On June 1, the right-wing blogger and avowed white supremacist Jason Kessler and other alt-right activists met for dinner on the patio of Miller’s Downtown, a popular burger joint in Charlottesville, Virginia. The dinner was two weeks after white nationalists had gathered in the city’s Lee Park, wielding torches as a kind of dress rehearsal for the mid-August “Unite the Right” rally that left counterprotester Heather Heyer dead and dozens more injured. According to local reports, members of the white-led group Showing Up for Racial Justice surrounded Kessler’s party that night at Miller’s, recording the gathering on their phones and shouting, “Nazi, go home!” At a nearby table sat University of Virginia professor Jalane Schmidt, who at the time was trying to establish a Black Lives Matter chapter in Charlottesville. As black passersby stopped and showed interest in the confrontation, participants in the SURJ action directed them to Schmidt’s table. She considers that night to be her group’s first real meeting. Schmidt knew that many BLM chapters were founded in response to police shootings. “It begins in a crisis,” she told me. “In our case, it was the crisis of the alt-right organizing in our town.”
Despite reports to the contrary, the national constellation of racial-justice organizations loosely referred to as the Black Lives Matter movement is alive and well. It would be easy to think otherwise: BLM appears less frequently in the news than it did between 2013 and last year, when the movement responded forcefully in the streets and online to a string of black deaths at the hands of police. Now, when BLM is mentioned at all, it’s often because a member of the Trump administration is issuing a dog whistle to the president’s supporters, as was the case last month when Trump’s personal attorney forwarded an e-mail to conservative journalists characterizing BLM as “totally infiltrated by terrorist groups.” But even in more sympathetic portrayals, BLM is said to have lost or squandered the power it began building in July 2013 following George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. According to a recent BuzzFeed article, BLM is beset by debilitating internal rifts over direction and funding, preventing the movement from doing much at all to accomplish its aims.
But conversations with just over a dozen people in the movement suggest otherwise. BLM organizers are still in the streets in places like Charlottesville and Boston, where white supremacists mobilized this summer. From St. Louis, Missouri, to Lansing, Michigan, they’re engaging with electoral politics in new ways. And they’re taking the time to reflect on and develop new strategies for moving forward given the changed political terrain.
Trump’s election, like his campaign, brought a new fervor to efforts to crush black organizing and roll back the gains made during the Obama administration. Since last year, so-called “Blue Lives Matter” bills, which increase the penalties for offenses against police officers and in some cases designate them as hate crimes, have proliferated in state legislatures. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in late August that President Trump would sign an executive order again allowing local police departments to procure military gear like bayonets and grenade launchers. As president, Barack Obama had banned the transfer of such equipment after protesters and police clashed in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting. State legislatures are also considering laws that make nonviolent public protest costly and, in some cases, deadly: Lawmakers have tried to pass legislation that limits civil liability for motorists who hit protesters with their vehicles, as well as other legislation that puts protesters on the hook financially for any police presence their demonstrations require. “We haven’t seen comparable policies and practices since the McCarthy era,” said Alicia Garza, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, when I asked her whether the Trump era demands a new approach to black organizing. “So, yes, our tactics do have to change.”