Opal Tometi, one of three co-founders of Black Lives Matter, is taking me back to the birth of a movement that this summer inspired the largest anti-racism protests in half a century. The year was 2013 and, “like everybody else”, she was following the trial of George Zimmerman, who was ultimately acquitted of the murder of an African-American teenager, Trayvon Martin, in Florida. “Watching the case cold broke my heart,” says Tometi. “It hit me particularly hard because my youngest brother was 14 years old at the time.” She feared that something similar could happen to him one day.
“I bawled my eyes out . . . and then I went online and saw Alicia Garza [whom she had met as part of a leadership programme] had put a Facebook post up, ‘black people I love us, our lives matter’”. Patrisse Cullors, the third co-founder, “put a hashtag in the comments and it was #blacklivesmatter”. After contacting Garza, Tometi bought the domain name BlackLivesMatter.com. “I got us a Facebook page and Twitter and all that” and reached out to other black activists to say, “Why not use this as the umbrella?”
Seven years and one pandemic later, Black Lives Matter has grown into a cause that spans the globe. Does the 35-year-old activist see a connection between America’s experience of coronavirus and the scale of the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd in late May? “There was something really powerful about what the pandemic did for humanity — it created a real sensitivity to our own frailty,” she says. “It gave people an opportunity to reflect on their own vulnerabilities.”
In front of Tometi is a plate of stockfish stew, made to her mother’s recipe. The meal feels fitting for our conversation: this air-dried fish, usually cod, was one of the foodstuffs given to enslaved people on the long, brutal crossing from west Africa to America; much later, it became popular in Nigeria, the country of her parents’ birth. “It reminds me of home,” she says.
Tometi grew up in the tight-knit Nigerian-American community of suburban Phoenix, where she attended nearly all-white schools and was often the only black child in class. In first grade, a classmate flung the N-word at her: she did not know what it meant.
Today I’m hardly giving her a moment to chew as I press her on how we can create a world in which parents no longer teach racial slurs to six-year-olds. Will hers be the slogan that finally motivates people around the world to eradicate systemic racism, once and for all? Or will Black Lives Matter fizzle out, like the US civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which can claim great achievements in terms of desegregation and equal rights but left far too many African-Americans mired in poverty and exposed to racial violence.
These aren’t the kind of questions that leave one much time to relish the tang of stockfish or the slippery feel of okra on the tongue. We’ve agreed in advance on a west African lunch: I’ve opted for my own favourite nostalgia dish: egusi (ground seed) soup with goat meat, over a mound of pounded yam, all of it red with the palm oil of west Africa, where I wrote my first Financial Times article 40 years ago.
I’m eager to hear the tale of how three words and a hashtag —#BlackLivesMatter — grew into a social movement. I’m almost equally eager to learn how a child of immigrants morphed into a new kind of American civil rights leader.
Tometi experimented with social activism in high school and college. She credits her study of history as an undergraduate (University of Arizona) and a masters in communications (Arizona State University) for helping shape her work on Black Lives Matter. “A lot of what I’ve looked at over the years is the rhetoric of social movements and how to advocate effectively,” she says, adding “it’s kind of wild to be living my theory before my eyes and helping to contribute to it”. At the time of that first hashtag, she was executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, an immigrant rights group.
As Black Lives Matter got started, Tometi chose the colours yellow and black, which are still used by the movement today. “Yellow is my favourite colour”, she says, pointing out over the Zoom video-link that even the Nigerian print blouse she is wearing is yellow.
West African vegetable stew with stockfish
Qaato African Restaurant
7118 N Clark St, Chicago 60626
Egusi soup with goat and pounded yam $14
“I knew that this was going to be one of those definitive moments in history,” Tometi goes on, after I’ve insisted she stop for a bite. A year after the hashtag was born, a white police officer killed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and BLM took to the streets. In September 2014, anti-racism activists from around the country converged on Ferguson for a “Freedom Ride”, she recalls, casting her mind’s eye back with something that sounds like nostalgia in her voice. “That was a turning point for both the development of Black Lives Matter as a platform . . . but also as a larger movement.”
After the Freedom Ride and “Ferguson October” protests the following month, which attracted a multiracial coalition of activists from around the US, the BLM slogan was picked up by the media and became a global story, says Tometi. BLM was not just an online platform, “it was about taking action offline”, she says. “Physically being able to show up and work alongside activists leading the way in Ferguson, I think was a really powerful and transformative moment for all of us.”
So she kept on protesting and building the online presence of what amounts to a BLM brand, and branches of the movement grew up around local issues across the US, without much national organisation or leadership.
Then came the killing of George Floyd. This, says Tometi, “was caught on camera so the entire world was able to see, and I think that precipitated . . . a moment of reflection about, is this the type of world that I want to live in?”
She brushes away my scepticism about whether any of this will last with a blend of emotional intelligence and just plain smarts that allows her to tell uncomfortable truths to white America (in this case, me) without alienating her audience. It seems that many Americans have listened: in a striking Gallup poll published in early June, at the height of anti-racism protests, 19 per cent of Americans surveyed said “race relations or racism” was the most important problem facing the US, up from just 4 per cent the month before and the highest level since 1968, the peak of civil rights protests.
I lived through the 1960s, and remember the deadly riots in Detroit in 1967 and the national soul-searching that followed, culminating in the 1968 Kerner Commission report which warned that “our nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal”. Martin Luther King Jr pronounced it a “physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life” — but he was assassinated soon afterwards, before he could work to help America take the Kerner Commission’s prescription for racial equality.
