Y’all, I forgot how good it really feels to be in the presence of people of faith out of the Unitarian Universalist tradition. Honestly, I was sitting in the back of the room singing and just meditating and all of that, and it just feels so good. It feels really good—it feels right. And I am honored.
So I just want to say good morning, first and foremost. You know, you all are courageous people of faith. And it’s really a gift to join you all at your General Assembly. It’s my privilege to be able to share with you during such an important period in history. And you’re here. You’re here in Selma, Alabama. And the fact that we find ourselves fifty years later fighting an eerily similar fight. Right? It feels like the cosmos is urging that we complete the work. Right? And the work is sacred. There’s something that’s simply divine about this period that we’re living in. And we as people of faith are the ones who dare to not only believe, but we put actions around our beliefs.
We know that justice is not inevitable. It is something that will not be achieved passively. And the Unitarian Universalist tradition is one that knows that we as stewards of faith are called to actively bend the arc towards justice. And that’s why to me this day and this period of time, this weekend when we’re commemorating our elders, our forebears, it’s not merely about a bridge-crossing that happened in the past. We know that. It’s active. It’s living. And like you all have said, it’s a living legacy. And it’s beckoning us to walk boldly in the tradition of faith-filled resistance. Like our forebears Diane Nash, Byron Rustin, Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Ella Baker, and so many others.
And so to be able to share with you and build with you is not something that I take lightly. Because I come from a prophetic Christian tradition. My parents are Nigerian immigrants, people who came to the United States and their first place of refuge was the church. And now my father is the pastor of a church in Phoenix, Arizona, which is now home to many different African immigrants and some Latino immigrants, some white folks and East Indian parishioners. And my parents were the embodiment of a tradition that says, “You belong. And you belong everywhere. As a child of God you are endowed with the right to make home and be safe wherever you find yourself.”
My folks instilled in me such a love for my community, an appreciation of our culture, and such a profound sense of dignity in spite of any trial or tribulation. They taught me that you actually have to live the prophetic. You have to be what you wish to see in the world.
So, how many of you know that the uprising we saw in August 2014 and throughout much of the fall was not in response solely to the murder of Mike Brown, or Eric Garner, or the non-indictments? Y’all know that? Right? So, how many of you know that it was actually a collective response to the decades of racial injustice and assault that has weighed heavily on the black community? Y’all knew that? Right? I just wanted to make sure. You know. So we’re clear. So that when my sisters Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and I began Black Lives Matter as a political project back in 2013 in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman, it was because we knew the entire system was guilty. It was guilty of state violence. And we wanted our communities to give voice to that. While at the same time, it was out of a deep desire to share love with our people. To remind ourselves that black lives matter. Our lives do in fact matter.
A recent Salon article compiled some alarming research. One of the reports they found show that white people, including the police, see black children as older and less innocent than white children. And another UCLA psychological study surveyed mostly white male officers to determine prejudice and unconscious dehumanization of black people. And in that study they found a correlation between officers who unconsciously dehumanize black people and those who had used force against black children in their custody. Now, this same study also found that white female college students saw black and white children as equally innocent until age nine. But after age nine, black children were viewed as much older than their non-black counterparts.
Then of course there have been other studies that show white people feel less empathy toward black people in pain than they do for their white counterparts experiencing pain. And several other reports that find that white people view lighter-skinned African Americans—and Latinos—as more “intelligent, competent, trustworthy, and reliable” than their darker-skinned peers.
Now, these findings I’ve shared from these reports are implicit biases. They’re ways of thinking that inform the way our entire society works. And what the Black Lives Matter cofounders (so myself, Patrisse, and I) believed when we started this project is that it was time to do with away with respectability politics. We will not be blamed for brutality against us—or murder. We won’t be blamed for being poor, or being a woman, or being undocumented, transgender, or queer. We won’t be blamed for wearing a hoodie. Or for not being in the right place at the right time.
We knew that we needed to move the conversation about personal responsibility, and even interpersonal dynamics around race, to a conversation about the role of the state in sanctioning these biases and creating and promoting violence against black bodies. And when we began the project, it was our vision that Black Lives Matter would transform the way we look at issues of racial injustice and police brutality.
