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Black Lives Matter should change 'genocide' language — proudly

The movement can set a precedent by displaying commitment to self-criticism, accuracy, and partnership — values sorely needed in America right now.

Activists march in Boston in the wake of events in Ferguson, MO, following the fatal shooting by police of an unarmed black man, October 25, 2014. (Activestills.org)

Activists march in Boston in the wake of events in Ferguson, MO, following the fatal shooting by police of an unarmed black man, October 25, 2014. (Activestills.org)

The policy platform released by the Movement for Black Lives represents an exciting milestone for a grassroots social movement. But like all first drafts, it gets some things wrong. If the movement is committed to the long haul, it will accept criticism from supportive observers as part of the process, and create a better, more inclusive product in the future.

The MBL movement swept aside fears of clicktivism and slacktivism, in its remarkable evolution from the “Black Lives Matter” hashtag to a swirling conversation of ideas and voices, culminating in real-world action. This looks like human empowerment in the making.

The platform reflects intense organization, investment and commitment of many authors. Its publication itself says, we are not just about tearing down, but re-building. We believe in an America that is capable of changing and serving all of its people fairly, and here are the alternatives we offer. That shows great optimism and faith in the country.

The content of the document itself is uneven, which from my experience with such ambitious group efforts, is only natural.

The detailed analyses are not systematically sourced. One example of information I tried to verify – median wealth held by black and white households – was completely credible, but the document would be stronger if the sources were transparent.

The wide array of proposals, precedents and painstaking lists of background sources are a fascinating mega-supermarket of ideas. Like any good market, some products look more or less appealing, or feasible. The proposals for law enforcement and incarceration reforms, a Constitutional guarantee to free education and racial aspects of environmental policy, contain some hugely important ideas. On the other hand, the Universal Basic Income – a guaranteed income not conditioned on work for all American adults with a supplemental sum for black people as reparations – strikes me as a bad and unfeasible idea that would undermine the basic human and economic principles. But I admit this is the first time I’ve thought about it.

The section on investment and divestment is similarly complicated. It shows a valuable change of thinking about foreign policy. But it contains at least one major flaw, on the Israel-Palestine problem, that is making waves.

Jewish activists take part in a Black Lives Matter protest in Brookline, MA, December 16, 2014. (Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org)

Jewish activists take part in a Black Lives Matter protest in Brookline, MA, December 16, 2014. (Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org)

The authors link U.S. foreign policy with its consequences on domestic priorities and spending, naming American involvement in Somalia, Kenya, Congo, Libya, Honduras, Colombia, El Salvador, Haiti, Nigeria, Israel and Palestine. In a worldview suitable to the era of globalization and information, the writers portray the message that what happens elsewhere affects everyone, and policy can’t be hidden in ways it once was. US citizens will learn of the policies and their consequences, and bring their discontent to bear upon decision makers.

Then there is the sentence on Israel’s military occupation of Palestinians: “The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.”

The description is wrong. Of the huge and myriad problems with Israeli policy, genocide is not among them. The use of this term reflects what I believe to be a rush-job, and a superficial form of group-think. Adopting slogans of certain activists from relevant social and political circles can’t be a substitute for serious policy thinking.

The inevitable and understandable emotional turmoil is already splitting Jewish groups deeply. Many now question the level of partnership and support that so many Jewish actors are eager to provide. For me, the inaccuracy of that statement raises questions about what other policy prescriptions reflect less than thorough understanding or learning of the issues. Maybe other communities are being similarly riven by something I haven’t picked up on.

Should Jews disavow the document? Or should Jewish groups accept that Black leaders have the right to shape their struggle as they see fit, and as privileged Americans (at present), we must support them uncritically – as Jewish Voice for Peace has by endorsing the document with no reservations?

I don’t believe Jews should dismiss the platform. Like the whole thing, that sentence reflects a first attempt at a new thinking about policy in America – getting some things right, and others wrong. The larger cause is too important to reduce it to a test of how the authors addressed our tiny piece of it – as Michael Omer Man wrote, it’s just not all about us.

Neither can the document be endorsed uncritically. I view that as a disservice to the authors and the movement. MBL was born of American values of critical and self-critical thinking, and dialogue with other communities including when painful. The great civil rights struggle of the 50s and 60s was for integration, not dis-integration. That means a long road of talking, listening, and correcting when needed.

Black Lives Matter activists organize a die-in action outside Memorial Church in Harvard University on Sunday, December 7, 2014 in Cambridge, MA. (Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org)

Black Lives Matter activists organize a die-in action outside Memorial Church in Harvard University on Sunday, December 7, 2014 in Cambridge, MA. (Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org)

I want to be part of that long haul which is why I won’t give up on something so important so fast. But it’s also why I don’t think the movement can afford a rigid, break-not-bend, approach.

