Framing a Transformative Vision for Black Lives

“It has been precisely the audacity of this movement framing, and the resilience of the black radical imaginary, that has sustained black people in an intergenerational long march.”
Neal Blair, of Augusta, Ga., stands on the lawn of the Capitol during an October rally to mark the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)
Neal Blair stands on the lawn of the Capitol during a rally to mark the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

Framing symbols and discourses—rendered in the form of images, platforms and demands—are the most critical aspect of any movement-building effort. At their most effective, they bring political coherence and focus to an activist community, convey meaning and goals to supporters and potential participants, mobilize constituents to action, and equip adherents organizationally to contest for legitimacy (and power). Along these lines, framing discourses can communicate insurgent ideas about what changes are necessary, rather than simply what reforms are deemed possible.

The work of movement framing has been an enduring feature of struggles for black freedom, though each wave of struggle has imagined black freedom in historically specific ways. This history includes the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (1896), which promoted seven “Objectives” for the education, economic welfare and social rights of women and youth during the early years of Jim Crow, and popularized the motto “Lifting as We Climb.” It also encompasses the Universal Negro Improvement Association’s 1920 “Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World,” which globalized a Black Nationalist vision of self-determination in the wreckage of the First World War. Similarly, the “Ten-Point Program” of Oakland’s Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (1966) reflected an anti-colonial consciousness prevalent among urban youth of color. As another example, the “Combahee River Collective Statement” (1977) spoke to a growing intersectional approach to both analyzing and combating oppression on the bases of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Moreover, in its 1998 “Freedom Agenda,” the Black Radical Congress reacted to the retreat from racial equality and economic justice that had occurred during the successive presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and William Jefferson Clinton, and offered a politically left alternative to the reactionary black conservatism of the 1995 Million Man March.

Members of the UNIA in Harlem (1924)
Members of the UNIA in Harlem (1924)

The Movement for Black Lives’ (M4BL) recently issued “Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, & Justice” belongs to this rich tradition of transformative agenda setting. It represents a coalition effort of more than fifty organizations, including the Dream Defenders—whose members staged an occupation of the Florida capitol following the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the vigilante killing of Trayvon Martin—and the Organization of Black Struggle, one of the first local respondents to the 2014 police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Most immediately, the M4BL demands are a culmination of the “Black Lives Matter” activism that has evolved since Zimmerman’s acquittal.

On a bigger canvas, these “Policy Demands” speak to the effects of a current neoliberal landscape characterized by, among other things, a denigration of social welfare expenditures and ideas of the public good; an emphasis on fiscal austerity and the punitive functions of the state; the deregulation of capital; widening gaps of wealth and privilege; the reduction of all social relations to private market exchanges; and the resulting atomization of the individual. Tellingly, the M4BL platform demands “Economic Justice,” to be accomplished by restoring greater regulations to the financial industry, strengthening the rights of workers to unionize across job sectors, instituting public works programs, and supplanting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with a progressive restructuring of all existing U.S. trade agreements. Indeed, TPP—and its predecessors like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—strengthen corporate and finance capital at the expense of wages, household income, and overall working and living conditions for the “99 Percent.”

One result of this decades-long neoliberal project has been a renewed debasement of electoral politics. This is manifested in the deregulation of campaign spending, the personal corruption of candidates purchased through massive amounts of money and career patronage, the use of vile demagoguery to conceal elite decadence and hegemony, and updated weapons of voter suppression against marginalized populations. The Republicans, led by their Tea Party wing, continues headlong into undisguised white supremacist politics. The Democratic Party center, while signaling left, is poised yet again to turn right, in the process betraying the most loyal and progressive members of its base while offering little more than symbolic representation and access. Meanwhile, the nation’s first black presidency, historic as it was, has tragically exposed the illusion of racial transcendence, the structural limits of individual black heroic exceptionalism, and the dangers of confusing an electoral campaign (even if initially a rebellious one) with an actual social movement.

Rejecting a false, demoralizing, crisis-driven choice in this dominant two-party setup, the M4BL platform rallies for “Political Power” encompassing universal voter registration, “a ban on any disenfranchisement laws,” public financing of elections, and the end of “super PACS and unchecked corporate donations.” Confronting deep-rooted inequalities in U.S. political power, the nation’s history of silencing dissidents, and the rising drumbeat for state repression against “Black Lives Matter” itself, this set of demands also advocates for the release of all political prisoners. Ultimately, the “Political Power” plank envisions a long-term “remaking of the current U.S. political system in order to create a real democracy where Black people and all marginalized people” can realize the full possibilities of electoral participation and democratic decision-making.