Now, the three of us as community organizers wanted to spark a flame. But we also desired to organize, to fundamentally change our nation and our world. When we created Black Lives Matter project in 2013, it was intended to expand the conversation, to include all of black life in public discourse. Because this brutality is something our communities have been facing ever since we were kidnapped from Africa, enslaved, and then forced to work in the US.
Hashtag #BlackLivesMatter is a pushback against the status quo. We are naming that we are not living in a post-racial society. And we decidedly wanted the nation to confront anti-black racism, especially since there’s been the move to a more politically correct terms such as “people of color,” which to be honest is an overgeneralization that doesn’t get to the heart of the ways in which black people are typically most acutely impacted by injustice, because our laws don’t take account of structural racism.
Now, it’s paramount that our society recognize the role of anti-black structural racism in the US. And that our 21st century multiracial social movements uplift and centralize the issues of those community members who are impacted and are living at the margins. We know that if we do, we’ll get closer to real justice for all of us. Moreover, it’s been widely documented that the gains made by and with the black community have always led to better standards of living for all of us. And by all I mean all.
So the challenge for us is to realize that anti-black racism operates at a society-wide level. It colludes in a seamless web of policies, practices, and beliefs to oppress and disempower black communities. Systemic racism reinvents itself to conform to what is publicly acceptable, leaving the quality of black life diminished and more permanently fixed with each passing decade. And any outcry or attempt to expose this cycle of oppression is often ignored or dismissed by broader US society because it seems [ir]rational or insignificant.
Family, we must divest from this structural oppression. We must. And this divestment has no partisan affiliation. And I appreciate this because as people of faith our affiliations are far deeper. Our affiliations are to a divine knowledge of our dignity, our own sacredness manifest on Earth. And the intent that God would actually have us all free. As people made in the image of the creator, we too are designed to be creators. We are designed to be the architects of our own human destiny. And anything, anything, that stands against that is an affront to all of humanity.
So I believe that communities of faith have the texts, have the teachers, the prophets, who’ve pointed to the fact that it is our duty to radically love one another and to commit to one another for the sake of our collective liberation. Because whether or not we like it, we are bound to one another.
I want to share a little bit about myself and the work that I’ve been engaged in. And it’s part of this broader movement for human rights. And as was mentioned, a lot of my work has been in the immigrant rights movement. I am a first-generation Nigerian American, meaning my parents like I said earlier are from Nigeria. They’re immigrants who moved to Phoenix back in the 80s. And they’re incredibly courageous human beings who for much of my childhood were undocumented.
And so we dealt with different things like driving while black in Arizona. And I know many people tend to think of SB 1070 as the first time when racial profiling began. But you know, any black person will tell you otherwise. For decades preceding SB 1070, an undocumented black women or black man who looked like myself or my father were harassed. And if you were an undocumented black man or woman in Arizona, the consequences were dire. I’ve had aunts and uncles who’ve been deported to Nigeria. And in fact my best friend came to live with me during high school because her mom was deported after making a few tough decisions to help make ends meet. She was a black woman, she was a widow, and she had four children—daughters to be exact. And so in essence the organization that I have the privilege of leading, it’s called the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (or BAJI) was built to make visible these types of struggles and intersections.
Many of you know this woman Audre Lorde, brilliant queer black feminist who said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” And that’s why my organization BAJI is both a racial justice and a migrant rights organization. We engage in advocacy and education and cross-cultural alliance building in order to end racism, criminalization, and economic disenfranchisement of African American and black immigrant communities. Our headquarters are where I live in Brooklyn, New York, but we also have offices in Oakland, in Georgia, and in Arizona. And we’re also the coordinating body of the Black Immigration Network, which is a national member-based network of nearly forty black-led organizations that are connecting, training, and building towards policy and cultural shifts for a racial justice and migrant rights agenda.
So, BAJI’s kind of known for identifying root causes of forced migration and criminalization, and organizing from that place. We recognize that there are currently 220 million people who are not living in their home of origin. And this is not a natural phenomenon. People are being uprooted. They are forced to migrate due to exploitative foreign trade policies, structural adjustment programs—these programs that look like countries in the Global South being in debt to the Global North, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank.
