Originally published in Black Life Everywhere

The Black Lives Matter era re-shaped a generation’s understanding of Black identity and politics, but it was also deeply disappointing. Now, a new chapter of Black political organization is needed to win the transformative change we envisioned.

A full decade ago this summer, I arrived at a retreat center in the Chicago suburbs with about a hundred other Black organizers, and community leaders from around the country brought together by Cathy Cohen’s Black Youth Project. Not long into former President Barack Obama’s second term, the goal of the gathering was to convene young Black leaders in thinking beyond representation (in terms of identity) when it came to our generation’s efforts toward racial justice. This intention ended up foreshadowing a bigger Black political awakening than the gatherings conveners realized.

After a day of workshops and discussion, someone called into the hallway for us to come back to the main meeting room – the Grand Jury announcement in the Trayvon Martin case was being announced earlier than expected. Together, we watched a largely white jury call out “not guilty, not guilty, not guilty.” We organized a protest in downtown Chicago that same evening – the first time I ever spoke on a bullhorn. We released a statement the next day. And, from there, we began to build an organization we would call BYP100 and that would work to be a grounded organizing home within the burgeoning movement. 

Our Florida counterparts at the young, Black and brown newly formed Dream Defenders organization staged an occupation of their state capitol in response, calling for the repeal of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. Protests took place around the country. Hoodies, skittles, and tall cans of Arizona iced tea became symbols pointing out the extraordinarily regular things Martin carried with him while walking home, his human specificity, and the absurdity of the fourteen-year-old being harassed and murdered at the hands of racist vigilante George Zimmerman. 

Organizations like BYP100 and Dream Defenders established ourselves in what felt like a brand new lane. We were disrupting the liberal idea that society was “post-race” and breaking open space to confront structural racism, state violence, and center Blackness. Being a Black organization for young people that was engaging in disruptive action and shedding the politics of respectability felt like an intervention altogether at the time.

In August 2014, I had followed the protests in Ferguson after the murder of Michael Brown Jr. on Twitter. At first, the protests seemed familiar. A community outpouring and days of protest followed the brutal police killing of a Black person. Mainstream media reports were remarkably biased and negative toward the victim, regurgitating unsubstantiated claims that he had threatened an officer, accusations that he had once shoplifted and so on. 

Then I watched CNN air clips of a QuikTrip gas station in flames. Days into the protest, it no longer seemed familiar. I joined some artist friends who would later form the #LetUsBreathe Collective on a road trip from Chicago to Ferguson to deliver first aid kits and some other supplies. Repression intensified – pepper spray, teargas, and rubber bullets were fired into protest crowds as they marched and chanted. Mass arrests and police beatings followed. National Guard troops rolled in with military tanks and machine guns. It seemed like there was more sympathetic mainstream coverage of stores that were looted or businesses tagged with “RIP Mike Brown” than there was of the person killed or the many people arrested, beaten, tear gassed. The violent reaction to protest and grief resulted in more widespread attention and support.

At twenty years old, I personally had not witnessed anything like this before. It was a turning point for the movement. 

Less than a year later, the non-indictment of the officer who killed Brown was announced, and in New York City where I was living at the time, the non-indictment of the officer who killed Eric Garner was announced too. Held in a deadly chokehold after being confronted by police for allegedly selling loose cigarettes outside a Staten Island convenience store, Garner’s last words were “I can’t breathe.” Those words were turned into a movement song and rallying cry. A little more than a month apart, the protests that followed each were highlighting the racism of our “justice” system, which affirmed that police killing was actually part of how the system was supposed to work.

Once again nothing like I’d seen before, I found myself among tens of thousands of protesters in lower Manhattan, just one of many massive crowds that took the city over that night (and on many nights that winter). We were so many that we marched right onto highways and bridges and brought traffic to a standstill in every borough of the richest city on the planet at once. Clearly, this was momentary disruption, but it felt like the world around us was on fire – rejecting the status quo of anti-Black state violence – as we marched up West Side highway despite semi-trucks and unrestrained cops.

