A guest post from Maïa Pal, recently returned from San Francisco. Maïa is currently a Lecturer in International Relations at Oxford Brookes University. Her main research is on the historical sociology of extraterritorial jurisdiction and Marxist theories of international law. She also researches UK student occupations as counter-conduct in the context of a political economy of higher education, and has blogged on student protests in the UK and Québec. And you can follow her on Twitter too.
After all, if someone is lost, and that person is not someone, then what and where is the loss, and how does mourning take place?
10 years after Judith Butler asked this question in her work Precarious Life, San Francisco organisers Thea Matthews, aged 27 and Etecia Brown, aged 24, gave me some answers. ‘Leaderful’, ‘sustainable’, ‘multidimensional’: “BlackLivesMatter is more than a hashtag, logo or slogan, it’s a lifestyle.” Their demands against police brutality are practical, short-term and realistic. The demands consist of ensuring enforcement, transparency, mental health awareness in training, demilitarisation, two-way accountability, and community work. ‘Police should be like fire-fighters, heroes with red trucks!’, we chuckled.
Some of these demands are already being implemented; in Portland, New York, Richmond. As public policy solutions they could be quickly put in place. Nevertheless, it is absolutely clear that such goals, however important and at the core of the movement, barely scratch the surface of the problem. BlackLivesMatter activists want to achieve long-lasting institutional change and an end to the more covert social, political and economic subjugation of black people. They explicitly revive the terms of colonisation and slavery because these do not belong to the past; an experience both organisers have observed and lived through personally. Without equal access to education, jobs, and political representation; with lower life expectancy, socially and in front of a police gun; with mental health conditions, fear and loss of hope in their humanity, black people are still in chains.
The point here is not to engage a discussion on the history and intricate forms of these processes of exploitation, white supremacy and patriarchy. Although necessary and important, this piece discusses instead resistance to these processes, and specifically to what these organisers aptly described as ‘psychological warfare’. This resistance means healing people who are suffering, have lost all power and hope for resisting, and building communities that care for each other beyond the myths of freedom, property and consumerism.
To get to these deeper, more institutionalised, structural goals, BlackLivesMatter is revisiting street protest. The movement is developing and testing new tactics – blocking freeways, disrupting cafes, targeting marches – while extending, according to the interviewed organiser Thea, ‘to how we treat each other as another form of love for Black Lives and a departure from white supremacy’.
Road-blocks, Die-ins, Black Brunches
‘But what is it going to change?’ said my mother at the diner’s bar two weeks earlier while waiting for brunch. In a décor of 1950s red leather furniture, heavily loaded with Coca-Cola clocks and Christmas lights, this San Francisco gay joint seemed an appropriate place to talk to her about social change.
At 8.30am that morning of Christmas Eve, I had taken her to a small but determined group of protestors in front of San Francisco’s LGBT Community Centre. The protest was publicised on facebook as ‘Queers Come Out for #BlackLivesMatter’. After listening to a few speakers, the group gathered on the road to block the intersection of Market Street and Octavia Boulevard. This is the entrance to Highway 101, one of the city’s major arteries.
About 150 people formed a loose circle and stopped eight lanes of heavy morning rush hour traffic. We stayed there for 20 minutes, before marching along Market Street for about ten blocks until Castro Street. Another 15 minutes occupation of the intersection was performed at Castro. We repeated the laying down of a large pink triangle in the centre of the circle – a symbol of gay oppression and resistance after being used as a means of persecution by the Nazis.
We then observed 4 minutes 30 seconds of silence. These symbolise 4 hours 30 minutes; the time during which black teenager Mike Brown’s dead body was left on the street after being shot by police officer Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri, on 9 August 2014. A speaker, echoed by the crowd, shouted the names of tens of people murdered at the hands of the force. Most unknown, some more familiar: Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice (12 years old), Aiyana Stanley-Jones (7 years old)… Women are being killed too, but they are not as newsworthy.
