On August 1, the “Movement for Black Lives” (an umbrella organization for about 50 groups associated with the Black Lives Matter movement) released a list of demands going into the general election campaign. The New York Times reports,
The list of six platform demands is aimed at furthering their goals as the presidential campaign heads into the homestretch. … As part of the effort, the groups are demanding, among other things, reparations for what they say are past and continuing harms to African-Americans, an end to the death penalty, legislation to acknowledge the effects of slavery, as well as investments in education initiatives, mental health services and jobs programs.
If that sounds like a sprawling and unfocused wish list, that's not the half of it.
The “six” demands actually contain 38 bullet points, most containing several different policies, including such pressing concerns as: forgiving student loans; restoring Glass-Steagall’s ban on affiliations between investment and commercial banks; ending the privatization of natural resources; ending charter schools; “reparations” for “food apartheid”; more universal-y universal health care; a “progressive restructuring of the tax code”; “radical and sustainable redistribution of wealth”; net neutrality; banning super PACs; public financing of elections; blocking the Trans Pacific Partnership; and, who could forget, “divestment from industrial multinational use of fossil fuels and investment in community-based sustainable energy solutions.”
Out of well over a hundred demands, only a handful are related to policing — including one demanding a ban (!) on police body cameras.
If you ever worry about your movement drifting off message, this is the apotheosis of that problem.
Demand Everything, Get Nothing
There are a number of demands about other aspects of criminal justice, but even where they are laudable, they are often unrealistic (abolishing all juvenile detention centers), counterproductive (abolishing money bail), marginal (ending the “privatization of police, prisons, jails, probation, parole, food, phone” and “all other criminal justice related services”), tangential (abolishing the death penalty), or just strange (a new constitutional amendment that guarantees “freedom from unwarranted search, seizure or arrest”).
Some demands were important, on message, and somewhat feasible. They call for decriminalizing drugs and prostitution, expunging drug and prostitution records, demilitarizing police, and establishing civilian oversight agencies for police.
But the trouble is that these urgent and critical reforms are buried under an avalanche of irrelevant policies, vague platitudes, and demands for free stuff — lots of free stuff: free daycare, free Internet, free health care, free elder care, free “high quality food,” a guaranteed minimum income, free college, ad infinitum.
For the most part, the demands read like recycled Bernie Sanders campaign literature — a hodgepodge of left-wing gripes about everything from climate change and Uber to banking and trade policy.
“Freedom Fighters and Political Prisoners”
The platform also calls for the release of “political prisoners” and the removal of “legitimate freedom fighters” from the FBI’s list of terrorist fugitives. Who are these persecuted heroes? The document refers to several former members of the Black Liberation Army, including:
- Assata Shakur (aka Joanne Chesimard), convicted of murdering a New Jersey state trooper in 1973, who escaped prison in 1979 and fled to Cuba, where she still lives;
- Kamau Sadiki (aka Freddie Hilton), captured in 2001 and sentenced to life in prison for the 1971 ambush murder of an Atlanta police officer;
- Herman Bell and Jalil Muntaqim (aka Anthony Bottom), currently serving life sentences for killing two cops in New York in 1971, who also pled guilty to manslaughter charges in the killing of another cop in San Francisco;
- Jamil Abdullah al-Amin (aka H. Rap Brown), former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and one-time Minister of Justice for the Black Panther Party, currently serving life in prison for the 2000 murder of a Georgia sheriff’s deputy.
The platform doesn’t try to exonerate any of these figures, but simply declares them “freedom fighters,” and further insists that law enforcement “cease all current investigations and cold cases into former activists.”
These demands, perhaps more than anything else in the platform, do Black Lives Matter a grave disservice, especially in the wake of the Dallas sniper attack. Praising cop killers will not alleviate fears that Black Lives Matter supports killing cops.
When in an Emergency, Act Urgently
Contrast the “Movement for Black Lives” demands with the agenda of “Campaign Zero,” another group founded by Black Lives Matter activists to reduce police killings. Last August, they presented a list of ten specific, sensible police reforms. As Radley Balko commented then:
Critics and police organizations have portrayed Black Lives Matter as radical, anti-police, and anti-white. But the policies Campaign Zero is pushing are none of those things. Instead, they’re practical, well-thought out, and in most cases, achievable. Most will also directly benefit everyone — not just black people.
In most cases, the policies Campaign Zero is suggesting are already in place in one or more police departments across the country... It makes it more difficult for police groups to portray those proposals as “anti-cop.” But it also makes it easier to pitch those ideas to policymakers and the public. They’ve already been field-tested. As a set, these policies are more a list of “best practices” than revolutionary reform.
A few of the proposals will be a tougher sell, but even those are far short of world-shaking. There are no calls to disarm the police. No calls to abolish law enforcement agencies. No demands that police unions be prohibited. This isn’t a fervid manifesto. It’s a serious effort to solve a problem.
So what does Campaign Zero want? Here’s their list:
- End Broken-Windows Policing
- Community Oversight
- Limit Use of Force
- Independent Investigations and Prosecutions
- Community Representation
- Body Cams/Film the Police
- End Policing for Profit
- Fair Police Union Contracts
Each of these policies has additional components, of course, and some will be harder to achieve than others. But all of them fit together as a coherent agenda, pointing towards a specific goal: reducing the number of violent police encounters.
By limiting unnecessary stops, ensuring transparency and accountability, and reining in use of force and military tactics, Campaign Zero hopes to improve community-police relations and stop violent encounters before they start. Their reforms are realistic and focused on the most crucial points: union contracts, use-of-force policies, public transparency, police training, independent oversight, and policies that treat citizens like cash registers and incentivize a lot of low-level harassment.
“Its practicality is undoubtedly born of urgency,” Balko writes. “There’s no time for wild-eyed ideology when people are dying.”
And that’s really the issue here: people are dying — over 1,300 last year alone — most “justifiable,” but surely not all necessary. If this is a crisis worth stopping traffic over, it deserves to be treated as an emergency, not as a façade for a refurbished Occupy Wall Street manifesto. It is incumbent on everyone to take it seriously and address it seriously. Campaign Zero does, and if you’re looking to understand what Black Lives Matter is all about, check out their proposals — and leave the Glass-Steagall debate for a different time.