their sights on a massive rally on the mall to be held that summer and led by A Phillip Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr. But Baldwin was less concerned about legislation while the Kennedy administration dithered about the passage of a civil rights bill. Baldwin wanted his nephew and all Harlem youth to build their immunity against the malignancy of self-doubt, by externalizing what the psychologist Kenneth Clark of Brown v Board of Education fame described as the “daily experience” of being disrespected and devalued.
“They have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know and do not want to know it,” Baldwin wrote. “It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence that constitutes the crime.”
Saving black youth meant going beyond ending the legal infrastructure of Jim Crow. It meant inverting the narrative of black pathology embedded in what Darren Wilson calls “high crime areas” or what former mayor Rudolph Giuliani and police commissioner Ray Kelly call “black-on-black crime” today. Baldwin crafted a new narrative and structural analysis of white responsibility for black suffering and premature death, even at the hands of one’s own neighbors and schoolmates.
Like Baldwin, #BlackLivesMatters categorically refuses to trade on respectability, to determine who deserves to die prematurely when the “authors of devastation” control the apparatus of justice. Black people cannot establish different standards of justice, from policing to prison, outside of white decision makers and a predominately white electorate. When Giuliani claimed that crime was black people’s problem for them to fix on their own, he was making a 21st century segregationist claim. Contrary to popular myth, the former New York City mayor’s Italian-American forebears did not save themselves from their own white-on-white crime. Welfarist policies, machine politicians, union jobs and white philanthropists aided them over much of the 20th century.
These reforms were pro-social, life affirming, non-lethal interventions, amounting to a repudiation of criminal justice as the blunt instrument of social order. The lie of segregation has always been that blacks are unfit or undeserving of equality. The logic is that they are either monstrous or childlike, not fully human.
The Black Power movement defied this logic and tried to put into practice the spirit of what Baldwin had said in prose. As a mode of empowerment and self-determination, Black Power was one of many long-running modes of engagement with American racism. Then, as a slogan and a new political imperative it went viral in 1966 – the same year the Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland, California – and soon spread nationally. More youth rallied to Black Power and its many organizational manifestations and theoretical orientations than any other ideological concept. And the Panthers made criminal justice a core focus of their work. “We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people,” they listed on their Ten-Point Program.
The Panthers never achieved their goal as they faced insurmountable violence by local, state and federal officials by the end of late 1969. Clandestine attacks and agents provocateurs were the seeds of their undoing. And yet their unfinished work is reinvigorated today in #BlackLivesMatters. Young people again are shaping a movement in their own image. Although, this time it is far more democratic, transparent and inclusive. This time the racial justice movement is about human rights and civil rights. This time change is in the cities and in the suburbs. And this time “the revolution will be live” on Twitter. Stay following.
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The revolution will be live-tweeted: why #BlackLivesMatter is the new model for civil rights have 1245 words, post on www.theguardian.com at December 1, 2014. This is cached page on Game Breaking News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.