From 2013 to 2016, “Black Lives Matter” gained enormous attention as a slogan and a hashtag. The young, Black movement against racist police killings was very much alive. Every few months there was national attention on another case of police killing a Black person. Each time there were uprisings in cities where killing happened and solidarity protests around the country and sometimes world. Often, there would be a trial with a lot of media attention and a second outpouring of anger and protests when officers were typically found not guilty of wrongdoing in the documented murders of Black people. We collectively grieved and protested for Rekia Boyd in Chicago, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas, Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and countless more.

This became the rhythm of the movement. It felt like there was a never-ending cycle of protest, media battles, more killing, lists of demands. Every time there was a big wave of protests, we would consistently have bigger crowds at our membership orientations and consistently more conflict among members. Sometimes the waves of protest fed into and bolstered longer term campaigns, sometimes they took away.

Was too much energy spent trying to sustain mass protest and outrage? What was the best way to translate movement participation into durable organization and power?

What was built, sustained, and won behind the scenes of headline-worthy and media-legible cycles of action? How is the state of Black movement different than it was before?

What was within and what was beyond our control?

There are no singular answers to these questions, but they are worth some retrospective exploration. 

It’s hard to measure the effectiveness of any movement when there is not clear consensus on what its goals were. Among the “we” of movement leaders, organizations and participants were fundamental differences in the approach to our organizing and in what we believe in. If you were to ask a range of people heavily involved in the movement early on, you would hear many people advocating for police reforms like more oversight, more Black police officers, or new tools like body cameras. You would hear from people who wanted to send police officers to jail for murder as a deterrent to others. You would meet people grappling with the intersection between the economic position of Black people and the reality of state violence. You would meet others, marginal but increasingly influential, who believed fully in abolishing police and only reforms that take power away from policing institutions.

The movement was incredibly diverse (in terms of ideology, theory of change, leadership style, and identity) and often equally unwieldy. Our greatest consensus was that we wanted to be heard, we wanted all Black lives to “matter.” We all wanted justice and we had a million different definitions of what that meant.

After a few years of high movement activity, despite still being pretty young and having a lot to learn, in 2016 I started working full-time to grow an organizing and training program at BYP100 that taught young people like myself the basics of nuts-and-bolts organizing through running grassroots organizing campaigns, base building to grow the membership of chapters, and taking advantage of “movement moments” to gain traction faster than otherwise possible. I spent four years coaching chapters through the process of identifying an issue (ending the exclusion of formerly incarcerated people form public housing, decriminalizing sex work, opposing jail construction, or resisting racist “Blue Lives Matter” laws to name a few) and building campaign plans around those issues. We tried to integrate this work with rapid response efforts that were important for absorbing people activated by political crises, as well as nationally coordinated actions driving narrative interventions like Say Her Name or efforts to delegitimize the Fraternal Order of Police.

In some ways the emphasis on local organizing work was against the grain of a movement culture that rewarded so much activism and vision but obscured the grind of organizing for concrete reforms. 

Social media and widespread internet access had made a particular form of mass protest mobilization possible – this was not unique to Black movement or the United States. Around the world, newer online platforms enabled the rapid spread of information, decentralized participation in movements, and mobilization into protest at a scale unmatched in human history. Relatedly, the neoliberal era of capitalism has resulted in increased inequality, instability of communities, and social isolation. The social and cultural consequence of this is a disconnected generation of people conditioned to act as individuals and socialized us to think it’s bad to need (let alone demand) anything from the government. So activism (individuals taking actions or making statements to voice a political stance) as the natural path to being apart of a movement was comfortable and rewarded in a way that made it harder for organizers to win movement participants over to the importance of organizing and being organized (coming together in a collective, democratic way to achieve shared political goals).

In many ways, the movement (which was us) let me down. My initial hopes as a new organizer were lofty and ever-changing, but became largely focused on sustaining a movement that would mean more power for Black people at the margins – I was lucky enough to have mentors who ingrained in me the importance of organization and of power. I thought that in ten years we would win sweeping policy changes on a national scale, chip away at the power of policing, and, importantly, grow powerful mass political organizations that would endure. We had won some things, but it felt like not nearly enough.

