Thus far, the presidential debates have barely mentioned Black Lives Matter, and the movement is now petitioning for that to change.
The Black Lives Matter network recently sent out a call to the Democratic National Committee for a Democratic presidential debate focused solely on racial justice policies. It is not enough to poll the presidential candidates on whether or not they think Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter, the petition reads on Color of Change. We deserve substantive responses and policy recommendations. We deserve substance and not rhetoric. In fact, we demand it.
The presidential elections are important, but change happens in our own backyard.
We want a debate supported by the DNC that will speak directly and proactively to the issues impacting black people in this country, the release reads. Debates that are shaped by the corporate media will never adequately address the issues we care about.
Black Lives Matter wasnt even mentioned at the last GOP debate on Wednesday, Sept. 16, which was met with much criticism. The network and movement were the subject of only one question at the Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday, Oct. 13, that was answered with different responses: Do black lives matter or do all lives matter?
Black lives matter, said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), delivering the candidate-lineup’s most straightforward answer. The reason those words matter is the African-American community knows that, on any given day, some innocent person like Sandra Bland can get into a car and then, three days later, she’s going to end up dead in jail. Or their kids are going to get shot. We need to combat institutional racism from top to bottom.
Allen Kwabena Frimpong, 31, a prominent Black Lives Matter: NYC organizer, talked with the Daily Dot about the networks political demands and what the community wants from a national Democratic presidential debate on racial justice policies.
The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Why is racial justice policy important as America moves closer to the 2016 elections?
Allen Kwabena Frimpong:Its important right now because I believe in this moment, from the time Black Lives Matter has been able to come to life as a hashtag, into a movement, and now moving into a political arena to address the impact that white supremacy has had on black life since the inception of this project called the United States of America. Right now, I think we can point to numerous quality of life issues from Ferguson to NYC that shows that policy in practice has always disproportionately impacted black people in this country adversely. If we look at the fees associated with the ticketing that was happening in Ferguson, it disproportionately impacted black people. When we look at the marijuana stop-and-frisk rates in New York City, it disproportionately impacted black people.
When we know that black people dont even use drugs anymore than our white counterpartsin fact, white people actually do drugs a lot more than we dobut if we look at who is ending up prison cells, its us.
When we look at our HIV and AIDS rates we are the people disproportionately impacted. Until we really get a handle not only on the policy but the practices and the culture that are embedded in our systems, then we actually wont achieve the liberation thats going to benefit all of us as a country. So if we are really saying, We the people in our Constitution, that actually gets to be all of us, and that actually gets to be actualized. In this moment, its not. We are not in integrity with our current constitution, and we are not in current integrity with the values that we say this country is built upon.
Its actually a hypocrisy, and we have been in this American hypocrisy since many of us and our ancestors had to deal with the legacy of slavery on this project called the United States of America. Thats why its important to address racial justicenot only just policy, but addressing systems that uphold racial justice, economic justice, and social justice overall in this country.
What sparked the Black Lives Matter networks demands in a racial justice-themed Democratic political debate?
What sparked our demands in terms of this network was really what happened in Ferguson when Michael Brown was shot and killed. If you refer to our website, the demands that were put forth were very reminiscent of the kind of six-point platform, 10-point platform that were coming out of the Black Panther Party or the Civil Rights Movement. Those demands came about because people who went on the ground in Ferguson were able to understand that disparate impacts we were seeing were a result of that policy, were a result of peoples voices not being heard … and their actions not being part of decision-making processes about our own quality-of-life outcomes.
Its not enough to say in the city of Fergusonwhere you have a population the majority of it is African-American, how many of those people who are African-American are a part of the political process; who are running actually in political office; who actually think that its a viable solution to have change happen through government institutions? It broadened the networks framing to address these issues, because it wasnt just about the lack of police accountability and the police violence, the state violence in this climate that was happening in communities like Ferguson across the United States; it became a larger issue that had to deal with all quality of life issues. When were talking about Black Lives Matter, were talking about all facets of black life through all our different identities and our lived experiences.
The actual, initial policies that were brought about not only included declarations around abolition and changes around how we view public safety in our communities, but then they also included what it meant for to have fair and equable affording housing; what it meant for us to have national plans of justice that actually looked at our assessment of policies and made sure the policies were equable. These were the kinds of declarations that were being through our demands when this movement started and are no different in this moment, because were in a presidential debate. Its part of the strategy that we’re deploying that were now seeing, that’s engaging in such a way that we want to make visible these declarations. Thats the reason why you have seen us involved in deconstructions of the debates.
If you can list them, what are the key components of Black Lives Matters political demands?
