The radical roots of BLM

Mike Gonzalez wants you to understand an important point: The Black Lives Matter movement is not a grift. It’s actually much worse than that.

BLM: The Making of a New Marxist Revolution, by Mike Gonzalez. Encounter, 264 pp., $28.99.

A grift would be more in keeping with the times. Left, right, and center, political con men are eager to take people’s outrage and turn it into profit — including some in the BLM orbit. The critical race industry is making Robin DiAngelo and Ibram Kendi rich. But at the heart of BLM is an ideology that is far more concerned with power than with money.

Gonzalez’s new book, BLM: The Making of a New Marxist Revolution , is in an explanation of that ideology, from BLM’s predecessors to its humble beginnings to its apotheosis on the streets in 2020. To speak of “Marxist revolution” in 2021 is to invite questioning looks and accusations of paranoia. But by their own admission, the leaders of BLM are “trained Marxists,” as co-founder Patrisse Cullors put it in 2015. Despite recent efforts to hide the movement’s ideological origin, Gonzalez makes it plain that BLM is a far more revolutionary group than it wants its casual supporters to believe.

Defining terms is important here. Unlike “Defund the Police,” a slogan that proved disastrously unpopular, “Black Lives Matter” is a phrase with which it is hard to find fault. This is all the more surprising because it arose somewhat organically: BLM co-founder Alicia Garza wrote “black lives matter” in a Facebook post after the death of Trayvon Martin in 2013. Cullors added the hashtag, and a slogan was born. Opal Tometi, the third of the co-founders, built the website and took the message to a broader audience.

This is a nice, homespun creation story, but behind the slogan are lifetimes of “trained Marxism.” As Gonzalez explains, Garza, Cullors, and Tometi all came up through avowedly Marxist organizations, embracing a radical offshoot of black liberation that had long been rejected by the American mainstream. Indeed, Garza has publicly noted the connection between Black Lives Matter and the identically initialed Black Liberation Movement, a 1970s militant group whose armed wing committed murders and robberies in the name of its cause.

Gonzalez draws particular attention to the direct connection between Garza, Cullors, and Tometi and the previous generation of radicals, most notably Angela Davis and Assata Shakur. And just as Davis and Shakur chose violence and division over unity and equality, their intellectual descendants continue to push an agenda far more divisive than their slogan suggests. Last summer, in response to civil rights icon John Lewis’s exhortation that “rioting, looting, and burning is not the way,” Garza asked reporter David Remnick: “Why are we having this conversation about protest and property when a man’s life was extinguished before our eyes?”

The disagreement between Garza and Lewis is the latest version of an old question: Is the advancement of human rights, and of the rights of black Americans in particular, better served within the United States’s liberal democratic system or outside of it? Lewis, like Martin Luther King Jr., believed the problem was not with liberalism, democracy, or America itself, but with our collective failure to apply our high ideals to our black fellow citizens.

This position is out of fashion today, but it won the argument then, and the results are to be seen everywhere in the growth of racial equality in every facet of life. The promise of American liberal democracy, delivered honestly and fairly to all, has lifted millions out of oppression and poverty. Our country remains imperfect, but such progress as we have achieved, we have achieved through the application and reinforcement of our founding ideals.

As Gonzalez explains, however, radicals such as Davis and Shakur saw the system itself as irretrievably flawed. Influenced by the Frankfurt School scholars who sought to explain Marxism’s failure to achieve its goals and reshape it for the 20th century, these radicals were steeped in the critical race theory that is only now attracting widespread attention. That repackaged Marxism eschewed the nonviolence that was even then winning the day.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the radicals lost the argument, but the BLM leadership is winning it today. In many ways, this is a strange development. Racism and poverty still exist, of course, but they are much less endemic than they were 50 years ago. In every measurable way, this nation has vastly improved from the days of Jim Crow.

Why then the turn to radicalism? Partly, it’s because the messaging has gotten better: “Black Lives Matter” is much more appealing than “Black Power.” But there must be more to it than marketing. The radicals’ words are gentle, but the destruction they wrought on America’s cities last year was not.

The answer may lie in the changing nature of communication itself. We talk to each other differently than we did 50 years ago. In-person conversations encourage moderation, while online yelling rewards extremism. This dynamic was only amplified last year, when coronavirus lockdowns left us with fewer outlets for normal activity and more time to be mad online.

In Martin Gurri’s 2014 book The Revolt of the Public , we find another part of the answer. Protests used to be organized. The people behind them had tangible goals and plans that required a level of moderation, both in the sense of a moderate who avoids ideological extremism and in the sense of a moderator who presides over a collective enterprise.

Since the rise of internet communications shattered political and media oligopolies, there is no one in a position to moderate political discourse. Radicals and moderates are on equal footing in an unmoderated field of words. Although, as Gonzalez details, BLM leaders have purged their web publications of their former references to extremist ideas, their movement grew even when these details were out there for all to see. People were drawn to the movement’s energy and to the vague sense that by supporting it, they were doing the right thing. They ignored the destructive message at its heart.

But BLM is no passing fad or simple political grift. Whatever good intentions the movement’s casual supporters hold, its leaders have a far more malignant purpose. As Gonzalez puts it, “While only the deranged can take issue with the sentiment that black lives matter, the agenda of the organizations that have astutely appropriated that slogan is far different.”

Gonzalez calls for an equally fervid movement to oppose BLM and stand up for liberty. Who will lead such a movement remains to be seen, but whoever it is must learn the lessons of BLM and adapt the old virtues of America to the new chaos of a world without moderators and, increasingly, without moderates. This book is a good place to start.

Kyle Sammin is the senior editor of Philadelphia Weekly and the co-host of the Conservative Minds  podcast . Follow him on Twitter at @KyleSammin .

Kyle Sammin 2021-10-02 10:43:12

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