People are forced from their homes due to land grabs, which in essence if folks don’t know is the leasing of large acres of land in the Global South to “foreign investors.” And there are other forces such as war or conflict, which also force people to flee. And then there’s also the persistent environmental destruction and climate change that is forcing people off of their land.
And I think it’s really important that we understand and see the connection between immigrant rights and racial justice. Not only because it’s how BAJI sees it, but because this intersectional approach, and one that says that racial justice must foreground the black experience, allows us insights that the mainstream is missing. For example—and I’ll go back to Arizona. I know you all were there recently, just a few years back. We had SB 1070. And soon after this racial profiling law, there was a ban on ethnic studies. And right after that, there was a ban on affirmative action. Many people don’t know that. All of which were gains black people championed and won, but were reversed in a context that said immigration has nothing to do with black people and that this is about law and order.
The fact is that as the conservatives, or regressionists as I like to say (That’s my new term: regressionists.), as they’ve set their eyes on other communities of color, they haven’t taken their gaze off of black folks. They’re only adapting their strategy for the demographic context. And in the [process] they’re creating a normalization of their approach. When we peel back the layers a bit further, we find that many of those pushing these regressive anti-immigrant laws have ties to the KKK and many conservative white supremacist think tanks. They have a vested interest in pitting our communities against one another for social control and for corporate profit.
So, as one of the cofounders of Black Lives Matter I am frequently asked, “Why are we seeing such high levels of police brutality in our community?” And I think we should know that it’s because of the criminalization of black communities. It’s really clear. Not because of “criminals” or rising crime. It’s because of racist theories like broken windows that allow for hyper-policing.
For those of you who may not know what broken windows is, I’ll explain it. It’s basically a policing theory that is set to address quality of life issues. However, its implementation is reminiscent of Jim Crow loitering laws which made conditions unlivable for black people and serve as a gateway to harassment, arrests, violence, and death at the hands of police and vigilantes. Broken windows policing led to the death of Eric Garner in New York for selling loosies in his neighborhood.
And it’s important to remember that this theory actually came about in the Reagan-Bush years, in which social disinvestment was a major strategy for neoconservatives. One of the major problems with this theory is that it reverses the well-understood causal relationship between crime and poverty. Broken windows in essence says poverty and social disorganization are the result of, not the cause of, crime. And that the disorderly behavior of the growing “underclass” threatens to destroy the fabric of our cities. So this bankrupt theory is leading to the hyper-policing and violence in our neighborhoods. Things like jaywalking, dancing on the subway, sleeping on a park bench, selling loosies make you a target of the police.
You likely heard of the late brother Africa, a Cameroonian immigrant who was murdered by LAPD just this past Sunday. They tased him several times, then opened fire while physically restraining him, shooting him five times. This horrific brutality is just the latest example of the crisis of state violence in black communities, resulting in the death of our brothers and sisters. We must ensure that all black lives matter, whether you’re an immigrant, whether you’re homeless, you’re incarcerated, or whatever beyond. Brother Africa’s death brings into focus the convergence of state violence in the lives of black people. And particularly the implications for black immigrants.
Brother Africa was recently released from federal prison where he was assigned to a mental health unit by medical staff that determined he was suffering from a mental disease or defect that required treatment in a psychiatric hospital, which he never received. Disenfranchised of his visa status, brother Africa was then detained by ICE (or Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) until he was ordered to be released. And he was deportable. Without any mental health treatment, and undocumented, brother Africa was forced to live on Skid Row, where police initiatives purported to make the neighborhood “safer” but ultimately killed him. His story is horrific, and we know that according to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, this sort of extrajudicial killing of an unarmed black person happens every twenty-eight hours.
Now, sadly we know that black people are targets in every phase of the criminal justice system. From profiling, to sentencing, to the death penalty. These stories and the data are appalling. And you all know this well because you all have made stopping mass incarceration one of your mandates. I remember being at some gathering spaces with many of you all, and especially back in Phoenix, Arizona a few years back. But I still want to share some statistics with you, just in case we’ve forgotten.