Again, I think theres been an evolution since the time of Ferguson, but if I was to list them, I know, overall, its been around all forms of discrimination and around our human rights. I also wanted to add a caveat to this: These are not new demands for many groups who have been organizing prior to this movement. These political movements didnt just evolve because Mike Brown was shot and killed. Many of the groups who have been doing this workthese are regionally and nationally in their own communitieswho went to Ferguson on August 28 , helped create these demands. They will evolve overtime.
Just because we say black lives matter … we dont devalue anyones life in that. Its a political declaration.
In addition to that, having end of to all instances of police brutality, state violence against all black folks.
Also thinking aboutwe want to be able to have fully economic justice and employment for our folks.
We want to make sure that there are equality living conditions within our own neighborhoods and housing for our folks.
We also want to think about the quality of education and making sure theres end to the school-to-prison pipeline thats again creating these disparate impacts we are seeing along our children. When we are thinking about education, theres no reason why we should see the kind of suspension rates were seeing when were pushing out our black boys and our black girls out of school.
And lastly, one of the most key and important things that at the root of really a lot of this discussions … we really have to have an end to mass incarceration. We really have to be about the abolition of the prison system and really the way we think about law enforcement in this country, because its actually driving the reasons why we are seeing people getting shot every 28 hours. That original statistic came out of Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, which is one of the main groups helped develop some of these declarations and demands.
You touched on intersectionality. Black Lives Matter is considered an intersectional network and movement when it comes to having diverse voices of black experiences and the issues. How would you want to see intersectionality play a part of the racial justice policies of the candidates?
I think a good place for the candidates to startand this is the homework that folks have to doits actually looking into the current systems you are operating in, and give tangible examples of how implicit bias, structural racism is pervading the actual place in which you are situated in as a candidate.
As Bernie Sanders being a current senator in your state, you would need to look into your current systems and critique them to see how they are creating disparate outcomes for black people.
For SenatorHillary Clinton, you would actually have to be reflective about the actions that youve taken when you secretary of state and to really think about the same question in how you were situated in your position: What were the things that you made may have been doing to create disparate impact?
The minute that we have that conversation, we really get to be honest about the roles we are playing in our positions of power, because we all get implicated in that.
Its not just presidential candidate; its all of us that live on this project called United States of America. We all to have an honest conversation about how were playing into the cultural white supremacy that continues to devalue black life. If were not going to have that honest conversation, then we cant begin to put a framing thats authentic and honest and get us to the kind of intersectionality that we want to see.
You cant connect the issues and see them as one if you treat them as … fragmented and separate. Before we can even get there, we have to do that first. Thats what the network is calling for.
When we interrupted the initial Netroots action and the other action that happened in Seattle, we did not even hear an acknowledgement of like, Hey, the system is broken and actually this is what it looks like.
experience how the system is broken. We actually catch the end of the stick, so we know what it is, for most of us. We experience it on the daily. Our daily lives are dictated by the culture. If youre somebody who has removed yourself from that, if youre not thinking critically about how youre contributed to it, then youre not going to be able to cultivate that framing. I think thats why theres trouble with candidates being able to create a frame, because none of them have been able to be honest and transparent about mapping out whats just wrong in the first place. Itll actually bring some humility to their candidacy and why people feel they would be the right candidate.
If dont get a clear sense of candidates understanding of some of these root-cause issues, then you cant even begin to cultivate an understanding a solution around how to tackle these issues of justice and equity.
Speaking of the interrupting, theres been backlash for the disruptions at different candidates rallies. Why has Black Lives Matter taken on this particular strategy?
Black Lives Matter is a decentralized network of about 26 different chapters. Its interesting to see how strategy is actually evolving in this moment because of the one of the things that our good friend Alicia Garza, one of the co-creators of Black Lives Matter, says is, we are not a startup company. We didnt wake up one day and say, Hey, were going to start Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter was a hashtag that was started out of a conversation between Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza on Facebook. Then, Opal Tometi came in and put together an online platform through Tumblr and some other social media tools to have that be what it was when George Zimmerman got no indictment. Then, we fast forward to this moment of Mike Brown, and then 500 people under the moniker of Black Lives Matter goes to Ferguson and were like, Thats has been happening.
I just want to be very clear for folks who wondering what is the strategy or how the strategy comes about, its a very emergent process. Netroots happened, that strategy, that thinking happened the day before the actual action happened.
I want folks to know that even when youre seeing that action with Bernie Sanders in Seattle, that action happened in a very impromptu fashion.
Just this week, the actual strategy behind putting out this petition to put the call for an independent debate under the Democratic Party was also something that happened, as the idea was there, but in terms of the of it, it happened in a very emergent fashion.
The strategy behind this particular action and the rest of these disruptions have political aim but have intended and unintended consequences for all of that, and the network realizes that.
The only reason why we are talking about this right now: Its on our TV screens. Everyone gets to see the atrocities.
We always have to hold the risk of whats to come with that and the backlash that comes with that. If Im going to communicate to a larger audience, there is larger political aim, especially around the latest action to call on the Democratic National Committee to hold another debate.
