[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!”]