by Rev. Tremaine CombsFebruary 01, 2021
With the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, 2020 has seen a swell in support, prioritization, and even vitriol regarding the movement to cement in the public consciousness that Black Lives Matter.
Although it has undergone numerous iterations since the first enslaved Africans were brought to the United States in the early 1600s, the modern movement for Black lives as it exists in 2020 has its roots in the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin in Florida. It then picked up steam with the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri after the death of Michael Brown in 2014. Some distinguishable trends, as well as challenges, set the movement apart from its antecedents.
The first trend is that the movement today is primarily women-led. While Black women have been present and active within every expression of the centuries-long movement, they have not always been “out front” in clear and discernable leadership roles. The prominent inclusion of Black women in leadership today has allowed for a diversification of movement roles based on strengths, not on traditional gender roles and responsibilities.
One need only see U.S. representative-elect Cori Bush winning the First Congressional District of Missouri last November—after years of fidelity to agitation for progressive policies—to see the importance of Black women being in the forefront of this movement. Cori Bush has served on the frontlines of countless protests and marches for Black lives in Saint Louis since Ferguson. In fact, when I met her, she was heroically using her body to shield protesters from Saint Louis County police, using her nursing skills to direct treatment and her pastoral skills to bring calm, all after being tear-gassed herself.
While it may look like disorganization to those who are used to the hierarchical organizational structures of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, today’s decentralized structures allow for a more democratic approach and for nonviolent direct actions to have a more localized impact. Various tactics such as mass demonstrations, rallies, and public disruption can be creatively developed by local leadership to meet local needs for agitation and change.
Yet for all of the good that a decentralized structure can bring, it has also caused disunity. Direct actions and demonstrations in various cities that start nonviolently can destabilize themselves. For example, in 2017 a march for stiffer sentencing against former police officer Jason Stockley for the shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith started peacefully in the Central West End of Saint Louis. However, it ended in disarray when provocateurs decided to break store windows, burn an American flag, and smash the windows of Mayor Lyda Krewson’s home. I can still remember the fear, frustration, and lack of connectedness as protesters were cornered in Central Reform Congregation at the corner of Waterman and Kingshighway. The lack of an overarching structure or meta-narrative that allows for cohesion across locations, outside of just anger, did the movement a disservice.
Although there is still an undergirding of spirituality, the movement for Black lives is increasingly led, developed, and strategized apart from the Black church. Activists today increasingly see the Black church not as a tradition that has historically fought for liberation but instead as an outdated hold-over of white supremacy that is itself oppressive.
Many clergy causes strained relationships with activists themselves. In my experience in Ferguson in 2014, clergy were under the assumption that they would be handed leadership without putting their own bodies and reputations on the line. Other clergies were unable to reconcile whether they were going to stand with protesters or attempt reform in ways more acceptable to those who represent law and order. But this is not just an issue relating to Ferguson. Even in cities like Los Angeles, there has been a certain disconnect between clergy and activists.
But what this movement may lack in the involvement of Black churches and clergy, it makes up in the use of “star power”: Black and other celebrities. Such cultural influencers include rapper and music producer Jay-Z using his resources as bail money for activists in Ferguson; philosopher and public intellectual Dr. Cornel West eloquently giving voice to Black pain while calling for love; and Beyoncé, John Legend, Common, Trey Songz, and Meg the Stallion providing cultural commentary through the medium of music and visual art. We find that “star power” is often given the spaces that were once provided to the leadership of Black church traditions.
The first challenge for the movement for Black lives is the lack of diversity--mainly intellectual–among movement participants. It is easy to get caught up in echo chambers that only reverberate to us our own understanding of issues–so-called “confirmation bias.” The lack of Black intellectual thought outside of a progressive or liberal paradigm presents a clear ideological divide within the Black community that will likely only continue to widen if not addressed.
On the one hand, it is often the death or mistreatment of Black men that spark local and regional protests; on the other hand, Black men’s voices are often denied within the movement unless they agree with feminist and LGBQTA+ ideologies and perspectives. While this reality is unfortunate, we cannot forget that in the past U.S. struggles for Black freedom, Black women and LGBTQA+ were seen but rendered silent. To achieve unity, all identities must be lifted up within the Black community, because to free ourselves, all voices must be given space to be heard. After all, movements aspire for intersectionality as a way to unify, not to divide.
The final concern is the fact that nonviolence is often not used as a means of developing an intellectual and theoretical framework, outside of the use of tactics. The U.S. movement for Black lives seems to primarily use nonviolent direct action for tactics and not as its underlying philosophy. Given that the movement’s goals are centered on the value of life, it is incoherent for there to be a bias for the strategic approach on the one hand, and a weak moral embrace of nonviolence on the other.
As the ongoing struggle for Black lives in the United States matures, there are many hard conversations that need to be had. We cannot be content with demonstrations and the emergence of a few new Black faces into the political elite. We cannot be content with sound-bytes or cultural influencers holding forth. We need to channel these resources into societal transformation, or else the deeper inclusion and value of Black lives in the United States, and across the world, will remain a “dream deferred” and thereby be tragically denied.
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Rev. Tremaine Combs is the pastor of the historic Mount Zion Baptist Church of Lincoln Nebraska. While living and pastoring in the Saint Louis Metropolitan area, he was involved in the Ferguson Uprising, by participating in a cadre of young black pastors who strove to stand between the protestors and militarized police. He is the founding President of the Lincoln Black Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development.Read More