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Black Lives Matter and the Building of a Mass Movement

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Black Lives Matter
Photo by Getty Images

This essay was originally published in KCET's Departures. It is the first in a multi-part series that documents and analyzes the development and future of Black Lives Matter.

"Smile, but not too widely. Look them in the face, but not directly in the eye. Let your gaze hover around their nose and forehead. Use your sharpest English, but speak in plain language...wouldn't want them to think of you as 'uppity.' Say 'thank you.' Address them as 'Officer.' Move slowly, intentionally, but without delay to their instruction. Keep your hands in sight. Don't speak in the language of 'rights.' Speak lightly. Smile..."

So much to remember as my heart beats out of my chest and I attempt to hold back the sweat from my palms and brow, suppressing my rage and my fear. So much to remember as I look into the eyes of my revolutionary tween, my free-spirited nine year-old, and my rambunctious pre-schooler. I wonder at what point I must crush their Souls a bit with these admonitions. So much to remember as my Spirit-children, who are also my students at the University, come to me, one by one, with stories of stops by campus police, beatings at the hands of LAPD, and unjust arrests by Alhambra police. How do I raise these young ones to be resistors, not victims, and also to make it safely home? There is no getting around the contradiction of it all. 

For generations, Black folks have taken part in this dance when coming in direct contact with the police. For just as long, we have risen up when it all becomes too much -- in the 1965 Watts Uprising, the 1992 L.A. Riots, and now again, in the shadow of the murders of Latasha Harling, Amadou Diallo, Margaret Mitchell, Tyisha Miller, Devin Brown, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Ramarley Graham, Rekia Boyd, and Kendrec McDade.

The murder of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmeman's acquittal on July 13, 2013, was not simply a matter of injustice; it was an affirmation of what had always been whispered, that it was open season and our children were prey. As a mother, the voice of a movement waiting to come to life beckoned me. That night, a movement was sparked. In the last two years, Black Lives Matter has emerged organically as one of the most important movements of this era to address state-sanctioned violence against Black people. #BlackLivesMatter has built a diverse mass movement that pushes Black people to view themselves as part of a Black collective and embrace a vision of societal transformation that will ultimately be won based on this mass movement approach.

Black Lives Matter
People walk in a silent protest march to demand justice for the shooting of Trayvon Martin, on April 9, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. David McNew/Getty Images

The Black community finally erupted when George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the murder of our son, our brother Trayvon Martin. On that same night, a critical mass of Black Angelenos poured out into the streets, converging at the cultural and political center of Los Angeles' Black community -- Leimert Park. Slowly it filled with folks from the neighborhood, students, revolutionaries, cultural nationalists, mamas, fathers, grandparents, workers, and unemployed folks. Some were born and raised in South Los Angeles; others spoke with West Indian lilts and walked with the pride of the Ghanaian Ashanti. There were radical White folks slinging papers, Asian comrades, and Latinos who understood the shared struggle; these folks peppered the gathering of an overwhelmingly Black presence. In the park we talked about the killing of Trayvon, not simply as a single instance, but as a part of a pattern of disregard and disdain for Black life.

Black Lives Matter
Protestors in Los Angeles, CA stop highway traffic following the acquittal of George Zimmerman on July 14, 2013. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

That night my heart broke with Sybrina Fulton's as I gazed into the innocence of Trayvon's eyes. The slight, knowing smile across his lips reminded me of my own three-year-old son. I remember stumbling through a fog after learning that Zimmerman had gotten off. I fed my children, bathed them, put them to bed, and found someone to sit with them as I shared my rage and sorrow with three other Black mamas -- Shamell Bell, my Spirit-daughter and former student, Shani Freeman, my neighbor and sister-friend, and Staci Mitchell, my colleague at Cal State L.A.'s Pan-African Studies Department -- with whom I'd form the "mama brigade."

That night we cried together, mourning Trayvon, praying that our tears and energy would somehow offer comfort to his parents Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, and Trayvon's entire circle of loved ones. We summoned Trayvon's Spirit and all of those whose souls cry out to work through us. "After the verdict I immediately fell into just wailing. I had to wail it out," said Shamell Bell. "My son was two years old and I just felt like this could have been my baby."

