The Movement Has a History

Against the Current, No. 177, July/August 2015

Melina Abdullah

WANT TO talk about how Black Lives Matter began, what it is we’re doing and how you can get involved. I always have an “ask” at the end, because I don’t think that there is very much point in doing these conversations to just engage in dialogue. I think it’s what you do when you get out of the room. So thank you all for inviting me and thank you for having this conversation; the energy that I’m feeling is that many of you hopefully will be inspired to engage after you leave here today.

I was born in the ‘70s in East Oakland. All of our parents are Panthers, or Black Power organizers, or organizers. We come out politicized. When I teach, we get into these conversations: “What was your first protest?” I do not know — because I was born on a picket line. When I moved to LA for graduate school, Maxine Waters was convening hearings about whether or not the CIA brought crack cocaine into South LA. I became involved in some of that work.

Almost every six months, there would be some kind of crisis in our community. There was the killing of Margaret Mitchell, the homeless woman who was killed for carrying a screwdriver. The one that hit me the hardest was 10 years ago. There was a 13-year-old boy named Devon Brown who was killed in a hail of bullets for joyriding in his father’s girlfriend’s car. Basically they said that the car was a weapon, and they killed this little boy.

There was all of this organizing that happened and I became a part of that here in Los Angeles. In the Oscar Grant case we won a little victory. Grant’s killer, Johannes Mehserle, was locked up. It was the first time in history a police officer had actually been convicted of killing someone on the job, and so we were going, “this is great.” But we were also mad, because although he was sentenced to 13 months, I think he got out in three months.

Brenda Stevenson talked about “episodes” that could build on each other. And so, these episodes were happening, and we were part of each of the episodes.

When Trayvon Martin was killed, we were waiting and watching George Zimmerman’s trial. We had this kind of sense that Brenda Stevenson would be right, that each thing would build upon each other, and that the little glimpse of justice we got with Johannes Mehserle would mean that George Zimmerman was really going to get it, because he was a fake cop, a cop in his own mind, not a real cop. And so we were thinking that something might happen.

The verdict came in on a Saturday. I was out shopping for a used car, because my family had grown and we needed more seats. We were at Carmax. It was nighttime in LA, so in Florida it’s really night, and we were thinking the verdict’s not coming in today. But my brother calls me and he says, “Where you at?” and I tell him. He goes, “you’re not going to like it.” And he tells me that Zimmerman got off. I said “What you mean, he got off?” Every one of us, I think, was holding on to the hope that Zimmerman would be convicted.

And so I’m in this fog. We go home, I feed the kids, put them to bed, and then I call a neighbor to watch them. I called Shamell and Shawnee and Stacey — three Black moms. And we decided that we were going to do what every Black person in Los Angeles does when we get mad, which is what? Go to Leimert Park! And so everybody got the secret Underground Railroad memo, and we all went to Leimert Park. And there were masses of us; there were thousands of people in Leimert Park, and we didn’t have a plan, we didn’t know what we were going to do, but this kind of collective rage starts bubbling up.

We just started marching — and I know all we kept yelling was “go north! Don’t go south, go north!” because if you go south, you’re heading into the Black neighborhood. If we got north of Wilshire — that’s what we kept saying — if we get north of Wilshire, then at least we’ll be in their hood, right? And so we keep moving north. And Sharlia, who was one of my students at Cal State LA was like this track star. She’s running, we’re dipping through Krispy Kreme parking lots trying to get around the police, and we make it all the way up to Hollywood and Highland, and we’re out until 4AM.

The next day we decided we were going to go back out and we intuitively shut down the 10 freeway.

That evening I get this text from the sister named Thandisizwe Chimurenga — I don’t know if you all know her, but if you’re not following her on Twitter, if you don’t read her pieces, you need to start doing that immediately, because we need to tell our own stories. Thandi is our real life Ida B. Wells now. So if you’re thinking about who Ida B. Wells was during the period known as the “lynching movement,” for this new lynching period, Thandisizwe Chimurenga is our Ida B. Wells.

Thandi texts me, and she goes — and I imagine the text sounded like this if it had a voice — [whispers] “Meet at St. Elmo’s Village at 9pm.” Of course, the text didn’t really whisper, but I sent the word out to all my comrades, and we go to this beautiful place — if you don’t know St. Elmo’s Village, it’s this Black artist community. We go there, and we meet up with the sister who I’d been working with for some time, Patrice Colors.

