[Prior to questions Opal is shown writing with a marker on a piece of cardboard, which she eventually holds up with the text “BLACK LIVES MATTER!”]
Intertitle: Can you tell us about racist police violence in the US?
Opal Tometi: Yeah, there’s a lot going on in the United States, right. So there’s a legacy of structural racism that’s been impacting Black communities in the United States ever since we were kidnapped from Africa and brought to the United States. And so what we’re seeing today is actually a continuation of the racist policies and practices of the United States. We’re seeing state-sanctioned violence with impunity on Black people.
The reality is that the laws in the US, and the kinds of policing that we’re seeing in the United States really emerged in the time of Jim Crow, right. I don’t know if you’re all familiar, but Jim Crow laws in the southern United States really made life uninhabitable and really difficult for Black people once they were freed from enslavement. And these laws and practices in essence were to control Black people, control Black bodies, to really keep them oppressed even though they were supposedly “free.” And so policing actually emerged in the context of this kind of “post-slavery” time period.
What we’re seeing in this time period right now and the emergence of a more…a more complicated narrative is what’s happening, actually. So, in the 80s and 90s what we saw was a divestment in the public safety net. There were tremendous gains made by Black people and their allies in the Civil Rights Movement. So the 60s, 70s we saw a lot of really incredible gains. We saw the Black liberation struggle in the United States as well as around the world really move a profound human rights agenda, and really have some very concrete wins.
Unfortunately what happened was that in the 80s and then the 90s, there was a concerted effort to undermine the gains that Black people and their allies made. And so we saw the divestment in the public safety net. So, really key and important infrastructure for Black and other poor communities across the United States to get equal footing in the US—we saw that gutted. We saw a criminalization of poverty emerge. So people were being demonized for being poor. They were being attacked for being poor. And they weren’t given the resources to get out of poverty, right, so they weren’t given the chance.
At the same time what we saw was a criminalization of their poverty. And an investment in criminal apparatuses. So we see the emergence of the criminal justice system as one that now we call the prison-industrial complex. So not just the prison itself, but you have the probation officers. You have detention facilities for children. You have immigration detention centers. You have all of these other types of institutions—we have the courts. So it’s a broader system, right, various institutions that work together. And we saw more of an investment in that system, as opposed to investment in jobs, in the healthcare system, in the education system. We saw a divestment in those systems and investment there.
And this is really important for me to just share as background because in the 80s and 90s, if you remember, this is the Bush and Reagan era. And they were neo-conservatives. And they were the ones kind of pushing this type of agenda. And even folks like President Bill Clinton was pushing this agenda and really divesting from public good.
And so this all set the stage for hyper-policing, right. So what at the same time was happening were new laws and policies, and new theories for how to view crime. Of course you have to have the theories that kind of underpin the actual laws. And so we saw the emergence of what’s known as broken windows policing. And this is a theory that in essence says if you see a broken window in a neighborhood, you have to police that neighborhood and make sure that crime doesn’t happen. And so this is in essence just a way to criminalize poverty and to have police presence in poor communities instead of saying, “Hey, what can we do to repair the neighborhood?” and, “Hey, what does the community actually need in order to correct any challenges?”
So, this broken windows policing theory allows for more racial profiling to take place. It allows for low-level…what is called “acts of disorder.” So jaywalking, sitting on a park bench, maybe selling loosies—I don’t know if you heard about the story with Eric Garner who was murdered in New York for selling a cigarette. It allows for police to show up for these very…innocuous—I mean, no one cares about—like, no one’s worried about that. But it allows for police to show up for those kinds of everyday things that people are doing. And oftentimes that happens and what’s been catching a lot of attention in the news, in the media, is that these interactions with police are escalating. And sadly they’re escalating and sometimes leading to actual murders at the hands of police, right.
And this is really a result of this broken windows theory that says more police is better, we’re gonna have more more more. And they’re funneling billions of dollars into policing and allowing for police to control and to brutalize our people with impunity. And so that’s really what we’re seeing all across the United States, this broken windows theory has been promoted all across the country. And so you know, even recently this young brother Charley in Los Angeles, he was murdered. He was a poor homeless African brother from the Cameroon. And he was also you know, kind of a victim of the system, right. He migrated here, was held in an immigration detention center, he had a mental health issue, and because of his mental health issue and a number of other factors, he was not deportable. But he was left to live on the streets, and eventually LAPD killed him.
And this is the assault that our people are facing on you know, every single day. Just heard the story of a young brother, David Felix in New York City. Haitian brother, queer. And he was murdered by New York Police Department just recently, just I think three weeks ago. And you know poor, Black immigrant, living on the streets, LGBTQ community-identified. And also murdered. And so we’re seeing the assault on Black, poor people. And then we’re also seeing the resistance, which we can talk about as well.