Staci Mitchell shares, "It was important for me to be out there because I feel like Black boys are being targeted and those are ours...those are ours...those are ours. And I have two sons. That could be them at any moment. I had to join my energy with the community's energy and say, 'We're not going to sit down for this.' I needed to have my body out there. I needed to feed off the energy and to give it and to stand up for my boys, stand up for all of them. That was the first in the rash of cases...the Zimmerman case. That was the tipping point."

The Mama Brigade

Yet, there was also a recognition of our own power amidst the grief. Sharlia Gulley, a Cal State L.A. student, describes Leimert Park as being a space of "focused rage." Her intuition had led her from her Alhambra home to Leimert Park where the collective rage was trained on Zimmerman and the system that condoned the murder that he carried out. So after we cried, in the dark of the night, we headed out and we marched and let it be known that the state would not continue to steal the lives of our babies. 

We recommitted ourselves to resisting oppression, taking liberation, and building a world where our children could live freely...and then we marched. For hours and hours we marched. We jumped over barriers and dodged police who were seeking to contain us to South Los Angeles and we made our way North, at least as far North as we could press that night. "The police came running up the street in full regalia," describes Staci Mitchell. Many were held up at Crenshaw and King, pushed back by police batons. Others took advantage of confrontations between cops in riot gear and our brethren demonstrators to jump yellow tape and keep pushing. Hundreds made it to Exposition, where it seems every police car in the City was waiting for us with rubber bullets and nightsticks. Many were injured that night, but a small contingent, the "mama brigade," made it past the 10 freeway, to Washington Boulevard before heading back to our homes to check on our children, rest, and gear up for what would follow.

Black Lives Matter
Black Lives Matter has consisted of a diversity of Black demonstrators and organizers, as well as non-Black supporters. Los Angeles, California July 14, 2013. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

The next morning, we would rise, converge and do it again. We resisted folks who tried to steer us South, into Black communities and were determined to disrupt the system that we saw as our source of oppression. We shut down the newly constructed train line that tore through the center of the community in an attempt to shuttle more affluent gentrifiers from hipster locales on the East side of town to the beach under what the previous mayor dubbed "Subway to the Sea." Sharlia Gulley, a college student and former track star, sprinted back and forth providing instruction to the growing crowd of marchers that would swell to thousands, leading them to shut down Hollywood and Highland, tourist-central. "We wouldn't back down," remembers Gulley.

That was also the night that affirmed that countering police repression didn't come without a price. Separated from the group and held at the police line on Exposition and Crenshaw, my Spirit-daughter and Cal State L.A. student, Jillian Bell, filled every bit of her 5-foot tall, 100-pound frame with immeasurable courage as she challenged the 6'3" Black-bodied officer. "Whose side are YOU on...Brother?!" she shouted at the same moment that he grabbed her arm, twisted it, cuffed her and threw her in the car. We wouldn't be able to locate Jillian, who was held in County jail for four days.

On July 15, 2013, three days after the Zimmerman acquittal, as hundreds of demonstrators took the 10 Freeway, I stood on the overpass, holding on to my three small children, ages nine, six, and three. Over the objections of my oldest, I determined that while we would march and stand with the masses of folks, we would not take the risk of entering the freeway. Folks marched down the off ramp and stood before the cars, in protest, rage, sadness, and sheer desperation. With my three young children in tow, I was taking part in the birth of a movement. "I always knew it was a movement. It felt like a movement. It felt real organic. It felt like it would coalesce into something more and it would sustain itself. It felt like folks would continue to put our bodies out there and raise our voices. I felt like I was being pulled and clearly I wasn't the only one," Staci Mitchell says.

