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The woman behind BLM: a Nigerian immigrant that fights for “the possibility to live with dignity”

Seven years ago Tometi helped to create what is possibly the biggest protest movement in US history. She explains what the critics of BLM get wrong, how her family’s story made her an activist and why she is certain the movement will succeed

Maybe Opal Tometi is not the image of a great US civil rights leader that lives in your head. For a start, she is not an austere man in a dark suit, but a 36-year-old woman in pilates gear, who laughs often and generously. She doesn’t need the sonorous tones of a Southern Baptist preacher to make her point – she has social media – and with Nigerian-born parents, her ancestors were not among those enslaved and transported across the Atlantic several centuries ago. Yet, as one of the three founders of Black Lives Matter, Opal Tometi has helped to reignite the civil rights movement.

BLM was formed in 2013 when Oakland-based organiser Alicia Garza felt moved to respond to the acquittal of George Zimmerman. Zimmerman had the year before shot dead an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in Florida, and Garza posted an impassioned message on Facebook. Patrisse Cullors shared the post with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, and an inspired Tometi built the website, choosing yellow and black as its signature colours. And with that, a movement was born.

‘This movement is about all of us and recognising that black people aren’t a monolith’ … Opal Tometi. Image credit: Bethany Mollenkof/The Guardian

It’s a movement that some analysts say is the biggest in US history. Between 15 and 26 million people participated in demonstrations following the death of George Floyd in May this year – and between then and August there were 7,750 demonstrations in all 50 states and Washington DC. Internationally, there have been protests in 60 countries and on every continent except Antarctica, with politicians from Boris Johnson to Justin Trudeau insisting that they, too, think “Black Lives Matter”.

It is a result that could not have been foreseen seven years ago. Tometi says over video chat that she was trying to “remind people that they could do what we did in the past. They can get involved in community-based organisations, they can go to the streets – they can engage in actions to change the course of history.”

Tometi’s path towards activism began long before, in the predominantly white Phoenix suburb where she was raised. She “gravitated towards kids of other immigrants, so my little crew reflected the diversity of our actual world”. Her best friend from first grade was from a Jordanian family. “We would have baklava and grape leaves. They had goats and chickens in the back yard … so I just grew up with this type of complexity.”

However, the bookshelves of her childhood home were not lined with works by Angela Davis, Tometi says with a laugh. Nor was black liberation politics a regular topic of discussion. But, she adds, her parents were “somewhat politicised, in that they were very active in their church community and with other Nigerian immigrants”. There were collections and weekend visiting rotas organised for people in need. When a widowed woman was put in an immigration detention centre then deported, her four children were taken in by another family. Despite Arizona’s negative rhetoric about immigrant communities, she says: “I saw that our people were showing up for each other and pooling resources to do that.”

Then, when Tometi, the eldest of three children, was still in middle school, it was her parents’ turn to need support as they faced deportation for being undocumented. “Y’know, fortunately, we were able to win their case,” she says, but the trauma of those months has never left her. “It instilled in me just how vulnerable they were to the whims of the state.”

Other memories are more joyful. At high school, Tometi joined a step team (a percussive African American dance form), founded by two black friends who had been rejected from the nearly all-white cheerleading squad. “These girls, I tell you, were some of the best dancers that I have ever seen, but they didn’t cut.” They performed city-wide at Martin Luther King Jr holidays and Juneteenth celebrations – giving Tometi not just the chance to learn more about African-American culture, but a sense of sisterhood. “We were called Dangerous,” she adds with a self-deprecating chuckle.

"I feel like everything’s on fire and we need to work round the clock to save the democracy we have".

The BLM website that Tometi set up. Image credit: Black Lives Matter/The Guardian

As an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, Tometi became a campaigner for immigrant rights. But, one day in the run-up to George W Bush’s 2004 reelection, Tometi was in a seminar about the Holocaust and a new sense of urgency set in. “I told the instructor and my classmates that I felt like this could happen again. ‘Like, look around us, y’all. Look at what we’re saying about immigrants, the way we’re talking about people being ‘illegal’, look at the types of laws being pushed. Yes, we’re not there yet, but all these signs are pointing to this mass dehumanisation of a segment of our population, and we know where that leads.’ I remember everybody, especially my instructor, just shutting me down.”

