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The women of Black Lives Matter outline their path forward
How BLM’s female leadership dreams the future of the global network.
Black Lives Matter changed the national conversation on race. An organizational and international network, it has ballooned into 31 chapters in three countries.
Now comes the hard part.
It all started back in July 2013, when three black women and community organizers—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—founded #BlackLivesMatter and the online campaign’s social platforms following the verdict that acquitted George Zimmerman in the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
The group includes a table of black organizations called the Movement for Black Lives. Also, the larger black liberation movement—which includes many more activists within different organizations not officially affiliated—grew to prominence in August 2014 following the death of another black teenager, 18-year-old Michael Brown, whose body laid in a Ferguson, Missouri, street for more than four hours after he was fatally shot by white police officer Darren Wilson. The Ferguson uprising further mobilized black people—many of whom were on the frontlines—sparking a more mainstream conversation on police killings, the brutalization of protesters, and how some state-sanctioned systems allegedly dehumanize black lives.
As Black Lives Matter celebrates Black Futures Month, Cullors, 32, talked with the Daily Dot not only about how BLM shifted narratives on race, but the challenging road ahead, and the plans for the future of the Black Lives Matter network and movement.
“I always say this, but what an amazing time to be alive,” Cullors told the Daily Dot. “I feel like we are living in a moment where black people are holding the conversation around racial justice [and] around gender justice.”
Cullors pointed out that the network isn’t just focused on police violence, a common misconception about Black Lives Matter.
Cullors said Black Lives Matter is allowing for conversations inside and out of the community. She’s been organizing for 15 years and back when she started, she said her fight for black lives wasn’t as critical to the public.
“It was not in our best interest to talk about black lives in the way that we are right now,” Cullors said. “People really want to talk about either the economy or a multi-racial context. Folks were uninterested in really talking about the issues that black people face.”
Cullors pointed out that the network isn’t just focused on police violence, a common misconception about Black Lives Matter that will be addressed by leaders this year.
According to her, the network’s work is broken up in four different categories: the criminal justice system—or police and state violence, plus mass criminalization; gender justice—for women, queer people, transgender or gender-nonconforming people in the black diaspora, and how they shape the larger dialogue around black lives; reproductive justice—the war on women’s bodies and their ability to choose; and black labor—the fight for economic justice for black lives.
“This is an important moment to really hone, take care of, and groom black leaders,” Cullors said. “I think it’s also really trying to assess what black people want, what black people need, what do we want to fight for and what do we want to build.”
Cullors said some of this work will be policy reform and coalition building, but also building new narratives like Black Futures Month—a celebration of art, writing, and actions in February.
Elle Hearns, 28, strategic partner and organizing coordinator at Black Lives Matter, said that she and the network will be supporting gender justice and the continued development of leadership for black trans women this year.
“Assessing how we are uplifting the lives of black trans women in our communities and moving beyond the much-highlighted murders of black trans women is something I think I and the network will be focused on in 2016 and beyond,” Hearns told the Daily Dot in email.
Hearns said it’s important to challenge who and what gender justice stands for in 2016. “Oftentimes gender nonconforming people and femme identifying folks are forgotten and erased from the gender justice conversation,” she added.
“At the center of it all is our passion and love for the history of who we are and what desires still remain from the lineage of our ancestors.”
BLM has made great progress in highlighting the contributions and leadership of black trans people—crediting leaders like Wriply M. Bennet’s art and music, Raquel Willis’ writing, and Michael David Battle’s teachings. Yet Hearns still “dreams” for futures “wrapped in love” for both cisgender (identifying with the sex assigned at birth) and transgender black women.
“I dream that black women, black transgender people, and black queer people have the space to see a future for themselves… I dream that we never forget the black trans people who most recently transitioned to the spirit realm. Maya Young, Ashe. Nico Jackson, Ashe. Veronica Cano, Ashe. I dream that we no longer have to carry the weight of the world alone on our shoulders without the support of our people.”
The network’s dreams and desires are rooted in black love, according to Hearns. And she would like more consistent commitment to it as BLM expands.
“In the movement there has been great resistance, in that resistance I often wonder how much we’ve learned to resist each other and our ability to truly commit to loving each other, ourselves, and our people beyond the circumstances we live,” Hearns said. “At the center of it all is our passion and love for the history of who we are and what desires still remain from the lineage of our ancestors.”
Black Lives Matter also organizes for the rights of black immigrants and is fighting against environmental racism—including the Flint, Michigan, water crisis.
