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As With Civil Rights Movement, Democrats Seek to Co-Opt Black Lives Matter Ahead of Election

The Democratic National Committee passed a resolution at its summer meeting on August 28, which endorsed “Black lives matter.” The resolution was an effort by Democrats to co-opt the energy coming from the movement for black lives and steer it into the 2016 Election.

There are distinct parallels between the Democratic Party’s reaction to Black Lives Matter and how the party responded to the civil rights movement and black revolutionary groups of the late 1960s.

The DNC resolution stated, “We hear the ‘Black lives matter’ cry from the inspiration of creators Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, and from the heart of a generation of young African Americans who feel totally dismissed and unheard as they are crushed between unlawful street violence and unjust police violence.”

“We salute the courageous young people who participate in the #March2Justice, and we repeat the chant ‘say her name’ to acknowledge the Black women whose stories are often untold and whose cases are unresolved,” the resolution added.

“The DNC joins with Americans across the country in affirming ‘Black lives matter’ and the ‘say her name’ efforts to make visible the pain of our fellow and sister Americans as they condemn extrajudicial killings of unarmed African American men, women and children,” the resolution further declared.

It “renewed” prior calls for “systemic reforms at state, local, and federal levels,” which would “prohibit law enforcement from profiling based on race, nationality, ethnicity, or religion,” “minimize the transfer of excess” military-grade equipment to police, and “support prevention programs that give young people alternatives to incarceration.”

Two days later, the Black Lives Matter organization rejected the DNC’s resolution as “business as usual.”

“The Black Lives Matter Network is clear that a resolution from the Democratic National Committee won’t bring the changes we seek,” the organization declared. “Resolutions without concrete change are just business as usual. Promises are not policies. We demand freedom for black bodies, justice for black lives, safety for black communities, and rights for black people. We demand action, not words, from those who purport to stand with us.”

The decision to support the movement for black lives is, to some extent, a response to activists targeting presidential candidate events. The party also is performing a function it has historically served when the country has been faced with social movements.

Inarguably, protests led by black Americans in communities across the country have positively contributed to reflections on institutional racism. However, one line of the resolution suggested “without systemic reform” unrest will continue to jeopardize the “well-being of our democracy and our nation.”

The idea the Black Lives Matter movement may jeopardize the “well-being” of the country makes it seem like a national security issue. Though no Democrats may be saying this, law enforcement officers have tied ambushes against police to the rhetoric of the Black Lives Matter movement. Party leaders feel pressured to address growing dissent against an entire system before long-lasting damage is done.

“Cut out this freedom rider and sitting-in stuff”

As Lance Selfa comprehensively outlines in his book, “Democrats: A Critical History,” the Democratic Party has relied on electoral politics before to contain black movements.

President John F. Kennedy favored the pursuit of voting rights through legal strategies rather than direct action. His administration chose to handle most civil rights matters through an office in the Justice Department.

Similarly, President Barack Obama’s administration has relied upon the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department to investigate dozens of police departments accused of racism and violence. Attorney General Eric Holder denounced “stand your ground” laws and defended voting rights laws so the White House could avoid getting into issues of race. (*Note: After Michael Brown was killed by a Ferguson police officer, it became virtually impossible for Obama to remain on the sidelines. He appointed a task force which reviewed policies of police.)

Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) leader James Farmer was offered federal aid by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. “If you cut out this freedom rider and sitting-in stuff and concentrate on voter registration, I’ll get you a tax exemption,” Kennedy said.

In May 1963, the Kennedy administration, according to Selfa, viewed a mass civil disobedience campaign to desegregate businesses in Birmingham, Alabama, as a potential disaster that would scuttle an agreement already made with more conservative elements to “phase” out segregation. It was feared if the agreement fell apart black people would become “uncontrollable.”

Later, with the March on Washington, Kennedy recognized the administration had dragged its feet. Organizers were asked to water down their speeches and limit their criticism of the administration. Speakers, including John Lewis, were successfully coerced into altering their speeches.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) planned to challenge the state’s Jim Crow Democrats at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. President Lyndon B. Johnson feared the nonsegregated political party would inspire the “white South” to defect and support his Republican opponent Barry Goldwater. The party limited the MFDP to two delegate seats, and when the group protested, security and police had them removed from the convention.

Democrats make concessions to avoid future disruptions

By 1970, the political party faced the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), which formed at the Hamtramck Assembly Chrysler Plant. It also had to confront an illegal wildcat strike involving 210,000 U.S. postal workers and led by Black workers. The strike won a 14 percent wage increase, collective bargaining rights, and forced reorganization of the postal service, according to Selfa.

This success—along with several urban rebellions, which were growing the ranks of the Black Panther Party—led the Democratic establishment to respond with both repression and offers to incorporate parts of movement into the political process.

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover viewed the Black Panther Party as the “greatest threat to the internal security of the United States.” It spurred COINTELPRO, which targeted the most effective leaders fighting for civil rights and black liberation, including Martin Luther King Jr.

Additionally, an increasing number of “middle-class Black politicians” began to pursue “concrete” and “realistic” reform. Democrats made concessions to blacks to avoid future uprisings.

Robert L. Allen, a radical commentator, argued, “From the liberal point of view, some concessions must be made if future disruptions such as the 1967 riot are to be avoided,” and, “Black people were supposed to get the impression that progress was being made, that they were finally being let in the front door … The intention is to create an impression of real movement while actual movement is too limited to be significant.”

The present-day Democratic Party has employed a similar strategy. Obama’s task force review of policing and meetings with activists have been attempts to pacify the movement and convince organizers the government will be responsive to them.  At the same time, there has been dragnet surveillance of Black Lives Matter activists by federal agencies, which Democrats have not opposed.

Since August 2014, location data on demonstrations and other actions have been culled from Facebook, Twitter, and Vine accounts by Homeland Security analysts conducting social media surveillance. The FBI has coordinated with corporations and other private entities to monitor individuals organizing and participating in “Black Lives Matter” protests.

Michael Brelo, a Cleveland police officer who at the end of a car chase stood on the hood of a car and fired 15 shots at an unarmed couple, was acquitted in May. Just prior to the verdict, FBI deputy director Mark Giuliano expressed his concerns about potential protests.

“It’s outsiders who tend to stir the pot. If we have that intel we pass it directly on to the PD, we have worked with Ferguson. We’ve worked with Baltimore, and we will work with the Cleveland PD on that very thing. That’s what we bring to the game.”

This kind of targeting of activists has occurred as Democratic Party leaders, including candidates like Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley, make statements in support of black lives.

“Only endorsement goes to the protest movement we’ve built”

Undoubtedly, what the Democrats would like to do is offer leaders, especially well-known activists such as Cullors, Garza, and Tometi, positions where they can advance their struggle within electoral campaigns. Thus far, the activists have nothing but scorn for the party’s endorsement.

“While the Black Lives Matter Network applauds political change towards making the world safer for Black life, our only endorsement goes to the protest movement we’ve built together with Black people nationwide — not the self-interested candidates, parties, or political machine seeking our vote,” Black Lives Matter stated.

Remarkably, none of the Democratic National Committee’s endorsed policy solutions include more accountability for the police who are committing the extrajudicial killings. The DNC would like us all to apparently show solidarity with the movement right up until there are demands made for justice.

Democrats are adept at folding social movements into their politics, and make no mistake: Any interactions between Hillary Clinton and other candidates for federal elections and Black Lives Matter activists will be handled in the same way party operatives have handled challenges from the civil rights movement in the past. Party leaders will seek to find some way to play ally to black activists and, more importantly, ensure Republicans cannot use the movement against Democrats in 2016.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."