A Q&A With Opal Tometi, Co-Founder of #BlackLivesMatter
By: Mychal Denzel Smith
One thing that sets the current racial justice movement apart from its predecessors is the intentional centering of voices that have previously been marginalized—even within movement spaces. While the media still primarily pay attention to institutionalized racism when a black heterosexual cisgender man is killed by police, organizers on the ground are looking to grow a movement that ensures liberation across sexual, gender, and class identity.
In my second interview with the creators of Black Lives Matter, I spoke with Opal Tometi, Executive Director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration, about building an inclusive movement, the importance of identity, and how to shift the narrative of justice away from the conviction and jailing of killer cops.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mychal Denzel Smith: Can you take me to the moment you read Alicia Garza’s Facebook post that said “Black Lives Matter” and what you felt reading at the time?
Opal Tometi: There was a call to action with the group of people that we had been working with called BOLD (Black Organizing for Leadership & Dignity). Within this formation Alicia basically said, “Hey, we need to come together to understand this moment and provide some shared guidance, a reading, as well as a call to action for our people.” Black Lives Matter is how she’d been talking about it. That really resonated with me.
At the time, Black Lives Matter was kind of like a rallying call and it was something we’ve been articulating online in some ways, in conversations, and beginning to put it on our posters and signs as we are going through the streets.
The point was really to engage people who are community organizers or just concerned citizens in this moment in racial justice. How are we specifically addressing anti-black violence as it occurs? More broadly, I really wanted to open up the space for a conversation that moved beyond police brutality. So that’s why we kind of kept it broad. And that’s also why Black Lives Matter is Black Lives Matter, not justice for X. It was very important to have something that was broad enough that captured the state of black life and the fact that we are experiencing a range of violence and we need to be able to speak to all of that.
You also asked about the feeling of that moment and I kind of digressed. I had actually just walked out of a screening of Fruitvale Station with my friend, another black organizer in Brooklyn when George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in the killing of Trayvon Martin. I had a slew of texts from people asking, “What are we doing? Where are we going? March tomorrow.” Both of us, as organizers, were like, “Oh my god what is this moment.”
Although many people think that justice would have meant finding him guilty, we know that it’s beyond that. But there was just something in that moment that felt really hopeless for a lot of us. As organizers, we knew that we couldn’t sit in that hopelessness, right? We had to make this mean something and I was very committed to that. For me the solution is always organizing.
Black Lives Matter, in a lot of people’s understanding, is very much tied to anti-police brutality work because the slogan got popular around Michael Brown’s killing. It has become linked to the idea that justice means indicting, convicting, and incarcerating killer cops. Can you talk a little bit about the limitations of that?
Black Lives Matter is really an affirmation for our people. It’s a love note for our people, but it’s also a demand. We know that the system was not designed for justice for us. Even if we were going to get an indictment or a guilty verdict, that actually would not provide us with the larger vision of liberation that our communities actually deserve. Absolutely, I have a huge concern in relying on the current apparatuses we have for “justice” for our people. It’s never going to be a solution for us. We know that nearly half of the incarcerated population is black people. We know that 50 percent of women who are incarcerated are black women. We don’t want to reinforce a system that is actually designed to lock up our people. We actually need to push a more profound question around the structures that are oppressing our people.
That really puts Black Lives Matter in a different space. I think we’re at this stage where we are doing a lot more education with our people and saying, “We are not just looking for one guilty verdict.” We are having these one on one or small community/town hall and panels to really engage our people in a deeper conversation about what we truly deserve. The reality is we deserve to live in a world where we are not murdered. We deserve to live in a world where there’s no impunity, but beyond this question of impunity there are all these structures that are actually doing a disservice to our people.
