Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza, along with Opal Tometi, founded the Black Lives Matter Global Network (BLMGN) in 2013 and 2014. BLMGN was born when Garza posted her outrage over the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin on social media, using the expression “Black lives matter.” Cullors turned Garza’s expression into the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. When the hashtag went viral, it gave them a media platform that became BLMGN, commonly referred to as BLM. All three co-founders are Black. (Source.)
At this writing, there is a renewed effort underway to dismiss the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” One rhetorical strategy has been to point out that Cullors and Garza, two of the three co-founders of BLMGN, are “trained Marxists.” (Source.) The present essay will analyze this strategy’s principal source: a ten-minute, fifty-six-second interview by Jared Ball of the Baltimore-based Real News Network with Cullors, posted to YouTube on July 23, 2015, under the title “A Short History of Black Lives Matter.” (Source below.)
After some introductory framing of the history and motivations of BLGM — including some of the at-that-time-recent controversies over the appropriation of the three co-founder’s vision for BLMGN — Ball’s interview expresses three critical concerns. The first is what to make of alternate expressions, like “All Lives Matter,” “Blue Lives Matter,” “Our Lives Matter,” and others so clearly based upon Garza and Cullors’s original formulation. The second is a concern about the ideological durability of a hashtag-based and online-born social movement. The present analysis will focus on this second concern exclusively. The third is a question of the very meaning of Black and Blackness in this movement.
The crucial context behind all three concerns is the well-known tension within Black activist and abolitionist groups, including many longstanding groups in cities like Baltimore, about the Johnny-come-lately arrival of BLMGN and other related Millenial groups to radical Black politics. Anyone who recalls the real and perceived tensions between Bernie Sanders’s primary campaign and BLMGN will recognize many of the same tensions there. (For examples, see this, this, and this.)
This tension is the interpretive key to what Cullors’s “trained Marxist” remark really means in its full context in the year 2015, the toddler stages of BLMGN. To be absolutely clear: Ball, a sympathetic Black activist interviewer, challenges Cullors to reply to BLMGN’s potential limits, including objections from within Black activist and abolitionist circles. The interview is intergenerational, tense, and critical. If one misses or ignores this crucial aspect, the resulting interpretation will suffer. I repeat: Ball is an agonistic and agnostic interviewer regarding BLMGN, asking Cullors to defend BLMGN from not only external critics but, more forcefully, from internal critiques from older generations of radical Black activists.
This already, yet perhaps prematurely, hints at what is happening in the interview when, as we will see, Cullors says, “we, uh, are trained Marxists.” This much-cited disclosure is not a strong identification. Instead, it is a demand for respect, trust, and credibility from their activist elders while, at the same time, pivoting away from the previous generation’s demand for ideological clarity.
Cullors’s “trained Marxists” remark emerges in reply to what I have called Ball’s second concern about the ideological direction and durability of BLMGN. Ball hedges his critical question by first attributing it to imprisoned Black Liberation Army member, Jalil Abdul Muntaqim, before revealing that he shares some of Muntaqim’s misgivings. (Source.)
Ball, citing Montaqim and unnamed Black critics of BLMGN, expresses the “loving critique” of “a lack of, perhaps, ideological direction in BLM that would allow it be, to fizzle out, as he [Montaqim] said, in comparison to Occupy Wall Street.” Ball continues by suggesting to Cullors that “[a] more clear ideological structure might be of some value here.”
(A quick technical aside: The above quotations and the ones to follow are my transcriptions taken from the above interview. In a spirit of transparency, I have sought to preserve the imperfections of oral speech to match the medium of the interview as exactly as possible.)
Ball’s question is evidence of the interpretive key I noted earlier. Ball’s question is meant to imply that BLMGN is running thin on “ideological direction” and “clear ideological structure” when compared to other recent protest movements like Occupy Wall Street (a movement well-known for being critiqued as lacking direction and clarity). As we will see, Cullors reads between the lines of this question in her forceful response, sensing a generational dismissal of hashtag activism as slacktivism and of Millennial activists as lacking the radical bona fides of their predecessors like the imprisoned radical Montaqim.
At this point, it is essential to read the Cullors’s entire reply in full. I have only added bolded emphasis on the quote in question and some extra notes I will emphasize to follow. Cullors responds to Ball’s critique as follows:
“I think that the criticism is helpful, I think that… I think of a lot of things, the first thing I think is that we actually do have an ideological frame; myself, and Alicia in particular, are trained organizers, we, uh, are trained Marxists, um, we are, uh, super, uh, versed on, sort of, ideological theories and I think that what we really try to do is build a movement that could be utilized by many many Black folk, um, we don’t necessarily want to be the vanguard, um, of this movement I think we’ve tried to put out a political frame that’s about, um, centering who we think are the most vulnerable amongst the Black community to really fight for all of our lives, um, and I do think that we have some clear direction around where we want to take this movement. I don’t believe it’s going to fizzle out; it just gets stronger and we see it. Right? We’ve seen it after Sandra Bland we saw, were seeing it now with the interruption of the Netroots Nation presidential forum, um, what I do think though is that folks, um, especially, um, folks who have been trained in a particular way want to hear, um, certain things from us? That we’re not sort of framing it in the same ways that maybe another generation have, has, but I think it is important that people know that we are, th, th, the Black Lives Matter movement doesn’t just live online, although there’s many people who utilize it online, uh, we’re in a different, uh, set of circumstances, a different generation, social media, uh, may feel like its diluting the the larger ideological frame, but I argue that its not.”
