Black Lives Matter is proving that it’s no longer just a social movement fighting for racial justice; it’s a political force to be reckoned with.
In the last week alone, prominent groups from within the movement have been handed the proverbial keys to run entire presidential forums – and not just for the Democratic candidates scrambling to curry favor with activists after stumbling in the past, but also for Republicans eager to land on the right side of criminal justice reform.
And while riding high on the outsized political clout for a social movement that is little more than a year old, leading groups reached a major turning point on Thursday, earning affirmation from President Obama in his strongest terms yet.
“I think everybody understands all lives matter,” Obama said during a panel discussion on criminal justice reform. “I think the reason that the organizers used the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ was not because they were suggesting nobody else’s lives matter. Rather, what they were suggesting was there is a specific problem that’s happening in the African-American community that’s not happening in other communities,” adding, “And that is a legitimate issue that we’ve got to address.”
That distinction – between saying “black lives matter” and “all lives matter” – has become a major source of frustration from within the movement, arguably exposing those who are unable to distinguish problems unique to the black community. That the nation’s first African-American president was able to delve into the nuances of the slogan proved deeply symbolic.
It’s not the first time the president has waded into discussing the complexities of race relations; he has done so several times throughout his presidency while speaking in starkly personal terms. But observers were quick to point out that the event Thursday marked the first time that Obama mentioned the movement by name, even after being critical in the past of the violent unrest that marked the movement’s beginnings.
For DeRay McKesson, an activist who has been singled out as a prominent voice in the movement, it was all the more poignant in that the president’s affirmation of the movement was framed in the need for criminal justice reform.
“President Obama’s unprompted defense of BlackLivesMatter was powerful given the context — he defended the movement to an audience consisting primarily of law enforcement leaders,” McKesson wrote for The Marshall Project, a criminal justice news site that moderated the event.
In the immediate aftermath to the public unrest sparked last summer in Ferguson, Missouri, – where a police officer shot and killed unarmed black teen Michael Brown – observers often questioned the longevity of the movement.
But Michele Jawando, vice president for legal progress at the Center for American Progress, said Black Lives Matter’s staying-power was clear: Obama’s remarks were the culmination of multiple movements that have carried on the legacy of the civil rights era.
“Having a president who speaks with authenticity and such a clear understanding of what the movement for black lives is all about speaks to the importance to what his presidency has meant, particularly for the African-American community,” Jawando said.
And not only is the movement having an impact on the political world now, she continued, it’s already having a major impact in determining who will become the next president.
“Without question, I don’t think you would have seen Bernie Sanders introduce a racial justice platform without this kind of accountability.”