The movement had blindspots. Over time, I began to feel like people in our movement were stuck. I believed that the inability of movement leaders to present compelling and grounded strategies for how our organizing would lead to big scale changes created a vacuum that enabled the worst tendencies in our bases. I worried that the culture inside of our movement was becoming even more liberal, less disciplined, and more focused on analysis and individual level healing than on creating concrete change. By 2020, I was disillusioned and felt a sense of shame that most of the organizations of our milieu were rife with interpersonal conflict, unclear about strategy, and certainly did not have members at the scale that I considered to make an organization particularly “powerful” or representative of “the masses.”

Despite all this, the movement fundamentally and profoundly changed me as a person. 

When BYP100 first took shape, establishing chapters in more than a handful of cities around the country, I realized I had found my second “political home.” The first had been the small Black student group, Students Against Mass Incarceration, where we started off reading books by Angela Davis and essays by Mumia Abud-Jamal in the back room of our school’s Black student lounge and eventually grew to run a successful campaign that pressured our university to divest millions of dollars from the private prison industry. There, I sharpened my political analysis of the world, embraced the idea of police and prison abolition, became an internationalist, studied how corporations lobby to expand harmful systems, and came to understand the reality that things can and do change. It was also where I learned how to organize a campaign, present demands to a target and negotiate with powerful people, build a base of supporters, and fall politically in love with friends and comrades who had my back. I developed as an organizer as well as a person, and was determined not to be just a fleeting student activist.

BYP100 was a more challenging political home. It was much bigger and included greater diversity – in terms of political ideas, age, geography, class, and theories about how we change systems. I found myself challenged to be in community with more people I disagreed with, with more people different from me. It was in BYP100 that I learned to debate, to make a case for my point of view and win people over to it, to democratically elect leaders, to hold people accountable for harm done, and where I experienced my first true political heartbreaks – when comrades let you down, when you grow apart in terms of your ideas about the world, or when someone you once considered family leaves the organization and, surprisingly, your life. 

Like me, an overwhelming number of people involved in the movement were forever changed. While most people have likely not been members of formal political organizations, fifteen percent of all Black adults and fifteen percent of young adults across race in the U.S. have attended a Black Lives Matter protest of some kind. That’s many millions of people. And whether in that fifteen percent or not, our generation as a whole has been shaped by years of movement that challenged us to think about our Blackness in political terms, to think about police in a particular way (whether it was new or not), and to ask the question of what does reckoning with or ending racism and racial violence in the United States look like. 

A majority of U.S. adults believe that the “Black Lives Matter” phenomenon or movement has been effective at “bringing attention to racism against Black people in the U.S.,” with the highest support for this claim among Black people, according to a 2023 Pew Research study. A small minority, only eight percent, however, believe it has been effective at improving the lives of Black people, and fourteen percent believe it has been effective at improving police accountability.  

Transformation – on the personal, community and societal level – will involve disappointment. That’s not just a risk we take when we choose to believe in something bigger than ourselves, it’s a guarantee.  Many of us experienced both some level of awakening as well as some type of discontent with either the movement (maybe with specific organizations or specific leaders) or letdown related to how much of the world has yet to be changed. But there are valuable lessons here about how movements work if we are honest and clear enough to extract them – the power and limitations of “shifting narratives,” what’s hard about volunteer-run organizations, and the complexity of growing “to scale.” 

A new era of Black organizing and movement should be grounded in an analysis of how the social, economic, and political conditions we live under impact how we are organized in society (by neighborhood, online, connected in other ways, or not connected at all), how we relate to one another (skeptical, thirsty for connection, struggling to be consistent and so on), and what material impact on our lives and world is possible with the power we have the potential to build. Making real the kinds of broad-scale system change I hoped for at the beginning of the last decade will require a movement and organizations that are clear about our political goals (not just visions, or even immediate campaign objectives). It will require skilled, accountable leadership and more rigorous forms of evaluation, democratic governance, and revision. It will require being more concerned with winning people over than being right or sounding radical. And it will require updated organizing models based on our current conditions and that incorporate the value and shortcomings of both mass movements and of old-school community organizing methods. It will require disciplined training and commitment to coordination - to working together and getting behind a coherent, shared strategy. 

There is now so much more room for Black organizing and so many more Black organizing leaders than there were ten years ago. And, it was always going to take more than a decade.


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