Ball’s response to this is telling. He immediately accepts Cullors’s forceful and detailed reply out of hand but he adds, “I am glad to hear you saying, that, I am happy that there appears to be much more going on than some of us are aware especially those of us who are incarcerated like Jalil Muntaqim.” Notice how he again uses the indisputable bona fides of Muntaqim to reinforce his point without coming across as antagonistic. One again can feel the sympathy and fellow feeling but also the I’ll-take-your-word-for-it sense of caution. To my ears, Ball is willing to go along, for now, but remains somewhat unconvinced. “I am glad to hear,” he says. “I am happy that there appears to be much more going on,” he repeats, citing Muntaquim. This is by no means a full concession on his part; this is a very softly signalled “we’ll see about that,” and perhaps even a passive-aggressive request for receipts and evidence.
In many ways, Ball’s cautious acceptance misses the bulk of Cullors’s statement. While being polite and respectful, Cullors clearly does not find Ball’s question helpful. She is saying, “Look, man: we are trained, we went to college and graduated. We studied like King, Davis, and hooks. We know our stuff. We read Marx and the Marxists.” One can almost see the slight disciplinary interval between Cullors’s humanities curriculum in religion and philosophy and Garza’s in anthropology and sociology in Cullors’s small note of emphasis: “Alicia in particular.” Cullors took her degree in religion and philosophy from UCLA; Garza took her degree in anthropology and sociology from UCSD. Only in the latter is Marx absolutely canonical. They are both trained Marxists but “Alicia in particular.”
Neither Cullors nor Garza went to graduate school like the aforementioned King, Davis, and hooks, which may add a layer of defensiveness as well. Of course, both Cullors and Garza also have experience in activism before BLMGN, which is surely what “trained organizers” refers to. But this, “relax man, we are humanities and liberal arts educated and experienced in the streets,” note of assurance is actually only a preamble to Cullors’s real rejoinder, firmly rejecting the rigid ideological standards and biases against digital activism from the previous and heavily Marxist generations of activists who mentored them.
This is the impasse of the critical interview: Ball shows solidarity towards BLMGN, but also registers skepticism while Cullors pivots from that distrust with some early assurances in order to ultimately rejects the Marxist and analog old school for a more ideologically and temporally dispersed, digital-based (but also concretely activist) new school activist movement where even the three founders seek to decenter themselves from the vanguard, where adaptations of the original expression in counter or equivalent expressions create complex layers of meaning that even go as far as to challenge the very idea of what it means to be Black in 2020.
This account is not perfect or comprehensive, but it is much closer to a full summary of the ten minutes and fifty-six second 2015 video. What emerges from this account should now be mostly clear: The note about “trained Marxists” is much more of negative aside, seeking to shore up minimal credibility before articulating a vastly different direction for BLMGN. It could even be interpreted as a disidentification in the sense of “I was trained in this school of thought, but now I am doing something different.”
Whether this new direction of BLMGN will endure even a decade is, of course, a wide-open question. It entirely remains to be seen. The social anthem “Black Lives Matter” will surely endure as the vox populi, along with its other derivative formulations; and, in many ways, it shares a lineage and ancestry to older expressions of social struggle and solidarity.
To what degree a post on social media that creates a viral hashtag is enough to build an entire social movement is also, I think, worth considering with caution but also with some optimism for the uses of digital technology in the fight for justice— we all know, after all, of its many drawbacks in that regard.
I have personally been critical of BLMGN since the interruption of Bernie Sander’s primary campaign event in Seattle in 2015. (Source.) Because of this, I was late to see how “Black Lives Matter” was unique in our time. I now see that it is both the same as and different than “Black Power” and “Black is Beautiful.” I am not convinced that BLMGN can claim ownership over “Black Lives Matter” more than anyone can lay claim to the spirit of an age, but I do think this heritage rightly belongs in the collective possession of the American Black cultural tradition. These intuitions and many more questions remain on the table for me, along with the issues of the compatibility and coherence of internal and external agendas and ideological frameworks.
Noting these complexities, I believe it is clear to any reasonable person that selectively using Cullors’s “trained Marxists” remark from a suddenly-relevant 2015 interview, complex in its own right, as an easy means to dismissing BLMGN and, more scandalously, to demonize the slogan “Black Lives Matter” entirely out of hand, is dishonest, ignorant, and lazy. It is also a classic rhetorical strategy of US white supremacy in media narratives.
“Trained Marxists”? What does this mean? Reasonable and honest people should ask the obvious questions. Where do “trained Marxists” train and who trains them? “Is “trained Marxist” another way of saying “a person educated in religion, philosophy, anthropology, or sociology”? Is a liberal arts education training in Marxism? What does this training consist of exactly? What is the curriculum? Who else has been trained in this way? What school of Marxism is this training in? What harm or injury is so clear from this moniker? Is this anything more than US Red Scare propaganda? Should we, like Ball, be cautious about this guarantee of credibility or should we, like Cullors, pivot away from the rigorist past of activist ideological platforms entirely — or perhaps something else?
These are simple but obvious and painfully unanswered questions that the “trained Marxist” narrative underway cannot satisfy. The only way to figure them out is to go to the source as directly as we can and make sense of the two-worded expression within its full context. Anything less is foolish. Those who prefer to be foolish betray potentially deeper motivations for wanting a cheap and easy excuse to not proclaim the moral truth of “Black Lives Matter” in solidarity with their Black brothers and sisters right now. All questions of BLMGN aside, that moral refrain should not be muted, obstructed, or censored.
Black Lives Matter.