Transcript: Freddie deBoer
My interview with the author of How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, America’s streets filled with protesters — in some of the largest demonstrations in the country’s history. But three years later, very little concrete change has been achieved. My guest on the podcast this week asks: What happened? Why did this mass movement achieve so little?
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: Freddie, welcome back to Lean Out.
FDB: Thanks for having me.
TH: It’s really nice to have you back on the program, to kick off our fall season here at Lean Out. Your new book and the analysis you put forward in it — that a lack of clear and obvious legislative goals dooms a movement — is an extremely timely analysis, and very needed. I want to start today in 2020, when we saw a flood of protestors take to the streets in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. I remember interviewing a veteran radio journalist in DC, who happened to be Black. He was of the Civil Rights generation. He’d spent the day driving around, marvelling at the enormous multiracial crowds on the street, and he was incredibly moved by it. I was initially optimistic. But as you’ve pointed out, very little concrete change came from this reckoning — one of the largest social justice movements in American history. We’ll get into the specific threads that you pull in the book, but to start, set this up for us. In broad strokes, what happened?
FDB: The biggest thing that we have to say with the Black Lives Matter component particularly — which obviously was the flashpoint of all of these things, but part of a broader, long-simmering discontent — is that there was never really a policy ask. And the degree to which the policy ask ever coalesced on anything, it coalesced on “Defund the Police.” And “Defund the Police” had two problems with it. The first was that nobody knew what it meant. Nobody could agree on exactly what it meant. There were more extreme versions that the activist class was tending to use in the street, and then there was a sort of justification system that the media used to, as I say in the book, “sane wash” the demand to make it appear more palatable to a normal audience.
So, number one, nobody really knew what that meant. But number two, no matter how you defined it, defunding the police was extremely unpopular — and it was unpopular even among Black Democrats. Again and again, we found in polling that Black Americans did not call for defunding police, and that very often they called for more police presence in their neighbourhoods. So it was a direct conflict between the activist class and the average Black American. This is hardly an unusual circumstance, to have a movement that is bedevilled by a lack of a clear, actionable policy goal. Occupy Wall Street, as I discussed at some length in the book, refused to ever have demands, and so it’s hard to say what exactly Occupy did at all. It certainly was an inspiration for movements that came after it, but it had no particular direction, and so correspondingly went nowhere.
But if you go back to, for example, the Civil Rights movement, the Civil Rights movement was believed by many within the movement to stall out in the mid- to late- 60s. Martin Luther King expressed frustration, before his death, that it seemed like the Civil Rights movement had become aimless. Because they had accomplished two of their biggest goals, which were the Voting Rights Act — which protected Black people’s right to vote and made violating that right to vote a federal crime, which meant that it would have to be enforced by federal agents and not by the local sheriff, who would often be complicit in the act of restricting the vote for Black people — and the Civil Rights Act, which was a big omnibus that resulted in a dramatic reduction in segregation and forcing Black people out of spaces that had previously been white. Only after that point, the Civil Rights movement was perceived by many to lose momentum, and it’s not a mistake that in the late 60s and early- to mid-70s, the Black Power movement superseded the Civil Rights movement, because there was such frustration with the fact that progress had seemed to have stalled.
So, we don’t want to hang this problem on Black Lives Matter uniquely. I do, however, think that there could have been a much clearer sense of what exactly was the immediate demand and how we could rally around that politically. In the book, I suggest that ending qualified immunity — which prevents police from being held to account for acts of police misconduct — would have been a great goal to rally around.
TH: I’m curious about the exact turning point for you, when you started to become skeptical of this movement as a whole. When did that moment come?
FDB: I was skeptical from the beginning. I also went to the marches. I think that it’s important that we be able to function as political beings on several different planes at once. The demand was so righteous, and the anger was so clear. But I knew from the beginning that there was a real lack of strategic analysis going on. That there was a lot of heat, but very little light. I knew that there were real problems with the Black Lives Matter organizing vehicles; we had known that long before George Floyd was killed. But I also went out and marched and held signs and chanted for several weeks, because it was important in that moment to just mark the historical period.
If we wanted to say: When did I know that this was not going anywhere? I think on the one-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd. There was a lot of sturm und drang and media attention, but by that point it was fairly clear that the George Floyd Justice and Policing bill — which was seen by many activists as a watered-down compromise bill, but was the best effort that we had at real, comprehensive policing reform … It was clear by the one-year mark that that was not going anywhere. To me is was, “The Democrats have, technically, narrowly, a federal trifecta — and you can’t get this act passed that is seen by many people as a watered-down compromise bill. It’s probably safe to say at this point that the party is over.” But it was due to the nature of this thing. When you don’t have a specific goal in mind, when no one can agree on what the goal is, it’s the nature of things not to blow up in failure, but to just peter out. And that’s what happened. The movement gradually came apart. The crowds in the streets got thinner and thinner. The polling momentum evaporated.
I keep reminding people of this: There was a period, about a month or so after George Floyd had been killed, when even majorities of Republicans in polling were saying that they supported Black Lives Matter. Which is remarkable. That was gone by now and nothing was really happening. What I had warned people was going to happen, in fact had happened — which was that it had all dissolved into new fellowships for Black graduate students, new employee handbooks at defence manufacturers about sensitivity, solidarity statements from investment banks. Things like that. Precisely the things that everyone said were not sufficient is pretty much all that we got.
TH: I want to dig now into the conversation around race. Let’s just start with this. You have a paragraph in the book that outlines what you want on the race issue: stable homes for Black people, clean and well-resourced schools, good medical care, employment, fair policing. I share all of those aims as well. I want all those things, too. So, I initially found it very odd that I was put off by this particular social justice movement, and it took time to unpack that. I think your book does the best job of this that I’ve seen yet. First of all, there’s this “basic drift from the material and concrete to the immaterial and symbolic” — I’m quoting you there. Then there is the left’s resistance to internal debate. Then there is, also, the taboo on investigating or critiquing anything to do with BLM. Which is problematic because billions were flowing into that movement; you have got to be able to talk about that. Then, of course, the fact that “Defund the Police” was not popular, as you said, in the communities it was meant to protect. But then there was also these specific ideas about race that were being put forward, and particularly this weird fixation on white emotion. Which you have referred to here as “white psychodrama.” Race2Dinner, a controversial company that hosts dinner parties to interrogate white privilege, one of its white employees, Lisa Bond, made a comment that you quote in the book: “The idea that white people need to go out and make these big external actions — that’s just white supremacy. The internal work is the hard work and it never ends.” Walk me through why this, as you say in the book, is essentially your worst nightmare of an idea.