By: Atlantic Monthly Magazine
Political conventions have always attracted political protests, and the history of Black organizers protesting at major party conventions stretches back decades. Mass protests led by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, then-Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader and current Representative John Lewis, and activist Fannie Lou Hamer at the 1964 Democratic Convention helped bring the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into existence and hasten the exit of white conservatives from the Democratic Party.
The 1968 Democratic Convention was upended by mass protests and riots from a collection of counterculture and civil rights groups, including anti-war demonstrators, black nationalists, and the nonviolent remnants of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. The surveillance, protests, and a political plot at this convention captured the fraught racial climate of the United States in the wake of King’s death and the ensuing riots.
With the 2016 Democratic and Republican conventions approaching, America’s mood is perhaps not quite as tense as it was after the anti-black violence of the 1964 Freedom Summer or the fear and destruction of the 1968 King riots. But it is still characterized in part by anger from black activists. Donald Trump’s campaign has fomented protests from black organizers across the country, and his racist posturing has led to renewed calls for protests against the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Black Lives Matter, a movement that dominated headlines last year in protests against police violence, has always been political, but the conventions provide much more direct avenue to electoral politics. Black activism could be a major force in shaping or disrupting the agendas of both parties.
Will the Democrats’ gathering in Philadelphia look anything like its 1964 or 1968 predecessors? Prominent activist and member of Campaign ZERO DeRay Mckesson stated that he expects organizing in Philadelphia to reflect young black disillusionment over Clinton’s candidacy and the Democratic platform, as well as the precedent set by a recent sit-in in Congress led by Lewis. Philadelphia activists affiliated with Black Lives Matter have confirmed their intent. Erica Mines of the Philadelphia Coalition for REAL Justice—known for challenging Bill Clinton about his crime bill at a rally in April—says her group and other black activists in the area will have a presence at the convention in late July. “We definitely plan on having a protest,” Mines told me.
The issues this time around aren’t solely the criminal-justice demands that Black Lives Matter and associated organizations like the Coalition for REAL Justice have made in the past. Mines told me she and fellow protesters are following Philadelphia’s strong tradition of activism and movements like Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign, which his successor Ralph David Abernathy led at the 1968 convention after King’s assassination. They are pressing some very Philadelphia-specific issues, in keeping with the decentralized and local nature of many black protest movements.
According to Mines, the most important issues are “economic development, housing, poverty, jobs, and the lack of funding in Philadelphia.” One policy specific to Philadelphia was a new regressive sugar tax passed by the city council that can add as much as a dollar charge to packs of soda. “We have this new sugar tax that’s not a good tax at all,” Mines said. It “falls on the backs of the poor and disenfranchised communities.” Philadelphia activists have also forged an identity that echoes the city’s history of radical black activism. A 1985* incident in which police helicopters dropped bombs on black activists in the radical MOVE organization shapes how groups there operate. “We are in direct relationship and solidarity with the MOVE Family,” Mines told me. That means protesting at the convention to free MOVE activists such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of murder in 1981 but who many black activists view as a political prisoner.
The plans in Philadelphia echo a familiar history of black protests at the Democratic conventions. But will that same spirit of protest also spur Black activists at the Republican Convention in Cleveland? The people planning it certainly think so. Planners in Cleveland have used much of the $50 million event grant from Congress on surveillance of black protesters and have purchased a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) for use in crowd control. The original anti-protest rules for the Cleveland convention were so strict that liberal and conservative grassroots joined forces to defeat them in court. But Cleveland-area groups affiliated with Black Lives Matter would not go on the record about any specific plans.
Black activism could be a major force in shaping or disrupting the agendas of both parties.
Their reticence to go on record reflects a fear of surveillance among black organizers. After numerous protests in Cleveland in 2015, FBI officials intimated that they were closely surveilling the city’s activists. The Secret Service has also rolled out a muscular intelligence apparatus in Cleveland in advance of the convention. While most of their efforts are dedicated to addressing threats of terrorism, law-enforcement officials are also monitoring the social-media activity of Black Lives Matter activists.
Despite the increased security, black protesters will almost surely show up. Cleveland became a center of black organizing against police brutality after police killed Tamir Rice in 2014. The city has also been the target of a Justice Department probe into police brutality. The first major Black Lives Matter conference was held in Cleveland last year, marred by an incident in which a transit officer pepper-sprayed demonstrators.
Not all black protesters who show up in Cleveland or Philadelphia will be working for the same exact goals. Shanelle Matthews, the director of communications for the Black Lives Matter network, said the organization does not publicize direct action in advance, and the conventions do not have a blanket significance nationally. “Because we’re decentralized and all of the chapters work autonomously, to each of the chapters in their regions [conventions] mean something different,” Matthews said. Some chapters or affiliates that choose to protest might focus on police violence. Others may focus on economic justice. Still others may focus on environmental justice.
This is a critical summer for Black Lives Matter as an organization and a broader movement—as Matthews notes, it is “still in its infancy.” Local activists are seeking to build their advocacy networks and figure out what causes and methods make sense for them. Both conventions will provide opportunities for Black activists to make their mark on electoral politics, if they are so inclined. “I think this is a time for us as black and brown people in this country to really understand what it means to be part of the democratic process,” Mines told me. “It is a pivotal time for us especially for the DNC and Philadelphia historically. Understanding this is the birthplace of democracy and this is a once in a lifetime thing, we have to get our issues addressed.”
While these activists will undoubtedly draw from the legacies of 1964 and 1968, the thoroughly decentralized, intersectional Black Lives Matter movement may well add something new to the history of protests and conventions. After months of being overshadowed by the election, Black protesters will likely make headlines again in July.