Black Panther Party Press Conference Credit: UCLA Library Digital Collections, Los Angeles Times Photographs Collection
Black Panther Party Press Conference. Credit: UCLA Library Digital Collections, Los Angeles Times Photographs Collection

Elsewhere, the M4BL “Vision for Black Lives” recognizes the necessity of diverse solidarities, most explicitly including “respecting the rights of our Indigenous family.” In this respect, it underscores the connections between anti-black racism and the specter of perpetual war in the global peripheries; nativism and Islamophobia at home; the corporate desecration of ecosystems and heritage sites occupied by Native American peoples like North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux; an intensified reaction against expressions of sexual difference; and an emboldened denial of women’s right to both choose intimate partners and exercise reproductive agency. Simultaneously, this ethos of solidarity extends internally to black communities themselves, bringing to the forefront, according to the document’s preamble, “the most marginalized Black people, including…women, queer, trans, femmes, gender nonconforming, Muslim, formerly and currently incarcerated, cash poor and working class, differently-abled, undocumented, and immigrant.”

It is from this wide-ranging sense of black identity that the M4BL policy agenda demands: “End the War on Black People.” Such warfare has pivoted on the interwoven, racialized violence of the state-sanctioned “war on drugs,” mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipelines, community surveillance, police militarization, profiling, the criminalizing stigma of the “prison label,” and extrajudicial killings by law officers and vigilantes. This demand to end “the criminalization, incarceration, and killing of our people” implicitly challenges the false equivalence between, on the one hand, the authority, latitude and deference that the state gives to law enforcement and, on the other, the routinized disposability of black life. Notwithstanding the very real tragedy in the shooting deaths of several officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge during the riotous summer of 2016, the resulting slogan, “Blue Lives Matter,” is a cynical means of justifying repressive police tactics against “Black Lives Matter” activists. Equally important, “Blue Lives Matter” hides the existing asymmetries of power between the police and the policed, with people of color in the latter category too often victims of official misconduct and abuse.

This politics of black disposability extends, as well, to ongoing patterns of metropolitan disinvestment, financial capitalist redevelopment, and black residential displacement.  Consequently, the third M4BL plank, “Invest-Divest,” champions a reallocation of public funding from punishment to “local restorative justice services,” “fully funded education,”  “sustainable energy solutions,” and the revitalization of health, employment, and other essential infrastructure in the black home sphere. This dovetails with the platform’s demands for “Community Control,” which includes participatory budgeting at all levels of governance, oversight and control over law enforcement agencies, and the end to the privatization of public education. Mirroring the principles under “Community Control” and “Invest-Divest,” the platform’s section for “Economic Justice” elaborates related proposals for food and housing cooperatives, clean air and water, and “an end to the exploitative privatization of natural resources” that has led, for instance, to water contamination in Flint, Michigan, and environmental disaster on sovereign Native lands threatened by fracking and oil pipelining.

President Barack Obama sips filtered water from Flint following a roundtable on the Flint Water Crisis, May 4, 2016
President Barack Obama sips filtered water from Flint, May 4, 2016

The document’s centerpiece, “Reparations,” integrates the platform’s overarching themes of restorative justice for past and present black racial oppression, economic redistribution, community (re)development and control, and political self-determination. For those of us in academia, the strong emphasis here on education—“free access and open admissions to public community colleges and universities, technical education (technology, trade and agricultural), educational support programs, retroactive forgiveness of student loans, and support for lifetime learning programs”—is a reminder that “Black Lives Matter” has taken root on numerous campuses.

While many university administrators have tried to forget the demonstrations that occurred during the 2015-2016 academic year, anti-racist student protesters have continued to press their incipient demands for a fundamental reordering of the university. It would be useless to try to predict the direction of current campus battles around “diversity, equity and inclusion” in recruitment, retention, curriculum and speech, climate, funding, and the institutional endowments left by slavery. It is also impossible to know how these struggles in higher education might affect tendencies toward academic professionalism, atomization, and individual career progression. For now, black student unions and their offshoots have reemerged as fighting organizations, through their example beckoning black faculty and staff to become accomplices in a community of rogue assemblies. Africana Studies programs and departments, brought into being by student dissidents in the late 1960s and early 1970s, similarly have been inspired by contemporary student activists to reinforce, or completely rediscover, their identities as undisciplined, fugitive spaces of study and struggle. On many of our campuses, robust alliances with various other fugitives of the neoliberal university may yet await.

From this standpoint, the M4BL case for reparations is significant in that while it addresses the particularities of violence and exploitation that black people collectively have experienced, the proposal’s remedies for health, housing, full and free education, livable incomes, and debt forgiveness exemplify a far-reaching program of progressive social democratic reform that blatantly repudiates neoliberalism. At their best, black liberation agendas have helped to expand the meanings of freedom, and the horizons of democratic thought, across society. The M4BL “Vision for Black Lives” is no different.

