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Activist talks nuances of Black Lives Matter

NYU professor Frank Roberts talks history, challenges with defining BLM movement

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2018

The speaker’s black t-shirt matched his baseball cap. The shirt read “UNARMED CIVILIAN.”

“Let’s be clear: There’s a reason why I show up like this. Because I want to assault your assumptions of what political black leadership is supposed to look like. I want to assault your assumptions about what a college professor is supposed to look like. When I show up in the classroom, this is how I show up. I’m not interested in being in a suit and tie,” said New York University Professor Frank Roberts in a lecture about the essence of the Black Lives Matter movement and its role in the Trump era yesterday afternoon. The event was organized by the Cogut Institute for the Humanities and the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America.

Roberts is the professor of the first class on Black Lives Matter in the United States and creator of the “public educational curriculum,” “The Black Lives Matter Syllabus,” according to his website. In his lecture, Roberts described Black Lives Matter in 10 terms — a human rights movement, intersectional, feminist, LGBT-driven, youth-led, against the politics of respectability, abolitionist, global, artistic — and a prayer. Often abandoning the lectern, Roberts walked the audience through these points of the movement in ardent words.

“I’d like to think of tonight as a kind of provocation and a kind of call to action to and for community that you all can be co-participants in,” Roberts said. He characterized the movement as “more alive now, more relevant now” than it ever has been before in “this strange and dangerous moment in history that we find ourselves in.”

This moment is one to “affirm our global commitment to being troublemakers,” Roberts said. He considers this an “unprecedented opportunity to engage in coalitional work.”

Historical roots

Throughout his talk, Roberts explained Black Lives Matter as an evolving entity in a living history.

One way Black Lives Matter differs from previous struggles for black freedom and empowerment is its decentralized structure, he said. “The age of the black freedom movement being led by the black male preacher figure is dead. And it’s not coming back. We hope not — Black Lives Matter represents a radical changing of the guard of black political leadership in the United States,” he said. Decentralized social movements “are not leaderless; they’re leaderful.” In the 1960s, when the fight for black rights was organized around more centralized leadership, “all of our leaders ended up in caskets,” Roberts added. “Think about what that does to a psyche of a generation.”

For present and past generations, the movement is also “a prayer.”

“Black Lives Matter is a remembrance prayer for the ancestors who didn’t make it out of the bottom of that boat. Black Lives Matter is a remembrance prayer for Michael Brown and Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice and all the names that we don’t know. It’s a remembrance prayer for our grandmothers and our great-great grandmothers; women who washed clothes and scrubbed the toilets at fancy Ivy League institutions like this — so that one day we might see the light of freedom.”

The movement is also an “affirmation prayer,” Roberts said. “We say black lives matter, we believe black lives matter — we look at the material conditions of the world, and obviously the state disagrees.”

Black Lives Matter is shaping other activist movements in its artistry, structures and methods, Roberts said. He argued that it has created a foundation for social justice movements such as #MeToo and the Parkland push against gun violence. “Black Lives Matter is an intersectional movement that has influenced (and) provided a framework for how these newer social movements have learned to fight back and engage on the internet,” he added.

Challenges of defining the movement

Black Lives Matter can suffer from a “lack of conceptual clarity” because “how the movement sees itself is not very often how the public sees the movement,” Roberts said, adding that he believes the fundamental language with which the movement describes itself is inadequate.

The title of the movement is misleading, Roberts said, because “the debate has never really been about whether black lives matter. The question has always been about whether or not black lives are human lives.”

“This language of Black Lives Matter, in many ways, needs to be rethought — and I say that with all due respect to the black feminist labor that gave birth to it. … When we go back to the 19th century and we read the diaries of those slavemasters — oh, they were real clear that black lives mattered because, without those lives, the U.S. economy would have collapsed.”

Roberts drew a connection between the economic subjugation of black people during slavery and the effects of the contemporary American prison-industrial complex. “Even today, when we think about the neoconservative Republicans on the right and the neoliberal Democrats on the left, both fighting tooth and nail to privatize our prison-industrial complex — oh, those people know that black lives matter, because without those lives, without those bodies, our prison cells would be empty.”

