January 7, 2017
This past week we have all been rightly shocked and appalled by the kidnapping and torture of a white special needs teenager by four black eighteen-year-olds. Because of the race of the perpetrators and the fact that they shouted anti-white and anti-Trump messages while they laughed and tortured the man, the hashtag #blmkidnapping quickly took off on Twitter. Though black lives matter supporters quickly moved to deny responsibility, and CNN made sure to point out, according to them, that this heinous crime was not linked to black lives matter, the entire incident highlights a central problem facing the black lives matter movement and all decentralized, “hashtag” based movements.
The problem with decentralized movements is that, without a central body sanctioning protests or articulating what the organization stands for, it is not clear what the movement stands for, what their methods of protest are, or who is or isn’t a member. All these movements consist of is people drawn together by a common cause, and people being people, they respond in a variety of ways. We see this clearly in the black lives matter movement, which has seen protests ranging from candlelight vigils and “hands up, don’t shoot” demonstrations to acts of violence, destruction of property, and, at its most extreme, the shooting of five Dallas police officers. Because all these acts were done by people who support the black lives matter movement under the banner of black lives matter, they all get associated with the movement.
This becomes counter-productive to the movement itself. When trying to attract social change, messaging is key. When black lives matter demonstrates peacefully following the shooting of an unarmed black person by the police, it is a very sympathetic movement that can attract widespread support. It’s not a movement people are inclined to support when the response is riots and violence, and the cause is the shooting of an armed suspect who pulled a gun on police. With black lives matter, there is no clear distinction as to which movement they are, and because the protests are disorganized and organic, they more often appear to be the latter. The damage to their message undermines the movement. Martin Luther King Jr. and the leaders of the civil rights movement understood the importance of clarity and holding the moral high ground. They consciously chose to use Rosa Parks instead of an unwed, pregnant teenager as their test case, and made sure to keep their protests peaceful. Both these tactics kept the focus on the message and helped clearly emphasize the injustice. The civil rights movement was successful because they protested peacefully against clear injustices. Black lives matter fails because they respond violently to the shooting of people who pulled guns on the police.
As much as black lives matter supporters will try to deny responsibility, the fact is that without clear organization, you can’t pick and choose what people and protests are and are not part of your movement. Even a case as seemingly unrelated as this recent torture and kidnapping gets linked to black lives matter movement, and there is no clear way to deny that it is. Though I fail to see how a common hate crime is an act that’s part of a movement, I think it’s very likely that the perpetrators were black lives matter supporters, so I don’t know whether it’s linked or not. Black lives matter supporters certainly will deny responsibility for any acts of violence, but saying they are a non-violent movement repeatedly doesn’t make it so. They need to convince people other than themselves. As of now, they are failing.