The Motivating Forces Behind Black Lives Matter
Image by Damon Davis
We are sitting at La Pintoresca Park in north Pasadena, where Jasmine Richards is the city’s Black Lives Matter chapter leader. Browline glasses rest on her high cheekbones, and her hair is pulled into a tight, low bun held in place by a backward baseball cap. Her eyes restlessly dart to the skate park, where the boys she watches over are gambling. Whoever wins the game will go buy everyone chicken.
“They’re watching me,” says Richards. “You’ll see them about 4:30, 4:45. If they know that I’m here, they’ll send in security to watch, to just park right there and just watch.”
The last time I saw Richards, it was by accident. I clicked on a link to World Star Hip Hop and found myself watching a video of Richards confronting the police officer who shot and killed Kendrec McDade, an unarmed teenager. “You killed somebody’s baby,” she tells the officer as they both stand in a local convenience store, the exchange apparently being filmed on a bystander’s phone. “How could you live with yourself knowing you stripped her son of his body?” The officer stands by, chastened.
In the video, it is difficult to detect fear in Richards’ voice, but she says the interaction upset her. “This is a very small place,” she says. “I still have to run into the people that I protest against.” Last spring, Richards was arrested on the charge of making terrorist threats, as well as disturbing the peace and failing to comply with officers, after she organized a Black Lives Matter demonstration for McDade. Supporters of the organization paid the money for her bail.
The three co-founders of Black Lives Matter have spent the past two years mentoring local organizers like Richards and providing support to organizations around the country. When activists Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi first hashtagged the phrase #BlackLivesMatter on social media in 2013, it was just an emotional response to the news of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the Trayvon Martin case. But the phrase has since become the banner slogan for a movement that has permanently altered the political consciousness of the nation.
Last year, after thousands of protesters took to the streets in Ferguson, Missouri, braving tear gas and rubber bullets, the movement, began growing at a rapid pace. Black Lives Matter chapters materialized all over the country—there are now 26 chapters in North America. The outrage of black communities dominated American public discourse. The names Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray made regular appearances on newspaper front pages and cable news tickers.
The names of female victims of police violence—names like Rekia Boyd, Natasha McKenna and Mya Hall—however, remained unknown to most people. Cullors, Garza, and Tometi have been tireless in their campaign to change that, using Black Lives Matter to push for a more thorough rejection of state violence—one that considers the specific ways that this violence impacts the lives of black women. This means focusing on stories of black women who have been victimized by police or the prison system. But it also means cultivating a strong cohort of black women leaders within the movement at large. Unlike the Occupy protesters of 2011, who claimed to be leaderless, the co-founders of Black Lives Matter instead assert that their movement is—in their words—a leaderful one.
And those leaders are frequently black women like Richards, women who are carrying out grassroots community work in their neighborhoods in service of a global struggle against police violence. Richards has become a permanent fixture at La Pintoresca Park, a popular hangout for neighborhood kids—every few minutes, we’re interrupted by a “wassup, J?” And when the police finally do come around, they know who she is, too. “There go the police there, walking through my park,” she says. The offers sidle up to the park bathrooms, open the doors, and peer in. They walk up to where we are, eying us suspiciously, one hand on each of their hips.
Richards rushes toward them, instructing her boys to stay quiet as she approaches the officers. She is seemingly undaunted as she closes the distance between them, her chin in the air to make full use of her height. “Get out of here!” she yells at the officers, over and over again, following them closely around the park. The officers smirk. They walk back to their cars and drive off.
Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female
In 1969, a writer named Frances Beal published Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female, one of the most formative black feminist texts of the decade. In the essay, she argued that the black woman suffered the brunt of oppression because racist oppression intersected painfully with patriarchal oppression.
“Her physical image has been maliciously maligned,” Beal wrote. “She has been sexually molested and abused by the white colonizer; she has suffered the worst kind of economic exploitation, having been forced to serve as the white woman’s maid and wet nurse for white offspring while her own children were more often than not, starving and neglected.”
Beal held capitalism accountable for these conditions. Capitalism, she argued, directly led to the exploitation of black women’s labor and particularly the labor of black domestic workers. They earned less money than men and less money than their white female counterparts. And those facts have remained true in the years since the publication of Beal’s essay. Today, where white women average 78 cents to a man’s dollar, black women will only make 64 cents. This is the double jeopardy with which black women are charged, and this idea animates Black Lives Matter’s approach to black liberation.
“What I’ve been focused on is making sure that black women are empowered to reshape the economy and reshape our democracy in their image,” says Garza, speaking to me from Oakland, where she works as special projects director for theNational Domestic Workers Alliance. In many ways, Garza serves as Black Lives Matter’s narrator. Her op-eds and articles appear in publications like The Feminist Wire, Truthout and, more recently, Those People, often functioning as declarative statements about the role and direction of the movement. There is a constant effort in her writing to re-center the conversation on black women, particularly those who identify as queer or trans.