Those minutes of silence were loaded with meaning. The banners distributed by the organisers bore the signs ‘Silence = violence’ on one side and ‘If you’re not outraged you’re not paying attention’. This silence was not prefigurative. The rest of the protest was very loud. Chants were varied, clever, energising and even at times funny, in spite of the seriousness of the subject matter. Which, let’s recall, is kids murdered by the state because they were born poor and the wrong skin colour. After an angry and inspiring closing speech by Kin Folkz, an influential local queer activist with various artistic and cultural projects, everybody joined hands and chanted a few variations of the ‘BlackLivesMatter’ slogan before dispersing by 10.30am.
The police presence was limited; a few cars and motorbikes at each end of the procession, and a few policemen on foot scattered about. A queer policeman came up to Thea at the end of the demo in tears, thanking her for the event. Nothing like the rows of vans presuming mass arrests and kettling I’m used to in the UK. It was a small, short, very well organised, diverse, and emotional protest. ‘It’s not going to topple the government’ laconically adds my mother. Yes, probably not. But this was an effective demonstration.
Firstly, such events are excellent discussion generators. In our age of communication, a few hundred people can have as much effect as a few thousand, without the added hassle and risk for organisers. 150 people marching for two hours made the news. That counts. The mainstream press had to focus on the 15 minutes disturbance to commuters and on the policing bill in covering protests. Thankfully, a Black father interviewed in one of the cars explained to the news reporter why he was glad his daughter missed a doctor’s appointment. He wanted her to see people doing something positive to counter what she had been seeing on TV.
Secondly, demonstrations are crucial moments for networking and building up activists’ confidence, sharing positive feelings and experiences, and testing various tactics of disruption. They contrast to the grinding down tasks of organising and can act as powerful pick-me-ups. They should be reframed as just one element of a broad organic continuum of struggle and protest.
After talking to Thea and Etecia, it became even clearer to me how this movement is reframing the role and forms of street demonstrations. They need to be targeted, clearly set out and organised, and understood as events with equal complementary value to other forms of protest, community building and information sharing.
For example, firstly, Etecia was the lead organiser of the Millions March San Francisco and the Millions March Oakland, two events on the 13 December 2014 that ‘sparked an organised conversation within the Bay Area’ and created a safer place for families to participate in contrast to previous protests associated with rioting. If Etecia quoted Martin Luther King to recognise that ‘riots are the voices of the unheard’, she felt it was also necessary to organise a protest that was focused on being ‘peaceful’. This was a big success, a ‘healing event’ with 5000 people marching in San Francisco including many ‘allies’ – White, Asian, Jewish, Native American and Shamanic communities. Other activists I spoke to confirmed this has indeed been a healing event for them.
Secondly, the community-building Symposium both Thea and Etecia attended on Sunday 4 January, the day before our interview, was a forum for disengaged youth not currently involved in the movement. For Etecia, the aim was ‘to come out and learn about the demands and learn ways to self mobilize. The true purpose of this symposium was to ignite collective efficacy and develop an undying love for our people.’
A third example is Black Brunches. These consist of very small groups of activists marching through affluent white neighbourhoods and interrupting their Saturday brunches. Black Brunches, also happening in New York, illustrate the originality, cleverness and straight-to-the point simplicity of this movement. ‘Disrupting a latte’ may seem low-key in the face of the overthrow of capitalism. But it speaks to the heart of middle and upper-class (mostly white) liberal apathy towards the worsening social conditions of peoples whose neighbourhoods they have stolen – sorry, gentrified – or will do so in the very near future.
