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Cultural shifts in protest groups

Protest and counterculture in America have evolved over time. From the era of civil rights to Black Lives Matter, gatherings of initially small groups growing to become powerful voices of revolution have changed the way we define contemporary cultural movements. In this excerpt from Assembly, authors Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri examine how some minority protest groups have adapted over time to be more inclusive in their organizational models without having a sole defined leader.

Those who lament the decline of leadership structures today often point, especially in the US context, to the history of black politics as counterexample. The successes of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s are credited to the wisdom and effectiveness of its leaders: most often a group of black, male preachers with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and with Martin Luther King Jr. at the head of the list. The same is true for the Black Power movement, with references to Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), and others. But there is also a minor line in African American politics, most clearly developed in black feminist discourses, that runs counter to the traditional glorification of leaders. The “default deployment of charismatic leadership,” Erica Edwards writes, “as a political wish (that is, the lament that ‘we have no leaders’) and as narrative-explanatory mechanism (that is, the telling of the story of black politics as the story of black leadership) is as politically dangerous . . . as it is historically inaccurate.” She analyzes three primary modes of “violence of charismatic leadership”: its falsification of the past (silencing or eclipsing the effectiveness of other historical actors); its distortion of the movements themselves (creating authority structures that make democracy impossible); and its heteronormative masculinity, that is, the regulative ideal of gender and sexuality implicit in charismatic leadership. “The most damaging impact of the sanitized and oversimplified version of the civil rights story,” argues Marcia Chatelain, “is that it has convinced many people that single, charismatic male leaders are a prerequisite for social movements. This is simply untrue.” Once we look beyond the dominant histories we can see that forms of democratic participation have been proposed and tested throughout the modern movements of liberation, including in black America, and have today become the norm.

“Black Lives Matter” by 5chw4r7z. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Black Lives Matter (BLM), the coalition of powerful protest movements that has exploded across the United States since 2014 in response to repeated police violence, is a clear manifestation of how developed the immune system of the movements against leadership has become. BLM is often criticized for its failure to emulate the leadership structures and discipline of traditional black political institutions, but, as Frederick C. Harris explains, activists have made a conscious and cogent decision: “They are rejecting the charismatic leadership model that has dominated black politics for the past half century, and for good reason.”  The centralized leadership preached by previous generations, they believe, is not only undemocratic but also ineffective. There are thus no charismatic leaders of BLM protests and no one who speaks for the movement. Instead a wide network of relatively anonymous facilitators, like DeRay Mckesson and Patrisse Cullors, make connections in the streets and on social media, and sometimes “choreograph” (to use Paolo Gerbaudo’s term) collective action. There are, of course, differences within the network. Some activists reject not only orderly centralized leadership but also explicit policy goals and the practices of “black respectability,” as Juliet Hooker says, opting instead for expressions of defiance and outrage. Others strive to combine horizontal organizational structures with policy demands, illustrated, for example, by the 2016 platform of the Movement for Black Lives. Activists in and around BLM, in other words, are testing new ways to combine democratic organization with political effectiveness.

The critique of traditional leadership structures among BLM activists overlaps strongly with their rejection of gender and sexuality hierarchies. The dominant organizational models of the past, Alicia Garza claims, keep “straight [cisgender] Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans, and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all.” In BLM, in contrast, women are recognized, especially by activists, to play central organizational roles. (The creation of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter by three women—Garza, Cullors, and Opal Tometi—is often cited as indicative.) The traditional assumptions regarding gender and sexuality qualifications for leadership, then, tend to obscure the forms of organization developed in the movement. “It isn’t a coincidence,” Marcia Chatelain maintains, “that a movement that brings together the talents of black women—many of them queer— for the purpose of liberation is considered leaderless, since black women have so often been rendered invisible.” The BLM movement is a field of experimentation of new organizational forms that gathers together (sometimes subterranean) democratic tendencies from the past. And like many contemporary movements it presents not so much a new organizational model as a symptom of a historical shift.

Featured Image: “It’s A Revolution” by Alan Levine. Public Domain via Flickr

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