Hira Humayun ’17
Leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement spoke at Smith on Oct. 14 as the last event of the Meridians Symposium. It began at 8 p.m. in John M. Greene Hall and was open to the public.
Paula Giddings, editor of the journal Meridians and professor of Africana studies at Smith, gave an introduction, speaking about the journal whose executive board was hosting the symposium. Giddings mentioned the importance of this journal and the evolution it represents, showcasing intersectional work by women and queer people of color.
Keynote speakers included Janaya Khan, co-founder and international ambassador of Black Lives Matter Toronto; and Opal Tometi, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement and executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. Professor Barbara Ransby of the University of Illinois at Chicago moderated the panel.
“Sometimes the only response to despair is some kind of hopefulness,” said Khan. “You have to plant seeds, and you don’t know which ones will grow,” they said.
Tometi highlighted that this movement emerged at a time where the first black president is in office. President Obama’s victory in the presidential election of 2008 was “the most clarifying thing to happen to our movement,” as she explained. It removed notions of “lofty aspirations and symbols” and replaced them with substance. She also described how this movement has revealed how profoundly deep racism runs, where three words and one hashtag, went viral because it resonated deeply with people.
The speakers discussed how the movement for black lives came from people realizing the need to embody the values they believed in, and that thus, these people thus began organizing themselves was seen as in Ferguson, showing solidarity and emerging as a network in the movement.
Tometi and Khan talked about their policy platform for the movement for black lives and the processinvolved in developing it. This platform, they explained, is the force behind many of their movements, such as reaching out to lobbyists and policymakers.
Khan stressed the need to look at the history of systematic oppression and the struggles to which black people have been subjected, which continues to manifest itself today. On the topic of demilitarizing the police, Khan said a history of mass incarceration has led to police brutality and that the movement continues to receive pushback.
Upon being asked for their larger analysis of state violence, Tometi said that their policy document outlines how people are “systematically disenfranchised, and rendered disposable and invisible.” Tometi highlighted a number of issues which their document acknowledges, such as the systematic disadvantages that black immigrants face in the immigration system, economic and housing concerns and stretching the purview of the movement beyond just concerns with criminal justice, bringing to the surface of anti-black racism in all realms.
“We didn’t get here overnight,” said Tometi, as she explained how some of the policies made during the neoconservative movements of the ’80s and ’90s have impacted black communities until today, such as the “gutting of the welfare system,” which hurt the disadvantaged communities that needed it, and the “ramping up of the criminal justice system” that led to the mass incarceration seen today. She explained that the creation and then criminalization of poverty is why there are police patrolling mainly poor neighborhoods, and why “the poorest of the poor are being killed.”
Their movement keeps with the tradition of resistance. It is heavily focused on the power of local organization and puts women and queer folk at its core. “Strong people, not strong leaders,” said Khan, in reference to how local and regional movements go a long way.
Internationalism is also a large part of this movement. The activists spoke about the roots that black people have all across the world and how that natural connection makes black liberation movements all across the globe an important matter for them. “The reality is, black people are catching hell all over the world,” said Tometi as she explained that Americans need to acknowledge their geopolitical power.
She touched on the paradox of privilege and oppression that black people in the US experience. “We need to be informed by the struggles of black people in different parts of the world,” she said, explaining that Americans have a far reach due to the way media exports US movements to other places. In taking space it is important to make sure that black people in other parts of the world are also seen and heard.
The role of white people in this movement was also a subject of interest to the speakers, as they stated their belief that white people have been instrumental to the movement as well. “White privilege is the ability to opt in and out as you see fit,” Khan said. “White folks, the movement can’t grow unless you grow with it.”
The movement they described is decentralized but coordinated. “The forces against us are very adept,” said Tometi. “We are open to changing as needed but we also found strength in how we are organized.”
“My soul needed this,” said Asaloy Ikromova ’17J.
“It was really rejuvenating to hear directly from the people who started this movement,” said Falak Koreshi ’17.
“More events like this need to happen at Smith,” said Zoe Brian ’17.
“I thought this was amazing,” said Dwight Hamilton, Vice President for Inclusion, Diversity and Equity. “It was well received,” he said going on to remark how the engaging speakers gave powerful analyses of issues with a global reach, while bringing the community together. “I’m interested to see how it continues to come together,” Hamilton said.