From Protest to Policy: Political Participation in the Black Lives Matter Movement

Rachel Farber ’16
Assistant News Editor

Members of the Smith community gathered in Weinstein auditorium on Oct. 26 to attend the panel discussion, “We the Protesters: Policy, Discourse and the Movement for Black Lives,” a one-year follow up conversation to last year’s panel discussion, “Putting Ferguson in Context(s).”

The panel included Christina Greer of Fordham University, Samuel Roberts of Columbia University, both of whom were present at last year’s panel, and Chrislene DeJean ’11, co-founder of Intelligent Mischief, a Boston-based organization that provides space for communities of color to experiment with creative actions to improve their own communities. Paula Giddings, professor of Africana Studies, moderated the panel.

Giddings began by contextualizing the value of the Black Lives Matter movement today, remarking on the incredible impact it has had for black activists and people around the country.

“It’s been a long time since the voices of young activists have been heard in the national public square,” Giddings said.

Giddings opened the panel by discussing the current political climate of the United States and recognizing how Black Lives Matter, rallies and demonstrations have put police brutality, economic justice, gender and racial justice on the table for the presidential election.

“As its recent negotiations with the Democratic National Committee attests, the Black Lives Matter movement is in the process of determining its relationship to the political elite.  This is a crucial and critical moment,” Giddings said.   

Greer explained how the Black Lives Matter movement’s placement in the 21st century influences how it operates.

“It involves technology, it involves our queer sisters and brothers, it involves women in the forefront,” Greer said, adding, “This is a movement where I think women are front row and center and queer women are front row and center.”

Roberts agreed that Black Lives Matter is a unique movement, saying, “I think its inclusivity is something we have not seen in a very long time.”  He explained that in addition to its inclusivity, Black Lives Matter’s insights, which include intersectional perspectives and perspectives of feminists of color, contribute to the movement’s novelty.

The conversation was centered around tensions in the movement, especially in regard to the political system, the upcoming presidential election and how differing perspectives within the movement get exacerbated.

“There’s some tension in some of our decisions, and some of that becomes public,” DeJean said, and then asked, “Do we engage electoral politics and how do we engage?”

Within Black Lives Matter are different perspectives about using the electoral process to influence policy versus combating the problematic system itself. But the concern is that the media and political elites use these differing perspectives serve their own political agendas to argue that there is a dangerous divide within the movement.

“What I’m concerned about is that tensions, especially within black, political organizations, are very exciting to the press,” said Greer. “How do we make our differences and concerns known in a way that’s productive, without it essentially being co-opted by people who take those minor divisions and rip at them like a thread and sort of dissolve the entire enterprise?”

DeJean explained that debate within the movement is vital to its progress.

Debate is “how the conversation keeps on going… That’s how you know people are passionate about the movement,” DeJean said.

“The tensions in the leadership are not new, but the technology is,” said Greer.

Even with disagreement about how to participate in the upcoming election and the political system in general, each panelist expressed that there are more ways to participate politically than voting.

“There’s a whole lot of ways in between voting and … mass action,” said Roberts, adding, “There are so many avenues now in which one can be engaged.”

The panelists suggested supporting movements financially, asking questions, developing organizing skills through one’s major and by attending events.

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