President-elect Donald Trump has yet to take office, but Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists are already grappling with the reality that supremacists and police violence apologists will be pulling strings in the White House.
“Nobody knows exactly what Trump is going to do, because he’s been all over the map,” Samuel Sinyangwe, a member of BLM and co-founder of Campaign Zero, told ThinkProgress. “But what is clear is that Trump, his administration, and the people who he is empowering are intent on suppressing dissent and suppressing the First Amendment.”
In other words, the fight to end police violence and affirm the value of black lives is going to be more difficult — and dangerous — than ever before. A new approach is needed, and BLM is currently shifting its focus.
“It becomes a strategy of how can we work with states and local governments and with [whatever] power exists in the Senate to block and limit the amount of harm the federal government can cause,” Sinyangwe said.
On Monday, when Trump convened a meeting with Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke — a staunch opponent of the BLM movement who supports violence against protesters and is reportedly under consideration to lead the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — it immediately signaled to communities of color that police violence and surveillance are poised to get worse. Details about their conversation weren’t publicized, but Clarke has previously declared that BLM activists must be “eradicated from American society,” argued that police brutality is non-existent, and encouraged people to take up arms to quell anti-Trump protests before the election.
The meeting between Clarke and Trump also occurred less than two weeks after Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), a known racist and firm supporter of the War on Drugs that led to the mass incarceration and criminalization of black people, was tapped to become the next attorney general.
Until now, BLM’s Campaign Zero championed policy solutions—such as the end of broken windows and militarized policing, restrictions on the use of force, community oversight, officer training, and greater transparency in all law enforcement agencies — geared primarily toward change at the federal level. Throughout the election cycle, organizers forced Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to acknowledge police brutality and integrate BLM objectives into their respective campaign platforms.
BLM also advanced its federal strategy through conversations with the Obama administration. In addition to calling for the end of officer violence and discrimination, BLM has implored the White House to cut funding for departments that engage in unlawful police operations and discontinue the practice of equipping those departments with military-grade weapons and gear, Sinyangwe said.
Obama’s leadership hasn’t been perfect, he added. Government surveillance of BLM members is widespread — and expanding. Every year, hundreds of people are killed by police who then avoid disciplinary action, let alone criminal charges. Local and state law enforcement agencies remain militarized. But the open lines of communication between BLM and the White House are likely to be cut altogether on Inauguration Day.
As a result, BLM is taking the fight elsewhere. Reform at the state and local levels of government was always a priority for the movement, but it’s even more critical now.
Today, Tennessee and Delaware are the only states that severely restrict the use of deadly force by mandating that officers use it only after they’ve exhausted every possible way to protect lives, said Sinyangwe. Moving forward, BLM will pressure other state and local officials to follow suit and consider the policy solutions previously submitted to the Obama administration, including community oversight, independent investigations of police complaints, training, and demilitarization.
Meanwhile, BLM is ramping up efforts to join forces — and resources — with other marginalized groups that are targeted by the Trump administration: immigrants, women, the LGBTQ community, and countless others. Overt white supremacy and hate is the new normal, and vulnerable populations need to build coalitions to resist, Sinyangwe said.
“The Trump administration has weaponized hate. And while they have come into political, institutional power, they don’t have the numbers of people that we have,” he said.
In the end, the fight for black lives could boil down to a game of numbers — how many supporters BLM can find, and how effectively members of the movement can mobilize them.
According to the Pew Research Center, BLM has the support of 43 percent of the country. That means the number of Americans who stand with BLM far outnumbers the 60 million people who cast votes for Trump. To end police violence for good, supporters of the movement have to work collectively the way white nationalists banded together to elect Trump, Sinyangwe said. And one of the best ways to increase the number of allies is to build a coalition of people victimized by the Trump administration.
“It will be an organizing challenge that has never been done in our history, which is to actually organize 104 million people and leverage the skills and the talents and the energy of so many people — and coordinate that in the spirit of resistance,” he said. “That is the type of mass movement that we need.”
Logistically, that goal is an ambitious one. But it will be even more difficult if someone with a track record like Clarke’s is tapped to lead DHS.
Clarke is a vocal proponent of tough policing, and the proportion of black people incarcerated in his home state of Wisconsin is higher than anywhere else in the country, a trend largely driven by incarceration in Clarke’s Milwaukee County. He firmly believes that BLM is waging guerilla warfare on cops and has propagated the false myth that the movement will join forces with ISIS — an indication that he’d treat the movement as a top national security threat as head of DHS. Earlier this month, Clarke tweeted that anti-Trump protests constitute a state of emergency and that the National Guard should be activated to squash “riots” with tear gas and “ALL non lethal force.”
But despite the looming threats to the movement, Sinyangwe remains optimistic.
“The people are on our side,” he said.