Our Movement, Our Lives

Against the Current, No. 198, January/February 2019

William Copeland

Making All Black Lives Matter:
Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-first Century
By Barbara Ransby
University of California Press, 2018, 240 pages, paper $18.95, ebook $16.95

AS A DETROIT movement activist and cultural organizer who has just entered my 40s, I was aware of Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives, but it did not play a significant role in my political development, nor I in its development and activities. I saw BLM as belonging to a younger generation, rather than my own.

For six years, I worked closely with Detroit youth ages 13-21, some of whom have gone on to be active in Detroit’s chapters of BLM and Black Youth Project 100 (BYP).

They have organized direct actions at police precincts, created banners and rallies to honor Aiyana Stanley Jones — seven years old, killed in her sleep in an infamous botched Detroit police raid — and other victims of not only police murder but state violence more generally. They have also interrupted mayor Mike Duggan’s public meetings.

Barbara Ransby’s new book dives into the ideas, lives and struggles of those who launched various aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement, both nationally and locally. A professor of African-American Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies at University of Illinois-Chicago, her previous award-winning books include Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (2003) and Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson (2013).

Making Black Lives Matter does an excellent job of telling the stories behind the movements. It not only translates individuals’ political and organizational responses to witnessing the violence from America’s police and the tepid or non-existent responses from the courts, it also places the BLM movement in its political lineages of Black liberation.

Thirdly, this wonderful book describes some key contexts that readers may only know as names or places heard on the news: Trayvon, Ferguson, Freddie Gray, and much more. And finally, Ransby increases movement transparency by describing some of the organizations that make up this movement and their relationships and public actions.

Context of the BLM Movement

Going much larger and deeper than simply responding to the killings of Black individuals by police and “citizen agents,” this book describes the forces, individuals, and ideas that animated and sustained the Black Lives Matter movement.

Ransby describes BLM as not just a protest movement, but as a “transformational justice” movement that has stood up to oppression in ways that the United States had not seen in decades. She frames it as a “Black-led mass struggle that did not primarily or exclusively focus on women,” although Black women — notably Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza — were central in its formation and leadership.

One of my favorite aspects of the book is the description of the political lineages that made this movement possible. These include the HIV/AIDS activism of the 1990s that helped develop Black LGBT political leadership; the Black Radical Congress, which developed an analysis that included feminism as central to liberation; Critical Resistance and INCITE (Women of Color Against Violence) that advanced thinking about prison abolition that has been foundational to many BLM Movement activists; and lastly, the Chicago battle against police torture.

Many activists of this generation were also affected by the election and presidency of Barack Obama. Specifically, they have gone from great hope to understanding his ineffectiveness in solving problems of the Black community. This has led to discussions throughout the radical Black community on the limitations of Black elected officials.

Intergenerational Black Feminism

Ransby provides fresh insights into this movement. I had never thought of BLM as taking a stance against the neoliberal regime. Yet she begins her Conclusion with a quote from Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a leading expert on mass incarceration: “Sparked by police murder in capitalism’s neoliberal turn, the post-Ferguson movement may therefore be understood as protests against profound austerity and the iron fist necessary to impose it.”

The book concludes by moving from stories of individual local struggles to descriptions of the theoretical underpinnings of the movement as a whole. First and foremost is an intergenerational Black feminism. Ransby interviewed many movement leaders and found that “bell hooks, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Paula Giddings, Beth Ritchie, Cathy Cohen, Beverly Guy-Shiftall, [her] own book on Ella Baker, and finally fiction writer Toni Morrison” were the “intellectual building blocks of their collective consciousness.”

This Black feminist consciousness also included lived experiences and the analysis from mothers, grandmother, aunties, and sisters who did not write books, but lived (and shared) their creative survival and resistance.

Detroit activist Marcia Black, a student formerly in one of my programs, who has gone on to other forms of radical study and leadership, had a chance to meet the powerful African-American feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins. Her remarks illustrate how the young activists of this BLM moment are studying, internalizing, and making the works of their predecessors their own.

