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The Fight For The Soul Of The Black Lives Matter Movement
April 7, 2015
by Aaron Miguel Cantú and Raven Rakia
At a march in mid-December organized by Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in Washington D.C., organizers rushed the stage and claimed that the old guard was attempting to hijack the nascent Black Lives Matter movement away from its founders.
It was one of the most visible examples of the clash between the old, signified by Sharpton, and the new, represented by grassroots groups who emerged from Ferguson and New York after the Michael Brown and Eric Garner grand jury decisions.
Sharpton has been extremely sensitive to this criticism. “Oh, you young and hip, you’re full of fire. You’re the new face,” he sneered at a recent gathering at the headquarters of NAN in Harlem. “All that the stuff that they know will titillate your ears. That’s what a pimp says to a ho.”
At an MLK Day march in Harlem, the division between the old and the new was quieter but no less pronounced.
On Luxembourg Street, three cops stood behind a barricade, just a few feet away from a thousand protesters. One of the two female officers, brown skinned with accentuated eyebrows, plucked lint from the uniform of her stocky, white male colleague; they all laughed.
Meanwhile, a dozen or so protesters began to veer from a universal chant—one about justice being lost until it is found—to a more abrasive one: “How do you spell racist? N-Y-P-D.” It’s the same kind of chant Mayor Bill de Blasio called “hateful” and an “attempt to divide this city in a time when we need to come together” a week after two detectives were fatally shot in their squad car in Brooklyn. Immediately the three officers stiffened their backs and softened their smiles.
Seeing the group of well-groomed activists and politicians stroll by, the three officers relaxed and dropped their hands from their waists. The police seemed to know that for all the demonstrators’ bluster, it was going to be an uneventful day.
The Justice League had convened the MLK demonstration, a shift in a strategy that has prioritized closed door meetings with police officials and politicians—including Governor Cuomo—over action in the streets and grassroots organizing. It’s the sort of insider-activist strategy that Sharpton has mastered.
While Sharpton’s influence has grown within the establishment, his tactics have become less palatable among young people. That’s what makes the Justice League a new sort of political animal: It has all of Sharpton’s trademarks—compromise politics, access to power and media, rebel aesthetics, calculated outrage campaigns—but doesn’t feature the MSNBC talk show host himself. This approach has allowed Justice League to confidently assume the reigns of New York’s anti-police brutality movement in recent months.
But some grassroots activists who began organizing out of anger towards the grand jury decisions, as well as the fatal police shooting of Akai Gurley, many of them working class and politically unconnected, fear that the establishment-friendly reformism championed by the Justice League threatens to water down the struggle against state violence. They worry that the group’s ties to city government and wealthy celebrities make it nearly indistinguishable from the power it’s trying to change. The result has been a quiet struggle for the future of the Black Lives Matter movement in New York City.
(Scott Lynch / Gothamist)
“The way [the Justice League is] moving, it’s like it would appear to outside forces that they are the face of the movement, and it’s so not true,” said Ty Black, a 26-year-old activist and artist.
After the killing of the unarmed Gurley by an NYPD officer in a stairwell of East New York’s Pink Houses, Black and a small group of young activists from East New York and Crown Heights, along with Gurley’s aunt, came together to form Justice for Akai Gurley. The group has organized multiple protests at the Pink Houses, marching through different public housing complexes in East New York before stopping at the 75th Precinct.
According to Black, the group aims to build community power and reclaim control of their own streets, while also “eliminating police presence in our neighborhood through things like copwatch,” the tactic of vigilantly documenting routine police interactions with civilians. In February, copwatch footage exonerated Jonathan Danza, a Sunset Park street vendor who was accused to assaulting the police; video showed that in fact it was Daza who had been violently assaulted by his arresting officers.
“Police are the paramilitary arm of New York City development,” says Asere Bello, another member of JFAG. He pointed to the broken elevator in Gurley’s NYCHA building and the burnt-out light in the stairwell where he was fatally shot as a part of the disenfranchisement that played a role in his death.
