ST. PETERSBURG – Co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, writer, strategist and community organizer, Opal Tometi, spoke in front of a large crowd of students and community members at Eckerd College Mon., Feb. 29.
A New York-based Nigerian-American writer, Tometi explained that though she and the other two co-founders of Black Lives Matter—Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors—are sometimes viewed as celebrities, she wanted to assure everyone that they are not.
“We’re organizers, we’re people who are passionate about social justice and human rights,” Tometi said, adding that they’ve been working to organize the community for at least 10 years.
Citing the mysterious “execution-style” deaths of three Black-Muslim males recently in Indiana, Tometi said that our people are being brutalized every day and we have to deal with it. We have to engage the issues and stand up for justice, she said. That is why she, Cullors and Garza started Black Lives Matter in 2103.
“The reason we created Black Lives Matter is because there was a woeful silence around the killing of unarmed black people,” Tometi stated. “There was a woeful silence around a system of anti-black racism that we have been facing ever since we’ve been kidnapped from Africa, forced to come to the United States and exploited.”
We’re living in a period where we have a black president and other black leaders, yet we still see the same level of injustice, homelessness, unemployment and lack of opportunity in the black community, she remarked.
Referencing the killing of Trayvon Martin, Tometi asked the audience how many of them remembered where they were when they heard George Zimmerman—the man responsible for the Florida teen’s death—was being acquitted. It was a historic moment for all of us, she said, a moment that will be forever “etched in our hearts, etched in our minds.”
Tometi recalled standing under a streetlight in New York City and getting the news on her phone, and exchanged a look with a girlfriend who was beside her.
“We were deeply disappointed,” she said. “We both felt like we’d been punched in the gut.”
She knew the event would help to define a generation, and couldn’t imagine something like this happening on her watch, she said, as she has two younger brothers herself. As she heard the “not guilty” verdict, all she could think about was how her family’s lives were in danger, literally.
Tometi began to organize people, and was encouraged and inspired because people all over the country from all walks of life joined in the protests. She has realized through her travels out of the country that people the world over are deeply concerned with what’s going on here in the United States.
“And I’m moved by it,” she said.
When the news came out of Mike Brown losing his life at the hands of a white officer, she said, many people were following it online, watching the videos and were seeing “incredibly courageous people” who in the face of seeing a young unarmed black boy, lined the streets for over four hours in Ferguson, Mo.
“Even in that place of grief,” Tometi said, “folks were so in touch with their humanity and with what they allowed themselves to feel that they were moved to the streets. They were moved to call attention to the entire world to what was happening in Ferguson.”
This quite literally embodied Black Lives Matter, she said. They called for the world to pay attention. And these people who had the courage to stand up for what was right, she added, were being met with tear gas and a militarized police force.
Black Lives Matter is about black love, she said. It’s about love for our people, love for humanity, it’s about “actualizing” the fact that another world is possible. On Labor Day weekend 2014, several hundred people organized in Ferguson, Mo., for what Tometi called a “transformative experience for all of us who were there.”
Many people, she said, think an indictment or a “guilty” verdict is justice, but actually it is not. That’s a very narrow definition of justice. What’s just is for it to never, ever happen again. What’s just, she continued, is repair for the damage done to black communities and for people to rise up and make sure that black life is defended at all costs.
Referencing various studies done at UCLA, Tometi said that according to this research that white people and police see black kids as older—a type of bias. White people and police also feel less empathy for black people in pain, cited one of the studies.
Another study revealed that white people see lighter skinned Latino and black people as more trustworthy, reliable and smarter—a bias based on complexion. This bias may be happening at the subconscious level, but it is important we account for this type of bias, which equals racism in our society, she stated. And it has real consequences in the world.
For people becoming more aware of what’s taking place in the world, it’s really important that we dig deeper and face the root causes of the injustice that we’re faced with, she pointed out, as oftentimes we’re encouraged to look at “Band-Aid solutions.” Without seeking to unearth the root causes, we’ll find ourselves in a cycle of protesting. You’re either with the movement or you’re not.
“You’re either pro-justice or you’re not,” she said. “There’s no being neutral in times like this.”
Structural inequality on many levels is only growing, she said, adding that there are more people enslaved today than there were during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. People are being exploited and torn apart from their family members and it is only getting worse. With all the technology and al the access to information, we can do something about it. But information is only beneficial if you’re willing to do something about it, and furthermore, to do something with it.
“Insight without action is vain,” she said.
There was a notion amongst black people that in order for their rights to be affirmed, she explained, that they had to appear a certain way and conduct themselves in a certain manner. Black Lives Matter sought to do away with “respectability politics.”
“No matter what we look like,” Tometi said, “no matter what your record might be, no matter if you sag your pants or if you talk a certain way, you’re life still matters.”
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