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Opal Tometi Black Lives Matter 2010s
Opal TometiIllustration by Callum Abbott

What I learned from founding Black Lives Matter

#BlackLivesMatter co-founder Opal Tometi on the movement that defined a decade of race politics in America

Deep fakes, influencers, viral fashion – we live in a world unrecognisable from the one we stood in ten years ago. As a chaotic decade comes to a close, we're speaking to the people who helped shape the last ten years and analysing the cultural shifts that have defined them. Explore the decade on our interactive timeline here, or head here to check out all our features.

On July 13, 2013, the neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old who Zimmerman shot and killed on February 26, 2012, in Florida. The night Zimmerman was acquitted, thousands of people started tweeting the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, in protest of the acquittal, but also in protest of racial profiling and endemic state violence towards black people in America more broadly. 

In the coming years, those four syllables came to be a symbol of hope and justice for African Americans and their allies, particularly after several more cases of police brutality gained more attention on social media, such as Eric Garner, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Not only was America watching, but the world was, which often meant having our feeds flooded with horrifying and graphic videos of police brutality. In anger and outrage, Black Lives Matter quickly shifted from a hashtag to a global protest movement.

The day Zimmerman was acquitted, three activists – Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi decided to found an organisation to create a unified movement around the issue. In founding Black Lives Matter they hoped to to intervene in violence inflicted on black communities by the state and vigilantes. By structuring the movement, they allowed it to rapidly grow to 30 chapters across the world. By the end of 2016, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter had been tweeted over 30 million times. The organisation hosted “freedom rides”, which bussed black activists to demo locations, die-ins, and mass protests, and they utilised social media and hashtagging to raise awareness of the movement.

For me, as a black person who grew up on social media in the 2010s, Black Lives Matter feels like one of the defining protest movements that entirely shaped the way I look at politics and global struggles against state violence. At my university, activists did solidarity campaigns which brought the issue onto campus, where we made links between the state violence that was happening in the US (often gun violence), and cases that happened in the UK regardless of the absence of guns, like that of Sarah Reed. Black Lives Matter has made fewer headlines in the latter part of the decade, but with a new set of campaign goals moving into 2020, its guiding principles are still strong.

Looking back at its impact, and its future, we talked to Tometi about the inception of the movement, and how we can carry its work into the next decade.

What was your role in the inception of the movement?

Opal Tometi: I am a first-generation Nigerian American. I was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona. So as a young black woman coming of age in a place like Arizona, I witnessed a number of injustices. I remember my mom being passed up for particular jobs, and aunties having issues at the workplace, or my dad being pulled over for driving while black and being harassed by the police. I also had extended family members who were in immigration detention and an aunt who was deported. She was a widow and had four daughters who were born in the US.

As I got older, I learned more and more about the structural and systemic challenges that black people faced. I was a history major in college and studied the Civil Rights Movement, black culture and black history, and was very attuned to the fact that our people were being incarcerated en masse, our people were being brutalised by the police, our people were experiencing high unemployment rates and so on. But I was also naive and had thought that Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and Rosa Parks and all these great leaders I’d read had accomplished the dream or had got us closer. I soon realised that this wasn’t the case. I looked around at my context and I could see that this wasn’t true. Sadly the United States has seen a lot of police brutality, a lot of extrajudicial killing.

“The justice system did not value this young black boy’s life. And it shattered our hearts. It put us in a fit of rage” – Opal Tometi

I feel like this is so important to understanding the issue of police brutality: that it is intrinsically connected to the struggles of black people that span different domains of everyday life under the state – everything from employment, to access to resources, to education. When did you take these observations and start to organise specifically around the issue of police brutality?

Opal Tometi: So one of the first high profile cases that I got more actively involved with was the case of Oscar Grant, who was killed on New Year’s Day (2009) in Oakland, California by the police. I was in Arizona at the time, and we did our own sets of solidarity actions and lifted his name and connected with people who were doing the work on the ground in Oakland.

But when we finally decided to create the Black Lives Matter platform, and when I bought, was soon after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was a self-appointed neighbourhood patrolman who called the police on Trayvon – and while the police told him not to follow Trayvon, he still proceeded to follow him and he killed him. And this set the entire world on fire. 

We were all up in arms and so upset because Trayvon was minding his own business, he was doing his own thing. Yet somebody, a white vigilante, can stop and kill him and then they go to court and he’s essentially found not guilty. They basically said that if he felt threatened, he was permitted to kill him. The justice system did not value this young black boy’s life. And it shattered our hearts. It put us in a fit of rage – a mixture of pain and rage, and caused a lot of people to say #JusticeForTrayvon. So we came together to say, “Hey, we know that this is not just” and “we need to build out a platform that demands justice for black lives, period.”

And channelling this pain and rage, what did building the movement practically entail?

Opal Tometi: The way we created Black Lives Matter was by both being on the street and taking actions, and uplifting the message across the country. So I was in New York, where we were doing rallies and protests and making sure you could see the Black Lives Matter slogans and signs on the streets in Brooklyn. Patrisse Cullors, in Los Angeles, also took it to the streets and did actions.

I reached out to Alicia Garza early on, and said, “I’ve seen this emerging hashtag that Patrisse and you put online a day or two ago. I think we need to build a website and I think we need to elevate it and make sure that we’re using it across our network and beyond”. And so I built, out of a Tumblr page. I chose the colours black and yellow because those are my favourite. We shared the page, and people began to amplify the hashtag and take the message to the streets. It became a movement in Atlanta, New York and LA. 