JFAG plans to ask NYCHA residents about the repairs needed in their buildings and recruit handymen to fix them. After surveying residents in East New York who expressed a need for ways to deal with interpersonal violence—the police receive more than 700 domestic violence calls each day—JFAG’s second march was led by women, and focused on the connections of state and gender violence.
The point, representatives of the group say, is to reclaim their own power and reduce dependence on state institutions, and show the connections between Broken Windows policing, displacement, gentrification, and police brutality.
“For us it’s a matter of getting the skills to navigate our own relationships or our own conflicts…in a way that lessens the dependency and completely eliminates the dependency on the state to resolve our conflicts,” Bello said.
Ty Black (courtesy Kelly Stuart)
Like Justice for Akai Gurley, nearly a dozen grassroots groups in the Bronx are organizing against police brutality as well as interrelated social problems like gentrification, and the school-to-prison pipeline. At a protest in December, Ephraim Cruz, a former agent with the Department of Homeland Security who now leads the group Bronxites for NYPD Accountability, said the NYPD were committing “operational terrorism,” not only through overt violence against people of color but by enforcing a system that inflicts trauma on the poor every day.
“We are at the very tip of the brunt of officer abuse impact,” he said. “We’re being pushed off streets because cops tell us to clear the corners, they tell us that we can’t interact in public. And we’re being pushed out by gentrification, we’re being pushed out of public schools by charter schools. We’re here to say the jig is up.”
At a different gathering, which was formally closed to press, a member of the group Take Back the Bronx discussed their group’s efforts to establish “no cop zones,” or places where community members actively but nonviolently repel police presence block-by-block. “We explore alternatives to policing,” the representative said, adding that non-profits tied to formal funding sources attempt to “pacify us and channel the anger.”
Regarding Justice League NYC, Black and Bello did not see the League as being as prominent as Sharpton’s NAN, but acknowledged celebrity culture and representative politics as things to be wary of.
“Ella Baker said it best: ‘Strong people do not need strong leaders,'” Bello noted.
With respect to Al Sharpton and NAN, Black said, “I have different views on how the movement should go. Anybody or any organization that’s embracing the National Action Network, I feel it’s important for the grassroots to stay away from that.”
Founded in early 2014 by Carmen Perez, a former parole officer, the Justice League is considered an initiative of the non-profit Gathering for Justice. Many members of the Justice League, including Tamika Mallory, former executive director of Sharpton’s NAN, and Michael Skolnik, political advisor to hip hop mogul Russell Simmons, also work within the city’s nonprofit sector, which has maintained the legacy of reformism championed by middle and upper class Blacks since the NAACP was founded in New York City a century ago.Their approach generally embraces a neoliberal concept of opportunity—a world where everybody can have an equal shot at economic success—while keeping the overall economic structure more or less intact.
In the middle of the last century, an increasingly radical campaign for racial justice taking aim at international capitalism also gained prominence. This approach seeks to undermine economic exploitation by encouraging self-sufficient communities independent from the mainstream economy. In practice, it looks like the Black Panthers’ numerous community initiatives, and the sort of organizing JFAG is pursuing in East New York.
The last serious challenge to reformism arose during the 1960s and 70s, when Black working class activists affiliated with the Black Power movement, led by the Black Panthers, tussled with more moderate and affluent Blacks who aligned with groups like the NAACP. At one point, in 1967, two members of a cell called the Revolutionary Action Movement were charged with conspiracy to murder civil rights leaders working for the NAACP and another moderate group. But the fight for influence rarely got that violent, and after a while it wasn’t even much of a contest.
In the 1980s, after the Panthers and similar liberation groups mostly withered away (thanks in part to coordinated infiltration by the police and FBI) the nonprofit sector grew in size and influence due to Reagan-era budget cuts to social services. Because they rely on a mix of private funding and government contracts, nonprofits generally have to maintain cordial relationships with powerful members of the public and private spheres. That closeness can be seen in how Bill de Blasio was able to transition from his job at a nonprofit focused on improving health care in Central America to low-level aid in City Hall, the move that jump-started his political career.
