There is a scene in Ava DuVernay’s recently-released film Selma (see a review of the film here) that delivered an especially timely message to everyone watching in the theater. In it, President Lyndon Johnson, while discussing Martin Luther King Jr.’s Civil Rights rabble-rousing, states very clearly that he prefers King as the face of the movement over one of those “militant Malcolm X types.” In a later scene, as King wallows in jail, some of his associates on the outside receive word that Malcolm is on his way to Selma, Alabama. They anxiously argue with each other over what to do about Malcolm’s arrival. One of them then exclaims that they don’t want Malcolm ruining the work they’ve done in Selma by riling people up with that “by any means necessary” stuff. As illustrated in these scenes, division in a movement can come from the outside as well as from the inside. A common tactic used against protest movements by the powerful is to divide them into moderates that can be compromised with and radicals who have to be de-legitimized or destroyed. But this division can also come from within a movement for purely personal or ideological reasons. And yet, in the end, the unity of these two factions was precisely what was needed to achieve change in the context of the Civil Rights movement. Today, it is these lessons of the past generation that weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the current batch of freedom fighters.
Karl Marx remarked that “precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis,” movements “anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” Thus the present-day #BlackLivesMatter movement has put on the mask of the Civil Rights movement of the past. It has even inherited its old division between a pacifist and reformist wing and a more radical and militant wing. This movement, which I once saw referred to as “the Civil Rights movement of our time” by protesters in New York City, has, like the Civil Rights movement of the past, divided itself into Malcolms and Martins. And during my time participating in various actions in New York City over the past few months, I’ve seen firsthand how this intra-struggle conflict, encouraged both externally and within the movement, has outwardly manifested itself as differences in speech, thought, and action.
It was the beginning of December, and New York City, still steaming with anger over the non-indictment of Mike Brown’s killer, had been lit aflame with rage after a grand jury refused to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who killed Eric Garner. As I marched through Manhattan’s streets with crowds of people chanting “Hands up! Don’t Shoot!” and “I Can’t Breathe!,” there was a moment in which the apparent unity of the protesters revealed itself as only superficial. A young white woman, dressed in black, chanted a slogan I had heard quite a few times from the more militant and radical protesters. Rather than “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!,” she loudly yelled: “Arms up! Shoot back!” Suddenly, from behind her, a college-aged black man with Greek letters on his jacket chided her and advised her to “check her privilege” before screaming such a militant chant. The young white lady seemed confused about how to respond at first, but then, a young brown-skinned woman, also dressed in black, came to her defense. “Fuck you and your liberal bullshit!” she yelled in a thick Bronx accent before she proceeded to argue with the young man.
This wasn’t the first time I had seen chants and choice of rhetoric start arguments amongst protesters. And it definitely wasn’t the last time either. Language has become one of the main sources of conflict amongst New York City’s #BlackLivesMatter movement. And much like Democratic President Johnson did to the Civil Rights movement, Democratic mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, has helped foster and promote division within the movement over the issue of rhetoric.
De Blasio, despite the protestations of the police, has, from the beginning, denounced any chant seen as too radical. At first, he claimed that chants comparing the New York Police Department to the Ku Klux Klan were limited to only a fringe of protesters. When he realized that such was not the case, he began taking a more hardline approach to certain groups of protesters and their chants. He alleged that certain groups “have a long history of, unfortunately, allowing some of their members to say really inappropriate, reprehensible things about our police officers, things I think are actually quite sick—anything that suggests violence towards police.” De Blasio claimed that these groups and their chants denigrated “any notion of calling for reform.” On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, of all days, de Blasio reiterated his position stating that “we see a few who spew hate. Who try to divide us. Who spew hate at the men and women who protect us, which only takes us backwards.” “If you’re saying something vicious and vile to a police officer, you’re not making change,” the Mayor stated. “You’re not moving us forward; you’re holding us back.” Like Johnson before him, those darn militant Malcolm X types have made things difficult for a white, respectable, and liberal mayor.
Along with the “NYPD, KKK” chants, the now-infamous chants for “dead cops” during the Millions March in New York City were also condemned as the work of a fringe by de Blasio. But the chants for dead cops merely illustrated an already-existing division within the movement. During the Millions March, a group of protesters that I had marched with earlier that day broke away from the march’s permitted route. A group of about 100 protesters were recorded on video chanting: “What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want it? Now!” After the video went viral, the mayor along with many fellow protesters were quick to condemn the chant.
