In Black Lives Matter’s Shift to Economic Issues, Echoes of Black Panthers

Nissa Rhee, Christian Science Monitor, May 24, 2016

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Nationwide, BYP100 and the Movement for Black Lives are individually creating economic platforms that call for the revitalization of black communities, reparations, and the protection of the rights of women and transgender people.

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The shift to larger economic issues has taken different forms in cities across the country, as the many organizations that have united under the Black Lives Matter banner address issues unique to their hometowns.

“We’ve seen an overinvestment in policing and surveillance and a complete divestment from educational programs and communities,” says Marbre Stahly-Butts, a leader of the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of 40 organizations nationwide. “Any change in these systems requires a change in the economic system and how money is distributed within it.”

For many, the broadening of the Black Lives Matter movement and its increasing focus on community empowerment echoes the evolution of the Black Power movement of the 1960s. The Black Panther Party was formed in 1966 with the goal of “policing the police.” They drove around Oakland, Calif., following squad cars and recording incidents of police violence.

A year later, the Panthers released their Ten Point Program, which called for employment and housing for black people along with an end to police brutality. They also began offering social services to black communities. The Panthers ran health care clinics, distributed clothing, and served free breakfast to inner city children.

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For Montague Simmons, the shift to broader issues of social and economic justice is a return to the grassroots work that his organization has been doing for years. The Organization for Black Struggle was founded in 1980 by a group of activists, students, and union leaders in St. Louis to fill a void left by the decline of the Black Power Movement.

On the day that Brown was killed in 2014, OBS had just finished a project surveying the community about safety. “They were really talking about the issues with the police, conditions of housing, conditions of land, and conditions of community safety,” says Mr. Simmons.

OBS’s planned work on economic equality was put on hold after Mr. Brown’s killing. The organization helped lead many of the protests against police brutality in St. Louis and Ferguson following Brown’s death and the shooting of VonDerrit Myers Jr. in October 2014.

Two years later, OBS is now revisiting the survey and working more on economic justice campaigns. This summer, they are helping establish a black worker center to provide legal support, social services, and political education and organizing to low wage earners in the St. Louis area.

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In February, BYP100 released their Agenda for Black Futures, in which they propose an expansive platform that includes reparations, the creation of a workers’ bill of rights, the elimination of profit from the penal system, supporting women and trans rights, and the revitalization of black communities. A second nationwide organization–the Movement for Black Lives, of which Bonsu and Simmons are both members–is also developing a policy agenda, which is expected in the next several months.

“We’re envisioning a world where black folks have social, political, educational, and economic freedoms,” says Bonsu, who serves as the national public policy chair for Black Youth Project 100. “We knew we needed an economic platform if we are trying to build a world where black lives really do matter in theory and practice.”

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