As Political Focus Shifts, N.H. Black Lives Matter Leaders Say They'll Keep Pushing
In June, young Black people organized some of the biggest gatherings for racial justice in New Hampshire’s history. Newly formed chapters of Black Lives Matter won praise from the state’s most powerful elected officials.
“We are with you,” Gov. Chris Sununu said at the time. “Let us be a tool and resource to be that agent of change.”
But in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s election, politicians of all stripes appear to be paying less attention to the concerns of Black Lives Matter and their supporters.
Sununu skipped a gubernatorial debate organized by BLM and the NAACP on issues of racial justice. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Feltes fought to repeal the death penalty and says he supports BLM; but he also said in September that he won’t commit to commuting the death sentence of a Black man who killed a Manchester cop. Many affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement saw that stance as a betrayal, especially since it came after Feltes got an endorsement from a major police union.
As they continue to work to translate the momentum from this summer to electoral politics and policy making, Black Lives Matter leaders in the state say their efforts will look largely the same, regardless of who wins in next week's elections.
At a rally last month, Jordan Thompson, the 21-year old director of Black Lives Matter Nashua, condemned Democrats for putting law enforcement over BLM’s priorities.
“They care more about procedure and more about what is politically expedient than making a real difference in our communities,” he said through a bullhorn at a rally in Concord. “They’re more concerned about answering to police unions than the f---ing constituents that elected them. That’s bull----!”
White politicians and voters tend to have short attention spans when it comes to racial justice. Erika Perez, one of the organizers of Black Lives Matter Manchester, said she's not surprised by that, or by the fact that some politicians seem to have moved on.
“BLM has been called ‘trendy’ and we see that," she said. "We see that all the time.”
Perez said many of Black Lives Matters supporters still stand by the movement. But some have strong opinions about the strategies BLM should use.
“Some people want us to burn down buildings; some people want us to like wear suits,” she said. “And we’re not going to be either. We’re just going to do what we do.”
What they do, Perez said, is call out racism, even when it’s no longer in the headlines and drawing huge crowds.
But criticizing politicians - including those who claim to be allies - comes with risk, and it doesn't necessarily earn a group a voice in policy decisions in New Hampshire.
Ronelle Tshiela, one of the organizers of BLM Manchester who also served on Sununu’s police accountability commission this summer, said people have warned her of this.
“‘We’ve heard the expression before: ‘You’re burning bridges. You’re burning too many bridges. You need to make sure that you’re keeping friends in the right places,’ ” Tshiela said. “But when it comes to us and our cause, I think that we’re willing to call out anyone who is doing things that are harmful to the Black community.
This election, some BLM organizers are working individually with left-leaning organizations on get-out-the-vote efforts. But as a group, they’re not endorsing anyone. Thompson said they don’t want to get too cozy with one party.
“We want to work on all sides of the aisle on legislation that is actually going to be substantive and make a real difference in our communities,” he said. “But what we’re not going to do is stand here for performative gestures of solidarity.”
As the group figure out how to sustain their movement during their election and beyond, Black Lives Matter continues to face death threats and hostility. Last month, Republican state Rep. James Spillane said on Facebook that people should feel free to “burn and loot” houses with BLM signs. He later said it was a joke.
Democrats called for Spillane’s resignation; Republicans were largely silent.
So last week, BLM activists drove to Spillane’s hometown of Deerfield for a rally. Most of the 100 or so attendees were white, and they spoke about their efforts to make BLM a less divisive and partisan issue.
At the end of the rally, Perez took the mic. She said it’s nerve-wracking to come at night to a white, rural town that elects officials like Spillane. But she said she didn't come to shame Republicans.
"If you take anything away from this, I don’t want you to vote red or blue," she told the crowd. "I want you to take from this: Some views hurt other people. And when you vote, I want you to think about other people. Because the world is a scarier place for me right now."
But even if the results of next week's election make BLM leaders feel less scared, they say the work of undoing racism in New Hampshire transcends the election cycle and today's work is only beginning.