The following is an excerpt from Deva Woodly’s upcoming book, Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements, on the role of social movements, up to and including The Movement for Black Lives. Deva is an Assistant Professor of Politics at The New School for Social Research. Her work explores the ways that public meanings define the problems that the polity understands itself to share, as well as the range of choices that citizens perceive themselves as having. If you’d like to explore the broader historical context of today’s social movements, watch Reflections on Liberation: American Civil Rights Past, Present, and Future, a panel featuring Ibram Kendi, Alexandra Bell, Kei Williams, Brittney Cooper, and moderated by Deva Woodly.
The Movement for Black Lives has at its root a philosophy that holds that freedom and justice will always be woefully lacking if we expect it to trickle down from the most powerful and advantaged to the least. Instead, if we expect freedom and equity to be lived realities, then we must look at untangling the structures of disadvantage that constrain those who are most impacted by systematic domination and oppression. Alicia Garza explains:
“When we think about how we address problems in this country, we often start from a place of trickle-down justice. So, using white folks as the control, we say that well, if we make things better for white folks, then everybody else is gonna get free. But actually it doesn’t work that way. We have to address problems at the root. And when you deal with what’s happening in black communities, it creates an effervescence – so, a bubble up, rather than a trickle down.”1
The idea that justice is best served when we focus on the political problems and proffered solutions of the most disadvantaged echoes an observation made by radical democratic socialists like Rosa Luxemburg who writes,
“only unobstructed, effervescent life falls into a thousand new forms and improvisations, brings to light creative force, itself corrects all mistaken attempts. The public life of all countries with limited freedom is so poverty-stricken, so miserable, so rigid, so unfruitful, precisely because, through the exclusion of democracy, it cuts off the living sources of all spiritual riches and progress” (Luxemburg, 1972, p. 246).
The political problems this “effervescent life” has the potential to correct are the complicated structural causes and effects of domination and oppression. Domination, writes Iris Young, is “the structural or systemic phenomenon which exclude people from participating in determining their actions or the conditions of their actions” (Young, (1991) 2011, p. 31). Domination must be understood as structural, rather than as the imposition of the directed will of an malevolent individual or class of individuals because “the constraints that people experience are usually the … unintended product of the actions of many people” operating according to the laws and habits of institutions which pre dated their existence or intentionality. Individuals have choices, but those choices are constrained by the world as it currently exists, by the laws, customs, and common ways of understanding that characterize the way people live their lives in a particular time and place. These constraints can and do produce outcomes that are both patterned, that is, systematic, and unintended by the individuals that are both acting independently and imbricated in rules and mores beyond their control. Take, for example, the dominative institution of law enforcement. This reality of situated individuality is true both for those who have positions that afford them relatively more power and those whose positions restrict them to having relatively less. This story, told me by a police officer attempting to navigate his job and reflecting on the questions that the Movement for Black Lives has made salient, perfectly illustrates how individuals can enact domination without intending to do so:
“I have exercised authority as an officer that I considered abusive and created some serious moral dilemmas for me at times. As a relevant example, I was recently called to an apartment because a maintenance worker went inside and found three children left alone, ages 2, 5, and 8. We tracked down mom, who was working a shift at Walmart. Mom was cooperative and honest, and it appeared she typically left her children alone during 6-8 hour shifts at night (4-10 or 4-midnight). My sergeant and I did not want to arrest her. She was violating the law, and leaving an 8 year old to care for her 5 and 2 year old siblings was not safe, but she was in a really tough spot. My [Sergeant] and I came to the conclusion that not taking charges could create liability for us if she continued to leave her children alone at night to work and they were harmed in the future while she was away. I made sure to pursue the least severe charge, in both severity and number of counts, but my ability to address the situation is limited by my professional function. I also involved CPS of course, with the aim of getting some sort of social service in place for the mom, but I have limited influence over how a social worker handles their case.”2
This police officer knows the circumstances which have caused this mother to break the law are structural and well beyond her own control and intentionality. And further that enforcing the law in this case will penalize the mother for economic disadvantage rather than intentional neglect, likely causing more harm than the situation that is ostensibly being addressed. The time and expense of adjudicating those charges with have a measurably negative and potentially devastating impact on the lives of this mother and children. This mother will likely lose her job, because she’s been charged with a crime, and if she is convicted of a felony, she will have trouble finding employment in the future. She is also in danger of losing custody of her children. The children are in danger of being separated from both their mother and one another. Or, if they are able to remain with their mother, who will now be more financially strapped and less employable, they are in danger of sinking into a poverty that grabs hold of generations.
The institutional conditions which precipitate this dominative situation – one that prevents the self-determination of both the mother and the police officer –is a symptom of oppressive conditions. Oppression, Young writes, is “the disadvantage and injustice some people suffer … because of the everyday practices of a well-intentioned liberal society.” It consists of the “systemic constraints on groups that are not necessarily the result of the intentions of a tyrant,” but are instead “embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutional rules and the collective consequences of following those rules” (Young, (1991) 2011, p. 41). Oppression expresses itself in five ways, what Young calls the “five faces of oppression,” these are: exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, imperialism, and violence (Young, (1991) 2011, pp. 48-62).
