Why the Black Lives Matter movement doesn’t want a singular leader

Christel Deskins

In 2015, thousands of Black activists gathered in Ohio for the first national Black Lives Matter convention to consider where the movement would direct its energy. Attendees in the crowd held up red construction paper to signal “no” to a handful of narrow options, like focusing only on policy or […]

In 2015, thousands of Black activists gathered in Ohio for the first national Black Lives Matter convention to consider where the movement would direct its energy.

Attendees in the crowd held up red construction paper to signal “no” to a handful of narrow options, like focusing only on policy or on organizing demonstrations. But then, the activists were asked what they thought about an all-of-the-above, “multi-tactical” approach encompassing everything from organizing and protesting to pushing new legislation at various levels of government.

“It was a sea of green,” said Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, co-executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center and one of many leaders in the Movement for Black Lives coalition.

The democratic nature of the vote, and the broad vision it endorsed, illustrate a key, intentional detail about the Black Lives Matter movement that has baffled some outsiders: It doesn’t have a typical power structure — and it doesn’t want to, as it wages battle on multiple fronts.

Instead of a pyramid of different departments topped by a leader, there is coordination and a set of shared values spread across a decentralized structure that prizes local connections and fast mobilization in response to police violence. Over the last eight years, the movement has steadily built a modern infrastructure on top of decades-old social justice institutions like the Highlander Center.

The distributed setup has at times contributed to tensions. National Black activists have feuded over which policy programs put forward by different organizations best represent the goals of the movement. Some admitted the decentralized system can confuse the public at times and leave the movement open to misconceptions in the press. But none of the 10 activists POLITICO spoke to from across the country said they wanted a hierarchical structure instead, as the movement seeks to turn its newfound momentum into policy changes at the local and national levels.

“There were explicit decisions around building the movement in a way that would be both coordinated and decentralized,” said Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party and an organizer with the Movement for Black Lives. “There’s no way that you could have these many actions with the same demand if there wasn’t a level of high level coordination.”

When George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a white Minneapolis policeman was captured on film, hundreds of organizations and thousands of activists were ready to launch protests in their cities. They pushed policy with local legislators and police departments and rallied people who hadn’t previously engaged in BLM protests around the message of “defund the police.”

The growing, multi-racial movement has quickly shifted the conversation around policing and racism across the country, including in Washington, where lawmakers have been unsure how to react or liaise with the groundswell. There is no chairperson or candidate calling the shots in private or serving as a public rallying point. With no singular person to attack in tweets, President Donald Trump instead directed his ire and threats of violence at mostly peaceful protesters.

“In terms of strategy — and this is very real that we have to be honest about this — it makes it harder for those who are against us to do what they did in the ‘60s, which is to target one leader,” said Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund, a voter engagement nonprofit.

That doesn’t make them leaderless, activists say. Instead, they call themselves “leaderful.” Even at the beginning of the movement, the power structure was based in collaboration. The Black Lives Matter Global Network was co-founded in 2013 by three female organizers, and the Movement for Black Lives, formed one year later, has no governing board, though it coordinates with more than 150 organizations.

“We don’t need someone in the Senate or House to try to build their political career off of this moment,” said Bryan Mercer, executive director of the Philadelphia-based social justice organization Movement Alliance Project. “It is a misconception that we need a charismatic leader to carry this work forward.”

Activists in cities all over the country are trading notes through the network as they pressure local officials to explore new public safety options, from doing away with police in schools to slashing budgets or reimagining police departments entirely.

The Minneapolis city council’s pledge to break up its police department and start from scratch, “doesn’t just have implications for Minneapolis,” said Mitchell. “That has national implications.”

Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities in Milwaukee, said she is having more conversations with other Black organizers across the country than ever before. The Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission is in turmoil — with an executive director on the way out and a chairman facing accusations of ethics violations — as protesters demand change. Lang’s organization put together 300 responses for the commission on what residents want to see from the next executive director, and it is pressuring the local police department as its chief wraps his six-month evaluation.