She had the foresight to say, “This is not going to be just another episode.” This is not going to be just another moment of us gathering in Leimert Park and marching and yelling and being angry. We’re going to take that rage and turn it into something. And so, we didn’t have a name for it quite yet — well, she had been talking with Alicia Garza up in Oakland, and Alicia had written this love letter to Black people and signed it “Black Lives Matter.” But we sat there and we brainstormed how we make this a movement, not just a moment.

And so we developed this kind of framework. Black Lives Matter is working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. And we need to understand that this is not a couple of “bad actors.” It’s not bad police officers; it’s an entirely bad policing system. It’s an entirely flawed public safety system. And it’s intentional and it’s systematic. Manning Marable talks about racism against Black people — this doesn’t just happen, we didn’t just stumble upon it, the system created itself to target us, to exploit us, and to benefit from the racism that it exacts upon us.

We affirm our contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression. When we think about Black Lives Matter, we need to think about it as an affirmation of our own humanity. I think Sheryl said it — it’s not about pleading with white people, or with a system that oppresses us, to see our humanity, it’s about us to recognize it in ourselves and to affirm it in ourselves and to step into it for ourselves.

We have put our sweat equity and love for Black people into creating a political project, taking the hashtag off of social media and into the streets. It is a hashtag, but it was never just a hashtag. Really, I would say Black Lives Matter formed before it was called Black Lives Matter. When we were Justice for Trayvon Martin Los Angeles (J4TMLA), we were BLM. This is what was bubbling up.

The call for Black lives to matter is a rallying cry for all Black lives striving for liberation. What that means is — these are the three women who are credited with being the founders of BLM: Patrice Colors, Alicia Garza, and Opal, who is an organizer with BAJI (Black Alliance for Just Immigration). Alicia is an organizer up in the Bay; Patrice is here in Los Angeles. And so when we think about it, BLM was founded by three queer Black women.

And so when we say “all Black lives matter,” we mean Black women’s lives matter, we mean Black children’s lives matter, Black queer folks’ lives matter, Black trans folks — and we mean that regardless if your pants are sagging, or if you have a law degree, your life matters.

It doesn’t matter that you were scared of Michael Brown. It doesn’t matter that Eric Garner was selling bootleg cigarettes. His life matters, all of our lives matter. And really, if you’re scared of Michael Brown, then maybe you need to see a psychologist. We really need to lift that up.

A week after we formed J4TMLA, Sharlia — the track star I was telling you about — put a little hashtag on the top of her poster that says “#BlackLivesMatter.” We didn’t really realize it was going to stay around as long as it did. This is when we decided — we kept up this notion, “We have to bring it to their hood.”

When we do our organizing, we have thought it out. We do it in a particular way and for particular reasons. One — we want to raise awareness. We want people to know that the 2012 Malcolm X Grassroots Movement report is phenomenal, but we also need to understand that — I don’t know if you all have been feeling the way many of us have been feeling, but every time a police officer gets off, you go, “now that’s going to tell the rest of them that they’ll get off, too.”

I wish I was a quantitative methodologist, but I’m not, so I was trying to get with my homegirl Angela James over at Loyola Marymount University, and trying to get her to crunch the numbers, but someone just did. And so they updated that MXGM report, and we are now at every 14 hours. Every 14 hours somebody Black is killed by police officers, vigilantes, or security. That’s a doubling in less than 5 years. And so we need to raise awareness — YOU NEED TO KNOW THAT.

And then — you need to be angry enough to do something about it. So, not just sit here in your little space at UCLA and think, “well, this is interesting to study.” But also, get out into the streets — and not just y’all get out into the streets, but everybody out into the streets. So the folks who are in Watts, the folks who are on 65th and Broadway, the folks who are in northwest Pasadena. Everybody needs to be mobilized, and everybody needs to be doing the work.

We believe in group-centered leadership in BLM, and we’re taking that from Ella Baker. That means all of us have the capacity to be organizers. And we all do it in different ways.

I am the least artistic person that you’ll ever meet, but we have lots of artists in BLM, they make amazing art. That picture of Alicia, Patrice and Opal is beautiful, but I couldn’t have drawn it; but what I can do is I’m really good at kind of figuring out how to say it in a particular way. So that’s my contribution. Shamell is a dancer — I didn’t even know that dance could be used for the movement. But we took over LAPD headquarters for 18 days back at the beginning of January, and one of the most important pieces that we did out there was this crunk dance thing — I didn’t do it with you, but a bunch of folks did it — and it went viral, and it really helped to elevate the struggle for justice for Ezell Ford. And so there’s different ways you can contribute, and all of those things are leadership.

