The Women of Black Lives Matter

“Movement and change take a significant amount of time. To unearth those systems––racism, patriarchy, transphobia––takes consistency and perseverance.” 

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From the Vault: The Women of Black Lives Matter (Winter 2015)

On Labor Day weekend 2014, I sat in the basement of St. John’s United Church of Christ in St. Louis, organizing with a group of young women who helped mount the local response to police killing the unarmed Ferguson, Mo., teenager Michael Brown. Comprising many women––both queer and straight, national and local––our group co-facilitated a “learn-in” about what a gender-progressive racial-justice framework might entail. 

The way in which the Black Lives Matter (BLM) national organizing network––the group with whom I had traveled by bus more than 20 hours from New York––conceptualizes this new movement is starkly different from both the civil rights and the Black Power eras of the 1960s and the ’70s. Recently, I had a chance to chat again with some of the women I met during our Ferguson rides, and with others who have joined the work along the way. 

This article was originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Ms.

Patrisse Cullors, one of the BLM co-founders, told me, “We are not just talking about a Black cis [one whose gender identity matches their gender assignment at birth] man who is a preacher.”

Alluding to the predominance of Christian male leaders in the 1960s, Cullors made clear that the new framework must reject this charismatic male role model. Also established in the heat of a long summer that saw police kill other unarmed Black men and boys, including Eric Garner in Staten Island, 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and John Crawford III in Beavercreek, Ohio (shot in Walmart while holding one of the store’s BB guns), is that the politics of this moment must prove vigilant, expansive and visionary enough to withstand a protracted struggle. 

That struggle has been intensified by the failure to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown, and Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who held Eric Garner in a choke hold as Garner cried out repeatedly, “I can’t breathe.” 

These killings have galvanized consciousness-raising, particularly among young people. They have staged marches, rallies and die-ins at local malls, blocked traffic and inspired well-known athletes to wear “I can’t breathe” T-shirts and put their hands up in a “don’t shoot” position. 

Yet these many months of collective fervor since August 2014 have so far netted zero victories in terms of indictments. So protesters and organizers now ask, “What next?” Jamila Lyiscott, a faith and social justice organizer with Cyphers for Justice and Urban Word in New York, shared with me that a 17-year-old man with whom she works texted her excitedly (but naively), “I want us to sit down and dismantle white supremacy.” 

Like Lyiscott, I’m inspired by the fervor of young people I’ve worked with who have resolved that white supremacy “has got to go.” I wonder how to hold on to the truth that change takes time, yet not kill the momentum with the impotent rhetoric of gradualism.

And I’m inspired by young women like Johnetta “Netta” Elzie, one of the organizers from St. Louis, who told me, “I’m fighting for future kids that I don’t even have and I’m fighting for myself because I’m only 25.” She’s been on the ground since the day Michael Brown was killed, enduring harrowing days of rubber bullets and tear gas. Now a field organizer with Amnesty International, Elzie also continues her local activism through a daily This Is The Movement newsletter, which she organizes and distributes with her friend DeRay Mckesson. 

Cullors told me, “Movement and change take a significant amount of time. We are in a state of emergency, [but] things take decades, centuries to change. To unearth those systems––racism, patriarchy, transphobia––takes consistency and perseverance.” 

Cullors, along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, created the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and organized the Black Lives Matter campaign after the 2012 killing of the unarmed young Floridian Trayvon Martin by a self-appointed vigilante.

The commitment to an intersectional framework––involving class, sexuality, gender identity and more, in addition to race––makes this movement different from 20th-century civil rights efforts. BLM intentionally elevates both cis and trans women of color in its leadership and activism. Lourdes Ashley Hunter, co-founder of the Trans Women of Color Collective, reinforces the view that racial justice cannot focus only on Black men.

“The same system that is killing Black men is killing Black trans women. One of the many ways is by denying access to housing, jobs, education, food,” Hunter said.

“We need a national campaign that has to resonate locally, a new poor people’s campaign that targets gentrification, law enforcement violence and collective labor, [and involves] Black trans organizations and Black women’s organizations,” added Cullors.

Cullors laid out a two-part framework for a Year of Resistance and Resilience, with the first phase––currently under way––involving government resolutions declaring the need to value Black life. The second phase will push various bills that, for example, require the Department of Justice to “grade” police departments on how they police communities of color. Departments that fail would be subject to defunding, in hopes that the money would be rerouted to public schools and other school services. 

Other issues on the table include anti-gentrification and food justice. Cullors and Hunter are particularly outraged about the structural violence faced by trans and cis Black women with restricted access to safe housing, healthy food and good jobs. 

Communal racial trauma is another issue the movement will address. Elzie said her focus will be on “helping people build communities out of tragedy.” Hunter added, “There needs to be healing for everyone—white people, too. They are wrapped up in a system they were born into.”

Cullors spoke of the need to move beyond the buzzword of “self-care” and to think about “collective care.” 

“There is no manual for this movement,” Elzie said. Moving forward will involve a fair share of trial and error. But wherever these women lead, we should follow. Something tells me they are in the sure pursuit of freedom.

Up next:

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Brittney Cooper is co-founder along with Dr. Susana Morris of the Crunk Feminist Collective, a feminist of color scholar-activist group that runs a highly successful blog. Three members of the CFC were recently profiled in Essence Magazine’s list of Young, Black, and Amazing women under age 35 (August 2012 issue). The CFC blog was also named as one of the top 25 Black blogs to watch in 2012 by The and one of the top “Lady Blogs” by New York Magazine in November 2011. The Collective also does speaking tours, conducts workshops, and engages in a range of activist causes related to women’s issues. Professor Cooper blogs for the CFC as “Crunktastic.” She has also contributed to Ms. in both print and online.