The Highlander Research and Education Center is one of the unsung mileposts of the struggle for civil rights. People like Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and Ralph Abernathy refined their organizing skills at Highlander. It was there, in 1957, that a young Martin Luther King Jr. first heard Pete Seeger sing “We Shall Overcome.” On his way to the airport after the anniversary of what was then known as the Highlander Folk School, King proclaimed, “There’s something about that song that haunts you.” Highlander has since moved farther east, but its mission remains the same.
That’s why shortly after the 2016 election, on November 18, 16 Black Lives Matter leaders selected it as the place to gather.
Top activists in the movement — like Alicia Garza, cofounder of the Black Lives Matter network of organizations (a namesake group), Charlene Carruthers of the Black Youth Project 100, and others — met to privately discuss how to move forward in Trump’s America. (A representative for the Black Lives Matter Global Network disputed that Garza attended the meeting.) Protests had already dominated the news for days. This would be the time for decisive action, undergirded by a clear strategy. Here, in the hills of Tennessee, the activists would come together for a meeting of groups involved in the Movement for Black Lives, an umbrella group of organizations that want the same things, and devise a plan to address the new president, the shock of his election, the law and order he had promised during the campaign, and the devastating blow it all had delivered to generational movements about race and criminal justice policy in the United States. They would devise a plan — like the heroes of the civil rights movement once had decades before.
That good feeling didn’t last long. Few people want to talk about exactly what went wrong — how exactly the meeting devolved. But one problem, according to people who attended or were briefed on the meeting, was pretty simple: The ideas weren’t that good.
Some activists pitched things that had been pitched before. Someone pitched a plan that would require the recruitment of new groups into the fold, and leadership of the so-called resistance. And someone pitched a grand vision: the organization of 1 million black people. This last idea in particular infuriated people inside and outside the meeting. After years of organizing, local activists were cash-strapped, trying to keep their people motivated, and struggling to coordinate with other groups nationally while staying relevant at home. One million black people organized? Organized by whom? Organized for what? And this was the plan?
One million black people organized? Organized by whom? Organized for what? And this was the plan?
On top of that — people fumed over this — the meeting had done little to address the structural problems that had dragged down the movement since its meteoric rise from dispersed beginnings to national political influence. Many local activists felt they couldn’t get access to funding, and didn’t know who to take it up with. Organizers felt like they’d been lured in before by the promise of greater collaboration, the sharing of resources, and cultivation of a social community — only to feel left out, especially when it came to the Movement for Black Lives, an umbrella group of organizations that want the same things. Many chafed at the tenet, repeated by the press, that Black Lives Matter was free from hierarchy and instead began to question the existence of tight control exercised by a small group of activists. “The hierarchy was clearer than ever, even though folks are sure there isn’t one on the outside,” said one person briefed on the meeting. For months during the campaign last year, key progressives had watched Black Lives Matter and kept wondering two things many activists on the inside were starting to wonder themselves: What is the movement’s strategy? What is the end goal?
Nobody resolved the structural issues at Highlander. There was no one big plan.
Since then, amid the daily chaos inside the White House, the Trump administration has begun quietly rolling back progressive, Obama-era recommendations on sentencing and policing. In response to mounting opioid overdoses, President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions seem intent on reigniting the war on drugs, which put into motion many of the elements, like heavily armed police and mandatory sentences, that sparked Black Lives Matter and a larger generational response. It’s an uncertain time in America, and many of the avenues once open to the movement — such as a president sensitive to the moral authority of young black activists — have closed. This is a new moment, with different challenges. Outside Washington, the left has been revitalized; protesters have organized some of the biggest demonstrations in US history.
Inside Black Lives Matter, some activists have argued that their lowered visibility on the national scene is because the movement is focused on policy. In response to questions for this story, Shanelle Matthews, the director of communications for the Black Lives Matter Global Network, wrote as part of a larger statement to BuzzFeed News, “We are committed [to] keeping our people safe and building our power. We are also committed to building movements with more integrity, dignity, and inclusiveness than ever.”
