A Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Explains Why This Time Is Different

In 2013, the community organizers Opal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors, and Alicia Garza started the Black Lives Matter movement. What began as a hashtag in response to Trayvon Martin’s death became a nationwide phenomenon, with protests in response to the killings of African-Americans and chapters across the country. Now, after the death of George Floyd, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, and a week of nationwide protests to an extent unseen in a half century, Black Lives Matter is once again the biggest story in the country.

On Tuesday afternoon, I spoke by phone with Tometi, who advises a number of black-led organizations and previously served as the executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed what it would mean to defund police departments, how the coronavirus pandemic has shaped the American response to the protests, and what’s next for Black Lives Matter.

How are these protests different from what came before, and why do you think they are different from what came before?

While we see that a lot of anger and outrage and frustration was sparked by the barbaric murder of George Floyd, it’s also clear to me that we have been sitting in our homes, navigating the pandemic, dealing with loved ones being sick, dealing with a great deal of fear and concern about what the day and the future will hold. We have millions of people who have lost their jobs and filed for unemployment and are living paycheck to paycheck and hand to mouth, and I believe they are just thoroughly fed up and thoroughly beside themselves with grief and concern and despair because the government does not seem to have a plan of action that is dignified and comprehensive and seeks to address the core concerns that the average American has.

And so my belief and my view of these protests is that they are different because they are marked by a period that has been deeply personal to millions of Americans and residents of the United States, and that has them more tender or sensitive to what is going on. People who would normally have been at work now have time to go to a protest or a rally, and have time to think about why they have been struggling so much, and they are thinking, This actually isn’t right and I want to make time, and I have the ability to make time now and make my concerns heard. So I think it is markedly differently in terms of the volume of demands we are hearing. People are absolutely lifting up names like Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, but I think they are very clearly in the streets for themselves and their family members because they don’t know who is next, and they are also concerned about the economic realities that they are faced with.

It’s interesting that your answer focussed so little on criminal justice specifically. Is it just that the criminal-justice issues have been going on forever and so these additional things were needed, or is there something different about the way society is reacting to criminal-justice outrages in 2020?

I absolutely think people are concerned with police brutality. Let me make that absolutely clear. We have been fighting and advocating to stop a war on black lives. And that is how we see it—this is a war on black life. And people understand that this system is filled with all sorts of inequality and injustice, and that implicit bias and just outright racism is embedded in the way that policing is done in this nation—and when you think about it historically, it was founded as a slave patrol. The evolution of policing was rooted in that. People recognize that. So their frustration is absolutely about the policing and the criminal-justice system writ large and the racial dimensions of it, and its lethal impact on our communities.

But I would say that there is something about the economic conditions in addition to the lethal force we are seeing every day that makes this moment feel different, where people are making different kinds of demands. We do a lot of work with the Movement for Black Lives and a number of organizations and individuals and different leaders who are part of that formation, and we have been calling for the defunding of police, a moratorium on rent, a moratorium on mortgages and utilities. We need to not have people’s utilities shut off—their light, their water, and just basic needs that people have.

So our demands are also reflective of the fact that when we started Black Lives Matter, it wasn’t solely about police brutality and extrajudicial killing. That was a spark point, but it was very intentional for us to talk about the way that black lives are cut short all across the board. You can talk about the quality of our life in terms of housing and education and health-care systems and the pandemic and what we are seeing there. So for us it has been more comprehensive than just the criminal-justice system and policing. It’s bigger than that.

Is it important that a specific agenda is heard from protesters, or is that the job of other people?

A specific agenda like?

People showing up at protests with signs listing specific reforms.

You know, I think it is important that we have those types of things, but I also believe that what we are witnessing now is the opening up of imaginations, where people are beginning to think more expansively about what the solutions could be. We have our solutions. We want the rights of protesters to be respected. We want a divestment from the police and an investment in black communities. We are demanding immediate relief for our communities. We want community control. We want an end to this war against black people. So we are clear in our demands, and we have demands for each city, so each city has its own unique demands, especially cities that are very active in these protests right now. You will see that local organizers have been working on the ground for years, and have already had their own reports and series of policies, and so what we are looking to do is amplify those.