In The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, Naomi Murakawa argues that liberal reforms, Democratic politicians, and the NAACP are partially to blame for today’s policing practices. She argues that “liberal law and order” laid the foundation for mass incarceration in the 21st century.
Some who are critical of the Justice League see the group as part of this pattern.
“I see this movement being empowered off the idea of ‘better police,’ ‘better laws,'” says Timothy DuWhite, a Black Lives Matter activist. “I see the overwhelming assertion for officer indictment as a direct reflection of our society’s dependence on the prison industrial complex.”
“The names we hear being chanted and lifted up in the streets are not black trans-women, are not cis black women, and are not queer identified men, these are just not the stories being told,” DuWhite said.
“We must push the movement forward past the simplicity of physical harm and murder committed by the police, and begin to talk about how poverty is a form of state-sanctioned violence. How reduced access to health care is a form of state-sanctioned violence. How reduced access to proper education is a form of state-sanctioned violence.”
After leaderless masses of protesters poured into the streets to block traffic on highways and bridges in the aftermath of the Garner and Brown grand jury decisions, the Justice League NYC began organizing actions, giving order to the spontaneity that had captured the world’s attention. The group’s first major event was a die-in and rally outside of Barclays Center during a Nets basketball game, and it continued holding similar actions in major shopping centers, as well as press conferences with councilmembers and celebrities like Nas and Russell Simmons, hours after Simmons and Jay Z met with Governor Cuomo.
Soon Justice League moved to the front of the protest line. The mix of celebrity and media exposure compounded the number of people at their events, reinforcing their growing influence in the movement.
After organizing a few events, the Justice League issued a set of 10 demands in early December. They ranged from calling for meetings with Mayor de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, to passing a law prohibiting chokeholds and a transparency-enforcing Right To Know Act.
Mallory, the executive director at NAN for four of her 14 years there before stepping down in late 2013, describes Justice League, along with its parent non-profit, Gathering for Justice, as “exist[ing] on the same principals of National Action Network.”
“There are many people in the Justice League who have connections to City Hall. I’m one of them,” Mallory told Gothamist. Harry Belafonte, who sits on the Justice League’s board, spoke at de Blasio’s inauguration, and the mayor selected Mallory to join his transition committee.
“There are perhaps maybe some folks who don’t necessarily feel that that is the right strategy,” Mallory said of working with the government. “But the bottom line is that we can protest, which we do all day, but if we don’t move legislation and actual rules and regulations, then we’ve accomplished nothing.”
The Trayvon Martin Organizing Committee led a march into Bed-Stuy in late November (Jessica Lehrman / Gothamist)
One long-time New York City activist who works at a non-profit in the city and asked to remain anonymous because they feared reprisal within the community, sees serious flaws in this strategy.
“We’re concerned that the group’s liberal politics and their ties to the mayor’s office, and for instance, someone like Linda Sarsour, with political aspirations, will prioritize being conciliatory at a time when liberal gatekeepers must be challenged and held accountable,” the activist said. “Despite their rhetoric, their actions are already interpreted as watering down progressive and human rights work in the city.”
“It’s very disingenuous to say, ‘Oh the Justice League just showed up yesterday,'” Sarsour told Gothamist. “They’re making it sound like people just woke up one morning, never set foot in the movement, don’t know anyone in the movement, and all of the sudden now we’re doing work. We’ve been in the movement, we just didn’t have a name! Now we have a name.”
Sarsour pointed to the Justice League’s affiliations with the NYC Revolution Club and the Zulu Nation as proof of the group’s willingness to work with more radical elements. She also defended their use of star power.
“The way you raise the profile of an issue, is by making the issue cool and relevant in pop culture. And if people are seeing it on Twitter, if they’re seeing Russell Simmons tweeting about police brutality, and getting people involved, at the end of the day young people are going to come out for that,” Sarsour said.
“I wish that more of the celebrities, who are multi-millionaires, probably, are able to say to themselves: Wow, my communities are under attack, and I need to give back to my community. And when they come to us, and they want to be a part of something, we absolutely include them. We wish more people would come and be part of the movement.”
