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A Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Explains Why This Time Is Different

In 2013, the community organizers Opal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors, and Alicia Garza started the Black Lives Matter movement. What began as a hashtag in response to Trayvon Martin’s death became a nationwide phenomenon, with protests in response to the killings of African-Americans and chapters across the country. Now, after the death of George Floyd, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, and a week of nationwide protests to an extent unseen in a half century, Black Lives Matter is once again the biggest story in the country.

On Tuesday afternoon, I spoke by phone with Tometi, who advises a number of black-led organizations and previously served as the executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed what it would mean to defund police departments, how the coronavirus pandemic has shaped the American response to the protests, and what’s next for Black Lives Matter.

How are these protests different from what came before, and why do you think they are different from what came before?

While we see that a lot of anger and outrage and frustration was sparked by the barbaric murder of George Floyd, it’s also clear to me that we have been sitting in our homes, navigating the pandemic, dealing with loved ones being sick, dealing with a great deal of fear and concern about what the day and the future will hold. We have millions of people who have lost their jobs and filed for unemployment and are living paycheck to paycheck and hand to mouth, and I believe they are just thoroughly fed up and thoroughly beside themselves with grief and concern and despair because the government does not seem to have a plan of action that is dignified and comprehensive and seeks to address the core concerns that the average American has.

And so my belief and my view of these protests is that they are different because they are marked by a period that has been deeply personal to millions of Americans and residents of the United States, and that has them more tender or sensitive to what is going on. People who would normally have been at work now have time to go to a protest or a rally, and have time to think about why they have been struggling so much, and they are thinking, This actually isn’t right and I want to make time, and I have the ability to make time now and make my concerns heard. So I think it is markedly differently in terms of the volume of demands we are hearing. People are absolutely lifting up names like Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, but I think they are very clearly in the streets for themselves and their family members because they don’t know who is next, and they are also concerned about the economic realities that they are faced with.

It’s interesting that your answer focussed so little on criminal justice specifically. Is it just that the criminal-justice issues have been going on forever and so these additional things were needed, or is there something different about the way society is reacting to criminal-justice outrages in 2020?

I absolutely think people are concerned with police brutality. Let me make that absolutely clear. We have been fighting and advocating to stop a war on black lives. And that is how we see it—this is a war on black life. And people understand that this system is filled with all sorts of inequality and injustice, and that implicit bias and just outright racism is embedded in the way that policing is done in this nation—and when you think about it historically, it was founded as a slave patrol. The evolution of policing was rooted in that. People recognize that. So their frustration is absolutely about the policing and the criminal-justice system writ large and the racial dimensions of it, and its lethal impact on our communities.

But I would say that there is something about the economic conditions in addition to the lethal force we are seeing every day that makes this moment feel different, where people are making different kinds of demands. We do a lot of work with the Movement for Black Lives and a number of organizations and individuals and different leaders who are part of that formation, and we have been calling for the defunding of police, a moratorium on rent, a moratorium on mortgages and utilities. We need to not have people’s utilities shut off—their light, their water, and just basic needs that people have.

So our demands are also reflective of the fact that when we started Black Lives Matter, it wasn’t solely about police brutality and extrajudicial killing. That was a spark point, but it was very intentional for us to talk about the way that black lives are cut short all across the board. You can talk about the quality of our life in terms of housing and education and health-care systems and the pandemic and what we are seeing there. So for us it has been more comprehensive than just the criminal-justice system and policing. It’s bigger than that.

Is it important that a specific agenda is heard from protesters, or is that the job of other people?

A specific agenda like?

People showing up at protests with signs listing specific reforms.

You know, I think it is important that we have those types of things, but I also believe that what we are witnessing now is the opening up of imaginations, where people are beginning to think more expansively about what the solutions could be. We have our solutions. We want the rights of protesters to be respected. We want a divestment from the police and an investment in black communities. We are demanding immediate relief for our communities. We want community control. We want an end to this war against black people. So we are clear in our demands, and we have demands for each city, so each city has its own unique demands, especially cities that are very active in these protests right now. You will see that local organizers have been working on the ground for years, and have already had their own reports and series of policies, and so what we are looking to do is amplify those.

I have seen African-American activists say two things about the protests becoming more violent—and in this case I don’t mean the violence from the police. The first is that talking about this is a distraction from what really matters, and the other is that it is bad and takes attention away from the peaceful majority. How do you feel about that conversation?

I think that conversation is complicated, and, generally speaking, I just don’t equate the loss of life and the loss of property. I can’t even hold those two in the same regard, and I think for far too long we have seen that happen. We have had these conversations where we are conflating very different realities and operating from different value systems. So, for me, that’s how I view it, and a lot of my colleagues and peers as well as mentors have similar views. We are really focussed on how to get our demands out and stay focussed on the main thing, which is people, and we want to value our love of people over property.

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