“We were all heavily influenced by the writings of Barbara Smith and Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, and this kind of notion that as women of color, and as queer women of color, we faced multiple oppressions at once,” she says.
In Oakland, Garza witnessed the rise of a strong Occupy movement, one that would overtake the city. Although the death of Oscar Grant helped set the stage for the rise of Occupy Oakland, critics like Garza say that those n the encampment failed to make substantial considerations of race and gender in their critiques of economic injustice and police violence. Many argue that this failure contributed to its downfall—its inability, mostly, to galvanize a broader community.
Black Lives Matter, Garza hoped, would succeed where the Occupy movement had faltered. This meant establishing a broad but singular mission statement, one that addressed all intersecting injustices afflicting the black community. The phrase “Black Lives Matter,” which Garza posted to Facebook for the first time two years ago as a “love note to black people,” embodied the specificity of this political purpose. It began, first, as a hashtag. It could have lived and died as a hashtag, as many modern campaigns do. But Garza and Cullors, a community organizer from Southern California, wanted more from the project. And when Tometi, an immigration activist from Arizona, stepped in, their advocacy began taking the shape of a movement. Suddenly, they had a Facebook page. A Tumblr blog. A Twitter account. All over the country—in Los Angeles, Oakland, New York City—protesters carried posters emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter.” One year later, demonstrators in Ferguson and Baltimore used the phrase as a rallying cry—then it began to show up at protests in Paris, Delhi, and Tokyo. In Israel, Ethiopian Jewschanted the words in a challenge to police violence there.
But while the larger movement might draw its power from its broad appeal and inclusiveness, its slogan operates against the notion of a post-racial society. To say “Black Lives Matter” is to recognize that we live in a world in which that statement is not true.
“It says we’re unapologetically black,” says Tometi. “We’re going to name it. We’re going to name how acutely social issues impact black people. You can’t deny it.”
An Anti-Lynching Movement for the New Millennium
Moments before taking the lives of 12 black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Dylann Roof made a chilling statement, one that reverberated with the savagery of hundreds of years of racist ideology. “You rape our women,” he told the worshippers before he pulled the trigger. “You’re taking over our country, and you have to go.”
More than a hundred years earlier, Ida B. Wells, the famed anti-lynching activist, appeared in Chicago to deliver a speech called “Lynch Law in America.” It was a couple of years after she’d published her most notorious text, Southern Horrors, in which she documented the lynching of black men and laid bare the racist and sexist ideologies that justified them. “No colored man, no matter what his reputation, is safe from lynching if a white woman, no matter what her standing or motive, cares to charge him with insult or assault,” she wrote in 1900. Her words remain remarkably relevant today.
“Really, this is a new millennium anti-lynching movement,” says Melina Abdullah, sitting in her office at Cal State Los Angeles, where she chairs the pan-African studies department. “The anti-lynching movement was the most radical movement of its time. The same thing is true of Black Lives Matter; we’re considered the most radical movement of our time.” Abdullah, wearing a shirt that reads, “Hip Hop is Bigger Than the Government,” exudes defiance whether she is here, in her office, or in confrontation with police officers and government officials as an organizer with Black Lives Matter Los Angeles.
Days before our interview, she’d been involved in a Black Lives Matter action in which activists occupied the sidewalk outside the home of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti for 48 hours, demanding justice for Ezell Ford. They pitched tents and fashioned a small memorial for Ford, hanging his photo on the steel gates in front of Garcetti’s home. The unarmed 25-year old had been shot and killed by Los Angeles police not long after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. The group had been campaigning for weeks for a meeting with Garcetti to demand the removal of LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, a saga that has focused unwanted scrutiny on the mayor’s office. They finally won a sit-down with him earlier this month. A month before the meeting, both Abdullah and Cullors had been forcibly removedfrom a mayoral event at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel, where they had arrived to request a meeting in person.
Years before they’d be thrown out of public events and harassed by security officers together, Cullors and Abdullah met at a meeting for a local organizing strategy group. “She just has this passion and a real power about her,” says Abdullah. “There was something special about Patrisse.”
If Cullors has a particular passion for the subversive brand of activism she practices, it comes from a very personal place. She grew up in Van Nuys, California, where the threat of police violence pervaded everyday life in the neighborhood. “I remember LAPD lining up my siblings—and they were probably like 12, 13—just stopping and frisking them daily,” says Cullors. Her brother was jailed for a while, and he describes waking up in a pool of his own blood after being assaulted by a police officers. Her father, too, was incarcerated—a casualty of the war on drugs, he was in and out of jail for substance abuse. He had no support. He had no treatment. At 51, she says, his body was “done.” He died three days before the death of Oscar Grant.
