This is the first of a series that will delve into and unpack various forms of protest in the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), including direct actions and rallies, spiritual and sacred resistance, art and culture-based organizing, and more as they are experienced in the nation and greater New Orleans area. Local work and voices will be emphasized to provide commentary, recent historical context, and analysis on the current moment. This first piece serves as an introduction to the overall state of affairs to set the stage before the series deep dive.
STATE OF THE NATION
“O, yes / I say it plain, / America never was America to me”
2020 has been one of the most distressing years in recent history. The rapid spread of COVID-19 and subsequent national reactions (or lack thereof) exacerbated myriad underlying socio-economic conditions for oppressed peoples around the world. Here in the United States, the lethargic and deliberately neglectful response to COVID-19 echoed the country’s legacy of structural racism, a pandemic that has ravaged its people since inception. As the two crises intersected, it was unsurprising to read about disproportionate death rates in Black communities across the country, and particularly here in New Orleans.
Though undeniable that COVID-19 has fundamentally shifted conditions around the world, Black people in the United States were rightfully skeptical that their America would change. In fact, some, like New Orleans lawyer and Black feminist S. Mandisa Moore-O’Neal, were quick to point out and predict how Black peoples’ relationship to the State and American society would deteriorate further as COVID-19 was used to escalate surveillance and justify violent enforcement in the name of public safety. As Black people continued to endure ongoing anti-Black violence, ranging from white people calling the police on them for merely existing (in particular, white women who’ve been nicknamed “Karens,” a funny yet incredibly uninformative label at its surface given the murderous potential of these actions), to the delayed state response after the murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, ever-present tensions rapidly escalated.
On May 25, things reached a boiling point when 46-year-old George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. Floyd’s violent and slow death occurred after white police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes, as three other officers of varying races and ethnicities—J Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao—looked on. The country soon erupted into public protest reminiscent of summer 2014 when the Ferguson uprising, building on the groundwork of community members and activists after Trayvon Martin’s 2012 murder in Florida, laid the foundation for what would become known as this generation’s liberation struggle—the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). 1The term “Black Lives Matter” and who claims “ownership” of its usage has been contested from the start and continues today. The entire movement is often colloquially and incorrectly known as “the Black Lives Matter movement,” even though “Black Lives Matter” is just one organization under the movement’s umbrella. Organizations such as the Black Lives Matter Foundation as well as “unofficial” chapters of BLM not affiliated with the organization “Black Lives Matter” continue to cause confusion. Some grassroots groups and individuals whose work the general public may attribute to the M4BL do not claim or adamantly reject the overall movement and its aims. Protests have occurred and pushed change in over 350 cities across the country and, as some observers note, in small towns and areas not typically publicly responsive to anti-Black state violence.
ALL ORGANIZING IS LOCAL
“How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale.”
—adrienne maree brown
Here in New Orleans, solidarity actions were planned by various groups, from Mardi Gras Indians to families who have been directly impacted by lethal police violence. 2Since Floyd’s death, protests of various sizes led by different, at times, overlapping groups and individuals have continued throughout the month in New Orleans. The most visible and well-attended actions thus far were during a week of action from May 30 to June 5, led by Take Em Down NOLA and The New Orleans Workers Group. Organizers from these latter groups (whose actions drew thousands) localized their weeklong solidarity rallies and marches by highlighting New Orleans’ campaigns, such as the relocation fight for Gordon Plaza residents, justice demands for victims of the Hard Rock Hotel tragedy, and the ongoing struggle for workers rights led by The Hospitality Workers Alliance and the striking sanitation workers. A June 3 march was met with tear gas from NOPD the day after officers took a knee in a dissonant, trifling, and hollow performance of “solidarity” with marchers. Organizers also highlighted the Greater New Orleans’ area own history with lethal police violence, which most recently included the May 27 murder of Modesto Reyes by the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office (JPSO).
