It’s been almost four years since Patrisse Khan-Cullors helped birth the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. Those three words gained national attention for demonstrations against police brutality and grew into a movement.
But progress has been slow, admits Khan-Cullors, a Los Angeles-based activist who co-founded the Black Lives Matter Network.
“The local is where the work is. If we’re looking at just the national, it’s pretty devastating. But if you zoom into cities, to towns, to rural areas, people are fighting back and people are winning,” she says, pointing to one example in Jackson, Miss., where voters recently elected a progressive new mayor in the Deep South.
Other Black Lives Matter activists around the country, who are part of a decentralized movement, are also focusing on local activism.
“We go to locations where people generally … don’t have to think about or don’t want to think about white supremacy and patriarchy and how that’s affecting black people,” says Mike Bento, an organizer with New York’s NYC Shut It Down, a group which considers itself part of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The group started holding weekly demonstrations around New York City two years ago to honor mainly people who have died at the hands of police. On a recent Monday evening, about two dozen protesters gathered outside a restaurant in downtown Manhattan, where diners sipped wine at bistro tables on the sidewalk.
While a protester held up a sign saying “MX BOSTICK, REST IN POWER,” Bento started a call-and-response describing the recent death of a black transgender person who was found unconscious on a sidewalk after being struck in the head in May. A suspect is now charged with manslaughter.
“We’re here tonight because while you are dining, black trans people are dying,” Bento shouted at the restaurant patrons.
Still, it’s not all about protesting in the streets. Sometimes, Bento and other Black Lives Matter activists go underground and into New York’s subways. They pay for people who would otherwise try to get on a train without paying, which could earn them a misdemeanor.
“This is all connected,” Bento says. “This is all part of how we get a system of mass incarceration. And so we start with basic things that we can do to keep our brothers and sisters out of that system.”
Other basic forms of activism include standing outside the courthouse to support people charged with low-level offenses and helping to serve dinner to homeless people.
In Washington, D.C., April Goggans, an organizer with Black Lives Matter DC, is holding meetings with other local activist groups to figure out how they can make communities facing high crime rates more self-sufficient.
Goggans says she’s been following the recent police shooting of Charleena Lyles, a pregnant, black mother in Seattle, as well as the not-guilty verdicts for police officers involved in the deaths of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Sylville Smith in Wisconsin. They’ve all reinforced her conclusion, she says, that any type of reform will not improve police departments.
“I don’t even know that I would put my effort into charging and imprisoning individual police officers because it’s just not gonna happen very much and that kind of justice, it’s not a deterrent for other police officers,” says Goggans, who says she is focused on getting rid of the current system of policing in the long term.
Khan-Cullors says she is also taking a long view when thinking about how the Black Lives Matter movement will tackle issues black people have been living with for decades.
“We are not new to police brutality. We are not new to police violence. We are not new to people dying inside jail cells and prisons,” she says. “What is new is the visibility. What is new is that they become headlines.”
She says she’s always been concerned about how the movement can sustain itself when social media is inundated with photos and videos of black people killed at the hands of police and victories for the movement seem hard to come by.
With the U.S. Supreme Court reinstating part of President Donald Trump’s travel ban and Congress considering substantial cuts to Medicaid, she’s worried that the current political environment is becoming even more overwhelming for activists.
“If you can’t fight the state, and you can’t fight for the things that you need, then you take it out on each other,” says Khan-Cullors, who cautions that infighting could destroy the movement.
That’s why gatherings like a recent candle-light vigil at The Underground Museum in Los Angeles for Lyles and other police shooting victims are important to Khan-Cullors, who wants to keep activists energized and encourage them to work together.
Starting campaigns to change laws and policy, she says, is the obvious work. But staying together as a movement, that’s the hard stuff.
Shaheen Ainpour contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.; Michael Radcliffe contributed from Los Angeles.