Opal Tometi

Address at the United Nations General Assembly - July 12, 2016

Opal Tometi
July 12, 2016
Print friendly

Thank you so much for having me. Good morning.

Before I begin, I would like to take ten seconds to have a moment of silence to honor those lives that were taken in acts of violence this past week. [silence] Thank you.

As one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter network and one of tens of thousands of people of conscience around the globe who are deeply concerned about the growing human rights crisis that we face, I am grateful for the opportunity to set the context for today's dialogue.

To understand our current situation, we must have a frank and comprehensive discussion of the root causes of inequality.

Firstly, we must acknowledge colonialism, indigenous genocide and the enslavement of people of African descent at the precursor.

Friends, I would argue that the international community faces three core challenges to advancing human rights. Those are, one, global capitalism; two, white supremacy; and three, the suppression of democracy.

The valuation of profit over people impedes human rights across much of the world. Capitalists' motivations consume natural resources, perpetuate violence against workers – especially women and girls – while contributing little to local economies. By concentrating resources and influence into the hands of wealthy elites, corporate globalization and policies like outsourcing and deregulation have left many in peril, either locked out of the formal economy or locked in to exploitation.

Free trade agreements and structural adjustment programs have strangled indigenous industries, privatized basic services, displaced over 65 million people, and decimated environments across Asia, Africa and the Americas.

The results of this neo-liberal agenda can be seen in three quick examples.

One, the U.S. city of Detroit, Michigan, which has a majority black population, lost 48% of it manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2010 as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement. And more recently, residents of neighboring Flint, Michigan, were poisoned when an un-elected government overseer switched their municipal water supply to a source that had been polluted by a corporation.

Example two: Before and even after the horrible 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, outside interests from the U.S. and the World Bank have forced expensive development projects on the government, providing no true economic opportunities. As a result, more than 75 percent of the country lives in poverty, many forced to leave their loved ones and their communities behind in order to eke out a meager living in other parts of the globe.

My third example – the impact of capitalism, under-development, and man-made pollution has meant that six of the world's top ten nations that are impacted by climate change can be found on the continent of Africa.

I share these three examples of the impact of capitalism on black lives because, as you can see, race and racism are also central to inequality and discrimination across the globe.

Structural inequality maintains its grasp through the logic of white supremacy, this belief system that people of color are inferior to white people, creating racialized systems that are reinforced over the decades through institutional practices and violence. These beliefs are deeply embedded into social and cultural fabrics throughout society and spread through media and entertainment, education, and other systems.

A result of this is the cultivation of disdain against black people, and this anti-blackness has lethal consequences. In the U.S. in particular, police forces kill unarmed black people with impunity.

Besides this outright murder, the consequence is a mass criminalizing of black people. The U.S. has incarcerated nearly 2.3 million people, 40 percent of whom are black, despite black people making up just 13 percent of the U.S. population.

For the U.S., a nation that boasts of being the land of the free, it does not live up to its ideals. Government investment into programs for health, education and housing is waning in favor of expanding efforts to survey, capture and control.

We can draw similar parallels to how militarism and imperialism in both poor communities in the U.S. and developing nations sustains this inequality, discrimination and racism.

The U.S. and some European nations dominate the economies, control the flow of oil and other natural resources to gain geopolitical advantage, justsified by a façade of morality and superiority.

Now, the final core challege I want to articulate as I begin to close is the challenges to our democracy.

For disenfranchsing people from their right to vote due to felony records in the U.S., to election rigging and anti-democratic destablization tactics in elections across the globe, raising particular concerns in places like Haiti and Brazil, for this and many reasons, people are turning to other forms of civic participation – for example, protest.

I must emphatically state that the stifling of protests hampers the potential for democracy. As communities face a myriad of challenges and hostility from the state driven by neo-liberal interests, they are advocating for their rights and asserting their human dignity.

However, governments are using a broad range of techniques to silence and discourage dissent. Arrest, aggressive prosecutions, intimidation by government agencies, infiltration of organizing spaces, surveilance and disruption of cell phone and social media technology, and minimization and trivialization of mass movements by media threaten the necessary power of the people.

Black lives matter. This is a phrase that has become synonymous with an entire movement and has risen to international prominence. Over the past couple of years, we've seen sustained grass-roots organizing and protest, growing Black Lives Matter from a communications platform and a mobilization tactic into a network of 50 chapters across the globe. There are lessons that the international community can actually learn from our exponential growth.

I'll list them quickly. The first: tell the truth. If there is an issue, name it and create the context for it to be heard. Only when oppressed people are heard can we have an honest, solutions-based dialog. Solutions to this include making the UN's decade for people of African descent a thriving and robust mechanism for achieving equity for black people across the globe. Because as has been proven throughout history, when black people make gains, the quality for all lives improve.

Two: be inclusive, and make central the concerns of the most marginalized. We advocate with and are led by women, black immigrants, queer folks, people who are incarcerated, transgender folks, disabled, and people who practice different religions. We see this diversity and complexity as a strength.

Our third observation has been that mobilizing is not enough. You must demand what you need. We are insistent that our demands for transformation. Reform for the current system will not suffice – we must transform it. We have created a reparatory justice framework that demands resources for black communities over the years in addition to reparations for victims of state violence.

Today, I challenge us all to have the courage of our convictions to fight for a fair, just and inclusive society. We in this room and our communities who are out in the streets, are the ones that we have been waiting for.

Thank you.

Video available at http://webtv.un.org/watch/player/5032580713001#t=6m45s.

#BlackLivesMatter, #BLM