Opinion: Black Lives Matter Is Democracy in Action

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Ms. Baker considered the top-down, male-centered, charismatic model of leadership a political dead end. It disempowered ordinary people, especially women and low-income and working-class people, because it told them that they need a savior. If that person is assassinated or co-opted, the movement founders.

At the same time, local leadership is not a magic solution, since local leaders can also be dominant, hierarchical and self-aggrandizing. Group-centered leadership practices, where even celebrities in the movement are responsible to the will of rank-and-file members, help to keep organizations honest.

The lead organizers of the Movement for Black Lives have been influenced by 40 years of work by black feminist and L.G.B.T. scholars and activists. Their writings and practice emphasize collective models of leadership instead of hierarchical ones, center on society’s most marginalized people and focus on how multiple systems of oppression intersect and reinforce one another.

This year, the Movement for Black Lives, with support from a team of strategists called Blackbird, coordinated three major days of action: two to commemorate Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech and a day of national protests against symbols of white supremacy after the racist attacks in Charlottesville, Va. In each case, national coordinators kept a low profile, offering support while encouraging local groups to set their own agendas.

Critics argue that the Movement for Black Lives needs to tighten control of its messaging, discipline its local affiliates and shore up its “brand.” It’s too bad they can’t see the momentum happening at the grass-roots level. To paraphrase Ms. Baker, leaders who teach following as the only way of fighting weaken the movement in the long run.

Local organizers are not passive followers. They are leading creative campaigns in major cities. For example, the Black Youth Project 100, along with other local groups, is working to overturn the New York City Housing Authority’s “permanent exclusion” policy, under which people convicted of a crime can be barred from living in or visiting public housing.

Seshat Mack, a student at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and a leader of the Black Youth Project 100’s New York chapter, explained to me that the campaign, called Housing Over Monitoring and Eviction, has relied heavily on local leadership — in particular, black New Yorkers who live in public housing.

In Chicago, one of the most segregated cities in the country, an “expanded sanctuary” campaign has brought together black people and Latino immigrants to demand an end to punitive practices like the city’s gang database. Activists have argued that the criteria for inclusion is vague and that people often don’t know they’re on the list. A lead organizer in that campaign, Maxx Boykin, underscores the importance of “building trust between people and organizations,” which can happen only on the local level.

The fight to end cash bail was bolstered by Mama’s Bail Out Day, a campaign that is the brainchild of the Atlanta organizer Mary Hooks, a director of Southerners on New Ground, a queer social-justice organization. The organizers raised over $1 million to bail out more than 100 low-income black women on Mother’s Day this year. The Movement for Black Lives umbrella group oversaw the effort by pulling in local bail-reform groups.

One of the most intense efforts within the Movement for Black Lives has been to develop an electoral strategy that can be applied locally. Recently, activists started a project to lay the groundwork for creating local black political power. According to Kayla Reed, a St. Louis organizer who helped develop the project, the goal is to transfer the clarity and radical vision brought to the protest lines to electoral campaigns. The organizers of the project are drawing lessons from the successful progressive mayoral campaigns of Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson, Miss., and Randall Woodfin in Birmingham, Ala., as well as the narrow defeat of Tishaura O. Jones in St. Louis.

Despite progress on many fronts, there is still work to do. The movement does need an easier way for people to get involved and more transparent collective decision-making, as well as space for broader ideological and policy debates.

The Movement for Black Lives is distinctive because it defers to the local wisdom of its members and affiliates, rather than trying to dictate from above. In fact, the local organizers have insisted upon it. This democratic inflection will pay off if they persevere. Brick by brick, relationship by relationship, decision by decision, the edifices of resistance are being built. The national organizations are the mortar between the bricks. That fortified space will be a necessary training ground and refuge for the political battles that lay ahead, as white supremacists inside and outside of our government seek to undermine racial and economic justice.

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Wendy Pettit

Wendy Pettit is a writer for NYT and writes for other publications on her spare time. She lives in Chicago with her husband and her dog Zuko.

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