Can we find black liberation at the voting polls? Five months ago, Black Lives Matter leader Alicia Garza said “No” stating, “Black Lives Matter as a network will not, does not, has not, ain’t going to endorse any candidates.” She spoke plainly about the opportunistic nature of the political sphere, “What we’ve seen is an attempt by mainstream politics and politicians to co-opt movements that galvanize people in order for them to move closer to their own goals and objectives.” However, many black public figures are taking the traditional position of rallying behind candidates they believe will be the most sympathetic to their cause. For example, the family of Eric Garner– killed by New York police in 2014- are at political odds. Garner’s mother endorses Hilary Clinton while his daughter Erica Garner endorses Bernie Sanders claiming, “I’m behind anyone who’s going to listen and speak up for us. And I think we need to believe in a leader like Bernie Sanders.” Meanwhile, acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates also endorsed Sanders even after giving a scathing critique of Sanders’ refusal to support reparations for Black Americans. Just one month ago Coates stated, “One cannot propose to plunder a people, incur a moral and monetary debt, propose to never pay it back, and then claim to be seriously engaging in the fight against white supremacy.” Nevertheless, Ta-Nehisi has taken the path of choosing the lesser of the two evils- selecting the candidate that resonates with him the most and hoping s(he) will be kind to black people. But is it enough?
Meanwhile, Deray McKesson isn’t simply endorsing a political candidate; he’s running for office himself. According to his article on Medium, ” I am running to be the 50th Mayor of Baltimore in order to usher our city into an era where the government is accountable to its people and is aggressively innovative in how it identifies and solves its problems. We can build a Baltimore where more and more people want to live and work, and where everyone can thrive.” Mckesson is a controversial figure for some. His fame rose after his decision to go to Ferguson and “bear witness” to the protests. But many of his social media tactics have been viewed as self-serving careerism, and he’s been labeled as a “professional protester” by his toughest critics. Only time will reveal the depth of McKesson’s commitment to Black liberation, but overall, the implications of professionalizing the Movement for Black Lives raises many questions. How do we maintain our integrity without falling victim to false promises of politicians during a time when they’re most likely to say anything to ensure a vote?
The Movement for Black Lives’ greatest accomplishment so far has been educating the American public about problems that have plagued our community for centuries. It’s turned the discussion of the government’s disregard of black bodies into a public conversation. This conversation has not only uncovered hidden racist beliefs within non-black communities, but it has also forced black Americans to have difficult conversations about the value we place on our own lives as well as the ways we strategize and promote progress within the political sphere. For example, Ferguson was a people’s uprising in which the poorest and most disenfranchised blacks were demanding justice in the streets. Despite the skewed media coverage, the American public had no choice but to see them and recognize their concerns. But things have changed. When the media inquires about what’s happening in the movement, they’re no longer asking the streets, they’re asking the most “notable” activists, and many of these notables are telling the black masses how to vote. As Gazi Kodzo plainly put it, the movement has gone from “the street to the suite.” Important conversations about out livelihood aren’t happening openly, but behind closed doors. Once again we have inherited a few privileged spokespeople to inform the world about black issues. This didn’t work with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, why would it work now?
Malcolm X critiqued black people’s implicit faith in mainstream politics in his famous 1964 speech “The Ballot or the Bullet” stating, “The government itself has failed us, and the White Liberals who have been posing as our friends have failed us. Once we see that all these other sources to which we have turned have failed, we stop turning to them and start turning to ourselves.” Malcolm X’s words along with the successes and failures of past movements can be used as instructional tools to learn from mistakes and choose differently. It’s time to entrust faith in our ability to organize with each other to grow a movement that can’t be undermined. We mustn’t depend on any one politician to grant us the justice we deserve-we’ve played that tired game before. This movement must remain collective and decentralized-not simply waged by a handful of privileged, well-spoken leaders. The Movement for Black Lives isn’t just a good career move, and it certainly can’t be endorsed.