Unlike some young anti-racism activists who deny that this previous generation of civil rights leaders achieved anything at all, Tometi places herself firmly in the tradition. “Ours is part of a longstanding quest for justice . . . there’s not some great new master plan. But we know that the justice that we’ve been calling for, for generations, has yet to be achieved. We have taken the baton, and are using the tools of our age,” she says.
“I’m sure at some point we are going to have a Black Lives Matter Plaza in every major city,” she adds: already those three words can be seen from outer space, painted on a street outside the White House. “But that’s not what we’re talking about . . . We need real investment in our communities, in our safety and our ability to access jobs and our ability to access good quality education and housing and not to be discriminated against in every aspect of society”.
One thing that has changed since the 1960s is the share of elected officials who are African-American, I reply; many big US cities have had black mayors for decades. Why hasn’t black representation translated into a decline in racial inequalities? Black families living in poverty in the US fell from about a third in the 1960s to 21 per cent in 2018 but that is still more than twice the number of non-Hispanic white families, at 8 per cent.
Before I’ve finished my question, she plonks down her cutlery. “I love having this more complicated conversation because” — and she pauses for dramatic effect — “we have to remember that Black Lives Matter started under a black president.
“So that tells us that it’s not enough just to have black representation or black people in seats of power; that does not equate to justice . . . I think we now have more black elected officials than we have had at any time in history . . . it’s important for us to remember that you might have representation on face value, but if we don’t change the actual systems . . . ”.
I can’t let go of the MLK thread yet though, so I ask her whether the BLM movement will be crippled by the lack of a figurehead. The website BlackLivesMatter.com today lists 17 chapters in the US and Canada, but hundreds of activist groups across the US are loosely affiliated with it and many more have been inspired by it. BLM is not like a political party, with a central organisation and leadership, and Tometi herself doesn’t claim any leadership role: individual chapters have broad autonomy to choose the issues that are most important to them locally.
“We’ve structured ourselves in this decentralised way so that we could be more safe, to be quite honest. There have been assassinations that have really destabilised movements,” Tometi points out, not needing to mention King. “It’s also to celebrate the organic leadership of everyday people in their local community. We want them to be the ones who are celebrated and lifted up . . . they have local solutions that will be more effective than anything [coming from] some great figure from outside”.
Every now and then, we take a break from these weighty topics to discuss, for example, that yellow blouse. It’s a Nigerian design, she points out, but then hitches up the shoulders to show me that it’s not made of traditional heavy west African cotton batik fabric, but something light and airy that “doesn’t wrinkle”. She clearly prides herself on adapting the traditions of her African roots to her lifestyle: like eating her mother’s okra without rice — what she calls a “Paleo-friendly” version of “a diet that is reflective of where my roots are”.
But we are quickly back to pondering the possibilities of the pandemic era, when the previously unthinkable seems to become political reality overnight. For what started as a hashtag has now morphed into a movement that broadly supports, among other things, proposals to defund or abolish police forces across the country. I suggest that threatening to “abolish” police could split the movement by alienating elected black politicians who have already distanced themselves from the “defund” movement — and be a political gift to President Donald Trump for his re-election campaign.
Tometi explains, punctuating the message with plenty of waving of her elegantly manicured hands, that the true goal of the campaign is to shift funding from over-militarised police forces and towards paying social workers and mental health professionals to tackle problems that police are ill-equipped to handle. Why not say “redirect” instead of “defund” in that case?
She spaces her words carefully, eager to defend the shock value of the slogan — but without grandstanding: “it may feel polarising but what’s beneath all of this is an invitation to examine, what does safety look like? It gets people thinking more rigorously about what’s going on”.
An opinion poll at the height of the protests from the Pew Research Center found that just 25 per cent of Americans support reducing spending on their local police, and only 12 per cent said there should be big cuts. Twice as many African-Americans support defunding than whites, the poll found, but fewer than half of black adults (42 per cent) support cutting spending on police.
Where does she stand on some other activist positions that are red flags to Trump and his supporters, such as boycotting the Fourth of July? Tometi says she doesn’t celebrate the public holiday in the same way as some (white) Americans do. “But I don’t mind a day off,” she adds with a disarming guffaw.
During the pandemic, plenty of Americans had time off work to do things like protest. Now that many are back at work, does she worry that the protests will fizzle out? “I do have my concerns about longevity,” she admits. “But I’m trying to encourage people to get plugged in in a deeper way so that we don’t allow . . . apathy to creep back in.”
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Corporate and white America may be tempted just to throw money at black activist organisations, rather than work for real change, but that is not the solution, Tometi says. “The best thing anybody can do,” she says, landing heavily on the word “best” — “is look at where they have power, look at where they have privilege, and be in deep commitment to transforming that space”, she says.
Tometi hopes that the next time we get together, America will be moving towards the kind of change that the 1960s promised but did not deliver. She is cautiously optimistic that by the time she turns 40, “black communities will be in a fundamentally different place than where we are right now”.
“I think what the pandemic has shown us is that things can change quickly, for better or worse,” she says. King famously said that the “arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice”. Tometi is hoping that as of this summer, there is an opportunity to bend that arc a little more quickly than before.
Patti Waldmeir is the FT’s North America correspondent
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