At the outset, the authors concede that “not all of our collective needs and visions can be translated into policy.” This may be true, but it is entirely consistent with the black organizing tradition. From the Colored Convention Movement of the antebellum period to the National Black United Front of the early 1980s, black freedom struggles historically have stretched upward for goals that are far more capacious than what the status quo is able or willing to accommodate at a given period. The more pertinent issue right now is how and where “A Vision for Black Lives” will circulate among independent media outlets, public libraries, churches and ecumenical groups, dormitories, barbershops, hair salons, classrooms, community centers, and other areas of the black public sphere.  It has been precisely the audacity of this movement framing, and the resilience of the black radical imaginary, that has sustained black people in an intergenerational long march. And if the course of African American history has taught us anything, it is that even the boldest freedom dreams warrant our serious contemplation.


Clarence Lang is Professor and Chair of African and African-American Studies at the University of Kansas. He received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2004. Lang’s main research and teaching areas are African American working-class and labor history, the Black Freedom Movement, and black urban communities in the twentieth-century Midwest. He is the author of Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-75, and Black America in the Shadow of the Sixties: Notes on the Civil Rights Movement, Neoliberalism, and Politics.


Comments on “Framing a Transformative Vision for Black Lives

  • You brought it C-Lang. Great stuff!

    My question (perhaps ironically) is something of a marketing question. How do we get that document, which is brilliantly crafted, to become part of the zeitgeist?

    M4BL has seized some of the most valuable social real estate in the world right now. Racial inequality is on the minds of nearly everyone at the moment, despite the best efforts of many powerful people. It would be tragic if this moment ends (and it will eventually) without “The Vision” becoming part of what is meant when people utter the phrase “Black Lives Matter” in the same way that the “Ten Point Program” became part of what people meant when they said Black Panther Party.

    • Hey, Crockett: Thanks for the kind note! Great question, too, and one that I’ve thought about myself. My own answer to that question is to think about where we happen to be located, then build from there. For those of us in academia, for example, is this a document that we’re assigning and discussing in our classes? Are we networking with our resident BSUs to take up the policy demands for study, reflection, and/or public debate? Many of our students have found off-campus forms of activism — are we encouraging them to take the document into those extracurricular spaces for the purposes of engagement? The avenues of exchange will look different for groups of us, based on where we locate ourselves and/or are located (i.e., I’m thinking about printing out a copy and asking my barber to post it in the shop, just to see what — if anything — comes out of the query). Some communities (e.g., Kansas City, MO) will have more possible vectors than others (e.g., Lawrence, KS). Still, it seems to me that we begin from the concrete spaces we occupy and move outward from there, however modestly.

  • Personally I see nothing great about this piece. Truth be told is that the BLMM garnished its strength in Ferguson. It was sent in to take over the indigenous Black led youth groups and change the narrative from that which was in the tradition of black resistance to something that is artificially trying to inject itself into history. Many of the youth in Ferguson have paid a dear price for their righteous discontent. Many were and are still imprisoned. Several were killed. Some such as Howard University alumni Mya White was shot in the head while organization the youth by suspicious terrorist. Furthermore, the Ford Foundation and George Soros have funded the Black Lived Matter Movement to the tune of $140 million buying off some Black Intellectuals in the process. Not all money is good money and every brother ain’t a brother. The Garvey movement was not financed by the culture elite of other groups. So to try and tie this and tie other indigenous black movements with BLM is falsified story telling is an insult to those who’ve dedicated their lives to the true “True Black Freedom Struggle.”

    • I appreciate your response, and I’m fine with your not liking the piece. But don’t distort my argument. As an entity, the Movement for Black Lives is a coalition made of a broad range of groups, many of which have functioned/are functioning at different scales — local (indigenous), regional, etc. One of these, the Organization for Black Struggle, is a long-time group in the St. Louis area that has done work around police violence for decades, and was one of the first groups to mobilize in response to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. I can’t speak to the particular incidents you have mentioned here, but the collections of organizations that constitute M4BL have vastly different relationships to the state, corporate liberal foundations, and the like. It’s careless to paint “Black Lives Matter” with so broad and negative a stroke. As in any movement formation, multiple tendencies exist — some of which are genuine and committed to transformative struggle, and others driven by personal opportunism (Certainly Garveyism ran the gamut from reactionary black nationalism to revolutionary communism.) The challenge here, as has been the case historically, is to expose, address and battle the opportunistic tendencies, not dismiss an entire field of insurgent activity based on the presence of internal contradictions. In fact, this is part of the work of movement-framing that I’ve discussed above. I stand by the argument that “A Vision for Black Lives” is an important document deserving of wide circulation, discussion and debate.

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