I have seen African-American activists say two things about the protests becoming more violent—and in this case I don’t mean the violence from the police. The first is that talking about this is a distraction from what really matters, and the other is that it is bad and takes attention away from the peaceful majority. How do you feel about that conversation?

I think that conversation is complicated, and, generally speaking, I just don’t equate the loss of life and the loss of property. I can’t even hold those two in the same regard, and I think for far too long we have seen that happen. We have had these conversations where we are conflating very different realities and operating from different value systems. So, for me, that’s how I view it, and a lot of my colleagues and peers as well as mentors have similar views. We are really focused on how to get our demands out and stay focused on the main thing, which is people, and we want to value our love of people over property.

I asked because I wanted you to lay out what defunding police would look like in practice. Additionally, I was wondering if you think that demand is a harder sell if things appear to people to be out of control.

Their budgets are overly bloated. And we can see this in many ways, but I think the most symbolic ways—and not even symbolic, it’s material—are that we see they are militarized and we see all the equipment they have been able to lay out overnight or in hours. So we know they have a vast amount of resources.

Early on, when we first started Black Lives Matter, about a year or two into its creation, I worked with some amazing comrades in New York, and we worked on this campaign called “Safety Beyond Policing.” The New York City government was saying that it was going to allocate a hundred million dollars for a thousand new police officers. And here I am, a B.L.M. co-founder, on the heels of the murder of Eric Garner, thinking to myself, How are these people going to unleash even more police officers in our communities, when clearly we are seeing that enough is enough? This overpolicing of largely poor communities, which are largely people of color because poverty is racialized in this country, means that we are the ones interacting with law enforcement more. And with all this racial bias, of course, we see this brutality and these murders.

And so we started this campaign for community members to really be involved in the conversation about how to keep ourselves safe without an overreliance on law enforcement. And what we concluded is that we need social workers. We need these resources to go to our social workers and educators. We need it to go to our schools. We would love to have mental-health professionals when we have certain crises in our communities. We would like to not have a charge when we jump the turnstile because we don’t have money for a subway ticket, and jobs programs for our youth during the summer. People were very creative, and they knew exactly what they needed. It was very easy for people to come to these conclusions as to what safety could look like.

And so I say all this to say that, yes, a defunding of police looks like an investment in the community, and I think it is perfectly fine, and we have seen it before and we just need a lot more of it. And I think it is a slap in the face when local governments see what is happening with their police precincts and beyond and still say, “We are going to allocate even more money for this thing that is clearly not working.” If you had a job and were messing up this badly and it had a lethal outcome, you would be fired. It doesn’t make sense that we continue on this.

Don’t give my boss any ideas.

You’re good.

Should the role for Black Lives Matter be any different now from what it was when it began?

So in 2013, and even 2014, we began more as a platform and a space to develop community and share analysis. In 2013, George Zimmerman is acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Alicia writes a Facebook post. I reached out to her. I didn’t know Patrisse at the time, but she puts a hashtag on it. I buy the domain name. And we start to use this hashtag as our umbrella language, and we share it with other community organizers in our network. And then 2014 happens, when Michael Brown is murdered. We are reeling and shocked and seeing how different people in Ferguson are met with a militarized police force, and that gets us going again and we do a Black Lives Matter Freedom Ride. So hundreds of us are on the ground and from that point we develop a network, because people are like, Hey, Fergusons are everywhere, and we don’t want to just go back home and act like this was a one-off act of solidarity. We want to do something. And that was essentially the beginning of our network.

And it has always been somewhat decentralized. We have tried various structures, but we have always said the power goes on in the local chapter because they know what is going on, and they are the ones familiar with the terrain. Our chapters are the ones leading. We have had some come and go. I am getting e-mails where people are trying to set up chapters again, so there is always momentum, and ebbs and flows, and there is especially momentum when there is a tragedy like the ones we have witnessed in recent times. People want to create a chapter and rise up.