Protesters gather for a Juneteenth rally at the Brooklyn Museum.
Protesters gather for a Juneteenth rally at the Brooklyn Museum.

Meanwhile, other portions of the movement are organizing bigger national actions. Woodard Henderson, along with the SEIU, the Fight for $15 advocacy group and other unions, orchestrated a strike for Black lives on Monday, with thousands of workers in more than 25 cities walking off the job.

Jessica Byrd, a strategist with Three Point Strategies and leader in the Movement for Black Lives, wakes up at 4 a.m. most days to prepare for the online Black National Convention on Aug. 28, which aims to engage 4 million Black people across the country. Ahead of the convention, roughly 1,000 Black activists will meet virtually to craft a 100-day agenda for a potential Joe Biden administration, which will be unveiled at the national gathering.

“We have a new election cycle in which we are a central force, whereas in 2016, there were headlines saying that Black movement didn’t care about elections,” said Byrd, who oversees the Electoral Justice Project for the Movement for Black Lives, which launched in 2017.

Federal lawmakers have already responded to the dramatic shift in public attitudes toward Black Lives Matter, with the Democratic-led House passing a sweeping police reform bill at the end of June. Though multiple senior lawmakers have rejected the “defund the police” push, activists see the bill as just a starting point. They countered with their own piece of legislation: the Breathe Act, which seeks to eliminate federal agencies and programs that invest in and expand law enforcement.

“We wanted to be clear that we could speak for ourselves,” said Woodard Henderson. “That we could actually write our own federal legislation that is incorporating the policy demands that we’ve been raising.”

The bill has yet to formally be introduced by a lawmaker in Congress, but first-term Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) participated in its rollout with the Movement for Black Lives. Pressley, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and activists with the Movement for Black Lives are in ongoing conversations about the proposal.

“I am thankful for M4BL’s leadership and stand ready to work alongside them to fight for structural change, legislate accountability, and move in the direction of justice and healing,” Pressley said in a statement to POLITICO.

But other national policy pushes growing out of the movement have inspired dissension within it.

One of the most widely known policy plans to come out of the Black Lives Matter movement is the “8 Can’t Wait” proposals from the racial justice group Campaign Zero. The package is composed of “restrictive use of force policies” for local police departments — including banning chokeholds, mandating de-escalation and warning before shooting — which the group argued would decrease killings.

Deray Mckesson, co-founder of Campaign Zero, said the platform was meant to “normalize” police reform policies. “If the police are going to exist tomorrow, they should have dramatically less power tomorrow,” he told GQ.

But the release of “8 Can’t Wait” in early June was met with swift criticism from a number of activists who felt the proposals did not go far enough in a climate where calls to “defund the police” were gaining wider acceptance. Within a week, Campaign Zero co-founder Brittany Packnett Cunningham announced her departure from the organization in response to the backlash. Campaign Zero issued an apology on its website, saying its campaign “unintentionally detracted from efforts of fellow organizers invested in paradigmatic shifts that are newly possible in this moment.”

Jennifer Epps-Addison, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, said the main contention with the policies is that many of them are already mandated in police departments, demonstrating to her that a more thorough transformation of public safety is needed.

“I was a part of the criminalization apparatus and system myself,” said Epps-Addison, a former public defender. “We cannot continue to invest in structures that ultimately need to be dismantled in order for Black people to have freedom.”

As the movement grew after the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, federal and philanthropic dollars “poured into reforms, a level of investment we hadn’t seen probably since the 1994 crime bill,” Epps-Addison continued. “And those reforms don’t work.”

The “8 Can’t Wait” package has also faced opposition from the other direction, though: In Atlanta, the city council passed the package after the killing of Rayshard Brooks by police in a Wendy’s parking lot. But Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms — a Democratic vice presidential contender — vetoed the package, to the frustration of local activists.

“If we can’t get that passed in a place like Atlanta, we have a lot of work to get done,” said Nse Ufot, executive director of the New Georgia Project, which mobilizes young voters of color. “I don’t think that [officials] are moving at the pace of change that movement is, and there will be a reckoning.”

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