How the Protests in June and July Did And Didn’t Change America

The protests in June and July in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd were by some measures the largest movement in American history. But looking back on those protests now, I am not totally sure what they really represented. Were they marches against police killing black people in particularly problematic ways, like what happened to Floyd and to Breonna Taylor here in Louisville? Were they marches not just about bemoaning the killings of Floyd and Taylor but for advancing a series of policing reforms? Or were they really about not only policing reforms but a more pro-black, anti-racist America on a wide range of issues? 

Or were they really a call for really dramatic reforms on policing, like cutting police budgets, and also a really big, broad agenda for black people that might include reparations, a universal basic income and forgiveness of all student debt? Alternatively, were the protests not really about black people or policing at all, but a way for anti-Trump liberals who had been stuck in their homes and isolated from others for weeks because of COVID-19 to join together physically and emotionally with like-minded people to attack Trump and all of their concerns with America under his leadership, from COVID-19 to police violence to his tweets? 

Abolish the police, defund the police, ban chokeholds by police, vote Biden and Kamala for vp were all ideas that came out of public discussion in June and July stemming from the protests. But those are really different and disparate ideas that address different problems --- and really stem from different definitions of the problems. We have a mantra that a lot of people now embrace -- Black Lives Matter. There is something of a movement around that idea. And there are a lot of other movements on the left that are sympathetic to BLM and kind of allied with it --- the Sunrise Movement on climate change; the Anti-Trump resistance; the economic populism movement that among others, The Squad,  Reverend William Barber, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are trying to build. 

This is all a bit confusing to me. So I reached out recently to John Hopkins University political scientist Daniel Schlozman. He literally wrote the book on how social movements connect with political parties, When Movements Anchor Parties: Electoral Alignments in American History. We talked about BLM, AOC, MLK, JRB (Joseph Robinette Biden Jr) and among other things, the “tyranny of structurelessness.” 

Is AOC basically the fifth-most important Democrat (after Biden, Obama, Pelosi and Schumer) or more like the 300th-most important (behind Dem governors, senators and the House members with more seniority?) She has very little formal power, but maybe a lot of informal power, right? 

The line that comes to mind here is Ella Baker's that, “The movement made Martin, rather than Martin making the movement.” [Perry note: Ella Baker was a civil rights organizer in the 1960s.] And if you really believe that, then the power that AOC has is that she’s the face of something much bigger.

So in other words, you think of this as a movement, there's a sort of left-wing movement in America and in some ways AOC is the president of that? 

It's a movement that has lots of different parts, and they are related to one another, but not identical. There's a racial justice piece. There's a class piece. There's a climate piece. Some of them are quite closely linked with the Democratic Party, some further from the formal Democratic Party. 

A question about the current left is on its issue priorities: what are the issues on which they are going to focus or compromise? They have such a broad agenda. Sanders’s signature proposal is Medicare for All. The Sunrise Movement, which was really a quite close adjunct of the Sanders campaign, is pushing on climate. The BLM agenda is different. 

In comparison to the Tea Party, the Republican Party ultimately not only made its peace with the Tea Party but moved in a lot of ways in its direction and found with Trump some kind of synthesis. Even as the Democratic Party is moving leftwards and its moderates are not the moderates of 30 years ago, the synthesis and embrace of large portions of the left agenda is not happening in the same way on the Democratic side, which is why there is much more intra-party tension. 

And this party tension is really strong right now---like the “defund the police” debate. 

The frustrating thing for Democrats about the 2020 elections is that neither the moderate wing nor the wing of Nancy-Pelosi-garden-variety liberals nor the left got a real signal that says, “this is the way we win.” Congressional districts where the presidential vote and the House vote was different are at absolute historic lows. So the defund conversation happens in a sense because there’s not a clear story screaming to be told from the election results. It's an attempt to come up with a narrative when, looking at this as a political science type, the narrative is you had a lot of straight-ticket voting

[Perry note: The initial narrative out of the election was that Biden did notably better than Democrats in congressional races. That is not correct. Biden did markedly better than the Senate Democratic candidate in Maine, but otherwise he won and lost in the same states as Senate Democrats. If the Democratic Senate candidates lose in Georgia on Jan 5, that would be a second state Biden carried that the party lost at the Senate level. In the House, Democrats will have between 220 and 225 seats, Biden ran ahead of Trump in somewhere between 220 and 225 districts.]

