President Obama is a man of many impressive strengths. He’s brilliant. He’s cool under fire. He has the self-confidence to swim against Washington’s strongest tides.
But with those strengths come some surprising weaknesses, like the emotional tone-deafness on display recently when he offered this unsolicited advice to the Black Lives Matter movement:
“Once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention … then you can’t just keep on yelling at them,” he said at a town hall meeting — in London, of all places. “And you can’t refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position.
“The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room and then to start trying to figure out how is this problem going to be solved,” he added. “You, then, have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that’s achievable, that can institutionalize the changes you seek.”
In an Ivy League classroom, that argument might make sense. If your objective is to “get in the room,” then one strategy might be to start a social movement.
But that’s not how the Black Lives Matter movement was ignited. It was born of outrage, of the visceral horror of seeing Michael Brown’s body laying in the sad street of Ferguson for four hours, of hearing Eric Garner protest that he could not breathe as his life was being choked out in Staten Island.
I’m not part of the Black Lives Matter movement. My time in the streets came 45 years ago, during the last mass outpouring of black rage in America. But I think I understand the emotion at its heart. And the end point of that emotion is not to “get in the room.” The point is to stop the wanton murders of black men by police.
There’s a big disconnect between President Obama’s cerebral, rational approach, and Black Lives Matter emotional outrage. But both are committed to justice, and there is, I believe, a way for the movement to play a major role in bringing justice to bear on disastrous interactions between police and black men.
Evidence is the first component of justice. Without it, prosecutors can’t indict, juries can’t convict and judges can’t sentence. Gathering compelling evidence of police misconduct is essential to changing police behavior.
The thing that makes today’s police-brutality cases different from the hundreds of thousands of similar cases that have preceded them through the years is video.
Watching a police officer shoot Walter Scott in the back, or Jamar Clark in the head, or Laquan McDonald as he lay wounded on the ground, makes it crystal clear that the officer’s behavior is egregiously wrong.
With its wide reach and sophisticated use of social media, Black Lives Matter has the ability to organize the capture, archive and use of video in ways that can give it a critical ongoing role in reforming the way police officers interact with black Americans. The key tool is sitting in the purses and pants pockets of every American, black or white, who has participated in a Black Lives Matter protest, or who simply feels sympathy for the movement’s mission.
That tool is the camera-equipped smart phone.
Just as Uber has created a vast amount of new transportation capability using vehicles that were already on the road, and Airbnb has created new lodging capability using apartments and houses that were already on the ground, Black Lives Matter can create a vast amount of new evidence-gathering capability using technology that is already in every American’s pocket.
Black Lives Matter should issue a call for anyone who sees police officers interacting with black citizens to capture the moment on his or her cell phone. Not to interfere in any way with the officer’s ability to do his or her job, but simply to record the interaction and upload it to a Black Lives Matter server. In a very short time, Black Lives Matter will have assembled the nation’s largest video database of police-community interactions. And that database can help prosecutors assemble the evidence they need to secure indictments and convictions.
If the young activists who make up Black Lives Matter can create and sustain such a program, they can keep their movement’s outrage alive and channel it in a useful direction. And that just might earn them that seat at the table.
Harold J. Logan is a businessman and writer who lives in Miami.