But it is largely still the same, I will say that. There are chapters across the country, many of them are operational and do their own fund-raising, and make their demands, and then, of course, they are in communication with one another, and that is the other beautiful thing. We end up seeing that there are commonalities and trends in what is going on with different police forces or other issues. So some chapters are more focussed in the education system. Some are more focussed on working with sex workers who are abused. So different chapters might take on different issues, but there is this throughline of valuing black life and understanding that we are not a monolith but being radically inclusive in terms of chapter makeup.

If we are in a once-in-a-century calamity that will overwhelmingly affect African-Americans, and I am talking about the coronavirus, what might that mean for the movement going forward?

Let me just take a beat and think how I want to answer that, because I think it is what is weighing on all of us right now. Honestly, I think we have to be seemingly ambitious with our demands. But they are not really ambitious. They are really just basic. What I articulated earlier is really just the baseline of what we know we need, not just what we know we want. We need the harm to stop in our communities. We need the damage to be repaired. We need to be able to have the opportunity to have a life of dignity, and the possibility to thrive. We need all of those things. So from the divestment from policing, to the investment in our communities, these all feel like very core and baseline demands. So we are going to push those.

But what we have been doing in the interim—even before these large protests and rallies—is a lot of mutual-aid work. The organization I used to lead, Black Alliance For Just Immigration—I was the director there for about ten years, and worked with black immigrants and refugees and African-Americans as well—the new director is amazing and has been doing a lot of work in utilizing a mutual-aid model of collecting resources, be it money or food or different skills embedded in the community, so people can show up for one other and the concerns and need we have. And we are going to continue seeing that. I think that is one of the most effective and empowering ways for us to resist in this moment, and really practice our own sense of responsibility. But we do need government response. We have already seen massive unemployment and we will see more. So we need comprehensive responses to the pandemic, that are about both health and economics.

How concerned are you about health issues at the protests?

Concern about the pandemic is high, but people are also very clear that you can sit at home and also be affected by this illness, or you can go out and fight for a chance to live a life full of dignity, and they are willing to risk it. I think we have to sit with the profundity of this moment, and what it really means for people to say, “You know what, we are in this health crisis yet I cannot stay in my house. There is too much at stake. I am going to make an informed decision, and I am going out against all odds because it is worth it and the status quo is intolerable.” I am really amazed and so moved by the thousands if not millions of courageous people who have made the decision to go to the streets. I am so in awe of them. They are so brave, and those are the people our country has needed for so long.

You can always wear a mask.

And you can always wear a mask. And people are doing it. [Laughs.] And people are doing their best to be safe at these rallies and marches. I have seen a lot of that and am grateful for it.

One thing I just want to underscore is that the world is watching us. We see these rallies in solidarity emerging all across the globe, and I have friends texting me with their images in France and the Netherlands and Costa Rica, and people are showing me that they are showing up in solidarity. People are really trying to show up in this moment for black people, but I think they are also doing it because they have been mad for a minute, almost like this pandemic was a pause, and they were able to think about what would justice look like, and what is actually going on, and they have been able to reflect on what is going on. I think they have been not O.K. for so many years, and they are finally saying, “Hey, we are going to take it to the streets and say we are going to show up in solidarity with you.”

I also think people are looking at the United States and think that we weren’t able to have a comprehensive plan to deal with the pandemic. They are watching how over a hundred thousand people have died so far, and they are also seeing the racial dimensions of it. Almost a third of the people dying have been black, and we are only thirteen per cent of the population. So much of this is inconceivable but it is staring us right in the face. So I think there is a lot of pressure that is mounting in this moment, and I just hope that our government chooses to do the right thing. I think this is just the beginning.

Isaac Chotiner is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he is the principal contributor to Q. & A., a series of interviews with major public figures in politics, media, books, business, technology, and more.

(Copied from the New Yorker)

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