Black-Outs, ‘Black Lives Matter’ and Black Power

A street in DC with the message
A street in DC with the message “Black Lives Matter” painted on it.

”In 1965, the Africans rebelled in Watts. Yorty was mayor, a white man. You can call him a racist. In 1992, they rebelled. Bradley is mayor, he’s an African. What is the objective difference here? The only difference is that American capitalism, in order to try to deceive the people, tries to give us visibility with no power at all… Africans in this country have more elected officials in this country than any other ethnic group in the country. We have no power at all.”

Kwame Ture, Black Power: A Discussion on the condition of the Black Community (1993)

Black Out Day and Empty Symbolism

An image showing a plain black square. #BlackOutDay was empty symbolism.
#BlackOutDay was empty symbolism.

In the past weeks of rebellion, Black people across the country have been protesting against the repressive nature of the state. The death of George Floyd ignited the country in mass push back of systemic anti- Black policies, including policing. During these weeks, repressive and violent police tactics against the protestors became more intense. However, instead of addressing the innate nature of police on full display, Black businesses (small and big, alike), entertainers, models, politicians, and the proudly apolitical all made a (un)conscious decision to honor Black lives with empty symbolism.

Many of the disorganized calls for symbolic gestures of solidarity amounted to nothing material beyond feel-good moments for those who participated and the shaming of those vocally against it. These acts can all be attributed to reactionary actions for the sake of doing something negating intent, purpose, and principle.

The origins of the viral “Black-out day” can be traced back to 2015, when amidst many videos and images of Black death, 2 Black women decided to organize a day dedicated to images of Black people. That organized day resulted in an overwhelming display of Blackness in all our glory, from Black children to the Black disabled community to the Black Trans community, that was met with praises from Black people across the world across platforms like Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook. 

Fast forward to five years later, videos and images of Black death are still viral, police violence has been met with a countrywide rebellion and a co-opted #BlackOutDay has uncritically become images of Black squares as activism. The issues around the Black squares as a display of solidarity and activism are tenfold. For starters, no one can point to who organized the day as a form of solidarity and activism. Many different people, from rappers to Black ‘Blue check’ twitter personalities to white infiltrators, have been attributed as the “creators”, but none have ever acknowledged the day existing already. 

The  “Black Lives Matter” hashtag being used to accompany the Black squares inadvertently interrupted, during a rebellion met with strong police and military repression, all of the necessary online organizing information under that hashtag that many have spent years curating for accessibility. Many have deflected criticisms with the argument that organizers should be moving further away from dependency on online activism, but if that is the case, why substitute USEFUL work with “displays” of solidarity and activism that result in nothing more than a Black square? 

As Black celebrities waltzed themselves in front of our television screens to tell us to “stand down” and “stop destroying our neighborhoods”, they also decided the most effective way to protest and be heard is through a random economic boycott dependent upon the fallacy and myth of the Black Buying Power, also called #BlackOutDay. Morgan State University professor, Dr. Jared Ball details this popular but unrealistic notion of the Black buying power in his book, The Myth of the Black Buying Power. Ball makes the point that income is not wealth and  “buying power”, as a phrase, measured in these ways offers many illusions that contradict that point. 

This, alongside, the ahistorical retelling of the Montgomery Boycott, which ignores the streams of direct action and mutual aid networks that existed to sustain the longevity of the boycott, including well organized pre campaigning, has been the foundation of these “actions” that have not challenged the state in any significant way. The reimagining of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts is significant because it is that sort of revisioning of that era that has allowed Black politicians, specifically the Congressional Black Caucus, to skate by doing the very bare minimum while being complicit in the system of policing we know today. 

Political Charlatans and Black Lives Matter

Stop Police Terror Project - DC demonstrates at a press conference held by Murial Bowser.
Stop Police Terror Project – DC demonstrates at a press conference held by Murial Bowser.

Charlatan Black politicians rely on the tried and true method of doing the bare minimum and receiving praise. They are complicit in the systems that squeeze Black poor working class communities into the impoverished and over-policed conditions that have become standard.  “All politics are local” is most evident when politicians with despicable local records are propped- up in mainstream ways for their empty and immaterial acts. Mayor Murial Bowser and her latest stunt, Black Lives Matter Way, is a perfect example of this. In a shameless attempt to both annoy Donald Trump and “show support” for the protests seemingly centered around police violence, Bowser has managed to sweep her record and policies around policing up under the rug, providing liberal pundits with the perfect photo op. 

