(CNN)Here’s a question for both supporters and critics of the Black Lives Matter movement:
What does Black Lives Matter want?
Not sure? How about this. Can you cite a moment in which a BLM leader passionately and eloquently denounced the recent shooting deaths of eight police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge? Can you name one or two leaders from the movement?
Chances are the answers to those questions fall all over the place. Four years after its founding, BLM is still a movement without a clear meaning for many Americans. Some see it has a hate group; others as cutting-edge activism and yet others as just a step above a mob.
“Most of the folks in the movement are young and we’re black so they assume we’re uneducated and uninformed and we’re just angry and in the streets,” says Johnetta Elzie, a leader in the BLM movement and Campaign Zero, another organization formed to fight police brutality.
Those assumptions may now get worse as BLM leaders confront a make-or-break moment that virtually all protest movements eventually face: What happens when your enemies and unexpected events do a better job of defining your movement than you do?
BLM leaders are under a new kind of scrutiny because of a whiplash of unexpected events: cell phone videos of two black men who died from police gunfire followed by the ambush and killings of five police officers in Dallas at a Black Lives Matter protest, and three police officers targeted and killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
As a result, activists and scholars say BLM is facing the same challenge that confronted striking steelworkers in the 19th century, gay activists blindsided by the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, and Occupy Wall Street demonstrators in 2011. These movements initially captured the public’s imagination, then their existence was threatened by something over which they had no control.
Some of these movements adjusted; others withered.
“The action is on page one; the retraction is on page 88,” says Jerald E. Podair, a historian and author of “Bayard Rustin: American Dreamer.” “If you cannot adapt you’re simply not going to survive.”
Can BLM adapt? The same organizing philosophy that has helped the movement grow may lead to its demise, some activists and historians say. They cite these four reasons:
Reason No. 1: The buck stops where?
BLM organizers made a bold decision when they organized as a hashtag on Twitter four years ago. It was going to be a “leaderful” organization; not one led by a single leader or a centralized leadership structure.
“We’ve always made it clear that we are one of many,” Elzie says. “There’s not one person who can be a leader of the movement. We’re all leaders.”
There’s a shrewd pragmatism to that decision. Movements built around charismatic leaders evaporate when that leader is assassinated or discredited. The civil rights movement never recovered from the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Few today can name the organization that Malcolm X headed when he was assassinated by Nation of Islam members (It was called the Organization of Afro-American Unity).
That’s a military adage that underscores the unpredictability of warfare. Great battles are often won not by genius strategizing but by chance events: a freak storm destroys a fleet of warships; an absentminded soldier loses crucial battle plans; a general falls ill on the eve of a campaign.
Protest movements often face the same abrupt reversals of fate, says Podair, the historian. He cites an infamous defeat from the union movement, the Homestead steelworkers strike.
The steelworkers union initially looked like it had won a bloody battle against a ruthless figure of the Robber Baron era, steel titan Andrew Carnegie. On July 6, 1892, thousands of unionized steelworkers successfully beat back 300 armed detectives who had been dispatched to the Homestead steel mill by Carnegie to crush the strike. They were protesting working 12-hour days, and six to seven day work weeks, and their plight earned sympathetic newspaper coverage across the nation.
That sympathy evaporated about three weeks later because of the actions of one gunman. An anarchist tried to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, Carnegie’s plant manager at Homestead and his designated union buster. Frick’s reaction — he and others subdued his would-be assassin after being shot twice and stabbed four times — made him a hero to the American public. The public then connected a mounting anxiety over anarchists to the striking steelworkers.
“The union disavowed the anarchist but it was too late,” says Podair. “The strike fails and the steelworkers don’t get a union going for another 30 years.”
History turns on a hinge; movements that don’t learn to adjust often fizzle, Podair says. He cites the example of Occupy Wall Street. It attracted support but didn’t have a Plan B after occupying Zuccotti Park near Wall Street.
“They did not adapt,” Podair says. “They were so protest- and spectacle-oriented that they never made the transition into electoral politics, which is where the power is in a democracy.”
McCarthy, the Harvard historian, doesn’t think Occupy Wall Street should be called a failure. Nor should it be judged by its power to get candidates elected.
“We wouldn’t have had a Bernie Sanders campaign if it wasn’t for the Occupy movement,” he says. “We wouldn’t have the language of the 1% or Democratic presidential candidates calling for more regulations of the banks.”
McCarthy says a better illustration of a movement’s need to adapt is the gay rights movement. It was devastated by the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. That’s when the gay community realized that it had to develop more confrontational and theatrical forms of protest because the nation’s political and medical community were ignoring the crisis, he says. ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a new coalition of direct action groups, used high-profile demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience to further their agenda.
“The movement could have been derailed and died but they rose up, spoke up and acted up,” McCarthy says. “And that movement is still with us today.”
Will BLM still exist in the years ahead?
At least publicly, BLM leaders don’t speak of changing their approach.
Packnett says BLM has repeatedly said that it’s not violent or anti-police.
“We’ve all said that,” she says after a big sigh. “People hear what they want to hear. It doesn’t fit with the narrative that critics want to have.”
The future may produce more unexpected narratives for the movement. What if another black shooter attacks police and invokes BLM? What if new cell phone footage shows police officers, not unarmed black people, being gunned down? What if the names of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland and slogans like “I Can’t Breathe” fade from public memory?
Will a “leaderful” movement that refuses to speak white America’s language adapt? Or will it squander the momentum built the last four years?
If the latter is the case, BLM leaders may confront this question in the future:
“Hey, whatever happened to Black Lives Matter?”