This isn’t limited to the genocide terminology. For example, I personally think the policies are tailored too specifically to ameliorate black poverty and disadvantage with insufficient attention to the systematic disenfranchisement of poor white people, despite explicit solidarity with other marginalized groups such as indigenous people and LGBTQ. Leaving the alienated white demographic out of the picture dismisses their very genuine experiences, and leaves America vulnerable to Trumpism – entrenching “us” against “them.” But that’s just my opinion – it’s not a factual mistake.

By opening itself to many conversations and responding to legitimate criticism, the MBL embraces its allies. Shutting off those conversations means unnecessarily pushing away potential non-black supporters. Worse, it lets them off the hook, when I believe all of America has responsibility to address these challenges.

The movement can set a precedent by publicly correcting the genocide language – displaying its commitment to self-criticism, accuracy and partnership. Those values are sorely needed in America and the movement should be proud to display them.

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    1. Dorothy Pedersen

      I live in Il. Chicago one hour away. There are more shootings and killings between blacks than Police shooting Blacks. Also no one speaks up or no videos taken to help these victims. WHATS UP , Black Lives Matters ??????????????????

      Reply to Comment
      • i_like_ike52

        The radical Left agenda has never been about truly helping people. They don’t have humanitarian motives. Their goal is POWER and overthrowing “the system”.
        Do you think Lenin cared about the workers, while he was starving millions? No, he hated the Czarist regime, he hated capitalists and he used Marxist/Socialist rhetoric to gain the support of the masses. While he was starving millions of people, he and his Bolshevik cohort were living in luxury, in the dachas they confiscated from the wealthy.
        Same with BLM. They hate the system and if what it takes is to discredit the police, leading to more blacks dying in the inner-cities, then so be it, as they see it in their goal of obtaining power for themselves.

        Reply to Comment
    2. A previous comment has been deleted for violating our comments policy.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Klaus Weiß

      Please read the genocide convention.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Susan

      Then why is the Palestinian population growing every year?

      Reply to Comment
    5. annie

      “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”

      given the legal definition of the crime of genocide, i believe characterizing BLM usage of the term “genocide” to describe israel’s systematic destruction (and frequent appropriation) of palestinian culture as a “major flaw” is an incorrect assessment.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Carmen

      It isn’t up to you or any other white person to tell black people what to do, how to think and what words they’re allowed to use, and it’s typical ‘liberals’ to make their support conditional based on a f#%@ing word. You sound like Frank Luntz.

      Reply to Comment
    7. i_like_ike52

      Interesting how the “progressives” who support these policies are advocating the introduction of old South African-style Apartheid in the US. In SA, everyone was classed by race and the rights and privileges they received were based on what racial classification they were included in. According to this BLM proposal, blacks would receive extra privileges over all other groups, i.e. more government handouts. That means a lot of people would start looking for black ancestors they didn’t know they had or whom they didn’t think about. Sort of like Senator Elizabeth warren who marketed herself as an American Indian when in fact she is actually 1/32 American Indian.
      In order to have this system work the government would have to set up committees just like the Apartheid gov’t in South Africa had which would investigate people making claims that they should belong to the privileged group and this would be determined by looking at family trees, seeing how kinky one’s hair was, the exact tone of skin color, etc.
      A real step forward in “progressive” ideology, isn’t it? Back to the future…Apartheid style!

      Reply to Comment
      • annie

        52, just like elizabeth warren? really? gov’t handouts? really? like the welfare queens? what about reparations or don’t you know who built this friggin country.

        Reply to Comment
        • i_like_ike52

          Slavery ended 150 years ago, so I don’t think any of the slaves who did all the work then are around to collect reparations. Legal segregation ended 50 years ago, so all the legal impedements to advancement ended then. Today, anyone who studies hard works hard has an equal opportunity.

          Reply to Comment
          • Carmen

            Maybe in your alternate universe ‘anybody who works hard, studies hard….’ etc. Not on planet earth, not in the united states and not in the zionist state.

            Reply to Comment
      • Duh

        So you object to the grandchildren of National Socialist victims receiving reparations. Good to know.

        Reply to Comment
    8. Jeffrey Ellis

      BLM has made a significant mistake by putting out apology platform which includes positions based on ignorance combined with passion. Singling out Israel and falsely accusing it of genocide is unacceptable. Progressive Jews should feel no compunction about supporting the original intent and goals of BLM while feeling completely comfortable rejecting it’s ridiculous anti-Israel rhetoric.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Peter Crownfield

      The term genocide may be uncomfortable and it may or may not be a good choice from a strategic/P.R. point of view, but it is certainly an accurate term for the state’s systematic efforts. Nobody liked it when it was recognized as apartheid, but your discomfort doesn’t make it untrue.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Marques Hollie

      As a JPOC (Jewish Person of Color), I have no issue with critical examination of the movement. That being what it is, it is absolutely essential to stop conflating Black Lives Matter with the Movement For Black Lives; these are separate organizations and are not interchangeable.

      Reply to Comment