We’re also very intentionally Black-led and ally-supported. What that means is white folks gotta check your egos. We don’t want you in front of a camera right now. This is not about you. It’s about all of our struggles for a more just world, but what that means is that Black people have the vision and the ability to vision our own models of what liberation looks like. And we want you to help us, but we want you to allow us — that even doesn’t sound right — we want you to step back, so that we can step forward and push our vision forward. And we have the best allies in the world, and I’ll talk about an action that we did on Saturday. It’s not about segregating; it’s about recognizing roles.

In Defense of Disruption

Fifth, we disrupt the system — we shut it down. So we intentionally are shutting down freeways. We intentionally shut down 3rd and Fairfax on Saturday and shut down all those little upscale eateries on Restaurant Row, we did all that Saturday. We’re shutting it down because as long as state-sanctioned violence only exists in Black neighborhoods, no one else cares about it. And so, we are going to shut it down every chance we get — shut down Walmarts is part of that.

We’re going to vision a free and just world, and we’re going to build the world we want. So in sum, these two things mean we are a revolutionary organization. We don’t believe in just reform. We believe in dismantling a system that is fundamentally flawed, fundamentally oppressive and exploitative, and building something new.

We have now 28 BLM chapters. Black Lives Matter is a real organization; we don’t believe that we have to have the law to affirm that, so we’re not a 501(c)3. We exist because we exist. All 28 chapters participated in this National Day of Action for Baltimore solidarity, and this is a period that we are calling our “Black Spring.”

We went into restaurants like Lawry’s, like the Stinking Rose, all of those on Restaurant Row, and we read this Langston Hughes poem: “Negroes, sweet and docile, meek, humble, and kind / Beware the day they change their mind.”

And you should have seen the people in there, they were so scared.

Then we marched, we marched and we shut down the intersection on 3rd and Fairfax. There were about 300 of us — the Black people took the center of the intersection, but then we were surrounded by allies — white allies, Asian allies, Indigenous allies, Latino allies, and they sat down around us in that intersection to make sure that the cars wouldn’t come through and hit us, because they do do that sometimes. And that’s how that kind of played out.

So, these are some of the things that we are doing — we have the Ezell Ford case, which is what caused us to take over LAPD headquarters for 18 days. We had two demands there: firing the officers, and filing murder charges against them. But we’re kind of evolving; we’re also very fluid in our stance. We understand that filing murder charges — and even if they’re convicted, that doesn’t do everything that we need to do.

I want to just briefly mention the killing of Brother Africa down on Skid Row, which really lifts up the need for partnerships and alliances. So we have several actual formal partnerships — one with the Black Workers’ Center, one with LACAN (LA Community Action Network), who does the majority of the really really good work on Skid Row, and a brother named Pete White down there. And so what we’ve done around the Brother Africa case is also recognize the role that capitalism and the role that the superexploitation, especially of Black people, plays in allowing for state-sanctioned violence.

But this last case is the one that I’m probably most excited about in terms of what it can bring for us. I don’t know if you all remember the killing of Kendrick McDade in Pasadena in 2012, but: Kendrick McDade was walking home, he was followed by Pasadena police. He was hunted and killed. They thoughtfully turned their sirens and lights off, and professor Harris will attest to the fact that when police turn off their lights and sirens, that means that they’re not recording — the dashcams are triggered by lights and sirens. So when they turned them off, they knew what they were doing. They cornered him, they killed him, shot him eight times, and then they ran him over with the police car.

Now they say it was an accident, but this Office of Independent Review (OIR, a civilian oversight board) report comes out by this guy Michael Jenacco, who goes around and does these independent reviews of police departments. They’re always pro-police. In this case, it was scathing. It said not only were the officers who killed Kendrick McDade at fault, but that the entire Pasadena police department is fundamentally just rotten from top to bottom.

So you know what happens? The police union steps in and has the report sealed. The court reversed itself two weeks ago and unsealed 80% of the report. Why I’m saying I’m optimistic about it is because that report shows how systematic and intentional this kind of policing is. I think it really opens it up for us to reimagine what public safety looks like.

We can do things like demanding really radical transformations of public safety where we say things like, “If police can’t control their weapons, maybe they shouldn’t have them.” Maybe we should not only demilitarize the police, but disarm them. Maybe we should think about what all the data says really creates safer communities, and invest in things like after-school programs, like livable wage jobs, like full employment, and do that kind of work, instead of overspending on police.

I encourage you to get involved — follow us on Twitter at @BLMLA. This is my ask: Follow us. There are a couple of events coming up. And then we have monthly meetings of Black Lives Matter, which is open to everyone; you don’t have to be Black to come to the meetings. Add us on Facebook.

July-August 2015, ATC 177