Intertitle: Why did you start #BlackLivesMatter?
Tometi: Myself and Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors actually started #BlackLivesMatter as a political project. And we started it as a political project actually after Trayvon Martin was murdered and his murderer George Zimmerman was let free. So he was found not guilty, he was acquitted. And we were incredibly outraged. We all have brothers. We all have siblings, sisters, cousins, people that we love—loved ones—that we just knew that if this type of violence could be happening in our communities and go unchecked, that we had to create something that would respond to that.
And the reality was that we knew that the system, so the criminal justice system, the criminal legal system…or for us we also call it the punishment system, doesn’t really provide justice for Black people, period. It doesn’t really provide the type of justice that we are looking for. And the reality is the only justice that we’re really seeking is for Black people not to be killed. And that this would never ever happen again. And one guilty verdict is not going to solve this problem. Every twenty-eight hours, a Black person who is unarmed is murdered in the United States. By a police officer, by a vigilante, or a security guard. And that’s happening many times with impunity. And we see this as a pandemic.
And so we created #BlackLivesMatter in 2013 to really respond to this pandemic that was happening in our society. We saw that Black Lives Matter was not solely about police brutality. So I think that’s kind of a misunderstanding that people sometimes have. We saw it actually as a way to say like hey, we’re really concerned, obviously, about the murders that’s happening in our communities. But we’re also concerned about structural racism. We’re really concerned about how structural racism is allowing for ongoing violence in our communities. So poverty is violent. Having sub-standard education is violent. Having women not being paid the same wages—black women—you know, that is violent. All of these types of things are violent in our context and for our people.
And so for us it was an opportunity for us to say we’re not going to just focus solely on police brutality, although it’s incredibly important. But let’s open up the conversation to talk about every sphere of Black life. Let’s talk about mental health and what’s happening with our people. Let’s talk about disease and care. Let’s talk about all of those things. And so that’s what we did. We created Black Lives Matter as a political project.
But it’s also emerged. So we now actually have a national network. And it’s very extensive, so we have about twenty-four chapters across the country. And then we have two in other countries now. And the chapters really emerged after we had what we called the Black Lives Matter Freedom Ride to Ferguson. So you all likely have heard, but Mike Brown was murdered in Ferguson in Missouri last year, 2014 August 9th. And soon after that, we organized a ride of 500 Black people from all across the country, I think within the span of two weeks. My friends and colleagues Patrisse Cullors and Darnelle Moore basically put this call out and said, “Hey. We see our brothers and sisters who are in the streets who are being met with tear gas, with violence. People are trying to silence them. They’re mourning in the streets very visibly. They’re taking direct action very courageously. And they’re being met with violence. And so we wanted to show up and go there. We wanna mourn with them. We wanna build with them.”
And so as a result of our time in Ferguson, people from across the country said, “We want to build out chapters. We know that Ferguson is everywhere. And we know that it’s really important for us to go back home and work in our communities. People are dying across the country, and people are experiencing everyday injustice all across the country. So it’s really important for us to be organized within our communities. And so now we have these chapters that are across the country. So Black Lives Matter is both a political project, right, and this social movement that we’re seeing all across the globe. But it’s also a very concrete network of people who are doing amazing work. From political education, to campaigns, to the direct actions that you’re seeing on the news.
Intertitle: What have you accomplished so far?
Tometi: I mean, I would just say some of our accomplishments are the fact that we now actually have a network. So, beyond just an online platform, which a lot of people associate and I think it’s great—we use online platforms to communicate with the world and to communicate amongst ourselves, and to really shift the narrative, right. To name anti-Black racism, specifically. Because there’s been a tendency for our society not to want to address what’s happening specifically to Black people. And for us it was really important to be very explicit about how acutely Black people are experiencing injustice in this day and age.
I mean in the 21st century we have a multiracial society, of course, right. But, all across the board, we still see Black communities suffering, in many cases like the worst. And so it was really important for us to have that named explicitly. And so I think part of the accomplishment is that we’ve been able to have a very explicit conversation about race, but more specifically about anti-Black racism.
And beyond that, the chapters that we’ve developed across the country, I think. Having actual people who are willing to do the work of building community of resistance, and building a community of resilience, is incredibly powerful. And within less than a year, that network is thriving. And every day we’re kind of being reached out to by people in the community who want to get involved. And so it’s just been really incredible.