The issue of crafting apt language extends from Black Lives Matter to social justice movements in general. Roberts explained how academics and members of the public alike are quick to force social justice movements into the mold of civil rights movements, placing emphasis on legislative progress as the only desirable outcome.

Despite not prioritizing legislative change, fundamental structural change is emphasized by the movement in other ways, Roberts said. “Black Lives Matter is not attempting to simply reform the prison-industrial complex or reform policing in America; Black Lives Matter wants to abolish both. Destruction of systems should not result in “anarchy,” he clarified, but instead affirm “the commitment to building new worlds in its place.”

A global movement

American police violence is entangled in global forces, which is part of why the Black Lives Matter movement should be understood as global, Roberts said. He emphasized connections with the Israel-Palestine conflict. “One of the untold, undertold, underarticulated stories of the Black Lives Matter movement is the story of how the movement has ushered in an era of Afro-Palestinian solidarity,” he said.

“Let’s look at Ferguson alongside the West Bank. In both instances, you see young people being subjected to constant police and military surveillance. In both instances, you see brown people being warehoused into isolated, economically depressed communities. In both instances, you see blatant violations of people’s basic human rights, going unsanctioned by the law,” he said.

“The same tear gas used on American civilians in Ferguson is manufactured by … literally the same company that is used in the West Bank,” Roberts added.

Roberts also called out the practice of sending American police officers to Israel for training as an exacerbation of police brutality. “Since 2004, according to the Anti-Defamation League, at least 300 high-ranking sheriffs and police departments from agencies large and small … from New York to Ferguson to right here in Rhode Island have traveled to Israel for privately funded seminars, to be trained in what officials call ‘counterterrorism techniques.’” One of the martial arts techniques in which they were instructed was used on a child at a Texas pool party in a widely publicized 2015 incident, he added.

“The U.S. state response to vehement protestors is part of a troubling … global story of how powerful, so-called democratic empires are increasingly responding to dissenting populations with brute force,” he explained.

But Black Lives Matter “is so much more than a movement against police violence,” Roberts said. He noted that Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza, two of the three founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, along with Opal Tometi, “are proud members of the queer community; it’s an important part of the story, it’s not a footnote.”

Questions of class and community

The questions following the event reflected the intense engagement of the audience. Director of the Cogut Institute Amanda Anderson asked Roberts how class fits into Black Lives Matter. Roberts responded by reiterating the movement’s goal of disrupting the politics of respectability to recognize the constraints of class. “Part of what the movement against respectability politics is is a willingness to listen to and center the concerns of poor folk, of hood folk, of ghetto folk, of folk we don’t think are supposed to have a microphone.”

Langston Glaude’s ’18 question articulated concerns about class in the context of the Brown community. Glaude worked to organize against the white supremacist movement which was allegedly responsible for the racist flyers posted around College Hill last month, The Herald previously reported. When Glaude and others worked to organize with members of the Providence community, “there was a kind of distrust” because “we are part of an institution that tends to take a lot of resources out of Providence,” and there are “power dynamics between students at an Ivy League institution” and “working class folk.” Glaude asked how to work across that gap, as well as gaps in socioeconomic status within the black community.

Roberts called this “one of those questions that keeps you up at night” and suggested that first steps include “to democratize who’s in the room, which will change the perspective,” while “those of us in positions of leadership have to have one foot in and outside of the academy at the same time.”

While the talk’s audience consisted primarily of educators, students and  community members were also present.

A community member said that looking around the room “and seeing only three people of color — that’s what I’ve been staring at my whole life.”

The community member added that “it’s great that you can sit here and speak all this to people who aren’t of color, so maybe they can get a better understanding of what someone like you and me goes through,” but asked how it would ever be possible to “change that narrative” of overwhelmingly entrenched inequality. Roberts responded that there is no easy answer but that a “marathon” of “slow activism” offers the only hope for meaningful change.

“Your role as students is to understand that unity is not uniformity. You can all have different strategies” for activism, Roberts told The Herald. He said he is “waiting for the invitation” to bring his Black Lives Matter class to Brown and other institutions but also emphasized that, “You have the power to say, ‘Listen, you want a course like this? You don’t have to have Frank Roberts teach it. You can teach it yourself.’”