Amid 'Devastating' Progress Nationally, Black Lives Matter Engages Local Causes

Jul 3, 2017
Originally published on July 3, 2017 9:17 pm

It's been almost four years since Patrisse Khan-Cullors helped birth the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. Those three words gained national attention for demonstrations against police brutality and grew into a movement.

But progress has been slow, admits Khan-Cullors, a Los Angeles-based activist who co-founded the Black Lives Matter Network.

"The local is where the work is. If we're looking at just the national, it's pretty devastating. But if you zoom into cities, to towns, to rural areas, people are fighting back and people are winning," she says, pointing to one example in Jackson, Miss., where voters recently elected a progressive new mayor in the Deep South.

Other Black Lives Matter activists around the country, who are part of a decentralized movement, are also focusing on local activism.

"We go to locations where people generally ... don't have to think about or don't want to think about white supremacy and patriarchy and how that's affecting black people," says Mike Bento, an organizer with New York's NYC Shut It Down, a group which considers itself part of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The group started holding weekly demonstrations around New York City two years ago to honor mainly people who have died at the hands of police. On a recent Monday evening, about two dozen protesters gathered outside a restaurant in downtown Manhattan, where diners sipped wine at bistro tables on the sidewalk.

While a protester held up a sign saying "MX BOSTICK, REST IN POWER," Bento started a call-and-response describing the recent death of a black transgender person who was found unconscious on a sidewalk after being struck in the head in May. A suspect is now charged with manslaughter.

"We're here tonight because while you are dining, black trans people are dying," Bento shouted at the restaurant patrons.

Still, it's not all about protesting in the streets. Sometimes, Bento and other Black Lives Matter activists go underground and into New York's subways. They pay for people who would otherwise try to get on a train without paying, which could earn them a misdemeanor.

"This is all connected," Bento says. "This is all part of how we get a system of mass incarceration. And so we start with basic things that we can do to keep our brothers and sisters out of that system."

Other basic forms of activism include standing outside the courthouse to support people charged with low-level offenses and helping to serve dinner to homeless people.

In Washington, D.C., April Goggans, an organizer with Black Lives Matter DC, is holding meetings with other local activist groups to figure out how they can make communities facing high crime rates more self-sufficient.

Goggans says she's been following the recent police shooting of Charleena Lyles, a pregnant, black mother in Seattle, as well as the not-guilty verdicts for police officers involved in the deaths of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Sylville Smith in Wisconsin. They've all reinforced her conclusion, she says, that any type of reform will not improve police departments.

"I don't even know that I would put my effort into charging and imprisoning individual police officers because it's just not gonna happen very much and that kind of justice, it's not a deterrent for other police officers," says Goggans, who says she is focused on getting rid of the current system of policing in the long term.

Khan-Cullors says she is also taking a long view when thinking about how the Black Lives Matter movement will tackle issues black people have been living with for decades.

"We are not new to police brutality. We are not new to police violence. We are not new to people dying inside jail cells and prisons," she says. "What is new is the visibility. What is new is that they become headlines."

She says she's always been concerned about how the movement can sustain itself when social media is inundated with photos and videos of black people killed at the hands of police and victories for the movement seem hard to come by.

With the U.S. Supreme Court reinstating part of President Donald Trump's travel ban and Congress considering substantial cuts to Medicaid, she's worried that the current political environment is becoming even more overwhelming for activists.

"If you can't fight the state, and you can't fight for the things that you need, then you take it out on each other," says Khan-Cullors, who cautions that infighting could destroy the movement.

That's why gatherings like a recent candle-light vigil at The Underground Museum in Los Angeles for Lyles and other police shooting victims are important to Khan-Cullors, who wants to keep activists energized and encourage them to work together.

Starting campaigns to change laws and policy, she says, is the obvious work. But staying together as a movement, that's the hard stuff.

Shaheen Ainpour contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.; Michael Radcliffe contributed from Los Angeles.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Black Lives Matter movement is evolving. It first gained national attention for demonstrations against police brutality a few years ago. Now activists are expanding their focus to other local issues. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Black Lives Matter is here to disrupt. So when about two dozen protesters gather outside a restaurant in downtown Manhattan where diners sit at bistro tables on a sidewalk, sipping wine, this is not a mistake.

MIKE BENTO: We're here tonight...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: We're here tonight...

BENTO: ...Because while you are dining...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: ...Because while you are dining...

BENTO: ...Black trans people are dying.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: ...Black trans people are dying.

WANG: Mike Bento is an organizer with this group NYC Shut It Down, which considers itself part of the Black Lives Matter movement.

BENTO: We go to locations where people generally a lot of times don't have to think about or don't want to think about white supremacy and patriarchy and how that's affecting black people.

WANG: They started holding weekly demonstrations around New York two years ago to honor mainly people who have died at the hands of police. But he says it's not all about protesting in the streets. Sometimes they go underground into the subway. They pay for people who would otherwise try to get on a train without paying, which could earn them a misdemeanor.

BENTO: This is all connected. This is all part of how we get a system of mass incarceration. And so we start with basic things that we can do to keep our brothers and sisters out of that system.

WANG: Other basic forms of activism include standing outside the courthouse to support people charged with low-level offenses and helping to serve dinner to homeless people as part of a focus on the local level that you can find amongst other Black Lives Matter activists, including April Goggans.

APRIL GOGGANS: I am a core organizer with Black Lives Matter DC and the creator of Keep DC 4 Me.

WANG: That's a group trying to find ways to address violence within black communities in Washington, D.C., without involving police. Goggans says she's been following the recent police shooting of Charleena Lyles, a pregnant black mother in Seattle, and the not-guilty verdicts for police officers in Minnesota and Wisconsin. And they've all reinforced her conclusion that she wants to get rid of the current system of policing.

GOGGANS: I don't even know that I would put my effort into charging and imprisoning individual police officers because this is not going to happen very much. And that kind of justice is not a deterrent for other police officers.

WANG: Instead Goggans is holding meetings with other activist groups to figure out how they can make communities facing high crime rates more self-sufficient.

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Shout it out, y'all.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Che Taylor.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Tamir Rice.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Philando Castile.

WANG: In Los Angeles, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter network, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, leads a candlelight vigil in memory of police shooting victims. It's been almost four years since Khan-Cullors helped birth the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, and progress, she admits, has been slow.

KHAN-CULLORS: The local is where the work is, you know? If we're looking at just the national, it's pretty devastating. But if you zoom in to cities, to towns, to rural areas, people are fighting back, and people are winning.

WANG: Khan-Cullors points to Jackson, Miss., where voters recently elected a progressive new mayor in the Deep South. Still, she says she's always been concerned about how the Black Lives Matter movement can sustain itself when victories seem hard to come by. She says she's worried that the Trump administration's policies are making it even more overwhelming for activists.

KHAN-CULLORS: If you can't fight the state and you can't fight for the things that you need, then you take it out on each other.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing) We scream. We sing. We yell, looking for answers.

WANG: That's why gatherings like this candlelight vigil in Los Angeles, Khan-Cullors says, are important for keeping activists energized. Starting campaigns to change laws and policy, Khan-Cullors says, is the obvious work, but staying together as a movement, she says - that's the hard stuff. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.