Opinion: After the Garner Case, Black Lives Matter Must Look to the Ballot Box

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Black Lives Matter Sign

Johnny Silvercloud

On August 19th, justice came for Eric Garner; the unarmed black man who died by a banned chokehold during an encounter with NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014. After five years of investigations and delays, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill made the fateful decision and fired Pantaleo, a long-awaited outcome for the black community and one goal of the Black Lives Matter movement, whose rise was fueled by Garner’s very public death.

Now that a measure of justice has been served in the Garner case, what is next for the group?

BLM, a community-based social-justice movement, initially focused on police brutality towards Black men. However, it evolved to include Brown and LGBTQ+ lives, and to focus on issues like immigration, transgender rights and mass incarceration. Immigration especially has become a hot button issue since the election of Donald Trump. Mass incarceration was a driver of damage to minority communities in the country long before Trump’s election: Blacks and Latinos make up 32 percent of the U.S population, yet 56 percent of the incarcerated community.

While BLM has done an amazing job at highlighting the grievances Blacks have against law enforcement and the disproportionate rate of incarceration of people of color, they need to elevate their game. BLM should continue its inclusive approach to social justice activism but its members also need to get out of the streets and into elected office.

BLM and its allies have been successful at getting certain legislation passed, such as laws requiring police officers to wear cameras to record encounters with suspects, but that’s not enough.

Black Lives Matter should adopt a Tea Party approach to social justice. The Tea Party movement, which came about after the Great Recession of 2008, was a rebuke to the status quo. The group organized around issues relating to taxes, national debt, and the Recovery Act of 2009, which was enacted by Congress and signed into law by then President Obama to prevent the 2008 recession from becoming a depression.

The Tea Party was not successful in preventing the passing of the Recovery Act but were triumphant where it mattered most: getting into public office. At its height in 2011, the Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives had 60 members and catapulted the Republican Party to control the body. This is the playbook that Black Lives Matter movement needs to follow.

I’m not in any way diminishing their current activism around the issues. But the group does profess, “imagining and creating a world free of anti-Blackness, where every Black person has the social, economic, and political power to thrive.” Yet they have 40 chapters in states where black representation in public office is lackluster, to say the least. Their agenda can’t be accomplished without having fair representation of Blacks in all levels of government.

During its six years of existence, the group has not produced one Black Lives Matter candidate, unlike the fringe Tea Party, which did so in two years. National Democrats speak of social reforms for Blacks but none of the 20 candidates (including the two black contenders, Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris) running for president have fully embraced BLM nor its mission and purpose. Broaching the subject is not equivalent to taking on the cause. Interestingly, a recent Quinnipiac Poll shows 53 percent of African-Americans primary voters say they support Joe Biden. Yet, Biden has not put forward a plan that addresses some of the key injustices in Black communities.

History has shown that fringe groups rarely survive if not absorbed by the mainstream. The Black Panthers, the Communist party, the 1960s counterculture—all these movement had a message and were seeking change in the system. They have all faltered. If Black Lives Matter doesn’t want to become a movement of the past, they need to begin providing representation where real change can happen: elected office.

Martyne Aimé is a lecturer at the Metropolitan College of New York and an independent researcher.

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