So, the US is only 5% of the global population. Yet it holds nearly 25% of the world’s imprisoned population. Many also know that mass incarceration currently claims 2.3 million people. Which is quadruple that of what it was in 1980. The racial dimensions are alarming. Black people constitute nearly one million of the 2.3 million incarcerated. And black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean are also overrepresented in immigration detention centers and deportation proceedings. Black women are half of the prison population, although they are only 12% of the female population. Twelve percent. And black women are also the fastest-growing imprisoned population. So those are the facts. That’s what we’re living in.
And one last thing I want to share with you all is that President Clinton, before he was in office there were probably about one million people who were incarcerated. And by the time he left office there were two million. It doubled. So just sit with that. Because that took place and was the results of our “first black president.” And you can also see what’s happening under our second black president. But I digress. We can do that in Q&A.
But all of this is quite sobering. It constitutes state violence. That’s what we’re seeing. All these assaults. And state violence impacts our complex identities and sometimes even creates our identities.
State violence is what allows a group of people to be marked as “illegal.” It is what allows for the disenfranchisement of people who’ve had encounters with the law and then are systematically left out of programs that could potentially reintegrate them into society, instead forcing them back into activities that likely got them criminalized and imprisoned in the first place.
State violence is what will send a woman to prison for defending herself against an abusive partner while simultaneously leaving her children without a parent and forever locking them into a system of surveillance.
State violence is what forces people around the globe to make the treacherous journey in order to try to make a better living to provide for one’s family.
Now, I’ve been describing anti-black violence as a disease. And police brutality, mass incarceration, health disparities, high unemployment, poverty, deportation, education inequality, substandard housing are all symptoms of this disease. And we must organize. We must organize culturally and politically against the systems that operate with anti-black logic and bias and that leave our lives diminished all across the board.
And addressing state violence is what led to the creation of Black Lives Matter. The tipping point for our movement was when people were willing to put their bodies on the line and stayed in the streets. I remember speaking with many local residents in Ferguson during the Black Lives Matter Freedom Ride that my sister Patrisse Cullors and brother Darnell Moore organized last Labor Day weekend. And people time and time again while we were in Ferguson were saying things to me like, “You know, we’re willing to die for this.” They were literally saying that. And they meant it. In essence they were articulating that there were things that got so bad that they had nothing left to lose and that they would be better off fighting with their dignity intact.
Beloved, there is no substitute for people of conscience rising up to shut it down. There’s no substitute. And sometimes folks get it twisted with hashtags and social interactions. But let’s be clear. We organize ourselves online and communicate online to have impact in our lives offline. That’s what we’re doing.
And we’re growing as a movement because people are fed up. And it’s not just black people, but white folks and other communities of color, too. People of conscience are seeing what’s going on and they are in the streets with us. We are committed to challenging structural injustices without apology. And more than that, our communities are at a place where we are taking a strategic risk, engaging in nonviolent direct action and peaceful protests to confront those in power. And as our movement grows, we must stay vigilant and know that the state will only continue to morph and become more cunning in their concerted assault on our communities. And we can’t allow for that.
Now, out of the Black Lives Matter Freedom Rides of Ferguson we have now grown from a political project into a national network of twenty-six chapters across the country. [applause] Yeah, you can clap for that. It’s pretty amazing. And two of those chapters are actually outside of the US. And there are many people in different countries who are actually every day reaching out saying that they want to create a chapter in their country.
And I think this is important that we know this, because our chapters are always led by people who are typically on the margins of the margins even within the black community, and it’s pretty astounding. They’re also comprised by people who are clear that they’re dedicated to justice and self-determination. And as we grow the movement, we’ve begun taking time to articulate our guiding principles that allow us to be our most powerful, free, and visionary selves.
And some of the principles that guide this Black Lives Matter international network and movement are the fact that we are committed to acknowledging, respecting, and celebrating our differences. We don’t hide from it. We see ourselves as part of a global black family. And we’re guided by the fact that lack lives matter. All black lives, regardless of actual or perceived sexual identity, gender identity, gender expression, economic status, ability or disability, religious beliefs or disbeliefs, immigration status, or even geographic location.
We are committed to ensuring that Black Lives Matter network is a black woman-affirming space free from sexism, misogyny, and male-centeredness.
