Emerging Moments and Movements

6 July 2020 – Matt Meyer

In the city where the New York Times is our hometown rag, we are used to viewing large declarations in print with more than a small-size grain of salt. So when we were informed on the eve of one of the most anticipated Independence Day celebrations in recent history that “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in US History,” most of us in analytic left circles, both academic and grassroots activist, understood the ironies of that headline. Indeed, the current historic moment—with a perfect storm of health pandemic revealing social policy collapse, militarized police terror sparking uprisings and mass rage, and a deep economic crisis in the context of imperial decline and death—is one giving way to unprecedented, sustained, multigenerational, interracial, youth-led, Black-led demonstrations and consciousness-raising.

But like the “civil rights movement” of six decades prior, this NYTimes-declared “movement” shares much with the “civil rights” name and title bestowed in the 1960’s only by elite media revisionists wishing to contain the radical development of King, SNCC, Black Power and related forces from veering too close to the human rights affirmations of Malcolm, the Panthers and others. Sadly, there is no “mass movement” in the US as of yet. Happily, the development of movements of movements—as defined, discussed, and brought together between the covers of “What Makes Us Move?” and “Rethinking Our Dance”—is seeing greater attention, conversation, and strategic thinking across the borders (including among a number of key folks within the US) such that an actual movement or movements, global in nature and capacity, might indeed be on the horizon.

Let me be clear. The great US historian and organizer Vincent Harding, author of Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech delivered one year to the day before his inevitable assassination in 1968, corrected the characterization of what took place in the USA from the mid-1950’s through the mid-1970’s as a “Black-led, southern-based freedom movement.” The phrase “civil rights” was rarely if ever uttered by those we credit with shaping those times. Movements, to be sure, require more than just a month or two of demonstrations, more than an organization or three with a national membership and a series of popular webinars under their belt. And though the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter is surely more than simply a massively popular twitter feed, it and all of the local and regional pieces of the distinct but related Movement for Black Lives still do not make up what historically can be defined as a movement. There is neither a coalition structure nor a clearly stated campaign strategy. More importantly, there are multitudes of organizations, and a good number of newly emerging coalitions as well, which rally heartily under the BLM banner but do not associate with what the BLM actually is or wishes to be.

This is, in absolutely no way, meant as a negative commentary on the many extraordinary local, regional, and national BLM and M4BL spokespeople, organizers, and activists. It is simply to state that BLM, as currently encompassed organizationally and also as experienced in national mobilizations over the past months, does not definitionally fall into the category of “movement.” The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a glorious, months-long, ultimately successful campaign which eventually helped to spark a movement. Neither Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference nor the larger NAACP could or should be considered “movements”—though they were central to the coalitions which made up the movement. And Black Lives Matter, whatever the NYTimes, mainstream foundations, or corporate entities vying for favor among their “customers of color” say, has provided the key slogan for a moment where more diverse groupings of people have flooded out in frustration and hope than at any previous junction. It IS the stuff out of which movements are made. But without a great deal more of on-the-ground organizing, it is not yet a movement.

For many of us of an older generation, the initials “BLM” still signify “Black liberation movement”—and harken back to a time when people of African descent asserted leadership over many campaigns for radical social change and liberation. In the US, this meant for some a move to “free the land” and look towards the southern base of territory which remain majority Black under largely white business and political control. For others, this meant a deepening of worker- and workplace-based organization-building. For still others, a focus on internationalism, decolonization, and Pan-Africanism took the fore. Too little is still understood of the 1970’s-1980’s period of fight-back and back-lash, of the scores of political prisoners still suffering under the repression of those times, and the solidarity provided by some intent on living up to the principles of self-determination and accountable work under the leadership of liberation forces.

Within the USA of 2020, the People’s Strike coalition is emerging as a Black-led, southern-founded network bringing together a multigenerational grouping across geographic, racial/ethnic, gender binary, and ideological lines. With principles of “unity not uniformity,” “mutual aid,” and supporting frontline workers and one another through the multiple crisis, it stands a more promising chance of united front building than anything seen over the past century. It is, however, far from the only coming together, even within the US. The World Social Movements Discussion group, moderated by Jai Sen, has seen a tremendous upsurge of writings, conversations, virtual meetings, and now a direct line into World Social Forum conversations about what might emerge from this moment. In my own International Peace Studies Association (IPRA), our regional association of Latin American scholars have a fast-growing consortium dedicated to building “a new normalcy” out of the crisis, as other internationals call for “making peace the new normal” and more. New alliances, relationships, networks and potential projects, alternatives and programs are taking shape. Dreams are being dreamed.

Surely within this very space, we have an opportunity and maybe a responsibility to dream, to passionately dream together, to dispassionately yet lovingly critique our dreams so as to construct realities which can better withstand the crushing onslaught of a dying empire and the violent emergences of competing sub-empires. Within this very space, we can and must rethink revolution and rebuild our alternative visions in ways not yet imagined.

Is all this a movement? Not yet.

Is it movements towards movement? The rumbles of movements of movements?

Who will work together to help define and thus shape it?

Something is afoot.

What will WE make of it?

Matt Meyer is the Secretary-General of the International Peace Studies Association, the oldest and largest global consortium of scholars, students, and practitioners examining conflict, resolution, mediation, and social change. The author of over a dozen books and countless articles, Meyer also serves as War Resisters’ International Africa Support Network Coordinator and in the leadership of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. Though based in New York City, he is the Senior Research Scholar of the Resistance Studies Initiative, University of Massachusetts/Amherst.