Some groups are internally questioning whether working in tandem with the Movement for Black Lives is a useful way to spend their time, though. Asked whether the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice plans to leave the larger coalition of groups — which one source had indicated — the group's executive director, Dante Barry, neither confirmed nor denied that in an email, but wrote that his group is seeking to "clarify our direction and focus as an organization." He said the group would remain focused on its priorities, which include sanctuary-city and community-safety efforts. “Million Hoodies will always work to improve the conditions of black and brown people and we are currently focused on how our members want to show up in this moment in light of Trump because our communities are on the front lines and are at stake," he wrote. "We are aware that many alliances are forming and we will continue to partner where needed and prioritize supporting the development of next generation human rights leaders that are participating in various social movements for transformation.”
Inside the larger movement, many of the movement’s young activists — some of whom had never organized before joining — lack experience in dealing with the realities and challenges of a national effort, and the tricky alliances and factions involved in many political movements. Some have also come up against the hard reality of full-time activism and don’t know what to do: There are no tactics for helping organizers feed themselves. In the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, during a drawn-out confrontation in Birmingham, leaders turned to children to lead demonstrations, in large part because the adults couldn’t afford to take time off work, let alone stay in jail for days at a time in defiance of segregation. Questions over how unsalaried activists are supposed to lead, oftentimes in a full-time capacity, without a job, has become an unresolved conflict inside the movement.
“Does the talent to meet those challenges exist in the Black Lives Matter organization? Absolutely it does. Problems that arise are an opportunity to get things right,” said Donna Davis, an organizer and activist in Tampa, Florida. “But we can’t pretend that we’re not plagued by some of the issues and concerns that have taken down the movements in the past. We’re not immune to it.”
Black Lives Matter is still here. Its groups are still organizing. But Black Lives Matter is on the verge of losing the traction and momentum that sparked a national shift on criminal justice policy.
It’s helpful to describe what “the movement” is in the most basic terms: There’s no way to tell how many people call themselves Black Lives Matter activists in the United States. Activists, largely dispersed across the country but concentrated in some cities or regions more than others, largely communicate online. There is a large coalition of groups called the Movement for Black Lives; some of the activists whose names you might recognize (like Garza) lead that coalition, but others (like Campaign Zero’s DeRay Mckesson, Brittany Packnett, Samuel Sinyangwe, and its army of loyalists) aren’t involved in it. There are no universal meetings. There is no centralized, national organization called Black Lives Matter.
Some activists believe that while the internal conflicts are indeed real, they are no different from what other long-lasting groups faced, and they do not portend the movement’s end. Discord and disagreement are part of the natural evolution of all political movements. In her statement to BuzzFeed News, Matthews noted that “it’s healthy for people building movements not always to agree, and while we don’t always get along, what keeps us going through this hard work together is our shared desire for justice.”
But identity battles can be different. In interviews with 36 people inside and allied with the movement — both the optimists and the disillusioned — activists largely agreed that the identity of the movement, its existential purpose and aim, remains unresolved. “If I want to get involved with the NAACP, I feel clear about where they are as an [organization],” said Ashley Yates, a Ferguson, Missouri, protester who has since relocated to the West Coast. “Even if you look at the black Greek letter organizations, they have certain structures so that if something strays too far, there’s something to rein it in. That hasn’t happened with Black Lives Matter or the Movement for Black Lives. It’s not to say it has to happen, but people are unclear about what they are coming to these organizations for.”
That’s partly a product of how the movement came to be. People went outside of their house because they were angry with the state of affairs, and a movement followed from there.
“People are unclear about what they are coming to these organizations for.”
The broad contours are well known. Black Lives Matter was born sometime after George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in 2012, was charged with murder, and was then acquitted in 2013. Protests started in Florida and in other cities, against how law enforcement handles violence against black people; against mass incarceration, over-criminalization, police militarization; against the way police sometimes commit violence against black people, especially young black men and women. The August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old in Missouri, turned those protests into a national cause and obsession — especially as the aftermath became a complicated, at times toxic mix of media, violence, and ineffective or even absent official leadership at the local and state levels. To young black people all over the country, Ferguson, and the way Brown’s death seemed just one piece in a larger pattern of violence, demanded more protests.
Dozens of organizations sprouted up under the Black Lives Matter banner. Twitter became the staging ground, but these were real protests in real places. In the summer of 2015, the Movement for Black Lives launched a conference on the campus of Cleveland State University where, one evening, the families of multiple young people who had been killed by the police shared personal testimony recounting the tragedy in their lives.
