Opal Tometi

Interview on "Black America" - April 6, 2017

Opal Tometi
April 06, 2017
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CAROL JENKINS: Hello and thank you so much for joining us today. I'm Carol Jenkins, the program is "Black America," and today we have with us one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, the activist organization. Opal Tometi, in addition to being one of the three women described by Fortune magazine as among the greatest of all leaders, is also executive director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration. Thank you so much, Opal, for joining us.

TOMETI: Thank you so much for having me today.

JENKINS: As we always say, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter but also with a day job of fighting for black immigrants in this country. So, what's new?

TOMETI: [laughing] What isn't? I feel like the entire world has shifted and the work that we have to do is similar to what we've had to do in the past but we're seeing that there is an onslaught and an erosion of our rights and our values from all different angles and so we're seeing that we have to collaborate and come together and forge a really robust human rights movement to meet the challenges of our day.

JENKINS: So in the beginning it was so much attention focused on you and your co-founders, and now that has seems to have shifted to, as you say, you've got 30 to 40 Black Lives Matter organizations across the country. Talk to us a little bit about the structure of that. People always want to know – what is the structure of Black Lives Matter?

TOMETI: Black Lives Matter started really as a platform, a project, a rallying cry and a way to articulate the struggles that black people were facing. It was a rallying cry, but it was also a unifying force and it has since morphed when – that was three years ago – when Trayvon Martin was murdered and George Zimmerman was acquitted. It's a platform that we created so that we could really elevate our voices. And it morphed soon after Mike Brown was murdered and we saw the courageous people of Ferguson, Missouri, take to the streets. We knew that we needed to be there. Patrisse Cullors, Darnell Moore decided to organize what we call the Black Lives Matter Freedom Ride to Ferguson. And after our time in Ferguson it was realized with the amazing people on the ground that we needed to create a network – a network of people who would go back to their homes, who would transform their local communities, because they were realizing that Ferguson was everywhere and that anti-black racism is something that is entrenched in our society and that we had a lot of work to do across the country. And so now we have a chapter in about 30, 40 cities across the country. We are rather decentralized but there's still affiliations and there's still values and principles that folks ascribe to. And we're part of a much larger movement that is comprised of dozens and dozens more organizations and millions of people across the globe who really see themselves as part of a larger history, a larger trajectory of human rights struggle that is in fact multiracial but is foregrounding the experience of black people.

JENKINS: So you perceive of it now as the strength being in the local movement. You've got these 30 to 40 chapters and you're in Canada and the UK, when you talk about global. And what exactly are they faced with now? What do you see on a day-to-day basis that is going on in your local chapters?

TOMETI: The local chapters are grappling with any range of issue, from injustice in the education system at the local level, they're championing for the rights of students. But there are also chapters who are combating what we call or what is known as the "broken windows" theory of policing, so the over-policing of our communities that oftentimes leads to the disproportionate murders that we're hearing about or the brutality that happens at the hands of police. And so local chapter members are looking at the ways in which the local government is funding the law enforcement or the education system or job opportunities at the local level, and they're really calling for an investment in black communities and a divestment in the apparatuses and the systems that end up criminalizing us and that take away from our outcomes and our real values. So we're seeing a lot of just grounded work at the local level and it's really inspiring to see the chapters grow, find their legs in a variety of ways, engage in really beautiful and vibrant educational programs, championing the rights of trans black women, LGBTQ, immigrants, Muslims and so on.

JENKINS: We always want to know when our guests come to "Black America," how you place yourself in black America. What were the influences that brought you to this work.