It was soon discovered that this group, as well as other members of the movement’s radical wing, had also used the #TurnUpTheAnger hashtag during the march. The Daily Beast later quoted me explaining how the hashtag was used by the radicals of the march. What they left out was my explanation of how calls and chants for dead cops were quite commonplace amongst radical protests in other countries. In the past, the Black Panther Party also had chants calling to “off the pigs.” And ironically, the Daily Beast noted that a chant to “off the pigs” was also used during the march without even realizing its origins. Buzzfeed later spoke to one of the protesters about the dead cops chant, and they said exactly what I had suspected and what I had seen at many of New York’s #BlackLivesMatter protests. Rhetoric was being used as a tool to distinguish radicals from moderates. “The larger march […] had a liberal, reformist agenda. The people who wanted a broader transformation, they were gravitating toward whatever chants could express that,” the protester told Buzzfeed. “In that moment of outrage, the chant was the only way to express that we wanted to separate ourselves from people who just want to get a guy fired,” the protester said. Unlike the moderate wing, this protester and other radicals wanted “to see the police disbanded.”
The differences between the militants and moderates of New York’s #BlackLivesMatter movement also go beyond mere words. Differences in analysis and ideology have also pitted protest factions against each other. People of various ideological backgrounds marched side-by-side at many of the protests I attended. Liberals, communists, black nationalists, socialists, social justice advocates, anarchists, anti-racism activists, and concerned-yet-apolitical citizens could all be seen together at these events. But generally, the main ideological split I observed was between reformists and the revolutionaries.
During the #BlackOutBlackFriday protests in front of Macy’s in Herald Square, many of the organizers of that action were openly reformist and committed to a strict pacifist approach to struggle. There were signs exhorting “conscious consumerism,” and one of the women on the bullhorn screamed in favor of “changes in policy.” That day’s protest, despite the shutdown of major roadways and bridges in the weeks beforehand, was also decidedly less confrontational with the police and much more willing to comply with police orders. Many of the protest’s more radical and militant participants exhibited an overt frustration with the tame nature of the action as well as the calls for reform. Calls for “peaceful protest” and “policy change” were met with perplexed looks, groans, and eye-rolls from many who favored a more revolutionary analysis and who came to shut down some roads and take a more confrontational approach with the police.
The conflict between the reformists and the radicals became all too obvious and pronounced to me that day. It was clear that while many protesters wanted small policy changes, other protesters yearned for a more radical and aggressive movement. After all, as the popular chant said, “the whole damn system is guilty as hell!”
This conflict between reformists and revolutionaries also exhibited itself in discourse over whether the movement was fighting against police brutality or against the police as an institution. During many of the protests I attended, I often heard people say that the protests were “anti-police brutality and not anti-police.” Groups like Justice League NYC had demands that didn’t seek to abolish the police, rather they wanted to merely reform current police protocol and have Pantaleo fired. Other protesters brought up the old, tired analogy of killer cops being just “a few bad apples,” spoiling the large majority of “good cops.”
On Martin Luther King Day, Al Sharpton, who, thanks to the media had become a big name in the movement’s moderate faction, stated “We are not anti-police; we respect the police.” “We are for good policing,” he continued. “Every time you question a police case does not make you any more anti-police than anytime a black is arrested makes you racist.” But during many protests, right beneath the surface of reformist, “few bad apples” rhetoric, I’d often hear many people mumbling to each other that they were, in fact, anti-cop. Full stop. While many of those on the mics and bullhorns at larger protests were talking about making small changes to the current system, many other protesters were advocating disarming and dismantling the police, in addition to calling for the abolition of the prison system. And while many of these protesters were not featured on the news or didn’t get their opinions included in the national debate, they were in the streets chanting and waving signs that read: “End the police,” “Prison Abolition: Fuck the police!” and “Strong communities make police obsolete.”
During an interview on MSNBC, Jose Martin, author of a Rolling Stone piece on “6 ideas for a cop-free world,” was probably the first person to say openly on television that there are, in fact, many in the movement who are straight up anti-police. And I knew from what I had personally seen and heard that he was right. The divide between anti-brutality moderates and anti-police militants was very real despite what so-called leaders and organizers said.
Arising out of the rhetorical and theoretical differences between the movement’s Malcolms and Martins comes a predictable difference in what kind of protests and actions advance the struggle and make social change possible. Groups like Justice League NYC have called for and engaged in meetings with the political and cultural elites, specifically Bill de Blasio, in order to apparently bargain for their desired reforms. Along with an all-too-friendly relationship with the establishment, the moderate wing of New York’s #BlackLivesMatter movement has organized permitted (by police) marches and actions. March marshals keep people from deviating from the permitted route, and protesters are prevented from doing anything seen as too confrontational. Shutting down roads and bridges, disrupting business-as-usual, and property damage have been either discouraged or disavowed.