In high school, Cullors read feminist writers like bell hooks for the first time. “It was my first introduction to putting language to my suffering and my family’s suffering,” she says. Racism, classism, patriarchy, homophobia—these words helped her contextualize her pain. But they also energized her activism.
When she was 18, she organized her first demonstration. She was at a park, kissing her girlfriend when a man approached them, yelling at them to stop spreading “lesbianism.” They left, hand in hand, unsettled by the interaction. When they got home, they called their friends and made protest signs. About 10 people showed up to the park and they marched down Ventura Boulevard. “It was about reclaiming space, you know? It feels so funny now.”
The reclamation of space has always been an important protest tool for marginalized people in the U.S. It means reinscribing places that are stained with the memory of trauma with stories of resistance and resilience. It’s a strategy that Black Lives Matter implements in both symbolic and practical ways. Only days after the Zimmerman acquittal, Cullors, Abdullah and hundreds of other protesters gathered at La Cienega Park in Beverly Hills, California. They marched westward toward Rodeo Drive, heading into one of city’s most affluent communities. “Put your champagne glasses down and bow your heads for a minute!” they told the wealthy, mostly-white outdoor diners at the neighborhood’s chi-chi restaurants.
“We want to go to places that represent white supremacist patriarchal capitalism,” says Abdullah. “As long as our communities are under assault, they shouldn’t be able to retreat to their places of refuge.”
Black Queer Feminism is For Everybody
In 1977, the Combahee River Collective, a radical black lesbian women’s liberation group, released what it called its “Black Feminist Statement.” The manifesto, written by Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith and Demita Frazier, became legendary. “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression,” they wrote.
Several decades later, Garza and Cullors stood on stage at Dēmos’ Transforming America Awards in New York City, being honored for their work and echoing the sentiments of their feminist forbears. “This generation is really pushing and challenging the old civil rights establishment that has in large part looked like heterosexual, cis, Christian, black men. And women who were doing amazing hard work but were not getting any credit for it,” said Cullors.
By addressing the specific struggles of black queer women, the Black Lives Matters founders argue, echoing their Combahee predecessors, that they are confronting a system that subjugates everyone. “Because we know that black women, cis and trans, are really like the canaries in the coal mine, right? What’s happening to black women is the future of everybody else,” says Garza. On average, black women are incarcerated at 2.5 times the rate of white women. Black women represent more than 53 percent of women that are stopped by NYPD, even though they represent less than 15 percent of the total population of New York City. Around 35 percent of all black transgender people have been arrested or held in a cell at some point in their lives.
Last May, the African American Policy Forum released a report called “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women,” which featured the stories of dozens of black women, cisgender, trans, queer, and straight, who have been victim to state violence. There is Kayla Moore, a transwoman who was apprehended in 2013 on a warrant for a man 20 years her senior and then allegedly suffocated to death during the arrest. There’s Natasha McKenna, who was tasered multiple times by officers while in handcuffs and leg shackles. She later died in the hospital. And there is 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who was shot to death in her sleep by a police officer in her home. At the end of the report, the organization made this recommendation, among others: “At protests, demonstrations and other actions calling attention to state violence, include the faces, names and slogans of Black women alongside Black men.”
Two days after the release of the report, Black Lives Matter organizers in San Francisco, partnered with a local organization called the BlackOUT Collective, crowded an intersection in the city’s financial district, effectively blocking one of the most bustling main streets in the city. Lined up across the street, they stood with their fists in the air. Some carried signs. But more shocking to passers-by than the bold demonstration, the protesters had also removed their shirts to revealthese words inscribed on their bare chests:
“I fight for mothers.”
“I fight for those who have been murdered by the state.”
“I fight for my girls to love their bodies.”
The display collided both history and politics in a powerful composition of symbols and language. Here these women stood, asserting ownership over the city and reclaiming control of how their bodies are seen, in the kind of bold, declarative action that has made Black Lives Matter almost synonymous with the quest for justice in 21st-century America. For the drivers heading to work on Market Street and the pedestrians rushing past trying to avoid eye contact, the voices of black American women, at least for that moment, became impossible to ignore.
The illustration above was created by Damon Davis, an artist heavily entrenched in the Black Lives Matter movement who has been using his art to depict and narrate the struggle against state violence in black communities. In Ferguson, Davis plastered the streets with now-iconic photos of raised hands, as a call to action for the people of St. Louis. For this image, Davis connected the stories of the women founders of Black Lives Matters to their historical predecessor, Harriet Tubman. “I was mindful of the parallels drawn by black women throughout this country’s history of liberation,” he writes. “Birds have always been used as a communication tool for black people. “Flying geese” was a code used by slaves during the Underground Railroad and today, twitter (symbolized by another bird) is a new mass communication method that has fostered our movement’s growth.”