Considerable attention has come to the video of Hillary Clinton’s conversation with Black Lives Matter activists. In it, Clinton responds to a spokesman’s plea for her to lead a change of white “hearts” regarding the treatment of blacks. She responds, after acknowledging the historical and contemporary grounds for complaint, by saying, in effect, that one can do all the consciousness-raising possible, even change a lot of hearts and “get lip service from as many white people you can pack into Yankee Stadium and a million more like it who are going to say: ‘We get it, we get it. We are going to be nicer,’ [but] that’s not enough….” Without a pragmatic program for systemic change and without practical politics to attain those programs, it’s all for naught. Develop a program, she says, or “we’ll be back here in 10 years having the same conversation.”
Clinton’s position reminds me of a comment that left- and gay-activist, former representative Barney Franks wrote about political activism: “If you care deeply about an issue, and are engaged in group activity on its behalf that is fun and inspiring and heightens your sense of solidarity with others, you are almost certainly not doing your cause any good.” A bit hyperbolic, as Franks is wont to be, the point rings true as a lesson from decades in realpolitik. Expressive politics–feel-good, self-affirming, and heart-addressing demonstrations–usually don’t yield results. Nor do over-the-top demands. “Incrementalism is not the enemy of militancy; it is often the only effective means of expressing it,” Franks writes.
The exchange between the activists and Clinton echos one that emerged around the Occupy movement.
Almost four years ago–yes, indeed, it’s been that long–the Occupy Wall Street movement captured widespread media coverage and enthusiastic supporters and imitators around the nation and the globe. “We are the 99%!,” the marchers and then squatters shouted. They demanded an end to the wealthy’s and big business’s exploitation, as they saw it, of most of us. At the height of the campaign, sympathetic skeptics, myself included (see here and here), asked, What now? Drawing on the history of social movements, they asked, Where are the practical steps–say, voter registration, lobbying, blueprints–to what practical programs? Or would the marches and take-overs end, as they seemed likely to, in just a lot of “heightened sense of solidarity”?
Occupy defenders heatedly replied that this was a new era, that “if more scholars like you got off their asses and stood in solidarity with the students they teach (and in your case did a little more post-millennial research) this movement would have even more of a shot at becoming a real revolution.” And: “Eventually the Occupy movement will need to be specific about how it wants to change the world. But for right now, it just needs to grow. And if it wants to sleep on the streets for a while and not structure itself into a traditional campaign of grassroots organizing, it should. It doesn’t need to tell the world what it wants. It is succeeding, for now, just by being something different.”
Well, the fizz has long gone. One of the unfortunate lost opportunities, for the left, is that a vibrant, organized, and task-oriented Occupy movement might have effectively countered the electoral triumphs of the Tea Party in the 2014 off-year elections by mobilizing voters. Instead, Occupy’s young and minority constituents stayed home, ceding Congress to the right.
Black Lives, 2015
The energy and attention around the Black Lives Matter campaign is impressive, but it may be a replay of Occupy. And here one senses Hillary Clinton’s exasperation. She’s been in leftish reform movements for decades. She’s seen opportunities grasped, such as women’s rights and gay marriage, and she’s seen opportunities fumbled (the 1990s health care reform?). She, like Barney Franks, argues that concrete policies and hitting the concrete, like door-to-door canvassing, are what remakes the nation. Even getting millions of whites to beat their breasts and declare that they have seen the light will mean little if the environments of young black lives are not changed in mundane, practical, if not particularly inspirational or fun, ways. That requires more time in the political trenches than in the television lights.
Update (Aug. 20, ’15):
New York Times columnist Charles Blow took the side of the protesters, arguing that Clinton evaded her personal responsibility, having lobbied for the 1994 crime bill that ratcheted up incarceration. Perhaps she should have added that to her answer, but such a confession would make no difference to the issues at hand: What to do now? And how to do it?
Update (Aug. 26, ’15):
Perhaps in reaction to critiques in this vein, a subgroup, self-described as We the Protesters have put forward a detailed ten-point plan. A described by Vox: “Campaign Zero, launched by We the Protesters, has a single — but ambitious — goal: reduce all police violence in the US to zero. To do this, the campaign laid out several policy proposals that it says were “informed by the demands of protesters nationwide, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, recommendations from research organizations, and comprehensive data on the causes and impact of police violence.” (Note that the policies weren’t put forward by the official Black Lives Matter group, which doesn’t necessarily represent all activists who have adopted the “Black Lives Matter” cause.)” The other piece is to gain political leverage to enact at least some of these ideas.