Black Lives Matter
Demonstrators block a freeway on ramp in Los Angeles, California July 15, 2013. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
Black Lives Matter
Though the BLM movement started as a visceral response to the Zimmerman acquital, it almost immediately shaped into a more organized structure that is now made up of 26 chapters nationwide. Los Angeles, California July 15, 2013. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

As I stood on the overpass, whispering quiet prayers, watching out for my students, and documenting what would become history, a text message came in on my phone. It was from my long-time comrade, Black journalist Thandisizwe Chimurenga, and it read, "Meet at St. Elmo's Village at 9:00PM." I circulated the information within my network, especially to my Spirit-children, the students who had been bravely helping to hold it down for the past two days and showed up to the Village in force. That night, dozens of folks -- young activists, artists, organizers, mamas, and students -- joined together to form what was known then as #J4TMLA (Justice for Trayvon Martin, Los Angeles), with #BlackLivesMatter as our subtitle. The group most definitely slanted younger, educated, engaged, and artistic, with a heavy Black queer presence, but it was not monolithic.

All Black Lives Matter

When the public thinks of Black Lives Matter organizers, images of brave, dreadlocked, often queer, Black women in the youthful indignation of millennials raising fists in the faces of stale White men in stiff navy blue suits are often conjured. We see these images take shape during mass disruptions like the Netroots conference and in the form of the two courageous women who snatched the microphone from Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in the midst of a sea of Whiteness.

Black Lives Matter
Black Lives Matter Los Angeles members. Photo by: Cal State LA's Pan-African Studies Department

Black Lives Matter has done much to affirm the place of Black queer and trans folks in the movement and in the Black whole under the banner of Black nationalism with a decidedly "queer and trans lens," as described by its co-founder Patrisse Cullors. This approach and embrace is important, and just as important is the understanding that Black Lives Matter is as vast and diverse as Blackness itself. Shamell Bell, a mother, doctoral student, and original member of Black Lives Matter warns against narratives that homogenize who comprise the movement. "There are definitely queer millennials, but we're not only queer millennials. I'm a cis-gender, non-queer Black woman. I'm also a Christian and I'm a mother. The key to Black Lives Matter is that we are all working together. The voices that are heard are all different types of Black. All Black lives really do matter to Black Lives Matter and it's important not to miss that."

Notably, Black Lives Matter is also a womanist, Black nationalist movement, deeply rooted in the particular ways in which Black women organize, with a centering of Black freedom as our ultimate goal. To engage in womanist organizing is to be a part of a fluid and collective process. Borrowing from the model put forth by Civil Rights organizer Ella Baker, womanist organizing is grounded in the principle of group-centered leadership; it's fundamentally collective, or what BLM organizers call "leaderful." This means that we all have the capacity for and responsibility to lead and that leadership requires constant collaboration. Leadership of this sort travels oceans and is in the very bloodlines of Black women. 

Black Lives Matter
Protesters take part in a march against police brutality called 'Rise up October' on October 24, 2015 in New York. Campaigners demanding an end to police killings of unarmed suspects demonstrated and marched through Manhattan. EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images

Womanist organizing is present in how we prepare Sunday dinners, what happens when we dance, the interwoven voices of church choirs, the practice of other-mothering, and the way in which the words spoken in an address don't actually land until there is a collective head-nod and "um-hmm" from the group. Black women of the womanist tradition recognize that the ones who prepare the food for the meeting and ensure that everyone eats are as much leaders as the ones who set the agenda. Black nationalist womanists inject into this leaderful approach a commitment to the collective advancement of Black people, steering the vision as well as shaping the form.

Building a Sustainable Movement

Many of us had been active by responding to crises (including this one), hitting the streets, and disrupting the norm. But where we stopped short, had been laying the foundations for what would become a global movement. Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi saw this. They recognized that we could win small battles, but would not win the larger struggle for Black lives unless we visioned something bigger. They were committed to organizing and understood the need to balance organic growth with intention.

Black Lives Matter
Patrisse Cullors speaking in Tottenham, North London as part of the Ferguson Solidarity Tour. Photo by: Steve Eason

"I was very conscious about the need to build a sustainable movement. I understood that the way in which Black folks were going to gain our liberation was going to be through a Black-led mass movement that brought all Black folks together, but primarily those of us on the margins. Black Lives Matter was both calculated, but also magic," Patrisse says. The goal was to translate the rage and grief that we were all feeling into the building of a mass revolutionary movement. "Whenever I am grieving I want to gather with my people. The acquittal of George Zimmerman was a blatant act of violence against Black people as a whole. I wanted to gather to grieve, process and move towards action. We couldn't allow for Trayvon's story to be swept under the rug." For those who answered Patrisse's call, there was an emotional piece and an organizational piece. "We emotionally purged. We formed groups. We discussed demands," says Sharlia Gulley.

