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Jelani Cobb On His Epic 'New Yorker' Piece On Black Lives Matter

William Jelani Cobb attends the 2015 New Yorker Festival Wrap Party in New York City.
Neilson Barnard
Getty Images
William Jelani Cobb attends the 2015 New Yorker Festival Wrap Party in New York City.

Before Black Lives Matter was a hashtag, before it was a slogan chanted by protesters in cities across the country, before it was a national movement, it was a Facebook post by an Oakland-based activist named Alicia Garza. She wrote it after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. It read in part: "I continue to be surprised at how little black lives matter, and I will continue that. Stop giving up on black life." She ended by saying, "Black people, I love you. I love us. Our lives matter."

NPR's Kelly McEvers spoke with Jelani Cobb, who recently wrote an article in the New Yorker about Black Lives Matter, how the movement started and where it stands today. He talks about how those three words were later adopted as a rallying cry by protesters from around the country who came to Ferguson, Mo. after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer.

Interview Highlights

On tensions about who speaks for the movement

"I think there's been a conflict that's played itself out publicly in terms of the people who founded the idea or came up with the name and the people who really did the pivotal work on the ground in Ferguson. In some ways, it's an entity that has two births. It's conceived after one tragedy and really comes to fruition after another. And we've talked about the Internet and social media and the ways that those things have really revolutionized and changed the way social activism happens. In some ways that's a plus, but it can be a really big liability as well because a good bit of the conflict between the various factions of Black Lives Matter has played itself out in public and on social media...

"A little more recently, Alicia Garza was going to come to St. Louis to give a speech at Webster University, and a great deal of social media chatter erupted about this and whether or not she had any place coming there, and whether it was more appropriate to think of the people who were in St. Louis and Ferguson as the founders. When I spoke to Alicia Garza about it, she said that she got death threats and threats of violence, and she wound up canceling the talk. That became kind of a crucial moment in the history of this organization where a person who is organizing about African-Americans and their lives is really not giving a talk because of threats to her own."

On how earlier ideas of leadership don't necessarily work for this movement

"We associate whole blocks of history with W.E.B. Du Bois or Booker T. Washington or Malcolm X or Dr. King. Entire constellations of history are distilled down to two individuals, almost always male. There's been a certain kind of fatigue, and Black Lives Matter represents that. They find a more horizontal ethic of leadership to be more important, and they find inspiration from Ella Baker, who was one of the most central figures of the civil rights movement in - partly due to her belief in kind of grassroots and local leadership in her aversion to the spotlight. Her story wasn't as well known. And so they have kind of resurrected her idea that it's better to have 10,000 candles than a single spotlight."

On who Black Lives Matter represents

"Movements tend to pick up where the last one left off. When people look back at the civil rights movement, one of the most glaring shortcomings that emerges is in many ways the marginalization of women within the movement or things like Bayard Rustin, who was the pivotal organizer of the March on Washington, but also faced discrimination as a gay black man. Those are the things that Black Lives Matter look at and say, we want to not replicate those things. We want to not replicate the errors of the past."

On the effects of having a diffuse organization

"When I talked with Alicia Garza, she was very clear about making a distinction between Black Lives Matter the organization and Black Lives Matter as a movement. But it's been almost kind of like a franchising effect. The fact that there's a low barrier to entry has been useful when there are people who have never participated in a political protest before and they're willing to come out and say, 'OK, I can be part of this Black Lives Matter thing, and I agree with, you know, what's happening here.' At the same time, it makes it a little bit more difficult to have a kind of discipline within the ranks. And then you have a third element, which is the tendency of people to refer to any statement by a disgruntled black person as...connected to Black Lives Matter."

On where Black Lives Matter could go from here

"I don't think it's easy to predict these things. But one of the things that I think we ought to take note of is the circumstances that allow Black Lives Matter to flourish. One is the existence of a black presidency and these sorts of egregious racial problems continuing in the context of a black presidency, which contributed to a climate of frustration. And we're in the last year of the Obama presidency, and so that will change. In addition to that, precisely because we're in an election year, we've seen the movement to be able to leverage influence and - helping to shape and push the direction in which these two candidates on the Democratic side, at least, are moving. I don't think that necessarily will happen after the presidential election. Or at least it's not as easily achieved."

On the distance between the political process and everyday realities

"It's not necessarily that the black president is not doing more, because I don't think it all lays at President Obama's feet. I think it's the frustration of having both of these circumstances coexist, that you can be represented at the most powerful level of electoral politics and you can have incidents like the death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman. Those two things are fully capable of coexisting."

The full interview with Cobb can be found here.

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