by Randy Shaw, author of The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century

photo by Chris Henry on Unsplash

Blacks Lives Matter (BLM) has become the broadest, most diverse social movement of our time. Having written The Activist’s Handbook and other books on the strategies and tactics of social justice struggles, I see BLM as forging a new path for movement building. BLM harkens back to the powerful social movements of the past while using the technological tools of today.

A Decentralized Movement

Unlike the model of the 1960’s Black civil rights movement, BLM is a decentralized movement without top-down leadership. Its three co-founders, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Opal Tometi, lack the national name recognition of past civil rights leaders. Some ask how a movement without a clear leader can negotiate over goals. But BLM’s has made its agenda to “Defund the Police,” change police hiring and disciplinary procedures, and seek racial justice “by all means necessary” very clear. And when some wrongly misinterpreted the drive to “defund the police” as ignoring violent crime, the decentralized movement rapidly responded. Efforts to cut police funding for its primarily nonviolent services are proceeding across the nation.

This approach reminds me of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) movement of the late 1980’s and 1990’s, which I write about in The Activist’s Handbook. ACT UP’s legendary decision-making process of all night meetings seeking consensus seemed dysfunctional to outsiders at the time. Yet it fit the needs of those involved.

BLM’s decentralized process does the same. I’ve seen no evidence that BLM activists yearn for official leaders or an internal voting process for demands.

BLM’s recruitment process also reflects changing times. Prior social movements prioritized getting people to sign-up with the campaign so they could be contacted for future mobilizations. I describe in Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century how a UFW organizer who did not get sign-ups was violating one of the movement’s core recruiting strategies. Those days are largely gone. The infiltration of progressive movements by undercover police has caused organizer requests for sign-ups and personal information to be viewed with suspicion. BLM and other movements now reach supporters via social media and/or cellphones.

Changed Purpose

In The Activist’s Handbook, I describe how ACT UP, the immigrant rights movement, disability rights activists and others used direct action to achieve very specific goals. Direct action targeted those empowered to satisfy the protesters’ aims. For example, the 1977 disability rights Section 504 sit in (shown in the recent film, Crip Camp) targeted the government office whose leader could fulfill the protesters’ demands for new regulations. Similarly, in 2006, immigrant rights protesters took to the streets to show what it would look like if the United States had “A Day Without Latinos.” The marches also effectively killed an anti-immigrant bill.

But direct action has also had less specific goals. For example, backers of ACT UP in the late 1980’s had “No Business as Usual” actions featuring freeway blockades and other disruptions. Instead of targeting a specific person, protesters sought to force people to think about the injustice. In the past, some criticized freeway blockades for alienating drivers incapable of addressing the protest’s goals. But freeway blockades and “no business as usual” marches are now standard protest tactics. BLM received little criticism when one its June 14 protests on the murder of George Floyd blocked the Bay Bridge in the Bay Area for nearly two hours.

Forging a New Path

One key strategy to win progressive social change since at least the Boston Tea Party is the element of surprise. BLM has done this by pushing innovative plans such as challenging police where they are most vulnerable: their budgets. Prior efforts at police reform have focused on practices, discipline and training;  by seeking to end police involvement entirely in nonviolent activities,  the “Defund the Police” campaign is a creative strategy from a visionary movement. I look forward to following BLM’s success in the months and years ahead.  

Randy Shaw’s  Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America is now out in paperback.