This is arguably the most important series of protests since the civil rights movement some fifty years ago. As veteran activist Phil Hutchings argues, there has been a ‘changing of the guards’ in the Black Liberation movement. If these more organised events follow from the more spontaneous protests and riots in Ferguson this summer in reaction to the murder of Mike Brown, #BlackLivesMatter started in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, killer of black teenager Trayvon Martin. According to co-founder Alicia Garza, it was a call out to Black folks against racism, lack of justice and police violence. This call is now one against state violence, and the movement is considered a tactic to interrupt ‘business as usual’ and rebuild the Black Liberation movement. For organisers, state violence is manifested in gentrification, deportation, water privatisation, and the prison-industrial complex.
Following the decision not to indict Darren Wilson on 24 November 2014, protests were reported by CNN in 170 cities across the US: New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Denver, Nashville, Baltimore… everywhere people are chanting ‘No Justice, No Peace’. In San Francisco, we chanted ‘We’re here; we’re queer; BlackLivesMatter’. In London and in Oxford, we chanted: ‘Racist police, off our streets’; ‘There is a black civil rights movement in this town!’ Other struggles across the world are showing their support and finding parallels: in Syria, Colombia, Japan, Australia…
Black is (Still) Beautiful: From Panthers to Queers
This movement is not about forms of resistance, however novel and exciting that aspect has been for activists. As a conscious lifestyle, it reflects changes in social identities. A transition seemed possible when Ferguson organiser Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou Skyped in at the Defend the Right to Protest conference in London last November (Rev. Sekou is touring the UK this January). ‘Queer women run this show!’ he exclaimed, when asked about the organisation of the protests. I was excited about this, but slightly dubious. But here I was, two months later, chanting ‘Queer Black Lives Matter!’ and being led through San Francisco by black queer women.
The movement’s ideological influences are varied. After watching Agnès Varda’s 1968 documentary of the Black Panthers, the party’s use of Marxist literature was essential to their self-emancipation and to spreading a revolutionary movement. The links between the Black Panthers and current events in the Bay Area are aesthetically evident – the BlackOUT Collective blocked Oakland Police Department and Lake Merritt Bart Station (sign the petition to support this action against lawsuits). However, important ideological differences are becoming clear. As Thea exclaimed, ‘we’re not branding out our little red books anymore’. Quoting Audre Lorde and bell hooks, Etecia discussed intersectionality and gender neutrality to reaffirm that Black protests historically ‘includes men, womyn, children and queers’. Intersectionality thus was a strong recurring word in the conversation that captured some of the complexities of community organising.
Since queer identities are playing a crucial organisational role in the movement, opening with Judith Butler was no coincidence. Her question is one that “lesbian, gay, and bi-studies have asked in relation to violence against sexual minorities; that transgendered people have asked as they are singled out for harassment and sometimes murder; that intersexed people have asked, whose formative years are so often marked by unwanted violence against their bodies in the name of a normative notion of the human, a normative notion of what the body of a human must be: “…It must also be part of the affinity with anti-racist struggles, given the racial differential that undergirds the culturally viable notions of the human.” And it is a question at the heart of BlackLivesMatter; as a movement that wants, beyond civil rights, all bodies to be human.
The queer movement is experienced, has a long history of struggle in the US, and whatever its achievements, it remains on the frontline in terms of representing victims of social exclusion and heavy-handed policing. Oakland has witnessed a series of murders of black transgender people and the non-reporting of these murders. Moreover, the life expectancy of black transgender women has been found to be 35 years. Black queer identity therefore captures all of today’s injustices as well as beautifully cutting across the exclusionary categories we are forced to work with in our processes of social and self-identification. ‘What is the face of queer?’ pertinently says Thea. It has no colour.
However, the general liberal consciousness thinks that people march for the problems they are personally affected by. On my way to the protest I did ask myself: does it matter if we’re queer? does it matter if we’re black? Such questions are obviously meant for those, like me, who are not discriminated against in their everyday lives, for those who do not live the everyday injustice of being treated differently, less valuably, more precariously. So yes, it matters that I’m not black. The facebook event page and an online resource sent to me by a fellow activist clearly stipulated protocols for white people – not to perform die-ins, not to raise our hands and chant ‘hands up, don’t shoot’, not to be merry and party, and crucially, not to take an organisational role.
