Bernard E. Harcourt | Epilogue on #BlackLivesMatter

By Bernard E. Harcourt

At our seminar on Uprising 4/13: #BlackLivesMatter, Kendall Thomas referred to the movement for Black lives as “a movement of movements.” The term, I think, perfectly captures the diversity of groups, projects, alliances, and organizations that make up the larger movement for Black lives and that is represented by the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.

The expression has been used, recently, in other contexts, including for instance with regard to the movements challenging neoliberal globalization (see e.g. A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible? Ed. Tom Mertes, Verso 2004) or with regard to the New Left more generally (see e.g. Jean-Christophe Agnew and Roy Rosenzweig, “A Movement of Movements: The Definition and Periodization of the New Left,” in A Companion to Post-1945 America, Wiley 2007). And the term has been deployed more recently in various debates, pro and con—suggesting that it may indeed have negative potential if it is associated with a desire to control or rein in other movements, or to privilege one organization or set of actors of another.

But if we think of the singular in “a movement of movements” not as an identifiable organization or set of actors or even single actor, but rather as the larger whole that is greater than the parts of all the different organizations for Black lives—from BYP100 to the Black Lives Matter Global Network, to the chapters of #BlackLivesMatter, to all the different groups that militate side-by-side, like Assata’s Daughters, We Charge Genocide, or the Peoples Response Team—then the term seems to capture perfectly what is going on today. If we speak of the larger phenomenon that is associated with the hashtag and made up of all the organizations and groups, then we have what could be called a “movement of movements,” one that does indeed seem to resist appropriation or cooptation. That is perhaps, ultimately, the genius of the hashtag and the larger movement: it cannot be coopted because it cannot be pinned down or associated with any one particular group or person. It makes the movement ultimately larger than any of its constituent parts, broader than any of the specific organizations, and longer-lasting than the present constellation.

From the fascinating discussion at Uprising 4/13, several features of this “movement of movements” came to the fore: the fact, for instance, that it rejects a politics of respectability. That is, perhaps, one of its greatest strengths—as Kendall Thomas argued. The fact that is contains organizations that are so well organized, using these new and innovative table structures (i.e. tables for communications, policy, law, healing justice, electoral justice, etc.) to reach policy proposals, as Shanelle Matthews demonstrated. The fact that there is a deep engagement with the state and with policy, but no ambition to be the state. The resonance with the Foucaultian idea of critique as the desire not to be governed thusly. The way in which the organizations repoliticize the public sphere, as Deva Woodly emphasized—and the potential for democratic experimentation that these movements express. The way they can lead us to refocus our attention on proper policies and politics, as Elias Alcantara showed us.

As Deva Woodly suggested, the movement for Black lives revives and repoliticizes the public sphere by countering a growing “politics of despair.” The different manifestations of #BlackLivesMatter protest, then, should not be understood as “pre-political.” They themselves are inherently political and they may be what allows a democracy to correct itself—since, as Woodly correctly noted, the institutions alone certainly do not seem capable of correcting themselves.

A rich debate emerged at the seminar over the contrast between the strands of Black joy and dandyism in the movement—in effect, over the desire not be reduced to victimhood and death—versus the elements of Afro-pessimism and the dark truth that the movement itself was born from fatal encounters of young black women and men with the police. Kendall Thomas ultimately argued for a recognition of the foundational element of mourning and Black death in the movement to fight against injustice itself and as a motivating force. “I am pessimistic. I am pessimistic,” Thomas declared in a powerful intervention (at 2:25:30). “We fought for and won this new legal order… and yet have prisons which are filled with black and brown citizens in complete compliance with the law…. I think there is something to the claim by the Afro-pessimist Frank Wilderson. The notion of black citizenship in the US is an oxymoron…. At the same time, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has given us joy and it gives me hope. But the challenge is to hold on to both ends of the chain at once: the pessimism, which provokes the passion to rage against injustice, and at the same time that joy that gives us a vision of the future that allows us to imagine that another world is possible.”

Last seminar at Uprising 3/13: The Arab Spring, we spoke of the new role of social media in the Arab uprisings of 2011 and the innovation associated with these new digital platforms. Well, with the movement of movements for Black lives, we are completely immersed in these new forms of expression and organization. The movement, of course, is not a social media movement, but it is more than a movement that uses social media. Somehow the media has become constitutive.

The combination is stunning: there’s the materiality and physicality – the deaths, the police shootings, the Black lives, and of course, all of the physical protesting associated with the mission and goals of the black lives movement – and on the other hand, the virtual and almost invisible but pervasive nature of the hashtag and the use of social media. It is this tension between what I called in Exposed the analog and the digital, the physicality of punishment and protest and the virtuality of protest and surveillance—this tension that characterizes and mobilizes this new form of uprising. It is what produces a form of protest that includes (1) a hashtag that operates in an unprecedented way, that also (2) relates directly to the physical protest, since it appears on physical posters and T-shirts and masking tape, that (3) circulates pervasively throughout society, and (4) yet, or for that reason, cannot exactly be located, pinned down, appropriated, identified, attached…

The PEW Research Center on Internet and Technology published a fascinating report on the hashtag in August 2015, which revealed how omnipresent it was. Among other things, “On Twitter’s 10-year anniversary, the site published a list of the most used hashtags related to social causes. Two of the top three were directly related to issues of race. According to Twitter, #Ferguson was the most used social-issue hashtag in the 10-year history of the platform, while #BlackLivesMatter was third.”

Overall, since it came into existence in mid-2013 through March 2016, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag had been used on Twitter almost 12 million times. Naturally, it was subject to various vicissitudes, positive and negative, depending on the political circumstances (a police killing or violence against the police)–the peak uses of the hashtag corresponded to the following events:

In the end, I am left thinking that the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and the larger movement of movements for Black lives represent one of the most innovative and novel forms of uprising on the political scene today. Its unique originality is tied precisely to the relation between, on the one hand, its origins—so, the specific and particular historical context of the wave of police shootings of black and brown women and men, killings that have been captured so disturbingly on digital devices, mostly smartphones—and on the other hand the omnipresence of the new digital media that serves to protest and to spread the message of racial injustice in such a powerful way.