In terms of strategy, it would actually be an opportune time to call forth a Black Lives Matter debate. Its actually very strategic. , What are the opportunities in calling a debate and how can that promote the kind of actions that we want to see happen in a local communities? Im somebody who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey. If I live in Jersey City, New Jersey, and I see people on my TV talking about my issueslocally, in my communitywhat kind of impact will that have on me? Not only am I thinking about the presidential elections, but then to start thinking about how I can become active in my own local community.
The presidential elections are important, but change happens in our own backyard. I say that is the political aim of why we are doing our disruptions. The presidential campaign, yes, but the actual aim is to get people active in their own local communities.
We arent endorsing candidates. So if we publicly told the nation that we arent publicly endorsing any candidates, people should really start to think, What is up with that? Why they keep disrupting these folks? Theres a behind it.
The Democratic National Committee recently responded to Black Lives Matter’s call for a racial-justice focus debate, saying BLM would be an ideal host for a presidential candidate foruma town halland would support the network if it chooses to organize such an event. What is your response to that?
I got a chance to see the response, and again, theres a purpose to our madness. We specifically called for a debate, not a town hall. Why, yes, town halls open up opportunity to very important dialogue to be had about these issues. We are actually calling for a debate, and the reason why we are calling for a debate is for the reasons I mentioned earlier: To keep disrupting the process, because the process in of itself is not equable.
If we are going to challenge national electoral politics, this would be the way to go. If its in your policies and practices that you could only have six debates, we get to ask why. We also get to ask, Why cant we have a seventh, and why cant it be a Black Lives Matter debate.
Again, having a town hall is nice. Im not saying we cant have one. Hey, whoever wants organized a town hallcan be more the merrier. But what Black Lives Matter is saying is that we are open to all those opportunities and theres a specific reason why we called for .
When and where will the network like for the political debate to happen?
I cant disclose that information at the time. I wouldnt happen to know. That I cant answer.
Activists in the movement met with different candidates. Is there a possibility for the Black Lives Matter network to set up meetings with the candidates?
The thing is, its interesting because there are people with this belief. There are people in the network who have met the candidates. People in the network have actually talked with representatives who have talked to the candidates.
The intention is not to come from a place where we are trying to consult with you to tell what to do. Its been a conversation about, like I said, where do you need to look internally to reflect about what it is youre doing, and how is what youre doing contributing to the disparate impact we are seeing in our communities.
Thats been the line of questioning. Im not going to sit and spend three consecutive hours of my time talking to a presidential candidate staffer and give them free information on stuff they’ve already written reports on.
Theres been some confusion on who is part of Black Lives Matter and what Black Lives Matter is. What are the differences between the hashtag, the network, and the movement? Whats the differences in the three’s political demands?
Opal Tometi just did a talk at the Atlantic…last month. She simply put it that the hashtag is a hashtag. The hashtag is a way to find each other not only as a nation, but as a global society that understands black lives matter. Just because we say black lives matter … we dont devalue anyones life in that. Its a political declaration. Its an open space for us to join in and find ourselves within this movement.
Its also a network with 26 chapters that are able to self-organize around the issues they care passionately about in their communities. These 26 chapters, between August 28 and now, are growing. We have to really put it in context because, again, Black Lives Matter as a network is not a startup company. Theres no business plan. It was really an idea of one person who said, I want to go down to Ferguson to be in solidarity with people. That person called another and said, I want to do the same. It took two people who then called Patrisse Cullors in California and then, the rest is history. Five hundred people to Ferguson on August 28, and now you have a network of 26 chapters. No one knew that was going to happen, but thats whats happen when you have a movement.
Black Lives Matter as a movement is not just 26 chapters, but it also includes organizations who have been part of this legacy. When were thinking about this entire movement, the network who were part of catalyzing that experience and who went back home in their communities and decided they wanted to organize.
There are so many organizations that have been doing this work past this project. I can go down the lists of organizations that have been doing this work all the way back to the black liberation struggle. So its only a continued legacy. This is not new.
The only reason why we are talking about this right now: Its on our TV screens. Everyone gets to see the atrocities. One of my good colleagues said this: The conversations that we have at a water cooler when we are talking about racism is now on our TV screens. So nobody gets to have a water cooler conversation about it anymore, because its public. So now racism is front and center on your TV screen; its being blasted through cellphones; its being put on Facebook.
Sandra Bland, Mya Hall, all these people are people who have lost their lives to police violence. Also, we can talk about the intra-communal violence thats happening in our communities on a daily basis, and then the unintentional offshoots and white people who are being arrested and brutalized who then media can list up because its like, Oh, white people are paying attention now. We actually get to expose it all.
