Black Lives Matter founders discuss motives behind movement
Megan Valley | Tuesday, January 19, 2016
Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, who, along with Alicia Garza, started the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter as a response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case, gave the keynote lecture for Walk the Walk Week on Monday night to a crowd of over 500 students, staff and community members.
Cullors and Tometi said the phrase started in a Facebook post made by their co-founder, Garza, which was then used as a hashtag that went viral.
“We started using social media to connect this community and to amplify the message that our lives matter, despite a society and a system that continues to devalue and continues to dispose of us in a way that is egregious. It’s deplorable, and we know it’s happening,” Tometi said. “We used this platform to connect with more and more of our brothers and sisters from across the country, moving from discussions around police brutality and addressing state violence more broadly. We knew police brutality was just one facet of the violence our community is facing.”
The pair shared their stories and how it shaped their involvement in the movement: Tometi is the daughter of undocumented Nigerian immigrants and Cullors grew up “very poor” in Los Angeles, which she said has a particularly brutal police department.
“By the time I was about 13 years old, almost every young boy in my neighborhood had been arrested, had been to juvenile hall and a young boy named Matthew was given a 25-year sentence at 14 years old,” Cullors said. “And I was disturbed, to say the least, as a child. Even as I child I knew that was not right, that was not correct.”
Both talked about their experiences as activists, not only with Black Lives Matter, but previously as well: Tometi worked with immigration issues and Cullors with the penal systems.
“We’re taking into account that many of us, in this type of work, oftentimes feel that justice won’t come, or we’re cynical about the system,” Tometi said. “We know it wasn’t really made for us or that it was made to do exactly what it’s doing right now, and we carry that.”
Tometi answered students’ questions about how to become effective activists.
“My basic advice is to do the work,” she said. “Oftentimes, it can be very theoretical, and we find a bit of safety in theorizing about the challenges and theorizing solutions. But if you’re going to be a scholar-activist, you have to engage. You have to take a step of faith and join the movement.
“This is the call. We need everybody on deck for this time in our history, and it requires both theory and practice. Do it in a community. You are not by yourself. You’re in a room full of folks who have conscience and who care. You’re not by yourself in this, and I think that’s oftentimes the myth we’re sold and we buy into, that you’re the only one who cares about these issues.”
The lecture was part of Walk the Walk Week, in celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who Cullors said was an example of activism that engaged, citing King’s 32 arrests as evidence.
“We have a long history in the black community of disruption, a long legacy,” Cullors said. “What we’re doing here is we’re adding to that legacy and we should be proud of it and embrace it. The only way we’ve seen systemic change happen in this country is disruption.
“It’s not through sitting with elected officials behind back doors — that’s not been the way that we’ve seen an evolution in the culture. We would still be segregated if that were the case. Jim Crow segregation — because we’re still segregated — would still exist.”
Within the Black Lives Matter movement, specifically, Cullors and Tometi stressed the importance of “collective care” and “healing justice” to allow activists to continue to work “long distance.”
“Healing justice is key in our work, in the Black Lives Matter network and movement,” Cullors said. “In this generation, we’re really trying to understand what care looks like. How are we in this movement and caring for ourselves and caring for each other, and how do we do this as long time runners?
“What we’ve witnessed is trauma exists everywhere, whether through being in PWIs [predominantly white institutions], whether that’s through having to see the consistent killings and brutalization of our people or whether that’s just living your life as a black person.”
Cullors said she didn’t want to “pigeonhole” what might be in store for Black Lives Matter in the future, but Tometi said she feels positively about the success Black Lives Matter has had in creating a new future.
“That’s what Black Lives is saying – we’re going to create a world in which our lives matter, whether you like it or not,” Tometi said. “That world is coming. It has to come.”