One thing that sets the current racial justice movement apart from its predecessors is the intentional centering of voices that have previously been marginalized—even within movement spaces. While the media still primarily pay attention to institutionalized racism when a black heterosexual cisgender man is killed by police, organizers on the ground are looking to grow a movement that ensures liberation across sexual, gender, and class identity.
In my second interview with the creators of Black Lives Matter, I spoke with Opal Tometi, Executive Director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration, about building an inclusive movement, the importance of identity, and how to shift the narrative of justice away from the conviction and jailing of killer cops.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mychal Denzel Smith: Can you take me to the moment you read Alicia Garza’s Facebook post that said “Black Lives Matter” and what you felt reading at the time?
Opal Tometi: There was a call to action with the group of people that we had been working with called BOLD (Black Organizing for Leadership & Dignity). Within this formation Alicia basically said, “Hey, we need to come together to understand this moment and provide some shared guidance, a reading, as well as a call to action for our people.” Black Lives Matter is how she’d been talking about it. That really resonated with me.
At the time, Black Lives Matter was kind of like a rallying call and it was something we’ve been articulating online in some ways, in conversations, and beginning to put it on our posters and signs as we are going through the streets.
The point was really to engage people who are community organizers or just concerned citizens in this moment in racial justice. How are we specifically addressing anti-black violence as it occurs? More broadly, I really wanted to open up the space for a conversation that moved beyond police brutality. So that’s why we kind of kept it broad. And that’s also why Black Lives Matter is Black Lives Matter, not justice for X. It was very important to have something that was broad enough that captured the state of black life and the fact that we are experiencing a range of violence and we need to be able to speak to all of that.
You also asked about the feeling of that moment and I kind of digressed. I had actually just walked out of a screening of Fruitvale Station with my friend, another black organizer in Brooklyn when George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in the killing of Trayvon Martin. I had a slew of texts from people asking, “What are we doing? Where are we going? March tomorrow.” Both of us, as organizers, were like, “Oh my god what is this moment.”