The Black Lives Matter movement sparked by Ferguson protests one year ago received a close look from the expert eyes of an organizer, a law professor and a political scientist in a panel at the University of Missouri St. Louis on Friday, August 7 organized by anthropology professor Sarah Lacy.
The event, attended by an attentive and engaging crowd of about 75, looked at the movement from radical perspectives, while also asking very basic, pragmatic questions.
Eljeer Hawkins, an activist and union organizer in New York City, spoke to the panel’s title, “Beyond Reform,” by situating the movement in the context of what he described as “a profound crisis in neo-liberal finance capitalism.” The ultimate target of his critique was not killer cops, but “the 0.1 percent” – not the 1 percent – that wields political and economic power.
Yet he gave a very direct address on pragmatic matters to what he rightly sized up to be a room full of fellow organizers. The idea of revolution, he acknowledged, is “more sexy, deeper, more romantic,” but a movement needs to wage local campaigns it can win. “When you fight and win, say, a $15 minimum wage, people get energized,” Hawkins said.
He challenged Black Lives Matters organizers to widen their base.
“We have to go back into the projects and reach people,” Hawkins said. “How do the grassroots feed the movement, and how does the movement feed the grassroots? We don’t know how to do that yet.”
Dean Spade, an associate professor of law at Seattle University and founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, spoke to the panel’s subtitle, “Beyond Reform: The Limits of Legislating Equality for Black & Brown and LGBTQ+ Liberation.” He warned against bargaining and settling for “purely symbolic laws,” the creation of “false procedures with no teeth,” and “reforms that only affect a small elite.”
“When a change in law is offered as a compromise, we need to ask, ‘Will it help?’” Spade said. “Or are we being offered a proposed solution that leaves out the most vulnerable?”
Spade’s convictions run, indeed, far “beyond reform,” as the activist attorney self identified as a “police, prison and border abolitionist.” But seeking solutions as extreme as abolishing police, prisons and political borders does not mean the movement is wrong to seek individual reforms. “To be an abolitionist,” Spade said, “doesn’t mean we stop seeking incremental change.”
Barbara L. Graham, an associate professor of political science at UMSL, was invited to lend the perspective of the Civil Rights Movement to the new movement sparked by Ferguson. She described the “coordinated strategies” of protest, litigation and economic boycott that succeeded for civil rights activists and urged young organizers to consider whether they can be revised to suit present needs.
Remarkably, she also advised Ferguson organizers to study their contemporary activists from the far right for clues.
“The tea party captured the Republican Party through protest, social media and – most importantly – by voting,” Graham said, “especially voting in primaries where the party’s candidate for the general election is chosen.”
Graham quoted from local activist and rapper Tef Poe, at one point, though this same Tef Poe wrote in TIME magazine that he no longer believed in the power of the ballot because he voted for President Obama, yet Ferguson happened on Obama’s watch. During the voting discussion that Graham inspired, Hawkins noted, “Young people are cynical of the system the way it’s constructed today.”
But Graham was insistent about using the vote in the movement.
“Republicans would not work so hard to suppress the vote,” Graham said, “if it didn’t matter.”
The event was organized in conjunction with Ferguson anniversary events, as August 9 marks one year since then-Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed teen Michael Brown Jr., sparking months of unrest and a national movement.