We are committed to practicing empathy when we engage with comrades, with the intent to learn about and connect with their context.
We are fostering a queer-affirming network. And when we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking. Or rather, the belief that all of the world are heterosexual unless she or he or they disclose otherwise.
We’re also committed to embracing and making space for our trans brothers and sisters to participate and lead. We are committed to being self-reflexive about dismantling cisgendered privilege and uplifting black trans folks, especially black trans women, who continue to disproportionately be impacted by trans-antagonistic violence.
And we are committed to fostering an intergenerational and communal network, free from ageism. We believe that all people, regardless of age, show up with a capacity to learn and to lead. All of us.
And we’re committed to embodying and practicing justice, liberation, and peace in our engagements with one another.
Now, the embodiment of these principles allows us to step into the most transformational practice of liberation amongst ourselves and amongst others in the world. And we believe it’ll take a multiracial movement for black lives in order that we may all achieve full liberation, dignity, and human rights. And we believe that it’ll take formations and institutions like the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, like Black Lives Matter, and the Unitarian Universalists, that have nuanced perspectives and comprehensive analysis plus leadership from the margins, like undocumented folks, like queer folks, like trans folks, and those who are differently abled, so that we can employ strategies to build a multiracial democracy that works for all of us.
We know at the end of the day, when black people get free we all get free. And we know that when black lives matter, then all lives would matter.
Now, we often share a a quotes by our sister Assata Shakur who’s been exiled. And this quote is ultimately the pledge and commitment of the Black Lives Matter movement. And she says this. “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
Now, we can’t stop until we all get free. And we know that we can’t get free until black lives matter. And I know that we were all created to be alive in this time period for this specific work, no matter where we are, no matter your location. You have a set of experiences and gifts that we all need in order for us to get free. And there’s no doubt in my mind and in my heart that we truly are the ones that we have been waiting for.
Now, I just want to end there because I want to give some time for Q&A and maybe some comments or feedback to what I’ve just shared. I want to thank you for your graciousness, your brilliance, your courage, your persistence. Thank you.
Opal Tometi: So I was told we have seven minutes for Q&A. Oh man. Okay.
Adja Gildersleve: Let’s get some people color up here in line, too, please.
Gildersleve: So I want to thank you. My name’s Adja Gildersleve, I’m an organizer with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis. And it’s because of you, Alicia, and Patrisse, so thank you so much. And I have a lot of love for you, sister.
I just want to ask what is your response for the folks— It’s usually a usually the elders and other people that have critiques about the Black Lives Matter movement, that say we don’t have enough strategy, we don’t have clear leaders, and we don’t have enough love, music, and workshops and trainings in our movement. What is it that you have to say about our movement that people don’t really understand, and things that we need to work on, and things that we’re getting right, basically?
Tometi: Thank you. Oh, so dope. And I’ll be here, so we can connect some more. Thank you. That’s a good question, and we only have a short period of time so I’ll try and hit a couple points. What I say to folks who think that we’re not intergenerational, or that we shun elders, or the elders actually think bad about us… I actually tell people to look around. To really look around. Because I actually am in contact with many elders who still mentor me to this day, who I call on the phone like every other day. And so I think we need to stop looking at celebrity elders as models of intergenerational leadership.
And I also sometimes get that question from the media. And I also just don’t like to answer that question as much in that space because I think they’re looking for something that’s more sensational than I think is worth it. I don’t think it’s worth it. And it really distracts from some of the root causes, right. So I want to talk with them about hyper-policing. And they want to talk about some kind of back and forth trivial tabloid drama. And I’m like no, we have real issues in our community. Let’s actually talk about Bill Bratton and Pat Lynch and not all of the drama.
And then the other thing— I love that you brought this up because we as a movement have declared 2015 as the year of resistance. So as we declared it as the year of resistance, we also took note in that same meeting that we decided that and said man, it’s hard to be resisting all the time, right? It kind of depletes you. And so we said 2015 will actually also be the year resilience. So resistance and resilience. So taking care of ourselves, taking care of one another, really deepening our roots and cultural organizing and practices that are really nurturing and healing, and making sure that we’re an integrated movement. And that we’re creating, as we’re fighting and dismantling, but we also really just need to be creating. We need to be nurturing that feminine energy and wisdom that tell us to create.