Around then, the debates had begun to intensify about what exactly the movement would do, what it stood for. Different schools sprang up. Some preached a policy-driven approach that would require collaboration with existing power structures, like Mckesson, who started a Washington-style public policy group. Campaign Zero outlined specific policies on a targeted set of criminal justice issues. But unlike the Latino immigration activists who rose to prominence during a similar time period, Black Lives Matter activists faced the challenge of having no particularly obvious target: The US president has immense discretionary power over immigration policy; policing and sentencing laws can vary from state to state, municipality to municipality. Some preached a hyperlocal entry into politics: Activists from the Black Youth Project 100 led the ouster of a state’s attorney in Chicago, Anita Alvarez, who couldn’t be bothered with a case concerning the shooting of an unarmed teen, Laquan McDonald, and the subsequent handling of evidence by police. Some preached the primacy of demonstration: Only by staying on the outside, only by making people in power uncomfortable through protest, could the movement succeed. Some were just happy to finally have a movement that affirmed that their struggles were real.
Around then, the debates had begun to intensify about what exactly the movement would do, what it stood for.
It was also around this time of uncertainty in the movement, though, that activists began interrupting Democratic candidates, launching Black Lives Matter into the nuclear stratosphere of presidential politics. The interruptions weren’t part of a nationally coordinated campaign — it was mostly individuals here and there who seized an opportunity. When activists confronted Bernie Sanders (Phoenix, Seattle) and Hillary Clinton (New Hampshire, Minnesota, South Carolina), tense, explosive exchanges followed. The words “black lives matter” were applied to each video, then discussed in debates, in the New York Times, on CNN, on Fox News (where a single clip of some isolated protesters chanting “Pigs in a blanket, fry ‘em like bacon” often played). Now everybody thought they knew what Black Lives Matter was: It was a political movement. The striking, often misunderstood phrase at the center, by turns an affirmation and a movement, was being flattened into a single entity, even if nobody really had a handle on what that meant. “If you think about the lies and false narratives in the movement,” said one activist, “and why they exist in the first place, you'll go crazy.”
In that vortex, the fights over resources, direction, and ownership of the movement intensified, much of it swirling around the largest national group: the Movement for Black Lives.
As the story goes, three women originated the phrase “black lives matter.”
By her account, Garza wrote a “love letter” to black people in 2013, first coining the phrase Black Lives Matter. Then, Patrisse Cullors put #BlackLivesMatter into a hashtag. Then, Opal Tometi began organizing people online, sensing there was momentum on which the three women could build. Garza has often told this story. (In some corners this narrative has become known, derisively, as the “Founder’s Myth.”) She frames the movement as something that couldn’t be invented.
“It is important to us that we understand that movements are not begun by any one person — that this movement actually was begun in 1619 when black people were brought here in chains and at the bottoms of boats,” she told a Detroit audience last year. “Whether or not you call it Black Lives Matter, whether or not you put a hashtag in front of it, whether or not you call it the Movement for Black Lives, all of that is irrelevant. Because there was resistance before Black Lives Matter, and there will be resistance after Black Lives Matter.” In recent public appearances, she’s said she gave it language — that the movement was a “continuation” of a uniquely American struggle led by black people.
The language and ownership of Black Lives Matter has always been a contentious, fraught subject, and one with significant ramifications. In 2014, Garza grew frustrated as, in the mainstream media, “Black Lives Matter” began to signify the Missouri protests over Michael Brown’s death. A 2016 study — by media scholars Charlton McIlwain, Deen Freelon, and Meredith Clark — examined more than 40 million tweets, finding that #BlackLivesMatter was used only sparingly before August 2014, the same month Brown was killed in Ferguson. This resulted in the media driving the narrative: The Ferguson protests had become synonymous with the phrase Black Lives Matter.
Friends and colleagues say Garza grew fiercely protective of the hashtag — so much so that she moved to make Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives into two separate entities, encouraging others around her to do the same.
A former labor organizer with a degree from the University of California, San Diego, Garza has often said the movement is “leaderful, not leaderless.” The formation of the Movement for Black Lives, though, amounted to the creation of a power structure inside the movement, one that Garza leads.
