By Robin D. G. Kelley
On August 1 the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), a coalition of over sixty organizations, rolled out “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom & Justice,” an ambitious document described by the press as the first signs of what young black activists “really want.” It lays out six demands aimed at ending all forms of violence and injustice endured by black people; redirecting resources from prisons and the military to education, health, and safety; creating a just, democratically controlled economy; and securing black political power within a genuinely inclusive democracy. Backing the demands are forty separate proposals and thirty-four policy briefs, replete with data, context, and legislative recommendations.
But the document quickly came under attack for its statement on Palestine, which calls Israel an apartheid state and characterizes the ongoing war in Gaza and the West Bank as genocide. Dozens of publications and media outlets devoted extensive coverage to the controversy around this single aspect of the platform, including The Guardian, the Washington Post, The Times of Israel, Haaretz, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Of course, M4BL is not the first to argue that Israeli policies meet the UN definitions of apartheid. (The 1965 International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the 1975 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid define it as “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”) Nor is M4BL the first group to use the term “genocide” to describe the plight of Palestinians under occupation and settlement. The renowned Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, for example, wrote of the war on Gaza in 2014 as “incremental genocide.” That Israel’s actions in Gaza correspond with the UN definition of genocide to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” by causing “serious bodily or mental harm” to group members is a legitimate argument to make.
The few mainstream reporters and pundits who considered the full M4BL document either reduced it to a laundry list of demands or positioned it as an alternative to the platform of the Democratic Party—or else focused on their own benighted astonishment that the movement has an agenda beyond curbing police violence. But anyone following Black Lives Matter from its inception in the aftermath of the George Zimmerman verdict should not be surprised by the document’s broad scope. Black Lives Matter founders Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi are veteran organizers with a distinguished record of fighting for economic justice, immigrant rights, gender equity, and ending mass incarceration. “A Vision for Black Lives” was not a response to the U.S. presidential election, nor to unfounded criticisms of the movement as “rudderless” or merely a hashtag. It was the product of a year of collective discussion, research, collaboration, and intense debate, beginning with the Movement for Black Lives Convening in Cleveland last July, which initially brought together thirty different organizations. It was the product of some of the country’s greatest minds representing organizations such as the Black Youth Project 100, Million Hoodies, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Dream Defenders, the Organization for Black Struggle, and Southerners on New Ground (SONG). As Marbre Stahly-Butts, a leader of the M4BL policy table explained, “We formed working groups, facilitated multiple convenings, drew on a range of expertise, and sought guidance from grassroots organizations, organizers and elders. As of today, well over sixty organizations and hundreds of people have contributed to the platform.”
The result is actually more than a platform. It is a remarkable blueprint for social transformation that ought to be read and discussed by everyone. The demands are not intended as Band-Aids to patch up the existing system but achievable goals that will produce deep structural changes and improve the lives of all Americans and much of the world. Thenjiwe McHarris, an eminent human rights activist and a principle coordinator of the M4BL policy table, put it best: “We hope that what has been created carries forward the legacy of our elders and our ancestors while imagining a world and a country profoundly different than what currently exists. For us and for those that will come after us.” The document was not drafted with the expectation that it will become the basis of a mass movement, or that it will replace the Democratic Party’s platform. Rather it is a vision statement for long-term, transformative organizing. Indeed, “A Vision for Black Lives” is less a political platform than a plan for ending structural racism, saving the planet, and transforming the entire nation—not just black lives.