Thinking about defund from the perspective of the Black Lives Matter movement, movements aren’t designed to be popular. But it’s not clear that the movement should be intentionally unpopular either. Would the movement be better with a few more formal leaders and a formal strategy? 

I will recommend, as I do all the time, a wonderful essay by the feminist Jo Freeman called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” Formal authority comes with an actual process that leads to decisions. 

More broadly, there are a few dynamics. The first is the popularity of criminal justice reforms. Liberal candidates running on criminal justice reform, especially running in blue states, cities and counties, are doing well. Joe Biden was part of this period where being “tough on crime” was what you wanted to do as a candidate. Now, you say, “I am not going to prosecute minor offenses,” which is a real reversal from a generation ago, and looking at 2020 that shift has accelerated rather than going in reverse. On the other hand, in a nationalized political environment, it is extremely easy -- in ways that weren’t true in the 1960s when the parties were much more fragmented -- for you as a politician in a party to be associated with this thing that is unpopular. Then, the candidate has to say, “Here’s what I’m actually for and this particular thing, I am not,” but you are associated with people who are for this unpopular thing. 

Exactly how the locally-popular piece and the nationally-unpopular slogan fit together is a good question to which I wish I had all the answers. 

Talk about the BLM movement versus the 60’s civil rights movement. 

So the first thing to say is there is a real romanticized view of the 1960’s that gets told in high schools and sometimes in the press that there was this “good movement” and the good movement didn't have radicals and then the good movement was superseded by a bad movement. In reality, many of the dedicated organizers in the 1960s had some links to the Communist Party, or least they had been fellow travelers at some point. 

There's always a side of movements that is skeptical of elected politicians and formal power. 

I think that there’s a notable difference. Police violence was a major issue in both eras. But you have the enormous explosion in mass incarceration in this era. And the end of the world of full unemployment means that the conversation about state violence and jobs happens in a very, very different macro environment. 

So Biden met with what was described as “civil rights leaders” on Tuesday. I don’t think anymore under 40 or really associated with BLM was among the people he met with. And I think this goes to the question of, “If you wanted to pick a young leader of Black Lives Matter to invite to a White House meeting, who would that person be?” And I sort of think  if someone went to the meeting and presented herself as a leader of BLM, their fellow activists would disown them afterwards. 

One important difference between now and the 60’s is now we have an established black middle class. The class differences in black America have grown and there's generational differences too. The people meeting with Biden are middle-aged and middle class. These are internal questions which are represented by a good book by Dara Strolovitch, which talks about the idea that those representing a group are often the most advantaged members of that group. That’s the story of how middle-class men became the leaders of the LGBT movement and it’s the same story of who’s there on Tuesday with Biden.  

Are we now at a point where if you’re a person who is sympathetic to Black Lives Matter that you want it to have a leader attached to it, so when the president has a meeting he hears from the movement’s leaders directly? 

I tend to think that movements are often limited by the tyranny of structurelessness. Black Lives Matter I think has a bad case of this sense that, “oh no, our leaders will sell us out.” If you want to be in the settings where you can talk directly to established power, whether that is the police chief or president-elect of the United States, you need leaders who have the credibility that they can come back to you and tell you what they’ve learned. And one way to do that is through formal elections. Have some process to choose your movement’s leaders. 

Was King elected to something? I guess King was president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. 

SCLC had its internal politics, but yes, he was chosen as its leader. And there was the Big Five. (Perry note: The leading civil rights groups of that era were referred to by that moniker. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (S.N.C.C.), the NAACP, the Urban League, SCLC and The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).)

But again, American political divisions are national but lots of stuff is getting decided, especially on criminal justice issues, at the local and state levels and that creates a weird kind of discussion. 

So I guess I don’t really know what a movement is technically. Was June and July a movement? 

It was a movement by all definitions of movements. What difference that movement will make is a much different question. 

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