Once again, during #BlackOutBlackFriday, I saw an example of this conflict between the movement’s two wings. After a few hours of rather-tame marching and chanting, organizers were trying to keep protesters outside of Macy’s and on the sidewalk. Chants of “Fists up! Fight back!” were even discouraged at times. And then, a group of protesters had enough and, against the wishes of police and organizers, stormed into Macy’s. Police followed and the occupation of Macy’s was short-lived that day as protesters ran through the store and out the exit. But the difference in protest tactics was clear. While some wanted to follow the rules and pose for the media’s gaze, others, after experiencing their power to unsettle the status quo in the previous weeks, were there to engage in civil disobedience and disrupt business-as-usual.
The Millions March was also filled with instances of differing tactics used within the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In the first genuine act of protest of that day, a group of protesters reportedly threw trash on and broke the window of an NYPD vehicle. This group was, of course, later distanced from the other “largely peaceful” protesters who stayed within the barricades of the march and walked on the permitted route. Later, when large crowds of protesters disobeyed police orders after the Millions March and took over the Brooklyn Bridge, the march’s organizers quickly distanced themselves from this act of civil disobedience as well as anything done after the permitted march was over. Then, when a few protesters were caught on video fighting police officers while attempting to de-arrest a fellow protester on the Brooklyn Bridge, they were quickly denounced by de Blasio as well as moderate groups and individuals within the movement. While members of the Peoples Power Assemblies and other more radical groups called for amnesty for those arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge, many of the more reformist groups were either silent or critical. Some militant protesters even accused the Justice League of helping the police catch those involved in the incident, an accusation which the Justice League denied.
After the Brooklyn Bridge was taken over, in a beautiful act of solidarity, a contingent of protesters, some using the #TurnUpTheAnger hashtag, marched, without permits, all the way to Brooklyn’s Pink Houses, where Akai Gurley was killed by NYPD Officer Peter Liang. And yet, the march’s organizers, in disavowing anything after the permitted march, also distanced themselves from this act. Yet again, I had witnessed the Martins and Malcolms of New York’s #BlackLivesMatter movement divide themselves. While the Martins generally wanted to engage in non-confrontational and largely symbolic-yet-law-abiding actions, the Malcolms wanted to get their point across to police and the public by any means necessary. And these means proudly included de-arresting comrades, defending other protesters from police violence, occupying businesses, blocking roads and bridges, and marching against police orders.
The Necessity of Solidarity
Despite the differences and conflicts between the Malcolms and Martins, both these wings of the movement, like the Civil Rights movement of the past, ultimately need each other. While the Martins complain about bad press or having their peaceful protests disrupted by outbursts of militancy, it is precisely the Malcolms who have created space for the Martins to have their peaceful protests. NYPD Commissioner William Bratton admitted as much when, in response to a question about his “hands off” approach to protests, he said that he’d “rather have what we’re experiencing than having what Ferguson or Berkley are experiencing.” They may not admit it, but it was radicals and militants burning and breaking things in Ferguson and Berkley who gave all of New York’s protesters the ability to march in the streets without worrying about police violence or mass arrests. Just as was the case in Selma, the Martins were bequeathed the gift of legitimacy thanks to the efforts of those militant Malcolm X-types.
But the Malcolms also need the Martins. After two police officers were shot and killed in Brooklyn by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the mood in New York City had changed and the momentum was on the side of the police. The radicals and militants had to go into hiding for a few days until the heat died down, but the protests nonetheless had to continue to keep New York’s movement alive. Shortly after the two cops were shot, I attended a series of quiet, pacifistic, candlelight vigils and marches. These marches were effective in keeping the issues on peoples’ minds and keeping the movement going. While they were not the most exciting protests, they performed an important function in the movement. They allowed anti-protest feelings in the wider public to subside while still allowing people to hit the streets and dissent. While the militants laid low, the moderates could continue protesting while being immune from accusations of insensitivity to the death of two cops. Then, gradually, as the momentum switched back to the side of the protesters, the radicals and militants could come back out and do what they did best.
Each wing of the movement essentially helped create space for the other to operate. And this is why the Martins and Malcolms, despite their differences in speech, thought, and actions ultimately need each other. The differences between the Martins and the Malcolms, though substantial, will only allow their common enemy to divide and conquer them as the powerful have often done to past movements. If they’re smart, the moderates and militants won’t allow themselves to be hoodwinked by this old trick. Instead, their unity lets them pull some tricks of their own. This solidarity between Martins and Malcolms allows the protesters to pull the old good-cop/bad-cop routine on the police and politicians themselves. And if they keep it up, the police and politicians will definitely soon crack and, hopefully, the “whole damn system” will be publicly declared “guilty as hell.”