Instead of a pyramid of different departments topped by a leader, there is coordination and a set of shared values spread across a decentralized structure that prizes local connections and fast mobilization in response to police violence. Over the last eight years, the movement has steadily built a modern infrastructure on top of decades-old social justice institutions like the Highlander Center.
The distributed setup has at times contributed to tensions. National Black activists have feuded over which policy programs put forward by different organizations best represent the goals of the movement. Some admitted the decentralized system can confuse the public at times and leave the movement open to misconceptions in the press. But none of the 10 activists POLITICO spoke to from across the country said they wanted a hierarchical structure instead, as the movement seeks to turn its newfound momentum into policy changes at the local and national levels.
“There were explicit decisions around building the movement in a way that would be both coordinated and decentralized,” said Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party and an organizer with the Movement for Black Lives. “There’s no way that you could have these many actions with the same demand if there wasn’t a level of high level coordination.”
When George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a white Minneapolis policeman was captured on film, hundreds of organizations and thousands of activists were ready to launch protests in their cities. They pushed policy with local legislators and police departments and rallied people who hadn’t previously engaged in BLM protests around the message of “defund the police.”
The growing, multi-racial movement has quickly shifted the conversation around policing and racism across the country, including in Washington, where lawmakers have been unsure how to react or liaise with the groundswell. There is no chairperson or candidate calling the shots in private or serving as a public rallying point. With no singular person to attack in tweets, President Donald Trump instead directed his ire and threats of violence at mostly peaceful protesters.
“In terms of strategy — and this is very real that we have to be honest about this — it makes it harder for those who are against us to do what they did in the ‘60s, which is to target one leader,” said Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund, a voter engagement nonprofit.
That doesn’t make them leaderless, activists say. Instead, they call themselves “leaderful.” Even at the beginning of the movement, the power structure was based in collaboration. The Black Lives Matter Global Network was co-founded in 2013 by three female organizers, and the Movement for Black Lives, formed one year later, has no governing board, though it coordinates with more than 150 organizations.
“We don’t need someone in the Senate or House to try to build their political career off of this moment,” said Bryan Mercer, executive director of the Philadelphia-based social justice organization Movement Alliance Project. “It is a misconception that we need a charismatic leader to carry this work forward.”
Activists in cities all over the country are trading notes through the network as they pressure local officials to explore new public safety options, from doing away with police in schools to slashing budgets or reimagining police departments entirely.
The Minneapolis city council’s pledge to break up its police department and start from scratch, “doesn’t just have implications for Minneapolis,” said Mitchell. “That has national implications.”
Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities in Milwaukee, said she is having more conversations with other Black organizers across the country than ever before. The Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission is in turmoil — with an executive director on the way out and a chairman facing accusations of ethics violations — as protesters demand change. Lang’s organization put together 300 responses for the commission on what residents want to see from the next executive director, and it is pressuring the local police department as its chief wraps his six-month evaluation.