TOMETI: Well, I'm the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, amazing people who came to the U.S. to study. My parents were going to school in Phoenix, Arizona, where they raised me and my two younger brothers. They were going to go back to Nigeria when they realized that the economic conditions back home were not going to make it a reality for them to really achieve their dreams or really just to survive and have a good quality of life. So they decided to stay in the United States, where they raised my brothers and I. They are courageous people who are committed to their community. In Phoenix, Arizona, where I grew up, we weren't a large community but we were a tight-knit community. When my folks decided to move to Phoenix, they knew many other Nigerian families and so they were very invested in their church. They're invested in the close-knit community fellowships and they took care of each other's kids and had a lot of different things like naming ceremonies or birthday celebrations and weddings and yeah, just a lot of really beautiful traditional activities that really reminded me of my own heritage and instilled a bit of a sense of what I was missing from the Nigerian context. But they they recreated it right there in Phoenix. So there were those beautiful times that we had, but then there were also a lot of challenges that we faced. I remember in my own family and in my closest community members, an uncle of mine being held in immigration detention. That was really challenging for our community. An aunt of mine who was a widow and had four children, all of whom were U.S. citizens, was put in immigration detention and then eventually deported, leaving the children behind. My own parents were in deportation proceedings during my teen years. Fortunately we were able to win their case, but what I experienced and what I witnessed firsthand was just the criminalization of black communities and in particular black immigrant communities in Phoenix who were oftentimes not being seen or talked about or embraced but we were there. My parents and the community that I was raised by taught me to look out for each other. We had…for example I said the young people whose mom was deported – they came to live with us or they came to live with other uncles and aunts and other people took care of them. And we we noticed that despite what the society or the government might say of us or deem of our lives, that we have a say and that we can do all that we can to protect each other, to love each other, to ensure that these young black children had a chance to survive and had a home and a roof over their head. And so that was my experience in Phoenix. And then what also led me to this work was the fact that I also witnessed my dad being racially profiled, time and time again, driving while black. But he was black and he was an immigrant and so the implications of what that could have meant if one day the police officer decided to do another thing was pretty devastating for our community. And so it was very clear to me from a young age that there was something wrong with our communities and our society and that I needed to get involved and do something about it.

JENKINS: And indeed you did, and in a very, very high-profile way, the work that you do for black immigrants as well as the Black Lives Matter. So what was your reaction the day after election day when Donald Trump…it was clear that he was going to be our next president and not Hillary Clinton?

TOMETI: My reaction the day after was one of…. I was really sober, to be quite honest. I was disappointed but I was also very sober-minded. I knew that this meant something profound for our communities and that we were going to have to do and engage in a robust type of organizing that was going to be able to challenge the injustice that we're seeing.

JENKINS: You did a terrific piece with Mike and I want to play that, because these are the five things that you believe we must all do in a Trump presidency. Let's take a look at that and we'll talk about some specific issues on the other side.

VIDEO CLIP OF TOMETI: First, let's nourish ourselves with words from our ancestors. Ella Baker tells us, "We who believe in freedom cannot rest." Sitting Bull says, "Let us put our minds together to see what kind of future we can make for our children." And Grace Lee Boggs says, "Building community is to the collective as spiritual practice is to the individual." Second, let's remain explicit that we are fighting for racial justice with an intersectional lens. We will center and show up for black, brown, Native, Muslim, immigrant, LGBTQ, folks with records, folks with disabilities and poor communities, and we will defend ourselves from fascism, violence, rhetoric and policies that harm us. Third, we'll resist corporate takeovers of mother earth and what is sacred, and we'll work to make visible the sovereignty of Native people like the water protectors and our kin in Flint. Fourth, we must perfect the art of organizing people, in person and in public spaces. If you aren't organized, find your people. Fifth, we must know our rights. Our organizations and First Amendment right to assemble have been threatened.

JENKINS: And that means in person as well as…so much of everything that's being done is virtual but you're saying you've got to get on the streets.

TOMETI: Yes. We can use those online tools as just that – tools – but it does not take away and it can't be our only means of getting together. The type of resistance that's needed at this time is about real people engaging in their democracy and ensuring that it's true, that it works, and I think that's the question that we're all left with where we see the Trump presidency – the candidacy and now this current administration – was really ushered in under the guise of a fear. A lot of fear-mongering, a lot of hate, a lot of discussion about scarcity and all of that. I really believe that we have to look at what they were saying and the values that they were putting out. We have to create the antidote to some of what they were sharing about, and I think the antidote for that is faith in ourselves, faith in the humanity, faith in our ability to envision a new future and an alternative world and knowing that it requires truth. We're seeing and we're hearing a lot of alternative facts, but what we really need is steadfast truth-telling and people from all walks of life engaging in that.

JENKINS: One of those on-the-ground happenings was the January 21 March on Washington. Ultimately, if the tally is is correct and I believe it is five million people globally doing the same thing at the same time, saying the same thing, and that was protest to what everybody felt was something happening that was not quite right. Your thoughts on the implications of the march and post march?

