Meet The Black Women Fighting In Today's Civil Rights Movement
The Debrief: 50 years on from the repeal of America's Jim Crow laws, black people in America are still experiencing systemic racism...
This weekend we find out if Selma, a film charting the civil rights movement to seek equal voter rights for black people, will win an Oscar for best picture. Set in 1965, the film looks old-school – men in trilbies and women in their Sunday-best skirts. But the speculation that the film won’t get its Oscar from the voting members of the academy (94% male, 77% white, with a median age of 62) is just one indicator of how racism works today.
In the first week of December 2014, two separate grand juries, one in Missouri, the other in New York, ruled that in two separate incidents, police officers would not be charged for their roles in killing two unarmed black men. One was Mike Brown, an 18 year old who was shot by a police officer, who said the boy was like a ‘demon’, the other was Eric Garner, a 25-stone man who was put in a stranglehold – a move not allowed by the NYPD – after resisting arrest and then pushed to the floor by four police officers. After saying ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times, he died. Black people are the victims of 31% of these extra-judicial killings, even though they only account for 13.2% of the American population.
‘There aren’t “whites only” signs anymore. Instead there are policies and practices saying it.’ Miesha Bell is a 21-year-old student at Rutgers University, New Jersey, and she’s frustrated.
She’s not the only one. The killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner stoked fury across America, with millions of people taking to the streets to protest (many were further infuriated by the way protestors had been treated in the wake of Mike Brown's killing; met by police with teargas and riot gear). It also helped solidify the modern movement against racism, and young women have a place within it like never before.
It’s been 50 years since the marches from Selma and the consequent repeal of Jim Crow laws (the ones which said black people couldn’t go to the same school as, or use the same drinking fountains as white people) – but the American civil rights movement must continue.
‘We have rights, but we aren't able to access them,’ says Jasmine Burney, a 27-year-old political consultant. Her way of tackling inequality is to work across Florida helping black people tackle restrictive voting registration and to get black voters to consider issues they don’t traditionally pay attention to, like the environment. She also runs Chicks n'Politics, which advises young black women how to get into policy-making. New media helps her get her messages across, too: ‘The internet gives us the flexibility to go beyond the television – we can set the narrative for the messages you want people to receive.’
‘If it wasn’t for the internet and mediums like “black Twitter,”’ Miesha tells The Debrief, ‘mainstream media would have never covered stories like Trayvon Martin [a 17 year old shot in Florida in 2013 by a Neighbourhood Watch volunteer, who had mistaken his Skittles and soda bottle for a gun], Mike Brown and Eric Garner.'
After it was found that George Zimmerman would not be indicted for Trayvon Martin’s death, Patrisse Cullors and her friend Opal Tometi started the the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. Other people joined in and it soon trended.
Though other movements might get confused or garbled on their way, #BlackLivesMatter has held strong and is now ‘a movement, not a moment’, its website states. Patrisse is from a ‘heavily patrolled’ area of Los Angeles, and turned nine just as the LA race riots of 1992 started (sparked when police officers were acquitted of beating 19-year-old Rodney King with batons, despite the incident being caught on camera). Patrisse Cullors tells The Debrief: ‘I grew up with a lot of clarity around racism. I thought my loved ones were going to be killed and I understood that there was a serious problem with law enforcement violence.’
Fast forward to now, after 15 years of activism, and aged just 31, Patrisse has co-founded (along with Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza) a movement that gets name-checked by Prince and Pharrell at the Grammys. What makes it different to the movements from before? Its inclusivity: ‘It’s talking about all black lives. Black people with black kids, black people, black women, black people with disabilities, black queer folk.’
‘In the past, it was the heterosexual black man who’s leading a Christian church. Now it’s black women, black prayer folk, black trans folks leading the conversation about liberation for black people’.
Even though these women have at least two sets of identities under attack, it can, unfortunately, be difficult to root for both: ‘Even in safe spaces that were supposed to be for black folks, I’ve been told: “Don’t let feminism take away from this!”’ says Miesha: ‘That’s the first time I realised I was up against as a woman.’
#BlackLivesMatter, started from ‘rage and grief’, as Patrisse puts it, now has 23 chapters, 35,000 likes on Facebook and went international, sparking protests in the UK, The Netherlands, Japan, Australia, and India in the second half of last year. Omar Khan, from the UK's Runnymede Trust, told The Debrief the importance of activism's spread: 'The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, which started on the other side of the Atlantic, has been taken up here, both in solidarity with those highlighting incidents of racism stateside and to bring to light new examples from the UK. Sadly, racist attidudes are shared across the world.'
It gets tiring, this protesting. As well as #BlackLivesMatter, Patrisse has a full time job at Dignity and Power Now, which fights for the rights of incarcerated black people (one in three black men in America can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives). As well as her degree, Miesha helps organise #BlackLivesMatter on her campus, and the #NJShutItDown movement, a New Jersey-wide organisation to protest against systemic racism. ‘At times, I just want to crawl into my bed and just give up,’ she tells us. ‘I would be lying if I said I wasn’t stronger than I want to be. But as draining and frustrating at times, it’s important to take care of yourself, it’s okay to say: “I need a break.”’
Jasmine gets the same feeling: ‘I’m tired of fighting. It’s selfish of me to feel such a way when my ancestors never did.’
But she understands she’s got to keep shouting, so that every need is heard: ‘I live in a society that tells me I’m equal, but I don’t feel that way in my workplace, my commpunity or in political decision-making.
‘Too many groups try to focus and prioritise on broader issues that everyone cares about. It can be easy to forget about specific subsections that contribute to voter participation.’
But what’s next? And how will these women’s efforts make meaningful change to the lives of black people in America? Patrisse says the protest itself can be unifying itself: ‘There’s a sense of "we don’t give a shit any more” and we’re going to block traffic and shut down buildings and malls. People are going to see us.’
Meanwhile, Jasmine tells us that persistence is going to help out: ‘My grandmother was a Neighbourhood Watch leader in Orlando and she’d have me type letters to elected officials, attend city commission meetings and help her organise the annual Neighbourhood Watch celebration that connected the community with law enforcement.
‘Those letters got us sidewalks, speed bumps, community centres and community police officers. I’ve seen the changes and have implemented them in the work I do now.’
Miesha’s goal, though, is improved awareness: ‘My hope is just to get more people to engage in activism.' But where does awareness lead anyone? Quite far, it seems. #BlackLivesMatter might look a lot more like gathering people than changing policies, but the attention it’s brought is beginning to bring change: ‘We took it to the streets the following day, it never just lived on the internet. It’s in the marches and protests.’ Patrisse tells us of a movement that is not only being name-checked by Pharrell and Prince at the Grammys, but seeing her meeting with people with power to change things from above: ‘We’re in the halls of power, we’re meeting officials and are at the forefront of it.’
Will it be enough? It’s got to be, Patrisse says: ‘This is all we’ve got at this point. It’s either now or never.’
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