Days after voting ended, Carl Davidson and Bill Fletcher, Jr. offered a refreshingly provocative piece, “Post-Election Reckoning: New Hypotheses for the Road Ahead.” It’s a purposefully direct analysis of core truths that gives guidance to organizers and activists like myself who are adjusting to the post-Trump landscape. But in repeated readings, group discussions and conversations with movement elders, one hypothesis consistently sparked disunity – the critique of movement building: over-reliance on street heat without organizational strategy. Let’s be careful not to overcorrect and discount movement building overall. Street heat must be part of any organization’s strategy to build legitimate power, centering those who are on the front lines of demanding change. As an observer of Black Lives Matter (BLM) in Los Angeles and elsewhere, I along with many peers have seen movement building work. Not only has BLM re-centered the abolitionist spirit of the Black Radical Tradition, but they are delivering material victories in cities across the nation at a speed and scale unseen in the past 50 years. These successes suggest that the project of movement building is not only worthwhile, but it is essential to gaining and maintaining governing power.
What does movement building actually look like? For Davidson and Fletcher, mass movements are not built by the people, but instead are “largely built by capitalist outrages inflicted upon us.” A movement’s origin may begin as a spontaneous reaction, but there’s more to it. Movements are a product of community organizing, policy development, sustained protest and effective propaganda. When the uprisings broke out in response to George Floyd’s murder, there wasn’t an organizational vacuum. A nationwide network of organizers who had been in the trenches for seven years since the murder of Trayvon Martin were prepared to channel that organic popular energy into organized protests. Organizations like Black Visions Collective had already been laying the foundations for non-reformist proposals to #DefundThePolice, and were ready to petition and spread the demand when the opportunity arose.
Movement building gets the goods
In Minneapolis, the epicenter of the George Floyd rebellions, the city council made headlines this summer for pledging to defund the police, the latest fight being an $8 million proposed cut from Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) for the 2021 budget. While the sitting city council is remarkably progressive (12 Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party members, one Green), the mandate to defund the MPD came from a disruptive movement, including a now infamous public shaming of Mayor Jacob Frey who failed to support the community’s demands to defund the MPD. For organizations, governing power doesn’t stop at winning elections – all elected officials, even our class-struggle candidates, need to feel the heat.
Out of crisis, the situational power of mass movements thrusts community organizers into clearer leadership positions. Those already engaged in movement building are the best set for success. In Los Angeles, Black Lives Matter organizers maintained a constant presence in the streets through long term organized protest in direct, nonstop confrontation with law enforcement and elected officials. Situated as the de facto vanguard of leftist movements at the time of the George Floyd protests, BLM-LA was prepared to implement four key successful campaigns in the summer birthed from the movement:
#JackieLaceyMustGo – Every Wednesday for three years straight, Black Lives Matter – Los Angeles demanded the removal of the district attorney who failed to prosecute LAPD officers for police brutality. In the 2020 General Election, Lacey was unseated by George Gascon, who pledged to re-open four fatal officer-involved-shootings that she declined to prosecute. On his first day in office, he announced an end to cash bail and the death penalty, amid other reforms.
#DefundLASPD – Students Deserve, a youth-led organization associated with BLM-LA, organized a campaign to fully defund the LA School Police Department (LASPD). In June, the school board voted to cut the LASPD budget by 35 percent or $25 million. They continue to organize for a full defunding of the department.
#ReImagineLA – A coalition of community leaders and organizations led by BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors, drafted and campaigned for Measure J. The measure would allocate no less than ten percent (10%) of the County’s locally generated unrestricted revenues each year to community investment and alternatives to incarceration. Measure J passed in the 2020 General Election.
#PeoplesBudgetLA – A few weeks prior to the murder of George Floyd, BLM-LA convened the People Budget LA Coalition and conducted a community survey demonstrating a popular mandate to reinvest in care, not cops. In June they presented the survey results to the LA City Council, and they continue to shape the implementation of motions coming from city council.
Building power and movements go hand-in-hand
These observations indicate that organizations and campaigns are not just being built within mass movements, but that the functions of building movements and building electoral power work best in a symbiotic relationship. In all instances, success came not only from a combination of mass protests, social media campaigns, and coalitions among activist groups, labor unions, tenant organizers, and other organizations. Such coalitions could form because the movement leaders offered clear and immediate material demands that disparate groups could unite behind.
The harshest of Davidson and Fletcher’s criticisms are reserved for street heat: “We love street heat tactically. But as strategy it sucks.” From their perspective, the two strategic blunders in relying on mass protest are (1) belief that you can shame public officials into compliance, and (2) avoiding the electoral project of gaining power.
But how are you gonna rep the streets if you’re not IN THE STREETS?
The fear that many on the Left have been unwilling to participate in the project of building and attaining governing power is absolutely valid. The impulse to hit the streets without strategic goals or retreat to sectarian pockets is more tempting than ever with the anonymity and segmentation of social media. But we can’t afford to write off all street heat, as much of it is intentional and essential to movement building. Any campaign to #CancelRent or pass #MedicareForAll will require a crescendo of disruptive protests.
Since Thanksgiving week, Black Lives Matter – Los Angeles has been leading daily morning #BlockGarcetti protests outside Mayor Eric Garcetti’s mansion in response to rumors that he has been shortlisted for the Biden-Harris cabinet as either Housing and Urban Development Secretary or Transportation Secretary. Protestors are not only calling on the city to defund the police; they are also demanding that it stop the sale of the Crenshaw mall and provide housing to LA’s more than 66,000 unhoused people (not to mention the thousands more facing eviction as a result of COVID-19). This isn’t a liberal public pressure campaign to persuade the mayor to take action, nor is it simple harm reduction. It’s further building the movement by elevating and connecting the demands of anti-gentrification and housing activists with the demands to defund the police. It’s also a warning that the people have the power to stop a politician’s career short, just like BLM already did to Jackie Lacey.
The tactic of public pressure or bird-dogging through “street heat” is invaluable not just to movement building, but to leftist organizations looking to build power. Continued engagement with community-led protests goes a long way, especially through material support such as providing food, tech, supplies or security. A meaningful relationship and trust with the vanguard forces of social movements provides not just credibility, but also a familiarity with the terrain and policy demands coming directly from the most impacted groups. Street heat is the lifeblood of the social change ecosystem. Along with mutual aid, arts, media and culture, street heat humanizes the demands and helps communicate them more rapidly.
Serve the movements
It’s in the interest of organizations to serve movements. Organizations and their respective organizers must think critically about the role they play in relation to movements. Davidson and Fletcher believe our role is to build organizations within mass movements, not above or indifferent to them. If that’s the case, organizations cannot discount the importance of movement building in achieving governing power. It’s the responsibility of organizations to support and advance the goals of social movements without taking up too much space or co-opting the work of those committed organizers and activists who often put their lives at risk in confrontation with authorities or other hostile parties. This is especially true of membership organizations whose new recruits are inspired by the excitement, action, and passion of social movements. Without being rooted in these movements, and respecting the dedication and discipline of movement leaders, organizations risk losing their membership to disorganized street heat or worse, apathy. Without a genuine message and the trust of street fighters, there is no legitimacy for organizations to govern.