The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) seeks to take aim at both domination and oppression, by actively trying to imagine and enact a world in which black people and all people, might be free. Indeed, it is hard to overstate the place of “freedom” in the conception of movement activists. When asked about the ultimate goal of the movement, to a person, each activist described a world in which black people could be free of domination and oppression. Shanelle Matthews, the Communications Director of Black Lives Matter Network put it this way: “The work is about changing people’s behavior so that black people can live free, full lives in this democracy. And we don’t have to be afraid. We can parent our children into adulthood and have access to the rights, the resources, and the recognition that we all need to live our best lives.”3 Brittney Cooper, an activist and Professor of Africana Studies at Rutgers remarks,
“being in movement spaces over the last three years is that, these are some really big dreamers. And, I really think that these are folks who are thinking broadly about transformation. They’re not reformers. They don’t think – it’s not a like, we can just tweak the system and these things will happen. But a real sort of sense that, what does it look like – I think the sort of core goal is – what do black people need to live and thrive? And so, how can we put structures in place so that black thriving is actually a political priority. Not just black survival.”4
It’s important to note that freedom, in the political philosophy of the movement, bears little resemblance to the most popular liberal formulations of that term. The conceptions of freedom that are most common in American public discourse, emphasize rights and choice. It is also a static conception – you are either free or not, as determined by the rights you are accorded and the choices that you are allowed to make. The movement emphasizes, by contrast, emphasizes that freedom is a process, one that must be measured by the capabilities that people are able to exercise in their lived experience and the health and efficacy of the communities that they live in.
When M4BL speaks of freedom they mean something closer to what Neil Roberts has described in his insightful book, Freedom as Marronage. In this conception, freedom is fundamentally relational and dynamic instead of fixed and absolute. This is because marronage, a term that originates in part of the Caribbean colonized by the French, means “flight.” It is the description of a “multidimensional, constant act of flight” that involves trying to improve one’s lot in terms of “distance, movement, property, and purpose” (Roberts, 2015, p. 9). “Distance,” Roberts elaborates, “denotes a special quality separating an individual or individuals in a current location or condition from a future location or condition.” Movement, “refers to the ability of agents to have control over motion and the intended directions of their actions.” Property, is the “designation of a physical, legal, [or] material object that is under possession and ownership of an individual, institution, or state.” Purpose, in his conception, “denotes the rationale, reasons for, and goal of an act begun by an individual or a social collective” (Roberts, 2015, pp. 9-10). Notice how these “pillars” as Roberts calls them, serve as modes of response to the problems of domination and oppression that Young details. If you are facing a social and political situation in which you and your social group are systematically deprived of self-determination (domination) and self-development (oppression), then it makes sense to measure your freedom by the distance the group has (in the past) and can (in the future) put between present conditions and future desired conditions. Likewise, thinking about one’s control over one’s own “movement” as a measure of freedom, and specifically, of “flight” as the motion that conveys departure from oppressive conditions, provides another method of assessing degrees of oppression or freedom. Property and purpose are pillars that allow one to assess degrees, or relative levels, of domination – these degrees of freedom exist not only between people(s) but also within time. That is, one’s freedom is relative, not only to how free others in your political time and place are positioned, but also to how free one is compared to a future desired state. The Movement for Black Lives is fundamentally concerned with futurity. Patrisse Cullors puts it this way,
I am hopeful for black futures. And I say that because we live in a society that is so obsessed with black death. We have images of our death on our TV screen, on our Twitter timeline, on our Facebook timelines. But, what if, instead, we imagined black life – we imagined black people living and thriving? That inspires me.
Importantly, these ways of understanding freedom as relational and dynamic are more useful and important for understanding what one is actually capable of doing, given the structural constraints of the “actually existing” (Fraser, 1990) world, rather than on the rights and choices that one may formally be accorded, but which are, in practice, difficult or impossible to exercise. In this way, marronage describes a “capabilities approach” (Sen, 1992) to freedom, one that attends to the relational basis and dynamic nature of the concept, and which is simply and cleverly expressed in the movement slogan #getfree.
1. TED interview with the Founders of Black Lives Matter. Retrieved on July 20, 2017 at https://www.ted.com/talks/alicia_garza_patrisse_cullors_and_opal_tometi_an_interview_with_the_founders_of_black_lives_matter
2. Interview with Police Officer, Cobb County, GA 11/13/2017
3. Interview with Shanelle Matthews, Communications Director of Black Lives Matter Network, March 8, 2017
4. Interview with Brittney Cooper, Activist and Associate Professor of Africana Studies, Rutgers, March 21, 2017