Reyes was a 35-year-old welder, rapper, and survivor of the collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel. According to JPSO, Reyes attempted to flee from a traffic stop in Marrero before being apprehended by two deputies. The Sheriff’s office alleges that while attempting to handcuff him, Reyes aimed a gun at deputies leading one (who is Black) to fatally shoot him. Reyes’ final moments were recorded by the other deputy who drew a taser outfitted with a camera. Despite JPSO’s claims that Reyes had two guns and “unspecified drugs” in his car, his family expressed staunch disbelief and insisted in a nola.com article: “To try to hurt somebody and shoot somebody, that’s totally out of his character.”
In addition to protests held by Reyes’ community on June 4 and 6 on the Westbank, the family of Modesto Reyes also spoke at the June 3 rally at Duncan Plaza. They have since come together with the families of three other local slain Black men, Keeven Robinson (murdered by JPSO on May 10, 2018), Leo Brooks Jr. (murdered July 17, 2019 by JPSO), Chris Joseph (murdered March 27, 2019 by JPSO alongside his friend Daviri Robertson) for more events. Foremost among their list of demands is a call to require JPSO officers to wear body cameras, noting that NOPD has had this requirement since 2014.
THE LIMITATIONS OF REFORMATION
“Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life affirming institutions.”
—Ruth Wilson Gilmore
There was a time in the past decade where reforms, like body cameras, were commonly presented as solutions to police violence in the dominant news cycle. At the core, reform insists that the way to deal with the social problems police create (by virtue of doing their jobs) is to invest further in training them to do their jobs. Reformists believe that the existing system is flawed but can be transformed and made “better” through increased funding and training.
The 2014 New Orleans shooting of Armand Bennett, where an officer turned off her camera before shooting, had locals skeptical of that particular reform measure during the height of its popularity. And though calls to defund the police and redistribute the city budget have been present since the start of the M4BL (and for much longer in the history of the Black liberation struggle), the rallying cry to “defund the police” has seen unprecedented engagement from traditional news sources. However, almost as quickly as the call to “defund the police” reached the mainstream, its abolitionist roots were undermined and co-opted.
Abolition pushes back against the basic assumption that police provide safety and can be reformed. Instead, they reimagine safety rooted in community redefinition and responsibility where resources from abolishing the police state would be redirected to supporting whatever initiatives emerge. Abolition recognizes the trackable failure of police reforms which have failed to live up to their promises (including in places like Minneapolis, which has pumped money into a series of reforms in the last five years). It challenges us as a society to contend with the fact that our overall “justice” system is historically anti-Black, inherently flawed, and ultimately unsalvageable. It forces us to understand that this country’s institutions and systems are so deeply entrenched with (and reliant upon) continued anti-Black violence that it is impossible to end said violence without abolishing the institutions and systems themselves.
Abolition ultimately asks us to accept that abolishing policing isn’t just a matter of defunding or abolishing the police because the police do not exist outside of a tightly interwoven network of social control. Rather than the quick fixes reform offers, abolition understands this new system will not be here tomorrow, yet still demands we begin to imagine and create it today.
WHOSE BLACK LIFE MATTERS?
“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free”
—Fannie Lou Hamer
Though we are undoubtedly in the next stage of the M4BL, limiting, troubling, and internally violent remnants from its semi-spontaneous emergence remain. One of the most glaring remainders has been the inability to ensure that Black people at various intersections of Blackness and violence are included in the narrative of whose Black life “matters.” In 2015, the #SayHerName campaign was launched by national organizers 3Around the same time, the #SayHerName: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women report by The African American Policy Forum was released. to combat the erasure of Black women’s experiences with police violence in the emergent movement.
The ongoing need to #SayHerName has remained glaringly evident in the aftermath of Breonna Taylor’s murder. Taylor was a 26-year-old Black woman who was shot eight times in her home on March 26, to little immediate public outrage. Conversely, the outcry after the murder of George Floyd was swift, loud, and far-reaching, and has even given energy to justice demands for Taylor. And though it took about two months for Ahmaud Arbery’s death to hit the masses, the resulting public outcry was widespread and came with an international solidarity action #RunWithAhmaud. In an earnest effort to bring light to Arbery’s story, calls to #SayHisName emerged, a move that ultimately erased the origins and co-opted the efforts of the original #SayHerName campaign. Ignoring calls to center the specific ways Black women are targeted by the state and are victims of intra-community violence are not without consequence. As a result of public pressure, the four officers involved in Floyd’s murder have been arrested and charged for the roles they played (or failed to play as bystanders). The two men accused of hunting down and executing Arbery, as well as the man who recorded the incident, have been arrested and charged with murder. And though we know the police, courts, and criminal justice system are not true arbiters of justice (in fact they are structures built off of inherent inequality), it is notable that despite the wrongful death suit filed by her family, Breonna Taylor’s killers have not, to date, been charged.
