University News

#BlackLivesMatter co-founder urges activism

Opal Tometi speaks to activist experience in age of police violence, global scale of anti-black racism

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, March 21, 2016

Police shootings and brutalization of black youths have become so commonplace in the United States that it can be difficult to imagine how to remedy the structural racism that allows for such injustices to occur, but difficulty is no reason to stand at the sidelines during times of crisis, said Opal Tometi, one of the founders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in a talk March 19.

The motivating action for Tometi in starting #BlackLivesMatter was when she heard news that George Zimmerman had been acquitted for the role he played in the death of Trayvon Martin, a black 14-year-old, in 2012.

“I remember feeling like the breath had been taken out of my body,” Tometi said. The Martin case was particularly poignant for Tometi, whose brother was the same age as Martin at the time.

After finding the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on Facebook— which was a concurrent response to the verdict — Tometi reached out to Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors, the two women responsible for the hashtag’s creation, and offered them her public relations and outreach skills in the hopes of creating a larger awareness of anti-black racism. Along with Garza and Cullors, Tometi founded #BlackLivesMatter as a larger activist movement which now has over 30 physical chapters across the United States and Canada, in addition to wide-scale usage as a rallying cry against police violence.

Tometi explained that for her, it was important to found a movement that existed at the intersection of race, religion, sexuality and gender expression. It is particularly important to uplift stories of violence against black women and girls because narratives typically ignore their struggle and positions in activist networks, she added.

Despite the development both in the size and influence of #BlackLivesMatter, the movement has not been without its detractors. Tometi pointed to #AllLivesMatter — a frequent counter to the movement’s charge — as an example of the type of discourse that ignores the specific nuances of racism in America.

“We certainly believe all lives matter,” Tometi said. “But at the end of the day we have to deal with the reality,” she added.

That reality is that black people in America, regardless of age and gender, are criminalized solely based off of the color of their skin, Tometi said.

“We don’t get to be innocent or joyful without being criminalized,” Tometi said. “People are having their innocence literally kicked and dragged out of them,” she added.

Violence against black individuals is so prevalent and well-documented nowadays that Tometi is literally incapable of viewing new videos or stories of incidents without being physically ill, she said. In addition, the widespread usage of smartphones to record police brutality calls into question why we are documenting these events in the first place, she added.

“There was a time where these images needed to be on display,” Tometi said, adding that “we’re living in a different time.” The overabundance of such images also runs the risk of desensitization, she added.

But discomfort at the sight of violence might be a necessary evil due to the fact that most cases of police violence would not be prosecutable were it not for video evidence of police misconduct, Tometi said. “Don’t just document for documentation’s sake,” she said, adding that its important for activists to “use documentation to mobilize.”

Though discourse is largely centered around the North American strain of discrimination, the issue of anti-black racism is hardly  a uniquely American construct, Tometi said. Instead, the effects are felt globally, she said.

The refugee crisis in the Middle East, for example, was preceded by large-scale movement of Africans across the Mediterranean in response to poor conditions on the continent partly due to European foreign policy, Tometi said. Specifically, European trade policy has established “deals” with African countries that have inundated markets with useless goods, destabilizing local economies, she said.

This compounded with a disparate amount of environmental crises has forced many Africans to cross the Mediterranean for European shores only to perish in the process. The media’s lack of coverage over the loss of black lives only proves the presence of implicit biases on a global scale, Tometi said.

In spite of all of this and the apparently insurmountable barriers that exist both in our own society and around the globe, Tometi has pledged to continue fighting for black lives and made it clear that there is room for at least a modicum of optimism in activist efforts.

“It’s not hopeless,” Tometi said. “We have to do something about it because it doesn’t have to be this way.”

Tometi closed by imploring audience members to devote themselves to activist efforts because “you don’t get to be alive in times like these and do nothing.”

“It’s an affront to all of us when injustice is this pervasive,” Tometi said. “We all have a right to rise up and fight for black lives.”