The idea that the movement’s looser, egalitarian structure allowed for a free flow of ideas yielded to a predictable irony: Because there’s little public dissent about what direction the activism should take, the Movement for Black Lives has a lot of latitude when it comes to some kinds of press coverage and decisions. It’s not a subject the activists protective of the movement particularly like talking about: the public perception of the movement versus the unwritten rules and hierarchy inside.
The Movement for Black Lives is the most prominent group in the larger movement, and many trace its ideology and activism back to Garza. She, more than any other prominent activist, has advocated for staying outside of existing power structures. She, friends say, is not interested in playing ball with Democratic politicians for the sake of a few concessions here and there — or, worse, being used as a photo op prop by politicians. She contends that black organizing has “changed the landscape of what is politically possible” and that people were “no longer content with the same old tactics devoid of a larger strategy that stares transformation directly in the face” and that this resistance was one that “challenges the notion that only policy change will get us to where we are trying to go.”
Separatism is hardly a new concept in black political movements — like Marcus Garvey at the start of the 20th century, and even the early Nation of Islam days of Malcolm X, whose activism revolved largely around creating separatist black states, somewhere in the agrarian South. Garza’s growing part of the movement had designs on a society — even if it were a more existential one — free from pain being inflicted on it by police, racist structures, and capitalism.
By intentionally departing from what they viewed as the centralized patriarchal leadership that scuttled other black-led political organizations, Garza and others envisioned a movement in which the most marginalized members of the community took central positions in leadership. This act — of making the most vulnerable the most visible — was part of a broader set of philosophies by which people would govern themselves not only now, but also in preparation for a world in which black people were truly “free.” The world was an abstraction. But it was powered by the idea that three black women (two of whom, Cullors and Garza, identify as queer) had become central to the movement’s image in the public eye.
In response to a critique from outside the movement that the group’s aims were too existential, the Movement for Black Lives in 2015 announced the Policy Table, which produced a policy platform that was wide-ranging and comfortably leftist. They have not abandoned that platform, at least not officially. The Movement for Black Lives has said it’s “focused on a hopeful and inclusive vision of Black joy, safety, and prosperity.” That is to say they like policy, just not that much: “We recognize that not all of our collective needs and visions can be translated into policy, but we understand that policy change is one of many tactics necessary to move us towards the world we envision.” And the group has focused on different policy initiatives: Since the November meeting, the Movement for Black Lives has engaged in an action involving freeing jailed mothers who couldn't afford bail, and a land-rights campaign. (They’ve also introduced “The Majority,” a coalition of groups that includes United We Dream and progressive grassroots organizations like Color of Change.)
What that all means in practice for the Movement for Black Lives has been a little more complicated. Sometime in 2015, Garza and Opal Tometi — one of the three founders of the Black Lives Matter organization — had a falling out.
“It used to be that we’d say turn up on the state and turn down on each other. But now I think people are just tired."
An organizer who had come up in the immigration rights movement, Tometi grew up in Phoenix as the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. Friends describe her as an unlikely addition; Cullors and Garza had known each other long before Tometi entered the picture. Today, her group, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, is carrying out a specific vision: America and the Trump administration, Tometi argued in May, had a “moral obligation” to extend temporary protected status and end deportations to Haiti. The administration has extended the status for 60,000 people for six months. In an emailed statement to BuzzFeed News, Tometi said of her work with the group, “This has always been one of the primary ways I contribute to the black liberation struggle. As with any organization, serving as the executive director means I am its primary steward.”
Activists close to the leaders say Tometi has taken a step back from her work with Black Lives Matter. She was not present at the meeting in November in Tennessee. In her statement to BuzzFeed News, Tometi said, “In 2013, as with everyone, I was outraged that George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin. I wanted be of greater service and contribute my skills to the movement and so I cofounded Black Lives Matter to inspire and plug more people into organizing. However, I have not been involved in the day-to-day organizational and fiscal management of [Black Lives Matter] since December 2015.”
It’s not completely clear why Garza and Tometi split. But according to sources in interviews, as well as what the women themselves have said in public appearances, what is clear is they didn’t agree on the direction of the movement. Garza refused to endorse Hillary Clinton, who once helped promote her husband’s tough-on-crime policies during the 1990s and was unpopular with the economic and progressive left. (Garza’s refusal has attracted the ire of Democrats post-election.) Tometi was having a different experience: Old friends and fellow immigration activists were speaking to her about the black activists showing up for brown people. Friends say Tometi saw a shift toward immigration as a potential pivot for the movement, but one that would take increased discipline. The thought was an extension of Tometi’s feeling that the struggle was a global one; Trump was posing real dangers to undocumented immigrants, and he was wrapping up the nomination.
