Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Sandra Bland. Freddie Gray. Eric Garner. Terrence Crutcher. The names of these murdered black individuals, of those who wrongfully fell before their time, continue to echo throughout this nation’s inner cities, suburbs, and urban capitals. Although reactions to these names vary wildly – from tears, to solemn nods, or at worst, to dismissive nonchalance – the loss of these black lives has affected American political discourse at its core. These departed souls are the “faces” of the Black Lives Matter movement. They are the individuals who have galvanized a very localized system of political action, and who have inspired grassroots activists to take their fight around the world. Almost inconceivably, these fallen black individuals continue to conduct this work from a realm beyond our own.
The absolute centrality of these individuals to the framing of Black Lives Matter is directly related to much of the movement’s adaptability and success. Rather than being oriented around a select few national leaders, such as a Martin Luther King Jr. or a Malcolm X figure, Black Lives Matter roots its success in small-scale, local organizing to address a particularly locally-controlled issue: the systematic policing of black communities. This method of organization is more conducive to success on the local level, and it allows local black communities to have agency in their own activism. While the presence of a single leader during the landmark Civil Rights Era was highly successful in its time, the Black Lives Matter movement has successfully created a political force that is coterminous with the sociopolitical issue that it has chosen to tackle. This is not to suggest that the movement does not have national ambitions, nor to suggest that the overwhelming prominence of straight, cis-gendered men amongst the movement’s figureheads is not problematic. Rather, the point is that the movement’s primary strategy employs local communities to create national change, instead of specifically dictating to those communities. In this way, the movement’s lack of a physical leader, replaced by incorporeal, yet immensely powerful figureheads, has allowed the movement to take on a localized mode of organization to address this grave, locally controlled issue– the unjust, systematic killing of black individuals. By placing emphasis on a collective grieving methodology, Black Lives Matter has created a movement that is as decentralized as the injustices it seeks to right.
By foregrounding the collective mourning aspect of this latest black rights movement, the Black Lives Matter organization frames the wrongful killing of black individuals as an ongoing national narrative in which all citizens have a capacity for involvement. The African-American Studies scholar, Simon Stow, characterizes this practice as a type of tragic mourning. According to Stow, tragic mourning, which has a long history in the African-American political tradition, is predicated upon the pluralities of a democracy. Romantic mourning, in contrast, primarily seeks to comfort participants and to easily come to a consensus in how the tragedy will be remembered. In contrast, tragic mourning is unabashedly critical, placing emphasis on the real world conditions that created a tragedy. Further, it highlights these differences to heavily implicate both participants in and witnesses to this mourning. In other words, tragic mourning creates a heavily democratic discursive environment, one with widespread participation, one that exposes a variety of political opinions, and one that encourages a multiplicity of solutions to a problem.
By placing this collectivizing strategy of tragic mourning at the forefront of its struggle, Black Lives Matter has successfully cultivated a very public site for the discussion of African-American humanity. That is to say, the prominence of deceased figureheads places collective, tragic mourning at the center of the Black Lives Matter spirit, which correspondingly, lends itself extremely well to collective political action with widespread participation. In effect, the lives of the deceased become potential sites for outcry and for political action. This is the means by which the murdered will remain activists, even in death. This is how these fallen individuals have become the “faces” of an entire network, although they can no longer orate or protest for their cause. This how the 38 chapters of a grassroots movement that began with a singular hashtag have sparked a truly far-reaching, nearly inescapable national conversation.
The collective ethos of Black Lives Matter, as dictated by the tragic mourning strategy, enables the local, chapter-based structure of the organization itself. Suitably, its many local iterations have immense liberty to solve local issues as they see fit. The network, started by three queer black women, Alicia Garza, Patrice Cullors, and Opal Tometti, is organized into chapters throughout the nation as well as one in Canada. Notably, the movement lacks an official foundation, legal entity, or 501 (c)(3) organization. Instead, each community group must undergo an evaluation by a national coordinator and follow the official Black Lives Matter “Guiding Principles”. These include, but are not limited to, diversity, restorative justice, collective value, globalism, unapologetic blackness, loving engagement, and empathy. What is particularly striking about the principles of this network are the apparent ambiguities. Policing reform, which has become the signature cause of the movement, is never explicitly mentioned in these principles. Instead, they focus on general goals or themes, such as the empathy tenet, which is described on the website as a promise to “engage comrades with the intent to learn about and connect with their contexts.” Goals of this sort are extremely malleable, and they clearly result from the pluralistic tragic mourning strategy. Each local chapter is left with the space to consider exactly how an aim such as empathy, or unapologetic blackness, would be most effective in their community.
While these local units all are united by these flexible goals and a primary focus on systematic policing, they have latitude in exactly how they aim to assert that “black lives matter” in their communities. For example, while the Chicago chapter was an instrumental force in the resignation of a former Chicago police superintendent, it also spoke out against school closures throughout the city. On the other hand, the New York chapter has founded a PAC, a Washington chapter focuses particularly on issues of housing, and the Grand Rapids, Michigan chapter hosts workshops to educate its community on peaceful protest. Moreover, these local organizations can also make substantive national changes, such as in 2015 when a Seattle activist interrupted a Bernie Sanders press conference. Subsequently, the candidate released a racial justice platform and hired Symone Sanders, a black woman, as his press secretary. Alicia Garza herself, one of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, defended the actions and said that they were due to the specific “very localized dynamic” within the Seattle area, and presumably within the Seattle chapter of the organization itself. In essence, these local and city-wide victories were achievable because of Black Lives Matter’s horizontal structure and collective, chapter-based configuration. Led forward by their grief over fallen black individuals and guided only by a set of principles, these individual chapters of Black Lives Matter were successfully able to effect community-focused change.
The outcomes of locally-targeted initiatives are especially appropriate in addressing systematic racism in policing. Although national trends, such as mass weaponization of police departments, negatively impact the policing of black communities, state and municipal governments have significant influence in determining exactly how officers conduct their work. For example, body camera laws have been enacted at the state level. Policing tactics are constructed on an even lower level; they are frequently under the discretion of a single police department. In fact, the Department of Justice explicitly mentions that “the community policing philosophy focuses on the way that departments are organized and managed…”. Moreover, the DOJ goes on to cite department-based factors, such as hiring practices, department culture, and the location of officer assignments as the seeds from which a community policing strategy can holistically guide any given police department. In Philadelphia, police-related deaths decreased by 80 percent only six months after community policing recommendations from the DOJ had been implemented. In other words, decisions made by local police chiefs can prevent shots from being fired, and chokeholds from being employed, and more black lives from being lost. Thus, the genius of the organization’s rhetorical strategy, a focus on collective grieving, becomes clear. This tactic begets localized organizing, which is best equipped to dismantle a policing system that is under significant local control.
It is in this way that the 38 chapters of the Black Lives Matter movement push forward with their independent agendas in unison. Acting separately to effect community change, they target nuclei of local control over policing at the state, municipal, and departmental level. In a recent interview, Patrice Cullors explained, “The consequence of focusing on a leader is that you develop a necessity for that leader to be the one who’s the spokesperson and the organizer, who tells the masses where to go, rather than the masses understanding that we can catalyze a movement in our own community.” Although they lack a single leader, these masses of activists and mourners remain armed with the power of their grief, guided in synchrony by the memories of Trayvon, Terrence, and Sandra.