Were not having a real conversation about what even allows for us to witness this. For folks to say, Oh, Black Lives Matter is a thing now, when people have been organizing to make sure that our communities are doing their best forever. Since slavery, people have been trying to get free, for 400 years people have been trying to get free, and Black Lives Matter is just another chapter of how were trying to get free on the project called United States of America.
According to Black Lives Matters official site, the network is an ideological and political intervention group. And a couple of months ago, the network released a statement not endorsing or allowing any candidate to control the network. Are there any candidates Black Lives Matter will ever endorse? Is that even a possibility?
No. Not as I know it today . I dont see it as a reality.
Some people have given the critiques. So Im going to play devils advocate on myself. Some people have said, Oh, by you disrupting Bernie Sanders action … then what are you saying about Hillary, or what are you saying about Obama? The thing about us is that, just because we are disrupting Bernie Sanders action, to us its not indicative of us then supporting another candidate. The logical and thinking behind that is actually false. Its a false belief. For us, again, theres a strategic, political rationale and aim that we have behind why were disrupting and why were putting these actions forth.
Its goes back to the premise of, if were saying that the policies, the laws, practices, beliefs, values, and culture of this nation are supposed to be equable and supposed to stand on humility, but yet we incarcerate the most amount of people in this entire world. Were saying were about all of these things, and then black folks are the ones that are carrying the burden of all this injustices that we have an actually larger conversation to talk about. We have to challenge all of the practices even when were in them and create our new practices.
I think thats the challenge with this movement, because were trying to imagine the view while also living under oppression; were living under a cultural violence, and we have to contend with that to try to find space to heal, imagine, create, innovate, and disrupt, so that we can actually live. Were considering the legacy of what weve been trying to do, and striving to do, and surviving to do, over the last 400 years. Its not new. The only thing that makes it new is technology.
Im not downing technology. The ride to Ferguson happened because of social media. Black Lives Matter happened because of social media. Trayvon Martin, we found out about the initial no indictment that happened because of Black Twitter. When we found out about Mike Brown being murdered, we found out through Twitter. Social media had some positive aspects that allowed for us to really feel with these realities differently and in real-time in ways we were not able to before.
Are there any candidates you personally want to sit down with?
If I were to be honest with you, no. Im more interested in sitting down with the local council person thats in my community. Im more interested in talking to the local congressperson. Im actually more interested in talking to my local senator in my community before Im interested in talking to a presidential candidate for the reasons that I mentioned earlier.
These people who are dictating local policies in our communities are directly impacting our lives. How many Americans in this nation actually participate in the local government? Were not asking those questions. So, Im not interested in, at this moment, talking to any of the candidates unless its part of a strategy around local electoral politics to get people in their local communities to start participating in the system differently. Im not interested in talking with any of candidates unless its meeting that political aim.
Based on that, what message would you send to any of the Democratic candidates when it comes to their current policy platforms: Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, or Martin OMalley?
My friend said this, Monica Dennis whos my comrade in BLM: NYC, on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show and I totally agree with her: When were talking about policies and systems, if we are not accepting our policies to make sure that they are equable, they stand for the liberation of black folks, and they stand in racial justice, then were doing our policies a disservice.
So, if our candidates are not able to walk us through a process around how theyre able to assess the policies before they implement then Im actually not interested in talking to them. If theyre not able to sit down with the policies they have and engage black people in discussions about why these policies matterwhy theyre good and why theyre bad and why theyre not supporting their intereststhen I actually dont want to be talking to these candidates and certainly will not be voting for these candidates if theyre not going to be talking about these issues.
If Im going to be talking to these candidates, I want to ensure myself that if Im engaging with them that they can actually talk to these issues. If they are unable to explain themselves in a way that upholds racial justice, then I wouldnt be able to make these issues very real for the families that have to live in the conditions that are impacted by these policies.
Since slavery, people have been trying to get free, for 400 years people have been trying to get free, and Black Lives Matter is just another chapter.
We have to have racial-equity impact assessment around how we implement these policies and practices. We really have to hold people at the federal level accountable. So they can get to see how policy on the federal level impacts things on the state level impacts things on town or city level and how that is impacting the families that are sitting on the block who have to deal with all of this stuff; that are sitting in their homes that have to deal with all these loopholes and system failures that are not supporting them.
We can talk about policy, but if policy is not practiced in a way that creates equable positions for people then people will find alternative routes to get what they need. If I need money by tomorrow, and I dont have a job, what you think Im going to do? We dont have those conversations, but yet right-wing people say, there are bad criminals in this society, and we can use that as a rationale to lock millions of people up. But at the end of day, is it going to add to the economic viability of this nation? No.
We would really need to be honest; we would really need to be authentic; we would really just need to be humble; we would really need to be loving; we actually would need to be caring, show empathy and show humility around really whats been going on in this nation for this period of time, for us to be in this moment our political candidates are talking about Black Lives Matter.
Illustration by Max Fleishman