If there’s one message Black Lives Matter activists want to send to the presidential candidates running for the White House in 2016, it’s that they want police violence and racial disparities in policing to be acknowledged and addressed. But how exactly they communicate that message to politicians, organizers said, is less important.
This week, the group’s tactics have been visible as they have staged a series of confrontations with political candidates. Black Lives Matter activists tried to confront former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) at a Nevada town hall on Wednesday night and also met with him privately before the event. Activists from the movement’s Boston chapter planned on disrupting a Hillary Clinton campaign event in New Hampshire on Tuesday. They ended up arriving too late to be let inside, but then met privately with the Democratic candidate after her event ended.
Since these actions, much of the discussion about the movement has centered on its strategy — whether public disruptions are appropriate and if meeting privately with candidates to raise issues is effective. Tia Oso, the national coordinator of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and an active member of the Black Lives Matter movement, told ThinkProgress that both are essential parts of the strategy and meeting privately with Clinton instead of disrupting her public event was not a failure for the movement.
“There are so many different things that need to happen and so many different types of meetings and so many different levels and tactics and strategies that have to be employed to make a difference,” Oso said. “So sitting down and talking and having a nice meeting is definitely a part of it. And then also getting out in the streets and making some noise and disrupting daily life is also 100 percent as legitimate a part of it and necessary.”
Oso was one of a few activists who disrupted former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley during the presidential town hall at the progressive Netroots Nation conference last month, where Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was also interrupted and struggled to respond. When Oso approached the stage, she said the moderator was receptive to the disruption and the audience immediately understood her intentions.
“We said we’re definitely going to do an interruption, not just a demonstration in the space,” Oso said about the planning that went into the protest. “We’re going to try to make sure that everyone can hear us, which is why I asked for a microphone. We didn’t want it to be misconstrued as heckling, even though it was. Strategically, we were thinking about how to hold the space and make sure we put everyone’s attention on the issue.”
“A lot of folks have been talking to me like, ‘Oh those girls weren’t very organized and they were very emotional,’” Oso said. “I probably would have gotten very emotional and upset and started screaming and crying too if I had been shut down the way they tried to shut those ladies down.”
Although decentralized and often said to be lacking organization, Black Lives Matter is actually following the same model and “on the same continuum” as previous struggles for liberation that came before it, Oso said. During the civil rights movement, there were massive marches in the South, but Martin Luther King Jr. also met with President Lyndon Johnson behind closed doors, she said. During the abolition of slavery, there were similar demonstrations occurring while Frederick Douglas sat down with Abraham Lincoln behind closed doors.
Both types of actions have their drawbacks, Oso said.
“When you meet with somebody and you sit and they listen to you and you listen to them, it creates almost like a sense of comradery with that person,” Oso said. “They say ‘I’m listing to your issues. I feel your pain. We’re building a relationship.’ And it’s almost like it’s not personal. They’re checking things off, like ‘OK, this is this constituency base.’ When you have that direct public confrontation that exposes the difference and the divide and how far apart we really are on the issue, that is where you see more of a shift happen. So there has to be both.”
In their private meeting with Clinton, activists were able to ask the Democratic candidate about mass incarceration and drug policy, issues they want her to address further. Dounasia Yancey, founder of the group’s Boston chapter, told CNN they generally felt positive about the meeting but they still have questions.
While all of the Democratic candidates have put forward plans for criminal justice and police reform, Oso said they still do not understand the movement’s demands.
“Nobody should fool themselves into thinking there’s somebody who’s going to be the magic Black Lives Matter candidate,” she said. “[All of their criminal justice plans] seem very similar and they all have to do with reform. Reform is not what we’re asking for. There’s been reforms. I would like to see an acknowledgement that there is a problem with policing and I doubt that any presidential candidate is going to say that.”
But the movement may have to reconsider its disruption tactic moving forward. Donald Trump vowed to beat up Black Lives Matter activists if they try to speak at his campaign events and it’s likely the activists will be shut down even more in the future as they plan more disruptions, especially at Republican candidate events.
Not all of the disruptions will go smoothly, and activists may continue to appear emotional and angry when approaching candidates, Oso said. But critics who say Black Lives Matter activists don’t respond well to being shut out of political events are missing a crucial fact about the movement.
“People are talking about Black Lives Matter activism — the way that we’re doing things and the strategy and tactics — in a way that is very detached without understanding that what we’re doing is very personal to us,” she said. “It’s very, very personal. I have experience with police violence. Members of my family have been brutalized by the police.”
Instead of treating the movement as any other advocacy group, Oso said people should realize that it means more to the activists.
“I think a lot of the critiques are absent of the fact that we are fighting for our lives.”