A Conversation with Opal Tometi

Co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Movement

From the July/August 2015 PNL #844

by Aly Wane

Aly Wane: Could you tell us who you are and what led you to activism?

Opal Tometi: I’m the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. I was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona. We had a pretty tightly-knit Nigerian immigrant community in Phoenix. The Nigerian community looked out for one another. One thing that really shaped me was the fact that my folks were undocumented throughout my childhood and up until my middle school/high school years. They didn’t tell us for a long time. There was a period of time when we had to go to court a couple of different times because my parents were trying to adjust their immigration status. There was a chance of them being deported; however, they were able to eventually win their case. This created a sense of curiosity in me, but also a sense of fear. I started asking myself, “why would my parents be deported? Why would my family be torn apart?” Thank goodness, it didn’t happen to my family, but a couple of years later it happened to one of my best friends. There was no recourse for her and her family. I got to see firsthand what the immigration system does to people like us.

 

Opal Tometi speaks on President Obama’s Executive Actions on Immigration
Opal Tometi speaks on President Obama’s Executive Actions on
Immigration in November 2014. Source: myclickurban.com

Being in Arizona, I quickly got involved in the larger immigrants’ rights movement. I kept hearing stories about people coming across the desert. I saw people with blisters on their feet. I saw people dying in the desert, so I volunteered with a number of different organizations, groups like No More Deaths, bringing water bottles to the desert for people who were crossing. I also volunteered with the ACLU as a legal observer while the Minutemen were at the US-Mexico border along with hundreds of US vigilantes who were watching and terrorizing people as they tried to cross. By the time I was done with my college undergrad at the University of Arizona, I was really feeling disillusioned. When SB1070 [anti-immigrant racial profiling legislation] hit in Arizona, at first I was incredulous. I had a sense that this was going to go down in history. I also had a sense that we needed to organize a new movement, that what we were doing was insufficient, and that we were not getting at the root causes of the anti-immigration movement. For me it was a period when I realized the need to really dig in deep around issues like forced migration, White supremacy, and the criminalization of migration. I ended up meeting the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) around the time SB1070 was passed. I found my voice in BAJI. In other organizations, I was the Black person doing communications for immigrants’ rights organizations. I was basically helping other people share their voices. However, I wasn’t able to include my own story and the stories of my community. But with BAJI I felt at home. I started to work with the group, and fortunately 6-9 months later they had an opening and they decided to bring me on staff. At first I was a Black Immigration Network (BIN) coordinator fighting other copycat SB1070 bills across the nation (Florida, Georgia, Alabama, etc.).  I did a lot of work with Black communities in the South to explain how these laws were connected to other anti-people of color laws.

AW: What struck me about the Black Lives Matter movement is the power and simplicity of those three words. In hindsight, the statement is obvious, but there is something revolutionary about that claim. How did you, Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza come up with the term?

OT: It emerged because many of us who were part of Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity (BOLD), and frankly any Black person who was watching the Zimmerman trial, were watching with bated breath. When Zimmermann was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin, I think all of us were just so disturbed. We were very disillusioned. But we were part of BOLD, a national network of Black organizing directors and lead organizers who were training together. We knew that we needed to be in touch with everybody. Alicia Garza wrote a note on Facebook, saying how disappointed she was, how she loved our people, how our lives matter, and then she ended it with “Black Lives Matter.” Patrisse hashtagged it. Alicia put in a conference call to BOLD. We got on the call and she shared those words, and that really resonated with me. I knew that those three words were an umbrella that all of us could really work with. BLM was about the love for Trayvon Martin and other men and women who had been murdered by police. But this was also a way for us to call attention to what people weren’t wanting to name. We’re living in a so-called “post racial” society, but the reality is that Black people are still being acutely affected by all forms of state violence. It was really important to name race because for far too long, Black people were being erased in multi-racial movements. Black people had been invisibilized from so much of the discourse and so much of the political sphere. And at the same time that it was sort of unearthing some of the deep contradictions within our society, it was also a love note to our people.  It was an internal dialogue that we were having with Black people. This was both an internal affirmation of who we are, but also an external demand on our society. At the time, my brother was 14 years old and when I heard the [Zimmermann] verdict, I was thinking of him. I knew he was going to see this news, and that he and his generation would know that this thing had happened on our watch. For me this was very personal. I was literally thinking about him and all of the young Black people I knew.

 

 

 

Black Lives Matter protester holding a dandelion with seeds floating away

I reached out to Alicia and told her that I wanted to build a project, that Black Lives Matter wasn’t just a phrase, but that it needed to be an international movement. I asked her if we could create a set of tools for people to engage in this online and make this an actual political project where we invite people to say what “Black Lives Matter” means to them, how are they going to ensure that Black Lives Matter,  figure out how to engage the BOLD community in this. She said “sure, why not?”, so I made  a few phone calls, emailed back and forth with a couple of people and started to build an online toolbox and invited people like you to participate and submit stories.  

 

Then it died down for a little bit, but the following year, unfortunately, Mike Brown was murdered. Patrisse said “We have to go[to Ferguson].” And so we did. Within 2 weeks Patrisse and Darnell Moore organized 500 people from across the country to converge in Ferguson, and that was Labor Day weekend of last year. Coming out of that, the people who went said essentially: “We know Ferguson is everywhere, so we want to be organizing in our own localities, around our own concerns.” People wanted Black Lives Matter to be a formal network. They wanted an actual political infrastructure to do direct actions, local organizing, public education, rapid response, etc…and that’s how it became a network. Beyond the rallying cry and political project, BLM is also a network of currently 23 active chapters across the country and two outside of the country (Canada and Ghana).

AW: One of the things that I love about this movement is that it honors Black pain and Black grief, and that there is an emotional work component to this.  Could you share some thoughts about this?

OT: I actually remember sitting at home and bawling after the Zimmerman verdict, feeling devastated. This is something that we do not shy away from. We believe that our people deserve to be whole and deserve to have their trauma and their pain acknowledged. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the phrase “hurting people hurt people.” As we’re dealing from trauma from a systems level, we’re manifesting that pain even within our personal relationships. It’s critical that we have time and space to grieve and to address our own pain. And we believe that so much that we said that one of the staff positions that we want is Healing Justice Coordinator. We have to allow ourselves to bring our whole selves into this. I think about the people that I have worked with who are undocumented and who are part of our organizing committees who do not have any recourse: some of them are just fighting depression and having health crises. I’m actually in touch with a group of acupuncturists who are going to work with us across the country and partner with our chapters. At BAJI a couple of weeks ago, we actually had a psychologist come and do a self-care workshop for organizers. This is to acknowledge that we are waging war on a system in a very hard environment where the power dynamics are so great that sometimes it causes additional stressors and trauma for us.

Opal is the Executive Director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and a co-founder of Black Lives Matter. Aly is an undocumented activist and a member of the PNL Editorial Committee.

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