Mallory stressed that her group’s political connections wouldn’t compromise their willingness to challenge the status quo: “I know that the leadership of Justice League and the leadership of the Gathering for Justice are certainly of the mind set [that] we must work—not only work with City Hall, but challenge City Hall when need be about what they are or are not doing.”
Sarsour asserts that lawmakers “wouldn’t give us the time of day if they didn’t see the influence we had in our communities.”
“This is civic organizing that I’ve been doing for the past fourteen years of my life. Building civic participation of immigrant communities across the city, getting people to the polls. People watch that. Elected officials know that that’s important, and there’s some people that won’t win elections without communities of color at the polls.”
(Scott Lynch / Gothamist)
After two NYPD Legal Affairs Bureau officers were assaulted on the Brooklyn Bridge in December after a large demonstration, Mayor de Blasio met with members of the Justice League, who, the mayor said, agreed to identify anybody who “seeks to harm the police or harm anyone and undermine their non-violent peaceful progressive movement.” The mayor seemed to be positioning the Justice League as a wedge between him and more radical elements of the movement.
The Justice League issued a press release right after the meeting that did not address this assertion. Still, some members of the group began to vehemently deny the mayor’s claim on Twitter. Sarsour blamed the “corporate media,” not de Blasio, for trying to discredit and spread division between protesters. The next day, the group tweeted a statement saying they would not work with the NYPD to identify protesters.
Some have questioned why the Justice League didn’t specifically denounce the mayor after he alluded to their possible work as informants.
“If the mayor is the one that’s lying…Why don’t they call the mayor out?” said Dennis Flores, an activist with El Grito de Sunset Park. “If they don’t, it shows that they’re really trying to protect their relationship with the mayor as opposed to calling him out on lying.”
Asked to speak to this controversy, Carmen Perez told Gothamist, “We did not, and do not, get distracted from the important work we are doing, by sensationalized media reporting.”
Linda Sarsour added, “Just because we get a meeting with the mayor—excuse us! Excuse me that I got a meeting with the mayor. I apologize. I’ve built those connections. I didn’t wake up one morning and become some important person.”
After two detectives in Brooklyn were killed on December 20 by a lone gunman from Baltimore, the Justice League adopted a more conciliatory and solemn tone, holding a vigil in Harlem the day after the shootings.
In the following weeks, activists in Take Back the Bronx and related groups—including the Trayvon Martin Organizing Committee, which was vilified in the press for its chants about “dead cops”—say they were the targets of coordinated police raids.
A liaison for the protesters, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation by the NYPD, told Gothamist that one activist’s relative was “roughed up” after more than a dozen police officers entered his home. Another activist said police threatened them with deportation. At least one videographer has been subpoenaed.
With the streets largely empty today, and an uneasy peace between City Hall and the police—who turned their backs to the mayor and stopped enforcing petty crimes after the assassination of the two detectives—the mayor says his biggest regret through the whole affair was “not moving quickly enough to repudiate the harsh rhetoric of protesters.”
The Justice League has continued their dialogue with high-level public officials, including a meeting with Governor Cuomo on January 20 and a closed door meeting with NYPD Police Chief James O’Neill at NAN’s headquarters on February 11.
“We are encouraged that the Governor has publicly stated his commitment to advance criminal justice reform legislation addressing urgent concerns that have been rightfully raised by communities across the country impacted by our biased justice system,” Carmen Perez said in a statement after meeting with Cuomo.
The governor later tabled the juvenile justice reforms he initially championed in order to pass an on-time budget.
“One conclusion I have made out of this whole thing is that the only person and group that seems to have emerged from this situation in better than they were before is William Bratton,” says Harry Levine, a sociologist at CUNY Queens who has written extensively on the NYPD’s racially-biased marijuana arrests. “He’s a smart cookie.”