The split weighed heavily on one activist close to the pair: “It used to be that we’d say turn up on the state and turn down on each other. But now I think people are just tired.”
Some of these activists are people in the best position to shape what Black Lives Matter means. In addition to name recognition that the Movement for Black Lives has, the coalition also works closely with a communications and tactical support firm called Blackbird. One activist familiar with the inner workings of the groups said, “If you can’t tell the difference between the Movement for Black Lives and Blackbird, that’s probably because they’re one and the same.”
In June 2015, after a white supremacist massacred nine parishioners at a Charleston church — including Clementa Pinckney, an up-and-comer in the South Carolina legislature — representatives from Blackbird arrived. They offered talking points, assistance, and a media strategy. It was not that local organizers didn’t know what to do, or how to do it, but Blackbird had a national profile and was connected to high-profile activists.
A major point of contention in the movement is that Blackbird likes to keep much of its operation quiet. It doesn’t have a website or Twitter account. “They want to remain invisible,” said one activist familiar with, but jaded by, the group’s inner workings. “Our reason for going along with that is...what?”
It’s unclear how the group is organized and who exactly works in it. (Blackbird activists have in the past asked specifically not to be named or quoted in reports on the movement by BuzzFeed News.) In her statement to BuzzFeed News, Shanelle Matthews wrote, “Blackbird provides communications and tactical support to organizations working toward this vision in and outside of [the Movement for Black Lives].” Those activities, according to the Black Lives Matter Global Network, include direct action support, organizing support, and campaign strategy assistance.
To some, it’s emblematic of the secretive way that some decisions get made. To others, just being secretive doesn’t mean that the group has bad intentions — if you imagine a teenage activist who becomes a viral news story, for instance, you can imagine when talking points and a publicist could be a relief.
On the outside, though, organizers like Marissa Johnson, a co-founder of the Safety Pin Box who is perhaps best known for interrupting Bernie Sanders before thousands in Seattle, suggested Garza’s protectiveness over the phrase “black lives matter” paid dividends for the group but created challenges for others. In an interview with BuzzFeed News, the former Black Lives Matter Seattle organizer said the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter is what encompasses all the movement’s activity, and therein lies a very particular dilemma. “Part of the problem there is a lot of the resources end up getting directed to just the national [organization] because people on the outside of the movement don’t know any other names besides Black Lives Matter,” Johnson told BuzzFeed News. “It prevents resources from getting to a whole wide range of people doing on-the-ground work — and similarly to the nonprofit structure, we haven’t seen this big resurgence of funds directed to people who are on the ground.”
But activists in the Black Lives Matter organization struggle, too. In a telephone interview with BuzzFeed News, Margaret Haule, the founder of Black Lives Matter Austin, said her group needed more support from leadership. “A lot of us were looking for support, cues or direction, and we weren’t getting it,” she said. “If emergencies came up, there would be conflicting messages. [We watched as] some chapters were given more attention than others.”
She thinks that leaders are trying, and that they’re aware — from her perspective — of some people’s concerns and frustrations. Still, at times, Haule said Black Lives Matter Austin felt as though they were on the outside of the organization looking in, even as an official chartered group. Two leaders in other cities echoed a similar sentiment but declined to be quoted for this story.
Many organizers said they are wary of airing the group’s “dirty laundry.” “If one thing goes wrong, it’s ‘Now they’re laundering money,’” a northern organizer said, using that hypothetical to characterize the way that people inside the movement worry a dispute could be exaggerated or wildly misconstrued. “People don’t want to raise those flags, but it’s one of those things that people are tired of.”
“If I don’t have a place to live, we don’t have a chapter."
Activists do have disagreements over where resources should be directed, and how it should be done. Johnson quietly led a campaign during 2016, questioning the allocation of resources. Intra-movement tension spilled over into a meeting that Black Lives Matter leaders held in Charlotte in August of last year. According to one source in attendance, people talked about how well-known, accomplished local leaders had spoken of being homeless, or close to it. “There were at least four people at the national convening talking openly about being [personally] housing insecure,” the source said.