Tia Oso, 34, a national organizer at Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and a strategic partner with Black Lives Matter, has been an activist her whole life and has largely focused her work around uplifting issues that impact black immigrants.
Black immigrants face the same issues as black Americans. In fact the same four key areas that BLM focuses on cross over to BAJI organizers. And BAJI organizers—who sit on the BLM’s policy table—are in grind mode.
In collaboration with Black Lives Matter, BAJI is planning a future for the movement in strategic partnerships, advancements, and organizing around an array of issues that black immigrants face, and educating communities on understanding and analyzing the complexities of these narratives.
BAJI supported the UndocuBlack Network in organizing its first-ever event addressing the intersections of undocumented identities and their stories called “The Undocumented and Black Convening” during Martin Luther King weekend.
“During the convening, the issue that came up a lot was around folks and their economic situation because if you’re undocumented there’s very limited ways for you to earn a living and then on top of that, there are folks who are black, undocumented, trans, and queer folks,” Oso told the Daily Dot.
Like the event, BAJI is focused on building the leadership of black immigrants within the Black Lives Matter movement, and enhancing the engagement and support for them to be leaders too.
“They are the ones who should be leading in the fight for what changes that need to be made within the immigrant rights movement, but also there’s a perspective that’s missing in other movement spaces,” she added. “When you have immigrant folks at the table you don’t miss that and you don’t create narratives that throw these communities under the bus.”
Black Lives Matter is at a notoriety apex of sorts. But progression comes with backlash, and according to Cullors, there’s been tons.
“We’ve seen the rise of white supremacist groups,” she said. “We’ve seen more and more right-wing pundits coming to the forefront to say that Black Lives Matter is a hate group.”
Cullors explained there are two things that can be done about the backlash. First, she encouraged people to call out right-wing pundits including Bill O’Reilly whom she said spread hate. Cullors also encouraged organizers and activists to keep doing the work, regardless of the backlash: “It’s unfortunate, it’s harmful, and it’s bigger than all of us.”
As a movement that centers around black, female leadership, their work isn’t always recognized and honored as much as it should be, Cullors said.
“The issue of black women works and leadership being co-opted, being stolen, being criticized, scrutinized—that is an age-old fight, and until patriarchy ceases to exist—that will continue,” Cullors said.
In addition to the leadership challenges, the movement is gaining more visibility, and that has both its positive and negative impacts.
One thing is for sure: There’s a lot of attention on everything both black people and Black Lives Matter do, as Oso pointed out, and this includes those who disagree and quarrel within BLM.
According to Oso, there’s sensationalism around who’s the most popular BLM activist. She said that mainstream news media “creates their narrative and runs with it.” She said there are activists and organizers on the ground who don’t get the same spotlight, and this leads to people giving each other the side-eye and calling each other out on social media.
“What I think needs to happen and also what I hope happens is that we learn to work together, and recognize the value and the unique contributions everyone has and is making, and not to devalue or disparage one another,” Oso said.
Hearns said she focuses on the movement work rather than divides and disagreements: “It’s much more easy to focus for me on our overall movement work when I think of the heartbreak families, communities, and ultimately our movement felt at the murders of Tanisha Anderson, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Mya Hall, Mansur Ball Bey, and Tanisha Anderson.
“I keep the focus by remembering our experiences and truths are not singular and that our people have been doing this individually and [collectively] since forever,” she said.
“The issue of black women works and leadership being co-opted, being stolen, being criticized, scrutinized—that is an age-old fight.”
Cullors would agree with Oso and Hearns. Her interest is pitching a broader tent. The network’s co-founder clarified a major misconception that has caused many disagreements about how the movement started with a Medium post: “We didn’t start a movement. We started a network.”
However, Cullors made it clear that black people don’t all think alike or believe in the same things. According to her, there are different ideas about approach, tactics, and strategy, and she’s fine with that.
“The work that we need to do is stay in it, be as sharp as possible, and try to drive some of the most important conversations—which is essentially those of us who are at the margins: black poor people, black women, black trans folk, black folks who are incarcerated,” Cullors said.
Even with the challenges and backlash of the BLM network, Cullors is focused on building and strengthening the movement and its teams. She wants to develop new systems that will amplify the work of the 31 chapters this year.
“With the movement, I’m excited about our ability to amplify black voices,” she said. “I really hope [this year] more and more black voices—that have traditionally have not been heard… will be at the forefront.”
Illustration by Max Fleishman
Deron Dalton is a social journalist whose work for the Daily Dot focused on police violence, activism, and the Black Lives Matter movement.