I look at things like the immigration system. I also think about the education system. I think about health care. I think about any of these other sectors and the ways in which they are treating our people and I look at the outcomes. We are experiencing premature death for a number of reasons. Police are only one aspect. We are actually experiencing this in very institutionalized ways every single day. I think about things like the poverty that exists in our communities. Our communities have been gutted. I think about the attacks on labor unions and what that has done to the standard of living, the employability of our people, the kind of wages that we are making, and the benefits. That to me is actually violence that’s sanctioned by the state. Those things also have to be taken into account. My hope is that our people will be able to pivot and understand the various ways we are experiencing this violence and we will continue to rise up and fight back.
Your work outside the Black Lives Matter movement is rooted in just immigration policy. For me, it gets into this idea of inclusivity, understanding that black experiences of violence and oppression are going to be different across the board because we come to it with different backgrounds. There’s incarceration, but also immigration, which we don’t normally talk about black people being included in.
Also when we talk about inclusivity we talk about black trans women. At the beginning of 2015 we saw almost a death a week among black trans women. There are people talking about that, and trying to make it part of the narrative of Black Lives Matter, but those deaths don’t fit so neatly into what we understand as the Black Lives Matter movement in that they aren’t so clearly connected to state violence. How do we incorporate those narratives?
I think that’s a really good point—we need to do more work to talk about what Black Lives Matter means even within our communities. Part of it is complicating the narrative about who’s black and what it means to be black. The larger public narrative and discourse, particularly in this moment, is still so focused on black male bodies, cisgender male.
We still experience resistance against including these stories in the broader narrative. Black Lives Matter has been viral and people are taking it, appropriating it, and using it however they see fit. That’s part of the challenge in being able to shape the narrative when we are not necessarily around or when leaders from our network aren’t the ones sharing the stories. Our network leaders know that we are diligently uplifting black trans women and so the work on the ground in many places does reflect that. However, there’s still some resistance towards that.
I do agree we have to deal with it. It’s a question that’s been raised quite a bit, particularly in spaces where I’m speaking with many more women nationally…gender based violence. We have to talk about that in our spaces. These are women who would be out there for our men and alongside our men. I think about the ways in which a black immigrant woman, or a black trans immigrant woman…I mean I know black trans immigrants…the types and layers to which they are experiencing violence at the state level and in the community, and possibly even in the home are things we actually have to become more adept with talking about and finding solutions for engaging in that.
How important is it to you for people to know that the three women at the helm of Black Lives Matter, two of whom are queer?
I think it is very important that people know that. The queer community and the black queer community specifically have been riding so hard for us. We become invisible in the work and it’s actually a lot of freaking work. Our days are 16-18 hours. We are barely getting any sleep because we are building out this political project and social movement network. There’s very real labor that’s going into that. It’s also important that we acknowledge that.
The last piece of that is that the three of us are black organizers. We came in as organizers before creating the Black Lives Matter network and project and we are still organizers, strategists, political thinkers, and philosophers, so we actually have a lot ideas and a lot of really thought out strategies. We want to grow a movement filled with leaders.
I think there’s something important about saying, “Hey, these are three women who put this together. Here’s why. Here’s who they actually are.” That will allow for other folks to rise up. When I speak at events these days and share that I have Nigerian roots. I will automatically have fifteen people come up to me after the talk and share with me, “I’m this. I’m actually from this. I’m from Ghana. I’m from Jamaica.” They really resonate with what I shared and they are able to add a different type of value to my own understanding and the broader community understanding of who is black and what is actually happening to them as they are experiencing anything really.
I think it’s been really important to also say that my black queer sisters. People are like, “Oh wow, queer women helped to start this?” People perk up and listen in different ways and identify in different ways when they really know who it is that started this thing. Lastly, we don’t want it to be about ego. It’s not about ego, but it’s also about historical memory and the truth, so we in many ways are stepping more and more into our own leadership. People have identified what they want and who they want to be speaking and sharing, so part of our responsibility now is just to own that and step into that and listen to our elders who are saying, “Yes, go Opal go! Go Patrice! Share your stories. Lead this movement.” I have a lot of elders who are calling me up these days and really encouraging me, even from a distance and it’s been really beautiful to see.