And then we’ve seen other types of things. So we’ve seen the creation of citizen review boards. So this is community members having more participation in oversight of the police departments. We’ve seen other types of campaigns emerge like let’s stop the militarization of police. So, police in the US have all sorts of military-grade equipment. I think about New York City and what from what I know and it’s where I live, it’s the seventh-largest military force in the world, based on its equipment, based on how many cops we have there. And so myself and a number of other people in the US, and specifically in New York City, have created a campaign called Safety Beyond Policing where we’re flipping it on its head, right. We’re saying we have to define safety for ourselves. And safety looks like having access to a good job. Safety looks like having mental health services, or services for homeless people. Safety looks like not being harassed if you jump the turnstile because you can’t afford to pay for your train ticket. So for us it’s really important for us to to reclaim and rename what it is for us to be safe.
And the other thing that I think is really important about this campaign is that it’s a campaign that’s explicitly about reducing the number of police in New York City. They are trying to invest $100 million, each year, for the next three years in hiring 1,000 you cops in New York.
So, we have campaigns that have been emerged from Black Lives Matter, from my organization the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and a number of other groups like Million Hoodies who said, “We have to create new campaigns around the type of world that we want to see, and around the type of values that we hold.” And so I think that to me is is also really important, having visionary campaigns, and that’s in part some of our accomplishments.
And then I think lastly I would also mention we’ve seen the ways in which the White House has now had to respond, right. So we see them going into Ferguson and releasing reports. We see President Obama meeting with some of the activists and organizers that we work with all across the country. And all of that wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the courageous people who were willing to risk their lives to be in the street, to take direct action, and to stand up for human rights and dignity for all people.
Intertitle: Why did you start further hashtags like #SayHerName and #TransBlackLivesMatter?
Tometi: I think it was really important for Black Lives Matter to come out how it did it, right, and to be kind of the umbrella. But the creation of additional hashtags around specific days of action has been really important to ensure that the complexity of our movement is really understood, and that people don’t get invisiblized as we’re doing the work.
So what’s happened with Black Lives Matter is oftentimes people don’t know that it was started by three women, right? They may not know the breadth of our vision. And so it was important for us to collaborate with other organizations like the Black Youth Project, like the African American Policy Institute, and many other groups to do days of action like #SayHerName, which was incredible and I’m so glad that you all have heard about that. Because it was a day to really uplift the Black women and girls who are both maybe transgender, or cisgender, who’d been murdered also by police. Oftentimes what happens is that the names of young boys or men are the ones that make the news, right, the headlines. And you know, important, absolutely important. Everybody, you know, is important, and everybody’s life is valuable, and we’re here for all Black lives. And so for us it was just really important for us to have a day where we could say like, “Say her name. Let’s also name the women who’ve been killed. Lets name the girls who’ve been killed.” And we just didn’t want folks to get lost in that. And so we helped to build out the day of action, to ensure that all of our lives are recognized, while still leading with the Black Lives Matter kind of umbrella. But it’s really important to have those distinct days of action and to integrate it to our overall ongoing actions.
So for Black Lives Matter, in our own leadership we prioritize trans Black leadership. We prioritize women. We prioritize queer. We prioritize immigrants. Like, that is part of who we are. Differently-abled people are part of our community. And so, many people might not know the details of our own leadership structure, but these kind of days of action allow for folks to understand what we embody, and we are challenging our society to really be more open to hearing more complex stories about who we are. The reality is we’re looking to make a movement that’s home for everybody, that feels comfortable and good, and is advocating for all of us. And so, sometimes it’s going to be important for us to to create particular days of action just to insure that those voices and those experiences aren’t getting lost in the the mainstream.
Intertitle: What are the next necessary steps?
Tometi: The next steps… I think you know, we have to continue the everyday work of organizing. So that to me looks like community-building and having more chapters across the country. So that is really I think where we’re heading, right. So we’re really trying to dig in deep and build out our base, our base of Black community members who are educated on the politics, educated and feeling empowered to express the values that they hold, and to shift the culture as well as the policy that the United States has.
I think additionally to that, we have to be making these global connections. I’m really excited to be here in Germany because I think we have to move our conversation to the global. Black people all across the world are being oppressed, even on the continent of Africa, if not the worst kind of, more explicit kind of anti-Black racism against a particular content in terms of foreign policy.
And so I think that’s where we’re really headed, and part of my goal as being a woman who also has Nigerian roots is really to make this conversation really global and connect with our brothers and sisters in different contexts. And also to recognize the privilege that I might have as a person who’s born in the West and has citizenship in the US, you know. I think that there’s also some more complex conversations to be had about the role of US American Black folk and what our positioning and privilege is in a global conversation about anti-Black racism. So I think we’ve just gotta organize, we gotta be connected with more of our people. The reality is that we’re trying to build a multiracial democracy that works for all of us, and we need the entire community to be there with us in order to ensure that Black lives matter, everywhere.
[Opal is shown again writing on cardboard, which she then holds up with the text “STOP RACIAL PROFILING!”]