Dr. Martin Luther King would be proud of the young activists who are participating in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. They are confronting the racist, repressive enforcement arm of the criminal justice system, which operates to control, brutalize, and exploit the Black community. These activists have exposed the militaristic character of the police department and its anti-Black targeting.
These activists include mostly youth of all racial backgrounds. However, most of the core leaders are courageous Black women. We must also not forget that all the historical movements for Black human rights, including the abolitionist movement against slavery, the Civil Rights Movement against segregation, and the Black power movement for community control, were supported by a small but politically significant progressive segment of the White community. This historical fact is important because Black movements are often mischaracterized and condemned as anti-White hostile movements, when in fact they have always been struggles against anti-Black White supremacy.
Like the Black human movements of the past, the BLM movement is Black led and multiracial. Its supporters are defined by their actions, not by the color of their skins.
This definition is relevant because it helps us understand the complexity of the racial character of the forces of opposition to the BLM activists. They include some influential Blacks who oppose some of the strategies and tactics of the BLM activists.
These Blacks viewed some of the activists’ disruptive strategies as counter-productive because they believe such strategies alienate liberal Whites and hurt friendly race relations. It is legitimate to critique any strategies or tactics in terms of their efficacy in the fight against racism, but it is not acceptable to condemn them because they disrupt business as usual and cause a lot of anger and frustration among many.
During the civil rights era of the 1950s and ’60s, Black people used their power of social, political, and economic disruption to make gains in our struggle against legal segregation. The very way to change oppressive conditions is to disrupt the daily routines that perpetuate them.
Dr. Martin Luther King was harshly and widely criticized, even by some in the Black community, for using disruptive strategies to fight against racism, (especially for involving children in marches in Birmingham, Alabama) but these strategies for dismantling legal segregation were eventually validated.
Today, the BLM activists are using the power of disruption to fight against the New Jim Crow: the militarized police state, and mass incarceration. They have occupied a police station, demonstrated in streets of downtown Minneapolis, rallied at City Hall, as well as at the Mall of America, and disrupted traffic on highways and at the airport.
Many critics of these strategies do not recognize that history has shown that disruptions are some of the most effective ways to change an oppressive system. By design, disruptive strategies interrupt regularities and cause inconveniences and losses for the system. That is why they get the attention of the power elite, when pleas for justice and compassion do not.
The real issue for the BLM movement is figuring out what disruptive strategies will advance the struggle. Under what conditions will strategies like civil disobedience work? This is a legitimate question, but there should be no questions as to whether to use our disruptive power to fight against White supremacy.
Dr. Luke Tripp is professor of Ethnic and Women’s Studies at St. Cloud State University.