Outside the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge, where police shot and killed Alton Sterling, a crowd gathered Tuesday night to hold a vigil and protest the Justice Department’s decision not to charge the officer. They held signs and gave speeches. They prayed and cried.
It was a vastly different scene from the one that had played repeatedly on cable news after Sterling’s death last July, when activists blocked intersections, riot police arrived in armored vehicles and about 200 demonstrators were arrested.
In recent years, policing has been among the nation’s most visible issues as people outraged by use of force and racial disparities in punishment took to the streets under the “Black Lives Matter” banner. But activists say the movement’s efforts have entered a new phase — one more focused on policy than protest — prompted by the election of President Trump.
“What people are seeing is that there are less demonstrations,” said Alicia Garza, one of three women credited with coining the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. “A lot of that is that people are channeling their energy into organizing locally, recognizing that in Trump’s America, our communities are under direct attack.”
The issue that galvanized the movement hasn’t subsided. So far this year, police have shot and killed 23 unarmed people, a higher rate than in 2016, when 48 unarmed people were killed all year. Both years, about one in three of those people has been black.
Activists say they’re no less aware of those statistics than in years past. But like most of the political left, they were stunned by Trump’s electoral victory in November. And in the months since, they’ve grappled with the role of an antiracism movement at a time when political threats to other groups — immigrants, Muslims and women — have gained urgency and pushed more progressives into the streets in protest.
In interviews, more than half a dozen leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement said that last year’s presidential election prompted renewed focus on supporting other minority groups as well as amassing electoral power to fight an administration that has pledged to roll back Obama-era efforts to reshape policing practice. Those leaders — who hail from various factions of the decentralized movement of individuals and organizations that have, at times, clashed — said the reality of Trump’s presidency has forced a reconsideration of strategy.
“There was a lot of regrouping that had to happen within our movement and on the broader left to really think strategically,” said Asha Rosa, the national organizing co-chair for the Black Youth Project 100.
The first major convening of young black activists during the Trump presidency came in April, when they met in Memphis for speeches, marches and workshops marking the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. They were joined by representatives of organized labor, the Fight for $15 minimum-wage effort, and a smattering of immigrant-advocacy and Muslim-rights groups.
The Black Lives Matter network is now one of more than 50 groups that have christened themselves The Majority, a coalition of progressives working on social justice issues, including LGBT rights and Islamaphobia.
Even before the election, some of the most prominent activists in the Black Lives Matter movement were expanding their focus to broader political efforts.
Garza helped develop the Women’s March political platform and is an organizer for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a labor organization.
“We are also doing a lot of work to build bridges between other movements and communities caught in the crosshairs of Trump’s agenda,” she added. “It’s a real opportunity for us to build a movement of movements.”
DeRay Mckesson, a Baltimore-based activist whose live tweeting from Ferguson, Mo., during the 2014 protests earned him hundreds of thousands of followers, ran for mayor of Baltimore last year and, after that unsuccessful bid, joined newly elected Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez’s transition team.
He has spent much of the year rolling out policy platforms and mobilizing tools, including the Resistance Manual and a project called OurStates, a site that helps people combat Republican policies in their state.
Garza and Mckesson also have claimed the spoils of relative celebrity. Garza has been a fixture on the paid speakers’ circuit while helping secure funding from major donors for the Black Lives Matter network. Mckesson has been mingling with cultural luminaries and political types, practicing his philosophy that the movement needs to work within the system.
Black Lives Matter’s transition from street protests to policy is not unusual, said Stephen Zunes, a University of San Francisco professor who studies social movements. It’s through such work that a movement’s priorities — like mandatory use of officer body cameras — can become national standards, he said.
“That’s actually the way effective social movements often work or behave,” Zunes said, pointing to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in the wake of the financial crisis as a counterexample. “What the Occupy people did not learn, or by and large do, is go do the lobbying, the organizing to make change happen. They wound up fetishizing the ‘occupy’ part, and then, by and large, it fizzled.”
Much of the push for policy change is being driven by local chapters of Black Lives Matter, under the national media’s radar, Garza notes.
In Memphis and Atlanta, activists have focused on challenging the “money bail” system, their term for the widespread practice of holding people in jail who are unable to pay even small amounts required by courts to assure they will show up for trial.
Poor defendants — who stand to lose jobs, apartments and custody of their children as they sit in jail — often plead guilty to lesser crimes without seeing a judge or jury.
Local Black Lives Matter activists raised more than $33,000 to bail black mothers out of jail just before Mother’s Day, said Mary Hooks, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Atlanta.
The organization also is pushing the city council to make possession of a small quantity of marijuana punishable by a $75 ticket rather than arrest, and it is demanding that Atlanta’s mayor examine how the police force has been “militarized,” Hooks said.
Activists note that these efforts rarely make local news, let alone receive the national attention given to Ferguson protests after the fatal police shooting of a black teenager, Michael Brown.
“It’s not because we’re not organizing,” said Shanelle Matthews, a spokeswoman for the Black Lives Matter Global Network. “I think the media companies, vying for the very little brain space in people’s minds, are reporting on what they think people want to hear about right now. And that’s Trump.”
The Trump presidency is challenging the movement’s goals in another way.
In April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered Justice Department officials to review oversight agreements that the Obama administration put in place for police departments that showed wide racial disparities in policing practices. Since 2009, the agency has investigated 25 law enforcement agencies and entered monitoring and reform agreements with 14 of them.
Advocates suspect Sessions plans to walk away from the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce the number of people killed by police and contend with the disproportionate toll such shootings take on black and Latino Americans.
During Sessions’s Senate confirmation hearing in January, he described federal investigations into police departments as damaging to officer morale and implied that the Justice Department’s scrutiny of police work had contributed to officer deaths.
“This must not continue,” Sessions told the Senate.
Still, the movement’s impact has been visible in some communities. In recent controversial encounters between police and unarmed black people, law enforcement has responded faster and with more regret than seen in years past. In suburban Dallas on Tuesday, an officer was fired three days after he fatally shot a 15-year-old boy sitting in a car. The officer was later charged with murder.
In North Charleston, S.C., former officer Michael Slager — who was charged with fatally shooting Walter Scott in the back after a traffic stop — pleaded guilty to using excessive force last week. And last month in Grand Rapids, Mich., police released body-camera footage a few weeks after officers held a group of unarmed black boys, ages 12 to 14, at gunpoint.
Activists there say the fact that officers were even wearing body cameras was a result of community pressure. In 2015, community groups and city officials released a report on local policing that included a 12-item to-do list that included equipping every officer with a body camera. Elected officials and the city manager have promised to make a priority of the entire plan.
“Activism looks like a lot of different things: It can look like voting, it can look like protest, it can look like calling your representatives,” said Aditi Juneja, a law student who works with Campaign Zero. “The question shouldn’t be, ‘Will this activism be sustained?’ because for many people the work is very personal and it isn’t going to stop. The question is how it will sustain and how it will continue to manifest.”
Ashley Cusick in Baton Rouge contributed to this report.