Bowser is Black DC’s enemy. In the past, Bowser deliberately chose to prioritize illusions of public safety through policing rather than prioritize comprehensive public health-based policies enshrined in the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act of 2015. In 2018, Bowser, alongside Metro Police Chief Peter Newsham, increased policing in Wards 5, 7, and 8 by 25% despite the deaths of Jeffrey Price, D’Quan Young, Marqueese Alston, and the brutal beating of Samuel Cooper. Not to mention the implementation of the illegal stop-and-frisk policies her good friend Mike Bloomberg, who she backed during his presidential run, is most notable for during his time as mayor of New York City. 

According to the BYP100 DC chapter 2018 press release, “Mayor Bowser and Chief Newsham have not only failed to address the rise in violence in our city, but their actions and failed policies have contributed to it. Time and time again, Mayor Bowser has had opportunities to implement and embrace policies proven to reduce violence. Time and time again, she has rejected them in favor of more policing and criminalization. Bowser and Newsham have failed our communities.”

Bowser has doubled down continuously on failed policies, never pushing for investigations of murders at the hands of police under her reign and yet has become the new face of #BlackGirlMagic because she put some words on the road and changed a street name to antagonize an overtly racist white man who has now built a ‘wall’ around the White House.

This failure to deeply interrogate not just these institutions but the people who uphold them is how we find ourselves settling for ID reductionism void of any real power. It is also how we find our long struggles of organizing against these systems co-opted, removed from us entirely and watered down. 

Defunding Police 

A picture of a street painted with the message "Defund the police."
Defund the police

Currently, there is a national conversation around defunding police. Mayors and city councils are taking swift action to address the demands shouted out during the days of rebellion. One by one, state officials began publicly announcing  hundreds of millions of dollars were to be reallocated to the “Black community”. But what does that mean?

The LAPD has a total budget of $3.14 billion. What does it mean for Mayor Eric Garcetti to publicly exclaim the immediate cut of $150 million to be dispersed to the Black community void of details of how that will work and how that would be distributed? What does it mean when that same mayor then commits $1.86 billion to the Los Angeles Police Department? Cities like New York City have a documented history of failed programs like the Police Athletic League (PAL). What does it mean to repurpose NYPD funding towards social programs with no details on how that would work and which programs would get funded or any interrogation of the racist nature of social services? 

Finally, the House Democrats draped in Kente cloth announced (already existing) reform proposals, but denounced defunding citing it as a local issue. However, the militarization of police has been done federally yet they have failed to address the Department of Defense 1033 program, Deadly exchange program with Israel and Operation Relentless Pursuit. Ultimately, we witnessed not just an embarrassing display of House Democrats cosplaying as allies to, ‘the Blacks’, but the taming of rebellions that directly challenged the infrastructure of the state. 

Yes, We are being gamed.

The same characters who found no resolve in the last 6 years of continuous state-sanctioned deaths at the hands of police by police departments across the country are, once again, being pushed out as having the answers to “real justice”. These characters support (and push) reformist rhetoric, policy, and legislation that amounts to nothing more than our continuous deaths through more reforming of existing reforms.  

Fully supported by a mainstream media narrative intending to funnel this moment to an “anti- Trump ” uprising, these characters have been pushed to the forefront to redefine defunding of police and abolition. Shamelessly, these characters have erased abolitionist concepts that inform what defunding police should look like to pivot back towards “better training” and other reforms used to justify more police funding. 


Community control of police has been completely removed from the conversations dictated by a mainstream and complacent narrative. Prison abolition has been completely removed from the conversations dictated by a mainstream and complacent narrative. Rebellions and protests have become nothing more than cop-embracing parades with signs signifying that “sure, Black Lives Matter”. 

When the fanfare around these actions die down, our people will still be dying everyday in the prisons. Hundreds of Black people in the US will still be dying from COVID-19 and medical neglect. Millions of us will still be without healthcare. Millions of us will still be without jobs. Many of us have not received a stimulus check and are in the crosshairs of the housing crisis. And countless of us are still expected to work without PPE in the midst of the pandemic. 

It should be very clear by now that the state moved swiftly to domesticate the resistance by attempting to keep it at a surface level appeal for “racial justice” equipped with symbolic measures, opportunist entertainers and political figures, and NO power. 

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Erica Caines is a poet, writer and organizer in Baltimore and the DMV. She is an organizing committee member of the anti war coalition, the Black Alliance For Peace as well as an outreach member of the Black centered Ujima People’s Progress Party. Caines founded Liberation Through Reading in 2017 as a way to provide Black children with books that represent them and created the extension, a book club entitled Liberation Through Reading BC, to strengthen political education online and in our communities.