So I would encourage people to look for that. And then we have so many amazing cultural workers who are developing poems, and plays, and I don’t know if you all saw last month was Black History Month; we renamed it Black Future Month, and it was dope. It was really great. We partnered with Huffington Post Black Voices and we had twenty articles written by twenty-eight different organizers who talked about various issues from reproductive justice, to LGBTQ rights, to homelessness, to HIV/AIDS. And it was brilliant, so go back and look at that because they were actually talking about what it would look like for our lives to be just and full and free in those different realms, and it was just great.
And at the same time that we did that we also did a poster series that lives on our Tumblr. And we asked different black artists to envision the future. So it’s #VisionsOfABlackFuture, and they put out these beautiful, brilliant images of free, full, dynamic, amazing black lives. So I encourage you to check out that series, Visions of a Black Future. So thanks for that question.
Howard Tolley: I’m Howard Tolley from UU Justice Ohio, where we witnessed the killing of John Crawford at the Beavercreek Walmart, and 12 year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. I’d like to know whether Black Lives Matter is partnering with the Stop Mass Incarceration call for a national shut down on April 14, calling on schoolkids to leave their classrooms, calling on workers to walk off the job, on April 14.
Tometi: So, I definitely heard about the call, and we are in solidarity with that call. We definitely think that people need to walk out, to shut it down. And we believe in partnering with existing institutions and making those types of calls. So I believe many of our affiliates will be taking part in that.
Tolley: Do you have an affiliate in Ohio?
Tometi: We do not. But we’re working with the Ohio Students Association—
So you know them, yup. So we’re working there. We’ll see some of them tomorrow, actually. So thank you.
Lena Katherine Gardner: Hey, I think we have been warned to talk quick. So, my name is Lena Katherine Gardner. I’m here with Adja from Black Lives Matter Minneapolis. You know we face a court date on Tuesday, so folks can tweet about it, I just want to say. And the question I have for you is one of the things I think we’re struggling with in Minneapolis is there’s not actually a ton of black folks. And we’re walking this line of how to be in allyship with white folks, and at the same time when they come into the space in a room they often try to take it over. And can you just speak to how to really— And so my values is what has helped me to try and move past that and hold people in loving light and say okay— And can you just speak to that in other spaces, and…yeah, thank you. Thank you for all your work, too.
Tometi: Thank you. It’s all of our work, so I appreciate you holding it down in a place like that. I know it’s not easy. So, you know, I’m from Phoenix. Uh…not a ton of black folk there, either. I live in Brooklyn now, but I know the feeling. I know the feeling, all too well. And I was also just recently in Madison, Wisconsin, and Milwaukee. And I don’t know if you all heard, but in Madison, Wisconsin just last night Anthony Robinson, a 19 year-old, unarmed black teenager was murdered by police. So rest in peace. I just want to bring that to the room, because that actually had me messed up last night as I was preparing for this. And because I was literally just there. And they’re facing a similar situation, where they’re trying to organize, not as many black folks in the community.
But what what we’ve found in some spaces that has been working has been really encouraging white racial justice allies to hold some space for training, for relationship building, and doing that work within the white community before bringing our communities together like that. I think that just has to be done on principle. So you know, groups like SURJ ([Showing] Up for Racial Justice), Catalyst Project—I’m sure folks are in the room here—are holding some workshops, and I encourage them to do some more. We gotta train a lot more white folks. We need to get to scale. Real talk.
So I actually really encourage those spaces before doing that work together. Otherwise, that inevitably happens. I’ve seen it time and time again, and you’re doing your best to to maintain that space. But what I would do if that does continue to happen, is at the top of the meeting or any gathering have some guiding principles. And just be clear. You know, say, “If you’re white, don’t talk in this meeting.” Or wait till a designated time. And everybody just has to be clear and know that those agreements are in play. And that’s okay. There’s a time for everything, and it’s fine. And I think we’re also living in a time where we have to be very clear about the need for black leadership. And to respect that. Keep on. Keep on. I suspect that’s my seven minutes.