Tometi felt this so intensely she decided to wind up her studies. “I realised that we were continuing to repeat this awful history …” She pauses and takes a deep breath. “Mind you, this is, gosh, what? Like, 16 years ago? To me it was dire then, never mind the time we’re in now, where I feel like everything’s on fire and we need to work round the clock to save the democracy we have.”

So when, nine years later, Cullors wrote #BlackLivesMatter under Alicia Garza’s post, Tometi was poised for action. She had taken the classes, read the theory and had experience volunteering at domestic violence shelters and campaigning against SB 1070, a strict and broad immigration act that in her view “was going to turn Arizona into an apartheid state”. She was more than ready.

Early on, Tometi realised that social media could be more than just an efficient way to get the message out; it was also the perfect way to deepen people’s understanding of structural racism, by illustrating the connections between seemingly unrelated racist incidents. Or, as the movement’s saying goes: “There’s a Mike Brown in every town.” (In 2014, 18-year-old Brown was shot dead by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri.)

“Quite honestly, that’s why I liked the phrase, Black Lives Matter,” says Tometi. “Because it wasn’t just Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride … It wasn’t just these singular names, which are extremely important. I could never, ever take away from their individual lives and the love that their families and communities have for them, absolutely not. But what was important was that we were living in a society where, systematically, our loved ones could be taken from us. And there would be no justice.”

Trayvon Martin, whose shooting by George Zimmerman in 2012 inspired the BLM movement. Image credit: Mark St George/Rex Features/The Guardian

This success at spreading not just recognition, but a bone-deep understanding of structural racism, makes Tometi confident that BLM’s other aims will one day be achieved. She reminds me that the phrase Black Lives Matter itself was seen very differently in the early days: “Some people were thinking: ‘Oh, we don’t say that! You don’t want to talk about race!’ Now everybody’s saying it! And they know exactly what it means.

“I think we’re gonna be seeing that same thing happen with this conversation around defunding the police and reallocating those taxpayer dollars towards solutions that give us the possibility to live with dignity.” Defunding the police, she points out, is just a call to have government budgets targeted towards a community’s real needs. “In the US, we’ve overvalued punishment and invested heavily in apparatuses that criminalise our communities … But you could always say: ‘No, we can invest in caring for our community.’ That care can look like more resources for education, more resources for mental health programmes and so on.”

Black Lives Matter was always an “umbrella statement”, she says, intentionally broad enough to challenge not just the criminal justice system, but also racism in education, healthcare and elsewhere; issues that are locally relevant to the movement’s 16 or so North American chapters and grassroots groups internationally. “From the beginning,” says Tometi, “when I built, I went to the website and wrote: ‘Black queer lives matter, black immigrants matter, black disabled folks matter …’” This movement is about all of us and recognising that black people aren’t a monolith.”

We don’t need a pretty little story to put a bow on. BLM is more multifaceted than that and it’s our strength.

Inclusivity was always central, “by who we are”, she says. “Me being the daughter of immigrants, Alicia and Patrisse being queer; naturally our own identities inform the work.” It’s relevant, too, that all three have brothers. “That’s a lot of what we were thinking about when we learned Trayvon Martin’s story. Y’know, we care for the black men in our lives and black men period, but we also know that our identities are more complicated than just that.”

Social media allowed Black Lives Matter to complicate the narrative, beyond traditional media soundbites. “We don’t need a pretty little story that you can put a bow on. BLM is more multifaceted than that and it’s our strength.” She mentions the contribution of Elle Hearns, a black trans woman from Ohio who travelled across the US, helping to set up local BLM chapters. “That’s the nature of the times and that’s the nature of what it’s always been. I think about Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, and just so many people who’ve come before us, who didn’t necessarily get their shine, maybe because of their queerness. Now we’re saying: ‘Yeah, let’s bring our full selves to the table and all of that matters.’”

