ON THE COVER

Opal Tometi: Black Lives Matter

BY OPAL TOMETI

05 JANUARY 2020 

Opal Tometi

The murder of Trayvon Benjamin Martin in 2012 and the acquittal of the ‘killer cop’ George Zimmerman revealed an already-established fact: the Black race’s freedom is only an illusion.

Standing on the shoulders of his death, three black women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi will rise in 2013 to start a revolutionary movement called Black Lives Matter. A few weeks later, millions will take to the streets in protest against the acquittal, and Tometi, the Nigerian of Esan and Yoruba descent, will spearhead the social media campaign causing the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to be a focal point of debate across the globe.

35-year-old Tometi who is also the former executive director of the Black-Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) shares with The Guardian Life on the need for the emancipation of the black community from the shackles of systematic racism and Africa’s role.

Opal Tometi

Origin Of #BlackLivesMatter
I’m one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter platform and chapter-based network. I launched the social media channels and website after I heard about the outrageous acquittal of George Zimmerman – who murdered 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. I was particularly outraged because my youngest brother was 14 years old at the time and I couldn’t imagine that he would be growing up in a society that would so patently deny justice for the murder at the hands of a vigilante. I knew this wasn’t only about one incident, but about systems and a society that did not value Black life.

I’m driven to do human rights work because of my love and passion for Black communities around the world. As a first-generation Nigerian-American and a Black woman who came of age in a conservative environment, I often dealt with a lot of aggression and witnessed many injustices. However, I’ve known from an early age that I was called to do something about it. My Nigerian immigrant community in Phoenix, Arizona gave me a tremendous sense of pride and also taught me that we had to look out for each other, even if we aren’t blood relatives. I also realised that although I may not have been born in Nigeria, my connection to my family and culture were very real. And so I felt like I belonged, and felt very committed to understanding life in Nigeria in addition to life in the United States.

Opal Tometi

Answering The Call Of African-American Liberators
I have always admired African liberation leaders and civil rights movement leaders in the Americas. They’ve taught us so much. And it’s been my desire to continue the work that they started. And create something relevant for our current times. I wanted #BlackLivesMatter to be huge and knew intuitively that it could be with the right actions, at the right time. And it has been so incredibly humbling to help build and contribute to the most significant social movement in modern history. It’s clearly far greater than me or any of the founders. And while I’ve been humbled by the countless awards and recognitions, I know there are so many other leaders at the grassroots level who may never receive the credit they deserve either. Nevertheless, it’s not even about that. It’s about the transformation of our world that we so desperately need. And we need as many of us to contribute in our various ways with our various gifts and resources.

A Second Or Third Consciousness As An African-American
I have a clear sense of who I am because of my spiritual roots and love for Jesus Christ, and also because of the strong Nigerian immigrant community I was raised by and all the Black American friends I had, too. I grew up knowing we are not a monolith and felt okay branching out with my own expression. In fact, one way I began expressing myself was when I went “natural” when I was 15. I am now 35. I’ve been “natural” for 20 years, and my parents have never complained or shamed me for choosing to look different and explore my identity outside of the typical hair choices that many of my peers were making around me. I’ve learned to embrace who I am spiritually and physically, and so in some way, I do have a consciousness about me that gives me strength. I have never been ashamed to be Black. I do not consider the white gaze nor the male gaze. I don’t recall a day where I have not been proud and happy to be a Black woman. And I am so grateful to have been born Black with Nigerian cultural heritage.

Opal Tometi

Africa’s Participation
Black Lives Matter is about ensuring that all people of African descent are treated with the dignity and respect that we deserve. It’s about justice for all of us, and this includes those of us who live on the continent and throughout the diaspora. When we say these three words – Black lives matter – it means all of us no matter where we reside. All Black people can trace their roots back to somewhere on the African continent. And the goal is to repair and rectify the harm and trauma that has been done by colonialism and the legacy of it — which has led to the injustices we see today both in the Americas, but also in many African countries.

I believe Africans should care because these issues impact immigrants from Africa, too. For example, some may recall Amadou Diallo or Mohamed Bah who were killed by the New York Police Department. Smart African immigrant men who had family and a future, but it was cut short. But beyond these examples and the fact that many Africans face discrimination or harassment in the United States or will never get jobs that they were trained to do because many won’t recognize African degrees, we have a duty to look at our history. If we do, we know that the Black liberation struggle in the US was intimately connected to the African liberation struggles across this continent. We know our destinies are intertwined. And at the end of the day, I know that Africans who live on the continent and those of us in the diaspora, are stronger together. We are all rising, and I believe we can have societies across the world that works for all of us. None of us should have our lives cut short because of our race, class, gender, sexual orientation or religion. We are all worthy of belonging and respect.