Then, about a year later, sadly Mike Brown was murdered in Ferguson, Missouri, and once again, we were devastated. Following the story on Twitter, we saw that protestors, who were mourning, were being met with tear gas and a militarised police force. That was really alarming and scary. So we organised the Black Lives Matter Freedom Ride to Ferguson and stood in solidarity with the community to let them know that their lives absolutely matter. To let them know that they’re not alone, to let them know that the entire world is watching and that black people nationwide see them and aren’t going to let these things slide – that we’re tired, we’re tired of the impunity. We’re tired of the ways in which black lives are treated as disposable.

The fact that Mike Brown’s body laid in the street for four-plus hours was so heartbreaking. You know, I went down there and I saw exactly where his body laid. There was essentially an altar that was built there and everybody could see it. The entire neighbourhood could see it. 

Before Ferguson, Black Lives Matter was more something ad hoc. But after we went to Ferguson people said, “we want a new organisation, that allows us to articulate our point of view and allow for a more inclusive black-led movement, so black queer folks, black trans folks, black immigrants… we want spaces that reflect the breadth of who we are and uplift all of who we are”. That was what the people essentially demanded on the ground while we were in Ferguson, Missouri. Something intersectional. 

Part of the movement’s national and global spread also felt like it was to do with camera-phones and social media – the ability to film police brutality and amplify what was really going on. People were even doing it over where I live in Enfield, just outside London. Can you tell me a bit about this culture of recording and circulating videos that became associated with Black Lives Matter? Do you see it as a necessary act?

Opal Tometi: Yes, I think it’s important that we document what’s happening. Especially when there are power dynamics at play and we’re not in a position where we can fully defend ourselves or have the “authority” to act in another way. But also, in the US in particular, it just hasn’t been the case that if we have documentation and the footage that we will see justice, or that we will see some kind of redress. I don’t want people to think that having cameras has been the ultimate solution, although it’s helpful for certain situations. I don’t think we should stop, but we must know that it’s not the end of the story. We still must demand justice to come from that footage.

Yes. So many of the cases that have been caught on camera have not been brought to justice. 

Opal Tometi: Exactly.

I know the movement was receiving the most global attention during 2014 to 16 – it felt like it was all I saw on my timeline for those two years. But I’m aware Black Lives Matter still has momentum and has expanded over time. Can you tell me a bit about how it’s growing?

Opal Tometi: We know that the struggle that we’re up against is beyond just police brutality. So what’s been heartening is that people are joining the movement and they’re taking up the cause in their respective fields. We see educators coming around and saying "black lives matter in school". Consequently, they’re trying to get a curriculum that reflects the black experience – and not just slavery or Martin Luther King Jr., but a diversity of perspectives and contributions that black people have made over the years. They want that to be reflected in the curriculum, especially because we’re seeing a pushback against the stories we tell about our lives. For example, in some states, they’re trying to call the transatlantic slave trade a “migration”, instead of explaining that black people were kidnapped from Africa and enslaved in the US and around the Americas. 

Alongside changing the curriculum, educators are trying to ensure that officers are no longer in schools. We have these things called “school resource officers” who exist as police in the classroom, and they’re behaving violently, particularly towards black girls and boys. So we are heartened to see those teachers speaking out. We’ve also seen people in the entertainment industry use their voice and try to mobilise to demand fair pay (for black people in America) and to ask that different types of stories be told about black people. We know that the culture work is just as important as the policy work.

“We have to make sure that every black person is safe. But beyond that, we should ensure that we have the opportunity to actually thrive” – Opal Tometi

These are just a few examples of areas where things are changing, but overall it’s great to see that people now understand that when we say “Black Lives Matter”, we’re not just talking about police brutality – although that is a key catalysing moment. Yes, when you are being killed in the street, or when you have 12-year-old boys like Tamir Rice in Cleveland being shot, or you have young women like Sandra Bland going missing and all of a sudden they’re dead, you know that something has to give. We have to make sure that every black person is safe. But beyond that, we should ensure that we have the opportunity to actually thrive. And that’s ultimately what the long term project is all about. We have to be able to live a life of full dignity, and respect.

And being unafraid to ask for more than the bare minimum.

Opal Tometi: Yes.

And in terms of what we ask for – what, looking forward, are your hopes for the next decade?

Opal Tometi: My hopes are that this gets even stronger and that we build institutions that stand the test of time – institutions that reflect our values. I also hope we will have policy platforms and agreements that reflect our needs.

I’ve been moved by the various ways that people have been demanding reparations. A lot of times there’s this kind of ”oh my goodness, reparations!” response – it seems so lofty, but it really is quite basic. Reparations are about repairing the damage, right? We can’t have fairness if the damage hasn’t been reconciled. I’m not going to demand that it happens in one particular way in every single place, but I think it’s something that our societies have to take seriously. They need to begin to make out plans that say: “hey, in this community, we’ve really decimated the infrastructure for schools.” Or: “this neighbourhood is really blighted, and we need to make sure that the streets are safe, and that they have support.” To me, that’s part of repairing the damage. That is the key thing that I hope we start to realise in this new decade.

My other hope is that more people understand that we need to see a defunding of police across the country, and around the world. I think we need to begin to develop infrastructure for other types of support and safety. Oftentimes people think that safety is law enforcement, that safety is criminalisation, but that’s not safety. Safety is having good schools. Safety is having social workers and therapists where needed. Safety is having medical care when you need it. Safety is having a roof over your head. Not more police breathing down our necks in our neighbourhoods. And so to me, those core questions about redefining safety must be determined over this next decade. 

We have to see this money, which keeps being allocated towards law enforcement, redirected towards solutions that keep our communities safe, and safe as defined on our own terms. Excessive policing is why black communities continue to see so much police brutality – we don’t have other types of solutions being brought in. Those tax dollars that we’re paying need to be redirected in a way that’s dignified, in a way that reflects our values, and in a way that keeps our communities safe.