TOMETI: Well, I think people taking to the street is incredible and it's necessary, and I applaud the organizers and the people who stepped out for the first time in their lives. So many people are saying, "This was the first time that I decided to engage in this type of activism." I'm really heartened to see that and my question for all of them is, what are we going to do after the protests end? What are we gonna do in our local communities? How are we going to engage every single day in ensuring that our lives matter? I think that's what the question is for each and every one of us, and we have to join local organizations and local groups in order to find that out, because I think that's the most important step. It's one thing to rally, but it's your everyday life….

JENKINS: Do you think we've moved the needle at all on the Black Lives Matter? I mean I believe that you have incredibly, but there is still pushback – the All Lives Matter, the fighting over the terminology of it – but do you have a sense from the feedback that you get that indeed people now recognize…. Because there was many disputes on the march itself that not enough black women were engaged and it wasn't enough about black women, etcetera.

TOMETI: I think the march – and I think regardless of the march – I think there is a lot of discussion as to whether or not the movement has been effective in terms of asserting our values and bringing light, shedding light on what was going on in our communities. I think absolutely, I think we can say unequivocally that we know that we are not living in a post-racial society, that we can't continue to pretend as though we are living in a colorblind society when it's true that race matters and racism, the impact of it matters. It is telling when you see time and time again stories of unarmed black people being murdered in the streets or when you're seeing the disproportionate impact of immigration enforcement, for example, on black immigrants or you see the types of outcomes in maternal mortality rates and and so on. We know that…

JENKINS: Extraordinarily high black American women have…extraordinarily high maternal death rates.

TOMETI: I think we have now come to a point where if folks aren't on board with this message or with the understanding that there's a real issue in our society, it's willful ignorance or it's willfully saying we're gonna turn up an eye…

JENKINS: Everybody's been informed now

TOMETI: We've been informed. Everybody knows now. It's without saying, and for folks who try to retort with things like "all lives matter" as if it's a genuine right statement. I know what they mean by that. They want to stop a very needed conversation and a very needed set of actions from transpiring, and it's unfortunate and it's immoral, even.

JENKINS: We know that among the things that President Trump has done by executive order, twice now trying to set up a quote "ban" - I'm gonna use the word because that appears to be certainly what it is. Your response, working in the immigration field every day, to that? Fortunately the courts have held him at it, but….

TOMETI: Yes, it's been great to see that the courts have stood on the side of justice and see that these types of bans are unconstitutional, and we knew that. I think it was it was very evident from day one that isolating countries that have large Muslim populations is definitely unconstitutional. Besides that, the refugees who seek entrance into the United States have been vetted so all of this talk, all of this hysteria, is really unfounded and it's based on myths, on fallacies and it's unfortunate because it's being sold to the people of the U.S. and people across the globe as though this effort is righteous. But it's not about justice, it's not about national security, but it's really about hysteria, it's really about fear and it's really about the changing demographics of the U.S. and an effort to really stop that. And so I think it's important that we continue to be very vigilant as a community and to watch what happens with this new administration and watch the other types of bans that they're attempting to put forward. This particular ban also impacted three countries on the continent of Africa, so I think we should pay very close attention to that. That's also black people, people who've endured all sorts of trauma have already experienced war, famine, economic depressions and so on who are seeking refuge, and it's really disheartening to see that we would be even questioning the validity of their claims at this time when they've already gone through the most…

JENKINS: Talk about being vetted already, right?

TOMETI: They've already been vetted. And there other other efforts than executive orders that he signed. There's going to be new orders that will unleash thousands and thousands more Border Patrol agents, ICE agents. And what we already know is that black immigrants in particular have already disproportionately been targeted, been profiled, been detained in immigration facilities and deported. They are only ten percent of the population, yet they make up I think almost over five times the number their presence in those systems. Similar to the African-American community where you see high sentencing rates, high incarceration rates and so on – same thing is happening with the black immigrant community. And so when I see these types of executive orders that attempt to further enshrine and imbed the criminal justice system and the immigration enforcement system in our communities, I want us to be looking out for the ways in which they impact black people, too.