It’s not clear what kind of resources and money truly exist inside the movement. Funding for activism is often difficult; fundraising (even in the age of crowdsourcing) can require intense, dedicated work (meetings, travel, pitches, compromises), tailored to foundations or donors, who operate on their own timetables.
Matthews raised, in her statement to BuzzFeed News, the difficulties and constraints of a large movement with many needs. “We can’t speak for other [Movement for Black Lives] organizations, but for [Black Lives Matter], like every organization trying to scale up responsibly, we are experimenting and learning as we go,” she wrote. “It’s hard to please everyone, and we have had to make some hard decisions as we learn — not unlike most new organizations.”
“Millions of people across the globe are drawn to the mission and vision of Black Lives Matter, and we’re proud to build with them toward a future where we can all thrive,” she wrote. “And to reach that goal, and earn some real wins along the way, we must make some strategic decisions about how to allocate our resources. Unfortunately, movements aren’t equipped to pay every person, activist, and organizer who shows an interest, and that makes some people unhappy, but we do our best to resource people in a variety of ways and as often as we can.”
She noted that organizers have been paid in the past to do work, dating back to the 1960s and SNCC, but that “most people don’t commit to community organizing for the money — we do it to survive.” Matthews also said, "Yes, many of the organizations within [the Movement for Black Lives] are stretched thin. For many reasons, we don’t always have enough resources to the things we need to do, but where we lack in resources, we are rich in imagination. Despite the unfair scrutiny and unsafe working conditions, we are still able to fight back against the anti-black racism and state-sanctioned violence that’s killing us.”
Still, local activists felt there was a disparity — from their point of view, some people were famous, being featured in magazines. Even being more known isn’t necessarily a solution.
“It gets exhausting asking for stuff,” said Daunasia Yancey, the founder of Black Lives Matter Boston, whose group had a much-publicized confrontation with Hillary Clinton, then a candidate, in nearby New Hampshire.
Yancey’s local profile in Boston grew quickly. In January 2015, she was the cover subject of Boston Magazine. Yancey said she turned down an offer to be funded by a small family foundation based in the Boston suburbs. Cullors encouraged her to accept it, but her team expressed misgivings. “My biggest regret is buying into the idea if you’re getting paid for work it’s not good,” she said. Yancey didn’t have a job; Black Lives Matter Boston was her job. She said members of her team had two or, in some cases, three jobs.
Back in Boston, Yancey has brought her activism to a halt. “If I don’t have a place to live, we don’t have a chapter,” she told BuzzFeed News.
On a recent spring evening, DeRay Mckesson — rarely alone — walked with Symone Sanders, Bernie Sanders’ former national press secretary, into a room filled with black Harvard students.
Mckesson was receiving the Man of the Year award at a dinner honoring black Harvard men hosted by the Association of Black Harvard Women. An emotional ceremony followed: Students talked about what they described as toiling through a culture meant for white people. Here they were, dressed up, to express their love for one another. One award recipient, a handsome young gay student with an assured baritone, reminded everyone that things had not always been easy for the group. Still, a moved Mckesson noted, “They have it together.”
But it was Mckesson who was the center of attention. He held forth. He posed for pictures. During his turn on the podium, Mckesson, in an extended rhetorical flourish, shouted out, by name, each honoree at the award ceremony.
After three years in the public eye, Mckesson is still reckoning with what his popularity means (he does not, for instance, think that it offers him a lasting mission for his life). But he was happy to be in Cambridge, where he was recognized nearly everywhere he went. He says his speeches now are part of a larger effort, an attempt to give would-be allies he engages with in live settings “language they can repeat.” It’s not clear how Mckesson sees this as a means to his ultimate goal, which is the creation of a mass movement pushing for changes in criminal justice policy. He does it anyway: He performs, he is an eloquent speaker, and the performative part of it all is a real hit.
His critics inside the movement are numerous, though there are fewer these days. The main complaint about Mckesson has been that it’s always about him. A Bowdoin-educated Teach for America alum, Mckesson came to prominence in the wake of the Ferguson protests. The things that irk some in the movement make him significantly more accessible to those outside it: He is willing to play the politics game. He is good on TV. He is good in a boardroom. He has policy goals. He hosts a podcast (Pod Save The People) on the Crooked Media network and is a darling of the monied, progressive left.