Tometi at the March for Black Women in Washington DC, 2017. Image credit: Courtesy of Opal Tometi/The Guardian

Tometi uses the word “leaderful” to describe BLM. It’s a neat way of expressing how, while outsiders may see not having one figurehead as a “lack”, the decentralised organisational structure is viewed as an asset within the movement itself. “I see what has happened in the past, where there have been one or two figureheads and those people have been assassinated,” she says plainly. “It destabilised their organisations. So what we’re trying to do now is be stronger than we ever were before. Leaders are everywhere. Yes, one might go, but there will be 10 more that pop up.”

While Tometi insists she’s never anxious about wayward chapters, BLM’s structure does make it more difficult to dispel misinformation. Along with Garza and Cullors, she must repeatedly rebut the same attack lines, such as BLM being a Marxist organisation. “I would encourage people to think critically when they hear statements like this that aim to discredit BLM, because ultimately that’s what it is, right? There’s a lot of rightwing thinktanks and nativist organisations that are putting out a lot of fake information about us to distract, confuse and give people an excuse to not support this movement.”

And what about those who claim they are broadly aligned with BLM’s aims but are put off by exaggerated reports of looting and violence? “I say look at the data. In 93% of the protests, nothing like that has happened. But beyond that I’ll be really honest: I’m not concerned about broken glass. I’m concerned about people’s broken faces, their broken bodies because they dared to stand up for human rights. Property can be replaced, people cannot … I know it can be very confusing for people, but it really shouldn’t be.”

Tometi at the March for Black Women in Washington DC, 2017. Photograph: Courtesy of Opal TomeMoreover, in the vast majority of cases, she points out, protesters have been the victims of violence, not its perpetrators. “We have had police officers and military personnel come into our communities and brutalise us, for having the audacity to say our skin is not a crime. It’s scary out there. When you see a brigade of police officers knock over old men, you see them teargas us. You see them shoot people with rubber bullets and fracture their skulls. We’ve seen cars run through protesters, we’ve seen vigilantes come and kill people at these rallies. That to me is the focus; that’s the conversation we need to be having.”

There is also criticism from the committed. Why, for so many, does posting a black square on Instagram seem to constitute doing their bit? This question produces Tometi’s deepest sigh: “I think the concern around performative activism is real.” Yet she’s not cynical: “It wasn’t until I joined a community-based organisation that I got committed. I encourage folks to join these groups. I believe that’s the way we’re gonna see sustained change.”

A woman marches to the White House at the head of a group of members and allies of the LGBTQ community as part of the Pride and Black Lives Matter movements on June 13, 2020, in Washington. Official Pride events were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic but people showed up to lend support to the Black Lives Matter movement. Image credit CNN Politics

More leaders also allow the flexibility to adapt to the demands of the moment. Right now, that means mobilising people to exercise and defend voting rights in the US presidential election. Black Lives Matter has not officially endorsed a candidate, but Tometi’s views are plain: “Come tomorrow, we have 45 days to vote 45 out, and I believe it’s one of those efforts that’s all hands on deck,” she says, referring to Trump’s status as the 45th president, to avoid invoking his name.

But her concern is more that people might be prevented from voting at all by a combination of the Covid-19 pandemic, reforms to the US postal service and misleading statements from the president. “The fact that he and his supporters are doing all they can to undermine the vote is telling. They know our power. They know that the power is very much a multiracial movement for human rights – and that there are a lot more of us.”

The fight began long before Tometi was born, still felt overwhelming while she was a student, and is far from over. So how does she remain optimistic and energised? Daily pilates and prayer help, but checking in with friends has taken on a more significant meaning. “It’s a reminder of why I do this work; I do it because we deserve life. So I’ve been trying to maintain that beyond all of the campaign work that is so important, but that I can easily – Oh my God! – easily be consumed by.” As the high school step team-taught Tometi, and as every new day reminds her, joyful togetherness is a part of the struggle, too. Then you can never forget who you’re fighting for.

Source: The Guardian

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