JENKINS: Sure, sure. Just recently the climate change – he's stepped back from the Obama-era participation in climate. I know that that's one of your most important topics. Let's take a listen to you talking about climate change recently.

VIDEO OF TOMETI: I think about issues like climate change and how six of the 10 worst impacted nations by climate change are actually on the continent of Africa. People are reeling from all sorts of unnatural disasters displacing them from their ancestral homes and leaving them without a chance at making a decent living. We also see disasters like Hurricane Matthew, which recently wreaked havoc in many different nations but caused the most damage to Haiti. Haiti is the poorest country in this hemisphere and its inhabitants are black people. What we're seeing in Haiti is that they were actually facing a number of challenges that even preceded this hurricane. They were reeling the earthquake, they were reeling from cholera that was brought in by UN peacekeepers and still hasn't been eradicated. This is unconscionable and this would not happen if this nation didn't have a population that was black, and we have to be real about that.

JENKINS: And domestically there's Flint, Michigan, and in so many other ways where black people are affected by climate change and by the environmental degradation.

TOMETI: Yeah, we see this across the globe and right here in the United States. Unfortunately oftentimes we see that if it's a climate justice movement or the environmental justice movement, black voices are oftentimes missing from those discussions when we are actually most acutely impacted. We have to be honest about the asthma epidemic in black communities and why that happens, and it's because of our environmental condition and it's because of the proximity to waste sites and other types of factories and so on. And it's also like you said, the water. We think about Flint, Michigan, and what's going on there even now.

JENKINS: Exactly. Still has not been fixed after all of this time. I was interviewing recently Ruby Sales, a civil rights activist, social justice activist, and she said that in meeting with some of your organization's people, she apologized to them – to you – for perhaps having abandoned the new activists. Is that the way you feel, that there was a missing link between what happened in the major civil rights of actions of the 1960s and what you're trying to do now?

TOMETI: I really appreciate elders reaching out and and sharing both insights, challenges, criticisms and so on of the current movement. I appreciate that even Ruby was able to say I'm sorry, but actually I don't think she has anything to apologize for. I've actually experienced that there are many elders who are veterans of these movements who are walking alongside us right now.

JENKINS: Yet you don't call yourself a civil rights organization. You tend to reject that identification? Why is that?

TOMETI: I would actually say that we are a human rights organization or even we're part of a larger struggle for human rights across the globe. I would say that because what we're fighting for is much more fundamental. It's about our ability to be free, to live and even to thrive. So it's fundamental but it's also much more aspirational. It's about living our highest-level life and our ability to thrive in our world, and so that includes civil rights but is also much more profound than that. It means that we're connected to a community of black people across the globe who are also situated in a variety of struggles in their respective contexts but are elevating their voices, taking it to the international level and saying let's look at the UN Declaration for Human Rights and these are supposed to be our inalienable rights that are afforded for all people. All living breathing people deserve certain things and that should be the standard. Sadly, what we know is the United States, on so many of these conventions of the United Nations, falls very very short or has failed to sign them.

JENKINS: Exactly, exactly. There's a clip of when you were honored by Black Girls Rock that I love. Let's let's take a look at that.

VIDEO OF TOMETI: We did not start the black liberation movement, but we are honored to contribute. We are not the new civil rights movement; however, we stand on the shoulders of giants inspired by the freedom fighters who came before us and who paved the way for the new vision for black dignity. We stand side by side with our families that are from many impacted communities around the world, committed to transformation from the ground up.

JENKINS: We always conclude by asking our guests to finish the statement: "The power, the strength of black America lies in ___" How would how would you finish that?

TOMETI: Black spirituality. I believe that we have such tremendous histories and traditions of all range of black spiritual practices and there's something very intimate about our spiritual practices but then there's something so communal about them as well that reminds us of our bondedness to each other. But then there's also something that's very aspirational and reminds us of our possibility of a hope of a future where in fact we see and we experience each other as divine. I think that's where our power really lies it. It reminds us that we are more than just what is happening right now and that we belong. The Creator made us for a particular purpose and we actually belong right here, right now. Despite the material conditions, we're worthy. So that's it – black spirituality.

JENKINS: Right, great. Thank you so much for being with us today and thanks to you all out there watching as well. I'm Carol Jenkins, the program is Black America. We'll see you the next time.

#BlackLivesMatter, #BLM