When the rift between the mayor and the police unions was deepest, de Blasio leaned heavily on Commissioner Bratton to shore up his waning support within the NYPD. And he was careful to condemn the rank-and-file for showing their backsides to the mayor without meting out any real consequences for their insolence, keeping him mostly in the favor of officers.
Bratton has also held the tacit approval of the Justice League. Perez told the New York Review of Books that she “looked favorably upon some of Bratton’s statements about improving community relations.” And although there is no indication that Justice League has personally met with the commissioner, Chief O’Neil is the second highest ranking official within the NYPD, and has been a close ally of Bratton’s since the early 1990s.
So intact is the commissioner’s political standing despite weeks of demonstrations, he casually announced that the NYPD had a new machine gun-toting unit to deal “with events like our recent protests” (the NYPD clarified that protests would be handled by officers without automatic weapons). More recently, Bratton visited lawmakers in Albany to request a bill that would make resisting arrest a felony, an alarming proposal, considering that 72 percent of all resisting arrest charges are brought by 15 percent of all uniformed officers.
Like other groups, Justice League supports an end to Broken Windows policing, the strategy of cracking down on minor offenses that many say contributed to Eric Garner’s death. Tamika Mallory, the Justice League boardmember, told Gothamist that she personally opposes Bratton, the staunchest defender of Broken Windows.
“Being in the position that he’s in, as the top cop in New York City, tells us that [Bratton] is not the right choice for police commissioner. The mayor ought to reconsider having Commissioner Bratton in position.” Still, the recommendation to remove Bratton as NYPD commissioner didn’t make it on to the group’s 10 demands in December.
Asked about the group’s stance on Bratton, Perez said Justice League is “not interested in human resources,” but added, “Broken Windows is just stop and frisk with another name.”
To Nicholas Heyward, who has organized against NYPD violence over the last 20 years since his 13-year-old son was shot and killed by a police officer in 1994, the man is inseparable from the theory, a sentiment shared widely by activists and protesters. “I think Bratton’s a racist, and his Broken Windows theory targets minority people,” he told Gothamist. “Bratton has to go.”
Josmar Trujillo of New Yorkers Against Bratton began protesting the commissioner before he was even appointed. When Bratton showed up at a City Council hearing last month to ask for 1,000 more officers, Trujillo’s group shouted down the testimony; one woman was arrested, and the chambers were cleared.
“We learned a lot in the last year about the non-profit industrial complex in this fight with Bratton and de Blasio,” Trujillo says. “Ferguson…showed they didn’t need the celebrities or academics to fuel a movement. Somehow, though, that message hasn’t gotten through here in New York just yet. What can the Russell Simmons of the world, all buddy-buddy with the Democrats selling us out, provide other than another token seat at the table?”
Trujillo added, “If people are serious about liberation then tables of power need to be flipped this time around.”
(Jessica Lehrman / Gothamist)
On April 13, Justice League plans to march 250 miles from New York to Washington D.C., with stops in Newark, Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore.
Their stated goal is to urge Congress to act on legislation regarding racial profiling and police demilitarization.
“I’m not going to show up to Washington, D.C. and mobilize thousands of people to meet us there after marching 250 miles and then just scream on the lawn and talk about our pain,” Linda Sarsour says. “We know what the problem is. We need to make sure that the people in power, who have the influence and the authority to change the things we want to be changed, they need to know what’s coming.”
Sarsour said that for politicians, the choice is simple: “You’re either going to welcome us, and welcome our movement, or you’re going to become the opposition.”
If the Justice League is operating by representative politics, some people haven’t asked to be represented. Zora, 23, performs anti-repression organizing with Can’t Touch This NYC. She accused the group of “shucking and jiving for these politicians.”
None of the smaller organizations interviewed for this article have plans to participate in the march, nor does Zora.
“They’re trying to establish themselves as leaders for a movement when the movement doesn’t need leaders.”
[Raven Rakia is a journalist & writer. She has bylines in The Nation,, Truth-Out, VICE/VICE News, Dazed Digital, and more. Aaron Miguel Cantú is an investigative journalist and researcher in Brooklyn.]