As the movement grew, through methods old and new, so did the diversity of Blackness among our members. We reached out to our networks through social media, as well as old-fashioned phone trees and door-knocking. We reached out to folks individually and through organizations. 

The building of a mass movement was signaled as Black Lives Matter began to build a base that closely mirrored the Black community, that included Black workers, especially through partnership with the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, young people...many of whom had been formerly incarcerated through work with the Youth Justice Coalition and Dignity and Power Now, and Black students through work with the Pan-African Studies Department at Cal State L.A. Black folks who were oppressed and exploited by the most extreme poverty, many of whom were houseless, were also foundational and brought in through partnership with the Los Angeles Community Action Network, an organization committed to organizing homeless folks under the "Black radical tradition," as described by its founder, Pete White. 

Working with organizations as well as outreaching to our own networks also contributed to the framing of the movement. We were able to make linkages between the state-sanctioned murders of Black people and the violence of unemployment, underemployment and racialized economic exploitation. We understood how over-policing sets the stage for racialized mass incarceration and police violence. We drew connections between self-knowledge, liberatory models of education, and movement building. We built out a sharp analysis that identified a White supremacist heternormative patriachal capitalist hegemony that intentionally built policies and institutions that systematically target, oppress, and exploit Black people.

For 13 months, we organized. We held read-ins for the children in Leimert, and healing workshops. We wrote songs , shot independent music video, held small gatherings, and meetings. We developed a structure and working groups: political education, healing justice, and arts and culture. As we moved beyond the urgency of the immediate, we stepped into a building phase...until another flashpoint -- the killing of Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014.

Black Lives Matter
Latino demonstrators show support for activists in Ferguson, Missouri. November 24, 2014 in Los Angeles, Calfornia. RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images
Black Lives Matter
Demonstrators react after a grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer in the Ferguson, Missouri shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, November 24, 2014 in Los Angeles, Calfornia. RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images

Mike Brown's murder at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson pushed Black Lives Matter to turn another corner. Where the network of #BlackLivesMatter organizers was a bit more closed previously (pulled together by personal and organizational connections), a call to head out to Ferguson hurried a shift toward mass movement building. Joining nearly 600 Black organizers from across the country was the Black Lives Matter Los Angeles contingent of more than 50 Black organizers, which included a 10 year-old girl and a nearly 80 year-old man and every age in between. There were union members, artists, students, firefighters, rappers, cultural nationalists, unemployed folks, former gang members, devout Christians, Muslims, and veteran freedom fighters -- all within the Los Angeles delegation. 

This building of a mass movement was solidified to an even greater degree upon arrival in Missouri where the team was hosted by St. John's Church, where practitioners of indigenous African spirituality were welcomed and grounded in the Black radical Christian tradition, Nation of Islam members locked arms with radical womanists, and grandmothers danced at barbecues hosted by local Hip Hop artists. Every kind of Black person was present and engaged, all committed to winning justice for Mike Brown and transforming the system that makes him emblematic of the treatment that we receive from hostile institutions.\

Black Lives Matter
Bringing the city to a standstill, demonstrators speak out against the slew of killings of young Black men and women. November 24, 2014 in Los Angeles, Calfornia. RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images
Black Lives Matter
Organizers have rallied support using old and new methods ranging from door-knocking, to social media. November 24, 2014 in Los Angeles, Calfornia. RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images

Now, more than two years in, Black Lives Matter has burgeoned from the small group that gathered that night in the Village to include thousands of members in 26 chapters in the United States and around the globe. The movement's rapid growth has challenged us to be thoughtful and deliberative around our core principles and what it means to build a womanist Black nationalist mass movement, a movement that dismantles a system of oppression that forces Black mamas to make speeches about making it home to their children, a system that pits Black straight folks against Black queer folks, one that isolates Black students from the 'hood, and asserts false generational and class divides. Core to building a mass movement of this kind has been centering Black collective empowerment and affirming over and over again that ALL Black lives matter.

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