“DeRay wants to work within political structures and inform the processes. Alicia has a more transformative framework."
His and other movement leaders’ trajectories are ones that call to mind the way politics and organizing have changed with the internet. Over the last 15 years, a series of online-based US movements blew up and, to varying degrees, reshaped politics: the anti-Iraq movement in the 2000s, the tea party, and Occupy Wall Street. Each eventually fell apart — or lost the thread, at the very least — for different reasons. Each influenced US politics, sometimes in unexpected ways. MoveOn.org and the groups of that era started in earnest online fundraising and massive online organizing. Occupy Wall Street reinvigorated leftist economics, just in time for Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to ride that (loud) wing of the Democratic Party’s support. The tea party elected a wave of younger, more conservative senators and governors (even if the movement almost certainly elevated the populist anger that drove the election of Trump, who is by no means a tea party conservative). Some activists bristle at the idea of the Black Lives Matter movement breaking up, arguing that the issues confronting the movement now are a part of how political movements evolve. Then again, Trump’s presidency is sparking new kinds of activism, as the movement’s leaders deal with fights about resources and direction.
Is there a model for Black Lives Matter’s legacy in these movements? Revolutionizing social media–based organizing? Changing the policy paradigm around race and policing inside the Democratic Party? Producing a generation of leaders?
If it’s the last of these, Mckesson seems the one most likely to benefit. He is the most famous activist to emerge out of the movement and has largely stayed away from conflicts over funding. For its drawbacks, one of the advantages of The DeRay Show is that there’s no subterfuge about who’s really the leader, and if working within existing power structures sounds unappealing to some, it remains a strategy with established direction and clearer targets. Mckesson has fewer critics these days, and one reason is that he has a clear end goal.
Mckesson and Garza are often held up as examples of movement leaders whose differences and disagreement on tactics embody the split within the movement. “DeRay wants to work within political structures and inform the processes,” an activist close to both leaders said. “Alicia has a more transformative framework. There has always been an inside-outside game, but she wants to disrupt all structures as a strategy.”
Few people predicted the last five years of US politics. It’s a line of thinking that usually concerns Donald Trump. But we also live in an era in which an online movement of dispersed activists elevated — and for many Americans, introduced — an entire paradigm for viewing race and policing in the United States.
Black Lives Matter did that. If you think of the conversation, on Twitter or Facebook, on the news, after a shooting, that conversation has changed and intensified in the last decade. Local shootings become national news for a reason now.
The movement’s organizers are still organizing, still trying to figure out what comes next, still trying to keep the momentum alive. Much bigger things could be on the way for Black Lives Matter, or the people who the movement has helped introduce to organizing. But trying to appear united to the outside has put strain on people inside.
Repeatedly, activists interviewed for this story described a culture inside the Black Lives Matter organization that suppresses dissent, or hints of any disagreement that could be considered divisive on the outside. “You do what you’re told,” one activist, who is based in the Mid-Atlantic, told BuzzFeed News. “There’s a tyrannical element.”
The movement is struggling with the complications of becoming associated with an internationally recognized brand of activism in the space of a few years. Activists believe most, if not all, problems are due more to inexperience than anything else. It’s hard to build a self-sustaining, effective political movement. And even at this tense juncture in US national politics, Black Lives Matter’s internal tensions are occupying a large share of their time these days.
Asked to describe what might happen if activists were to critique leaders on the record, the Mid-Atlantic organizer, citing the facts laid out in this story, said, “I think the fallout will be greater than the concerns that are troubling us.”
“I'm surprised people even wanted to do a story like this,” the activist said.
Going on the record had a cost, and the activist seemed to weigh that cost openly during our interview.
“Do I really want to give up on the last three years of my life?” ●
Correction (June 28): Sixteen people attended the Highlander meeting in November, according to a representative for the Black Lives Matter Global Network. An earlier version of this story misstated that number. A representative for the network said that Alicia Garza did not attend the November meeting, and this story has been updated to reflect that comment.
Additionally, this story has been updated to clarify Shanelle Matthews' title and to clarify that Blackbird is a communications and tactical support firm, rather than a public relations firm.