The protocols surprised me, although I had read about the ‘All Lives Matter’ debates, and agreed that these were misguided and that the urgency was about Black lives. Black liberation is a step towards all other liberation. But protocols have not been a part of UK protests. As firstly a visitor and observer, I did not feel comfortable having a clear opinion on these rules. How could I be able to agree or disagree, as a white privileged foreigner? I nevertheless rejoiced when seeing most of the protocols not respected on the 24 December protest. White people joined the die-in and there were no specific demands made on the day. I still don’t know whether it is my place to agree or disagree; surely the premise of these protocols is that someone white and privileged should not be judging them.
I asked Thea and Etecia whether the protocols were a way of making sure other political groups and the mainstream did not appropriate the movement. In previous work, Kerem and I explored student occupations as counter-conduct. This concept, developed by Michel Foucault, brought to light how susceptible protests can be to appropriation, to a locked relationship with the power they contest. In other words, how resistance feeds the process of domination, or conduct.
Does separating the tasks of who does what according to ethnic background insure a progression and evolution away from the appropriation of protest? In the same way as “white people like blackness but not black people”, Etecia wittily but drily noted, are protocols a way to ensure the blackness of the movement isn’t separated from its people and appropriated by others? In other words, they could be a way for moving from systemic and cyclical counter-conduct, to sustainable and long-lasting resistance and transformation.
This issue is still difficult to articulate. Both Thea and Etecia stressed the importance of insuring leaders and organisers are Black, but they also felt open and non-fussed about who exactly does what. The point is elsewhere. White people have a different fight to lead. Moreover, acknowledging the difference between being black, queer and dispossessed on one hand, and being white and privileged on the other, and acting on it organisationally does not separate us as people. Crucially, it does not exonerate us from not getting involved. White privileged people have to ‘get uncomfortable’ because our silence is violence.
To conclude, why does #BlackLivesMatter matter in the UK? If you don’t know, that means you did not write one of the eight hundred or so complaints upheld against police officers in the UK since March 2010, of which only 20 officers were dismissed according to a recent BBC report. Nor are you one of the thousands of Black and Asian people routinely and mostly illegally ‘stop and searched’. Nor are you related to Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg, Patrick Mubenga, or to most of Yarls Wood’s detainees; these are the UK’s latest deaths and victims of violent abuse from the racism and brutality of police and private security forces. For these people, #BlackLivesMatter is a welcome space to establish new activist networks and raise the issue of state violence.
Protests in London on the 26 November in support of protestors in Ferguson were, according to many activists, some of the most emotional and uplifting events in the last few years. Organised by London Black Revs, the protests shared the anger and feelings of solidarity I saw in the US. During another protest on 10 December following the non-indictment of Eric Garner’s killer, the police responded by arresting 76 people and charging them with violent disorder at a die-in at a shopping centre in West London.
Here and there, racist state violence is the fact that police officers are ‘shooting black people not to disarm, but to kill’, as Etecia sharply explained. In response, BlackLivesMatter is finding ways to make us mourn these deaths and to make these bodies human again. Hopefully we will all do much more by making sure all black bodies become human again; but this time let’s do it before they die.
 On 4 January 2015, I conducted a semi-structured interview with Etecia Brown and Thea Matthews in a cafe on Valencia St, San Francisco. Etecia studies in New York and Thea studies in San Francisco, and both grew up locally. Etecia has been a lead organiser for two marches in the Bay Area and Thea has helped organise many demonstrations and marches for the Black Lives Matter movement.
 Michelle Alexander’s New York Times Bestseller The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2011) masterfully shows the new form of subjugation of black people in the US through mass incarceration. Another strong influence is local ex-Black Panther Prof. Angela Davis and her work on state violence and the need for an abolitionist movement.