BlackLivesMatter Presents Challenges and Opportunities for the Unified Left

Last weekend at Netroots Nation I was witness to the much-discussed shutdown of the presidential forum by activists associated with BlackLivesMatter. It was a surreal thing to watch play out in real time, and opinions among pundits and netroots veterans are still markedly divided in many ways. While various levels of discontent continue to swirl among many longtime netroots participants, most of the organizational leadership of the professional left from MoveOn to the PCCC has come out strongly in favor of the protesters and the BlackLivesMatter movement.

Whatever the internal disagreements may be, David Dayen had the best take on the result: O’Malley and Sanders both had an opportunity to shine and respond in a way that communicated that they understood and had a plan to tackle systemic racism generally and police violence specifically, and both came up far short in their responses. O’Malley’s “white lives matter, all lives matter” was so off the mark he had to apologize for it later, while Sanders was so visibly annoyed with the protest that he ended his Q&A 15 minutes early. Not the sort of message either one wanted to convey, as both were clearly unprepared to speak on the issue. Which only demonstrated in the clearest terms the point the protesters were making: that even progressive firebrand candidates don’t have police violence against minorities at the top of mind enough to even make cogent statements of values and policy on the topic. Point taken.

On the bright side, the disruption presents an opportunity for the entire progressive movement to become more focused on issues of police violence that have not necessarily been at the forefront of many progressive organizations, to say nothing of the general Democratic Party infrastructure. To say that Democrats don’t focus enough on structural racism is somewhat unfair, I think, given that the Democratic Party has understood since 1968 and the Civil Right Act that the entire program of the social welfare state has been hindered by a revanchist racist backlash against racial equality that has been cynically aided and abetted by the Southern Strategy practiced by most Republicans and even some Democrats.

Morally speaking, politicians need to do more to put these issues more front and center in their campaigns. The action at Netroots Nation by BlackLivesMatter protesters has certainly helped do that, as Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley have all taken steps to incorporate them into their messaging and stump speeches in the past week. It’s an urgent matter that desperately needs addressing in a larger way than it has been until now.

That said, the challenges both to the movement against police violence and to the unified progressive left are daunting. One of the reasons many longtime Netroots Nation attendees left the convention with a sour taste in their mouths was structural: Netroots Nation began its life as YearlyKos back in 2006, motivated in part by the anti-factional unity sentiments expressed by Markos Moulitsas in his book Crashing the Gate. There have been many protests at the liberal conference by various issue advocacy groups, but they have tended to be controlled and seen as against the spirit of the conference, which depended ideologically on progressives from all interest groups coming together as one to fight both the Right and New Democrat neoliberals. Now that one advocacy group has itself crashed the gates of the Netroots and asserted its own “fierce urgency of now,” it will be interesting to see if other advocacy groups can refrain from utilizing similar tactics and fracturing the coalition. It will also be interesting to see if Netroots Nation can continue to attract high profile candidates to take the stage if those can’t be assured of a controlled environment when they take the stage. But that’s mostly inside baseball for the professional left and Netroots Nation itself.

On a larger and more important note, if real action is going to be taken on issues of police violence, it will not be enough for left-leaning groups to win a news cycle here and there by promoting the issues. That helps, but it’s not enough. It’s going to take hard, on-the-ground policy and electoral mobilizing work. For starters, there needs to be a clear policy agenda that candidates and elected officials can wrap their arms around. There are a variety of potential proposals on this front, but BlackLivesMatters’ policy platform is still very vague. Sitting city council members need specific blue-ribbon recommendations that they can put on the table without inventing the wheel for themselves–and supportive left-leaning organizations should be able to make that happen with their white paper arms.

Secondly, though, there’s an implicit argument being made in some quarters that increasing focus on issues of structural racism and police violence will lead to increased minority voter turnout, which remains a serious problem for Democrats. That argument has precious little evidence behind it, absent demonstrable polling that these issues are highly motivating to infrequent minority voters and especially absent field turnout organizing to ensure that politicians who are courageous enough to stand up to some recalcitrant police unions will be rewarded politically for doing so–or at least have their electoral damage somewhat mitigated.

That in turn is going to take a lot of work by everyone involved–from local Democratic central committees to the DCCC and social justice advocacy groups across the spectrum.

In order to move forward and make a difference on structural racism and police violence in such a way that minorities don’t continue to die in shameful and horrifying numbers at the hands of the state, movement unity and a focus on electoral and legislative power are going to be more important than ever going forward.

Hopefully the protest will end up serving as a galvanizing and inspirational moment not just for BlackLivesMatter, but also for the liberal movement as a whole to create the legislative and electoral conditions necessary to make a real difference and hopefully save the life of the next hundred Sandra Blands in this country.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.