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Can Black Lives Matter move up in the age of Trump?

In this July 8, 2016, photo, a man

In this July 8, 2016, photo, a man holds up a sign saying "black lives matter" during a protest of shootings by police, in Washington by the White House. Photo Credit: AP

As various movements have sprung up like flash mobs to march and protest President Donald Trump’s election, a question gradually occurred to me: Where’s Black Lives Matter?

Ever since the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was born after a jury acquitted a neighborhood watch volunteer in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012, the loosely formed movement has turned up repeatedly to protest fatal shootings of unarmed black men and other racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

But since President Trump’s election, we have seen new eruptions of racially suspicious police incidents, but not of major protests.

Last week, for example, we saw a suburban Dallas police officer charged with murder for allegedly firing his rifle into a car full of black teens, killing a 15-year-old boy.

Last month we saw the stunning video of police officers in Grand Rapids, Mich., holding a group of black children at gunpoint - ranging in age from 12 to 14.

Yet as much as these disturbing stories made national news, they did not spark the major protests we have seen elsewhere. Why?

A Washington Post reporting team came up with one answer after interviewing what they described as “more than half a dozen leaders” in the Black Lives Matter movement.

The movement has entered a new phase, they were told. It is focused more on policy than on protest, all in response to the election of President Trump.

“There are less demonstrations,” Alicia Garza, one of three women credited with coining the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, told the Post. “People are channeling their energy into organizing locally, recognizing that in Trump’s America, our communities are under direct attack.”

Indeed, that makes a lot of sense at a time when Trump’s election seems to have changed everything about how we Americans view the world.

But I think the energy and enthusiasm for Black Lives Matter street protests peaked out sooner than that. I think it happened last July when five police officers in Dallas were killed by a sniper at a Black Lives Matter protest. Ten days later, three more police were killed in Baton Rouge, La., after street protests over the shooting of another black man.

No, I don’t believe it is fair to blame peaceful protestors for the shootings any more than I think it would be fair to blame Republicans for every deranged right-wing shooter who also happened to vote for their party. Still, it’s a little harder to criticize President Trump for his various inflammatory remarks if you dodge accountability for any anti-police tone in your protests.

Loosely organized flash-mob movements with weak leaders and vague agendas have become a trend in the Twitter age. But they tend to lack control over their members, their message and their momentum.

Lack of organizational discipline leads to embarrassments like the foolish protesters from St. Paul who chanted, “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon,” while marching behind police officers at the Minnesota State fairgrounds two years ago. Conservative commentators still replay that video as though it was yesterday.

Everybody seems to have an opinion about what Black Lives Matter should do with itself. Here’s mine: I think it’s time for the movement to move up from protests to planning, policies and programs. Protests have a lot of romantic appeal but they’re no substitute for an agenda, firm goals and a plan to get there.

Conservative media have pinned all manner of racist beliefs on Black Lives Matter, yet the movement has not put much of a priority on appointing official spokespeople to push back.

On the contrary, today’s young self-styled “woke” (politically conscious) generation, I have found to my chagrin, too often thinks it is beneath them to arm themselves with knowledge and employ the simple art of persuasion to win people to their side. “It’s not my job to educate you,” I have been told by some righteous activists in a form of intellectual snobbery that is bound to lead to failure.

Indeed, a lot of people find it easier to call for dialogue than to actually engage in one. That’s changing. Some Black Lives Matter activists have organized a formal agenda and leadership development programs, just for starters. Leaders matter. Whether things go right or wrong, somebody has to be where the buck stops.

Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him email at cpage@tribune.com.

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