Huge numbers of Americans have been brutalized physically, emotionally, or financially by the coronavirus pandemic. And as the number of diagnosed cases trends ominously up, we have no idea what’s next. Everyone with eyes to see knows the path that brought the United States to this dreadful place is a dead end. The question is whether America can change enough to head anywhere else.
The most promising direction isn’t well-known outside of activist circles. In 2016 the Movement for Black Lives, made up of dozens of Black-led organizations, issued a six-part platform called “A Vision for Black Lives.” The introduction stated, “Neither our grievances nor our solutions are limited to the police killing of our people,” and much of it is devoted to economic issues. This year the MBL also released specific policy demands in response to Covid-19.
The logic of history and the present time suggest that if the Black Lives Matter movement sustains itself, it will inevitably become about this larger agenda. Some who joined a movement because they hoped for comparatively modest reforms will find themselves bumping up against the limits of the current system, and learn from experience that everything has to change or very little will.
Already BLM has put on the table the concept of a redirection of public money from policing to health care, housing, schools, and jobs. But as of 2017, state and local governments — responsible for the great majority of expenditures on police and corrections — spent just $194 billion on them. This sounds like a lot of money, but it’s less than 1 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, and only one-fifth of the $1 trillion the U.S. spends on Medicare and Medicaid. Even if somehow all of that $194 billion were shifted to different uses, it wouldn’t be enough for deep social change.
While it’s largely been forgotten now — on purpose — the civil rights movement during the 1960s faced a similar reality, and confronted it head-on. Because of this, the movement was never just about ending America’s legal caste system; it always had a powerful economic component. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech at a 1963 rally that was officially named the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. One common sign at the march was “Civil Rights Plus Full Employment Equals Freedom.”
After passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King stated that they were the “first phase” of the civil rights movement, and the time had come for a “second phase” focused on economic equality. He helped promote a Federal Freedom Budget for All Americans, which called to “wipe out poverty in a decade” via universal health care, a government jobs guarantee, and much more.
In a famous 1967 speech, King was clear about what would be required to get decent lives for African Americans: “We must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. … The problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.” When King was assassinated the next year, he was planning to lead a Poor People’s Campaign to Washington, D.C., to get results via direct action.
America then successfully evaded and beat back these questions for 50 years. But they didn’t disappear, they stayed right here. Now the coronavirus pandemic has simultaneously demonstrated how high the stakes are, and that all of society’s supposedly iron-clad rules can be thrown out at a moment’s notice. If there ever were a time when Americans might be ready to rewrite the basic handbook, it’s now.
The MBL is currently revising and expanding all of the Vision for Black Lives platform, but here’s where things stand now.
The first plank is called “End the War on Black People.” Among other things, it demands the demilitarization of law enforcement, an end to the death penalty, an end to the war on drugs, and an end to people with criminal histories being excluded from housing, education, and employment.
The second plank calls for reparations from “the government, responsible corporations and other institutions that have profited off of the harm they have inflicted on Black people.” It lists reparations in the form of free public college and a guaranteed minimum income for Black people, and mandated changes to public school curriculums to examine “the social impacts of colonialism and slavery.”
The third plank, “Invest-Divest,” demands a reallocation of public money from policing, incarceration, and the national military to, among other things, education, local restorative justice, and universal health care.
The fourth plank, “Economic Justice,” calls for a progressive restructuring of the tax code, federal and state job programs targeted at marginalized Black people, the restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act, and the right for workers in both the public and private sectors to organize unions.
The fifth plank, “Community Control,” demands local control of law enforcement and schools. It also calls for participatory budgeting, an invention of the Brazilian Workers’ Party, in which regular people directly debate how portions of government money are spent.
The sixth plank, “Political Power,” calls for the release of political prisoners, public financing of elections, and protection of voting rights.
Then there’s the MBL’s specific platform on Covid-19 policy, filled with so many obvious, lifesaving ideas that it’s excruciating to realize none will be executed anytime soon.
Instituting all or even some of these policies would transform the United States. In fact, the MBL platform acknowledges “we seek not reform but transformation.” Countries, like people, can sometimes change significantly. It generally happens when their current existence becomes too painful to endure. What we’ll find out now is whether America has gotten to that point.