“Black Feminist Thought (Collins’ pioneering work) changed my life and I’m sure I wouldn’t of made it to this point in my life without it. It’s my bible. It’s a spiritual text that is almost singlehandedly responsible for me coming to understand that BLACK WOMEN ARE INHERENTLY VALUABLE. I’M VALUABLE.”

A second theoretical trend, “Unapolo­getically Black,” has become a rallying cry of the movement. This functions as a challenge to respectability politics that promote assimilation for economic and political ends. It also empowers Black activists to challenge silencing and anti-Black racism in people of color (PoC) spaces.

Youth leadership and the prominent role of social media are also pivotal in this movement’s organizing. It‘s through social media that many first learn of the police murders that sparked organizing and action. Further, through social media many people play a role of “citizen journalists,” sharing information and narratives that mainstream media can’t and won’t report on.

Still, many activists question whether dependence on social media privileges popularity and celebrity over organizing. Many also describe an uglier, less comradely tone in semi-anonymous electronic movement communications as opposed to organizing that’s rooted in face to face meetings.

Without any doubt, Black activists of this generation have innovated social media as a tool for organizing. Ransby uses the examples of chants to illustrate the passion and determination of these young freedom fighters. Even though many describe themselves as “young Black activists” or “Black youth,” there is an intergenerational strategy that weaves in and around their work.

In these chants, as in many other aspects of their strategy there is a mix of homage to ancestors, renewing previous generations’ messages, and making totally new messages/ strategies. One example is in: “Ella Baker was a freedom fighter, she taught us how to fight. We gonna fight all day and night until we get it right.”

I also learned about and was inspired by Ransby’s descriptions of the various works that these organizers have undertaken. These include much more than just responding, mobilizing and organizing.  The theory and practice being built goes well beyond punishing killer cops.

Judicial punishment of the police murderers is important, but some campaigns made an important shift when criminal verdicts were not forthcoming. They began advocating for suspensions without pay, firing, watching if the killers were rehired as police, and initiating other professional repercussions.

Intentionally supporting families of victims and survivors conveys another important aspect of the feminist ethic that is based on restorative justice. The abolitionist ethic of a society without police recognizes that new methods of support must be created that reframe our relationship to the economy and the state — and to each other.

Responses and Conclusions

In order to paint these actors as part of a single movement and moment, Ransby skims over serious disagreements and disavowals that have occurred. Many of these are differences in strategy if not ideology. It would be helpful to hear more of these differences to get a fuller picture.

I have been in too many movement spaces in the last few years where BLM was viewed as synonymous with Black organizing, overlooking or marginalizing other forms of Black organizing. I also have concerns that funders are overvaluing BLM movement organizing and privileging it over others when it comes to support and resources.

Detroit has been the foundation of my political development. For years I’ve wondered why the BLM movement didn’t catch fire here the way it did in other locations. I think gender is a primary reason, in that the gender politics of the BLM space didn’t catch hold among young Black masses here.

In “The D” our Black organizing has deep roots in socialist or nationalist theory, which is missing or in the background in BLM organizations. Lastly, I think the messaging of neoliberalism and the struggle that is highlighted around it is different here than in other places around the country.

Although Ransby mentions growing up in Detroit in the 1970s, I don’t expect this book to dive into these questions. Its focus is national. Still I think the question of where this form of Black organizing took hold, and where it didn’t, is an interesting one that can shine light on how Black communities have been developing and organizing in the 21st century.

With all that said, this movement has had a significant although underreported impact on the #MeToo movement and the American reckoning with sexual violence. Social media communications, intersectional analyses, boldness and refusal to play by the rules of respectability are influencing today’s feminist politics in a grand way.

It is undeniable that the “acts of defiance, disruption, and insurgent rule breaking” that come out of organizations such as Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project, Assata’s Daughters, We Charge Genocide, SAYHERNAME, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, Million Hoodies, Dream Defenders, and so many more are making an impact —- not only on youth struggles and Black liberation struggles, but on radical organizing in the country in general.

January-February 2019, ATC 198