Last week in Atlanta, Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was protested by a group of students who labeled themselves AUC Shut It Down. As Secretary Clinton attempted to speak, the students chanted, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom! We have nothing to lose but our chains” and “Black Lives Matter.” Many who attended the rally were upset, confused by why the students wouldn’t let the candidate speak and then challenge her remarks later. There is even video of a Clinton staffer speaking to the students, telling them “now is not the right time.” Finally, I continue to hear the broad chastisement of students by those outside of the movement who claim there is no real order, students don’t have solid demands, and they are making life easier on the Republicans by attacking “allies”.
Wow…so where do I start? I am one of those institutionally trained former organizers that believe in training and strategy. You cannot look at our history and lose site of the fact that most of the “youth” and young adult focused organizations during the civil rights and black power eras (respectively) viewed training as essential to participation. From SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and then Student National Coordinating Committee) to The Black Panther Party For Self Defense, training was paramount when standing on the front lines was actually a matter of life and death. Training was crucial, as you were a representative of not just an organization, but also a movement with clear goals and an even clearer message. The training that young activist received was part of the reason their movements (while never perfect) were so impactful.
However, if we are going to be honest about history, many of the men and women responsible for the development of the organizations of the 60’s and 70’s ignored the substantive development of young leadership for the decades that followed. This disconnect is what has caused a nation of young, passionate, brilliant, committed, and untrained young people. The activist in SNCC and even BPP were beneficiaries and bi-products of a change machine that shared best practices, training mechanisms and strategies. So before we go down this road of demonizing the lack of sophisticated organizing on the part of “some” of the young people under the banner of the Black Lives Matter mantra, stop and ask who has taken the time to make themselves available to many of those young people to train them without trying to coopt their energy.
The start of any movement looks different from the glorious history written about it decades later. The launch of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and even the lunch counter sit-ins was not without trial and error, mistakes in judgment and less than stellar strategy. But they persisted. Do you think all of the parents of those young people wanted them on the front lines or approved of their attack on the system? Of course not. But those students, in the midst of their imperfect passion, pushed on.
Disruption is never about convenience. And for those that think for a moment that these students are under the same illusion about the Democratic Party as you are…think again. They recognize that both parties have been disingenuous about the needs and concerns of black and marginalized communities for decades. Sure there have been Democrats that have had some legitimate policy positions, but the party as a whole has not championed the concerns of Black people. By in large because too many black leaders were on the take, failing to develop and fight for change agendas. This generation is tired of the way the current game is played and is not willing to be quiet to make those complicate in the current state of affairs comfortable. Could these students be more sophisticated? Sure. Could their strategy and messaging be more coordinated? Yes. But that is not really the point. Any real movement has seen an unsophisticated and angry, but brilliantly committed group of young people disrupt the machine, giving those who proclaim to be sophisticated and coordinated the opportunity to negotiate some relevant and transformative demands.
DISRUPTION IS ALWAYS NEEDED FOR TRANSFORMATION. I’m amused by the number of articles I read about the power of disruptive technology and a Silicon Valley creating billionaire disrupters who have transformed how we live our lives. While there are not many hedge funds looking to make disruptive organizers billionaires, those citizen’s efforts are as essential to a transformed electorate and society as the players making your favorite app. My point? Disruption is necessary…it is the secret ingredient to change…and it is never…ever…convenient.
So here’s to the disrupters…our future needs you.