Black Lives Matter is considered a movement, not an organization. But at times, it's just a slogan, a slogan easily appropriated by individuals whose vile taunts at protest rallies are counterproductive to efforts to rid police forces of officers whose biased and reprehensible treatment of African Americans in their custody has too often proved fatal.
Organizations and movements both need leaders, but that concept is shunned by Black Lives Matter adherents who want it, like the deceased Occupy movement, to be more organic. They prefer a flash-mob approach to protest, using social media to let anyone know when and where to be. But when people with Black Lives Matter posters and T-shirts show up and start shouting, "Kill the pigs," it's hard to deny their being in the "movement."
That opens the door for politicians like Gov. Christie to accuse Black Lives Matter of "calling for the murder of police officers." Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has a different attack.
"When you say black lives matter, that's inherently racist," Giuliani said. "Black lives matter. White lives matter. Asian lives matter."
Giuliani's seemingly earnest plea for color blindness is a sleight-of-hand trick cleverly performed to distract attention from what can be clearly seen — prison statistics and casualty lists detailing the uneven treatment of minorities by police and the criminal justice system. Makes you wonder if Christie and Giuliani would have been just as blase about black lives when the anti-lynching movement needed supporters.
San Francisco activist Alicia Garza used the expression "black lives matter" in a Facebook post after the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. A #blacklivesmatter hashtag was created for social media. Later came posters, T-shirts, a website, and a "freedom ride" to Ferguson, Mo., to protest the 2014 police shooting of another black teenager, Michael Brown.
Black Lives Matter now claims chapters in cities across America, but instead of a leader, Garza says, the loosely termed "organization" is "leader-full," meaning many people play leadership roles.
Having identifiable leaders who speak with authority would make it easier for Black Lives Matter to combat guilt-by-association attempts to portray it as wanting to kill cops. But its followers say that's old-fashioned. Their muse is Ella Baker, who as the behind-the-scenes mentor to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s never received the recognition given male civil rights leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
But focusing on Baker ignores that while she led from the background, SNCC also had some very visible and vocal leaders, including Stokely Carmichael, who later led the Black Panthers, and John Lewis, who with Andrew Young is today considered one of the last civil rights icons. Baker's bigger problem in receiving the recognition she deserved was her gender. In the '60s, women weren't supposed to lead men. Diane Nash, another SNCC leader, is also little known today.
Patrisse Cullors, creator of the #blacklivesmatter hashtag, said in a New Yorker interview that "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 community."
The comment suggests having a leader would be like having a monarch, which isn't necessarily so. Many leadership structures allow more than one person to have authority. The U.S. government is one example, but perhaps not the best given the partisan gulf between its executive and legislative branches. King led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the aid of a cadre of confidants, including his wife, Coretta Scott King.
It's understandable that subscribers to the Black Lives Matter philosophy don't want a Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton drawing more attention to themselves than to the issues they're trying to solve. But it's not elitist for an organization or movement to have leaders. It's not asking too much to expect movement followers to abide by certain rules. The SCLC had rules for marchers, most important to remain nonviolent.
Black Lives Matter can be a lightning rod for change or it can follow the Occupy movement into obscurity by naively expecting a rudderless ship to reach port. Stop letting Christie and Giuliani define what Black Lives Matter is. Put identifiable leaders in front of the TV cameras to explain what your movement's goals are and why you need help achieving them. Even the Panthers had leaders, so why not Black Lives Matter?