However, the bigger problem was the movement’s inability to create the space to debate and work out the tension between reform and revolution, or more crudely between body cameras and prison abolition. All movements are confronted with existential debates concerning their viability and longevity. There are always crucial decisions to be made concerning their direction and the best route to get there. But without the opportunity to collectively assess, discuss, or ponder what the movement is or should be, those political disagreements can sometimes devolve into bitter personal attacks.
Among movement activists, acrimonious personal disputes were expressed throughout the social media landscape, creating an archival trove of material for state agents. It also fueled animosity and discord between people who had every interest in collaboration and solidarity. Callout culture summoned attention to every transgression, armed with the belief that the act was committed with the worst of intentions. The goodwill that many imagined and wanted to rest at the heart of the movement could only be built upon trust and genuine relationships. These were difficult to build without formal structures, clear responsibilities, and mechanisms for leadership and accountability.
Indeed, the “organic democratic accountability” that Packnett insisted on was absent. The lack of clear entry points into movement organizing, and the absence of any democratically accountable organization or structure within the movement, left very few spaces to evaluate the state of the movement, delaying its ability to pivot and postponing the generalization of strategic lessons and tactics from one locality to the next or from one action to the next. Instead, the emphasis on autonomy, even at the cost of disconnection from the broader movement, left each locality to its own devices to learn and conjure its own strategy.
The BLM movement claimed to have no leaders, embracing the “horizontalism” of its Occupy predecessor. But all movements have leaders; someone or some group of individuals are deciding that this or that thing will or will not happen; someone decides how this or that resource is used or not used; someone decides whether this or that meeting will or will not happen. The issue is not whether there are leaders, it is whether those leaders are accountable to those they represent. It also matters the way in which those leaders are determined as leaders. In the case of the meeting with Obama, it appears that the attendees were selected by the Obama administration as individuals or organizations they determined were the leadership of the movement. Perhaps this was unavoidable, but the lack of accountability to the ordinary people who made up the mass of the movement could cause confusion or hard feelings.
But the insistence that there was no leadership even as people are brandished as leaders by the political establishment obscured how decisions were being made and who was to account for them.