The Movement has also painfully had to contend with its shortcomings around addressing intra-community violence against Black women under the “Black Lives Matter” banner. The June 13 murder of 19-year-old Nigerian-American activist Oluwatoyin Salau by a Black man, and a June 9 fundraiser revealing details of domestic terror inflicted by Ramsey Orta have highlighted the urgency with which the movement must intentionally center these intersections. (Orta was the man arrested after filming Eric Garner’s murder. He subsequently earned overwhelming support from activists and do-gooders that ultimately financially enabled him to stalk and target his former partner, a Black woman, upon release.)
Another unacceptable shortcoming of the M4BL has been the utter erasure and dismissal of Black LGBTQ, and specifically Black trans experiences with State and intra-community violence. Mainstream shrinking of the expansive scope of the declaration “Black Lives Matter” to only instances of lethal police violence against Black cisgender men is highlighted by the lack of public outcry surrounding the murder of Tony McDade and the recent assault of Iyanna Dior. On May 27, McDade, a Black trans man, was killed by a Tallahassee police officer. In addition to the erasure his murder experienced in the news coverage of “Black Lives Matter,” McDade experienced a particular kind of erasure and injustice unique and all too common to trans people—misgendering and the denial of personal autonomy, even in death. This inability of the Movement to reconcile calls of “Black Lives Matter” with the various forms of violence Black trans people face from the State and within Black communities was made infuriatingly apparent with the assault of 21-year-old Iyanna Dior. Dior, a Black trans woman in St. Paul, Minnesota (who was participating in local Black Lives Matter protests for George Floyd), was brutally assaulted after a minor traffic accident by approximately 30 people (mosty cis-gender Black men). The urgency of this reconciliation cannot be overstated—in the weeks before public unrest picked up across the country, Nina Pop’s murder devastated the trans community, and in the weeks since, two more Black trans women—Riah Milton and Dominique Fells—have been killed.
Arguments about visibility in death can become a slippery slope when all Black people are disproportionately targets of violence in an anti-Black State. As Andrea Ritchie, author of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color recently said, “We’re not trying to compete with Floyd’s story, we’re trying to complete it.” The point is not to create a debate on whose Black life matters more but to highlight that all Black death should similarly alarm us and activate our response. The disparities in our collective ability to honor different expressions and intersections of Blackness in death is reflective of the larger issue of how we devalue Black people at these intersections while they are still alive. It is important to note that Black women and trans people are not the only Black people who the Movement has failed at the intersection of multiply-marginalized identities and experiences that make people particularly vulnerable to interpersonal and institutional violence. The specific harms facing neurodivergent Black people, for example, will be explored later in this series as well.
ENGAGING A WORLD ON FIRE
“The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.”
Before this round of mass protest, myself and many others who were not essential workers were vigorously practicing physical distancing, despite the questionable reopening where we live. That thousands have chosen to continuously flood the streets in the midst of a pandemic (with no plans to stop after the high profile murder of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta on June 12) reveals there are many who refuse to have this time defined by an inability and unwillingness to address systemic racism. To them, anti-Black racism cannot be divorced from the conversation on public health. Though COVID-19 remains very real (make sure you wear a mask, among other things, for safety if you go to protests), there has never been a time when resisting oppression has been without tangible risk. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Oluwatoyin Salau, and Dominique Fells (and so many more whose names we will never know) remind us of the need to envision and build an increasingly urgent future where “Black Lives Matter” is not a declaration but a core part of the way we shape the project of humanity.
Part two of this series will dive deeper into the history of the M4BL, the role direct actions have played in challenging systems and pushing for transformation locally and nationally—and the tensions that have arisen in the process.
Top photo by Abdul Aziz