We all have an opportunity to learn and support each other. Mutual solidarity is important. As is humility. We don’t know everything about one another, but we can learn and find ways to meaningfully support and collaborate with one another. We have a duty to create the type of world where we can all thrive. And leadership from both the diaspora and African continent is required.

Opal Tometi

Dealing With The Thorns
To be an activist is to fight a never-ending battle with society, as racial injustice is self-sustaining and unending. It’s stressful and can be non-rewarding. How do you know when to stop and recharge?
Over the years, I’ve found that while I have a passion for social justice and human rights work, it is also difficult to process all the injustice I have witnessed. The trauma is real. And my love for us is also real. However, as I’ve been doing some version of equity work and education for almost 20 years, I’ve found that I must engage in rigorous self-care alongside communal care. There have been points where I almost burned out and stopped. I’m glad I have not.

The way I recharge is by having daily practices of prayer, meditation and exercise. I like to do these types of practices in the morning or evening before I sleep. I am also mindful of what I consume – from food to media to news. Although I’m far from perfect, my goal is to be in space and also consume what genuinely feels good for my spirit. As a believer, I pray throughout the day and in the moments I feel the need, recalling scripture that gives me solace and strength. Besides that, I do love to take breaks – particularly going to the beach going dancing or spending time with my friends’ children. These are the spaces outside myself that give me a profound sense of peace and pure joy.

Harsh Policies Against Minorities And Immigrants
It’s terrifying to see how the right-wing is mobilizing around the globe. However, we also see incredible social movements around the world that are equally rising. We see the removal of dictators; we see push backs against attacks on the social safety net; we see a refusal to allow sexism in the workplace; or murder of unarmed Black people. It’s powerful, exhilarating and necessary. My hope is not only to continue to support these movements but also to connect the dots around the root causes of these injustices. And to support the building of new frameworks and policy agendas that work for all of us. Those who’ve been left to suffer at the margins must be protected and brought to the centre. The world we live in has become untenable, and this is why we see the uprisings, but also why we see the mass migration of people. Immigrants cannot and should not be criminalised by having the audacity to try to survive. It’s unconscionable the things that are happening to them around the world and so I look to and support international formations like Women In Migration Network, Africans Rising for Peace and Dignity and the Pan African Network in Defense of Migrant Rights.

Opal Tometi

Donald Trump’s Support For Bluelivesmatter and Alllivesmatter, His Impeachment And Blacklivesmatter
While President Trump should be impeached for this current scandal, among many others, it’s also important to note that it’s terribly sad that he was even elected. He is a wildly unpopular president who lost the popular vote by millions! However, our outdated system allowed him to enter into office. We have a sham of democracy and a lot of work to do to create something that makes sense for our times and our human values.

I do know that many people did support Trump because we had the audacity to assert our rights and fight for our dignity. And it’s telling that Trump’s election was a response to popular social movements like that of Black Lives Matter, the immigrant rights movement, indigenous people who are protecting water and their land. There’s a moral crisis at play and as demographics shift, it is clear that there are some who want to hold on to power at all costs. They’ll lie, cheat and defame in order to do so. Donald Trump has told thousands of lies as president. And I hope that he is impeached and removed so that we can begin to talk about the reality of the situation based on facts and values.

Freedom At Last?
The dream is far from complete. We are just beginning to build on the legacy of African liberation and civil rights movements. We have a long way to go until we achieve justice and dignity that all Black people deserve. The legacy of colonialism is still being felt. Neocolonialism and neoliberalism are real. And we have a lot of work to do to truly be free – economically, politically, emotionally and beyond. And to be absolutely clear, the work is beyond just issues of racism, but it’s also the issue of classism and sexism in our societies. We need and deserve equity in every sphere of our lives. Until that has been achieved, our work is not done.

World Free Of Racism
I believe that there can be terrible values and ideologies that individuals or even groups of people hold, but there can be systems and laws that protect people from violence, abuse, exploitation and oppression.

Opal Tometi

Nigeria’s Law On Travel Freedom for Africans
This is an incredible development! And it is long overdue. As a Pan-Africanist, as a citizen and as the first woman to direct the United States first national immigrant rights organization for people of African descent, I feel that it’s heartening to see that finally, Africans can travel freely across Nigeria. We need to begin to conceptualise our future that transcends borders. This will help us strengthen our economies, affirm the dignity of all African people and increase our ability to protect against actual outside forces that desire to destabilise African nations.