This is the transcript of a Seeking Peace podcast episode featuring Opal Tometi.
Melanne Verveer From Georgetown University, this is Seeking Peace. I’m Melanne Verveer, and this is Opal Tometi:
Opal Tometi Issues of peace and security are central to the movement for Black lives. You know, oftentimes people think about human rights being something that happens abroad. But the reality is the concerns are right here. They are within this nation.
Melanne Verveer Opal Tometi was born in Phoenix, Arizona and grew up in a tight-knit Nigerian immigrant community. She grew up to become a community organizer, and an advocate for just immigration. In 2013, she co-founded Black Lives Matter, alongside activists Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors. The movement reminds us that human rights violations are not just something that happens abroad.
They happen here, in the United States, too. And The New York Times has said that it may be the largest movement in US history.
This year, Opal was named by Time Magazine as one of 2020’s 100 most influential people and on the BBC’s List of 100 Inspirational Women. We reached her at her home in Los Angeles, where she spoke about the vision behind Black Lives Matter, and her hopes for the future of the country under the newly-elected Biden-Harris administration.
Melanne Verveer Opal, it is so terrific to have you with us for this conversation, we’re really thrilled.
Opal Tometi Thanks so much for having me.
Melanne Verveer You had mentioned, Opal, that you realized that you were different, an African American young woman when you were in school, and I wonder, did you have any sense of racism at that time or when did you become aware?
Opal Tometi You know, I first became aware of racism in the first grade, to be quite honest. I was quite young. I was in a classroom and running towards the door and tripped over the foot of a young boy in the class and he lashed out at me. And he called me the N-word. And I remember not knowing what that meant, but I remember his reaction towards me was so visceral and so emotional that I went back home and essentially told my parents. I didn’t know what I was telling them, but I related to them that there was a young boy who was mean to me that day and he said this thing and I didn’t know what it was. And the next day my parents showed up at school. I don’t know what they said to my teacher, but I remember them having a conversation with my teacher and that never happened again.
And that to me was the first instance of advocacy that happened on my behalf and for me, and I appreciate my parents for doing that. But I know at that point what I experienced through that incident was that I was different. You know, yhat young boy was naming my difference. I wasn’t aware of it, but there was something about that incident that has stayed with me through my adulthood and it was really the moment where I was given language for my difference and that my difference became associated with a negative tone and then in a negative light. And while I don’t believe that and my folks definitely instilled within me a pride in my skin color, a pride in my culture, a pride in who I am as a woman and as a young girl at the time, I do remember feeling that tinge of, “oh, my gosh, why?” You know, “why would somebody say this word to me and why would they try and make me feel bad about something that I was born into? And God gave me this skin and what’s wrong with it?” And that was, you know, that was early on. But I’ll tell you, I had such a diverse set of friends growing up. You know, my best friend from first grade was from Jordan. Another one a few years later was from Sri Lanka. The other one was from Puerto Rico and so I had this really diverse set of friends. Actually in high school, some folks used to call us the UN because…that was like our nickname. And so, you know, just sort of a mix. And even that, my crew of friends and the diversity that I got to experience within our relatively small school, was something that allowed me to understand the world in a more complex way and allowed me to understand the diversity and the beauty of that diversity from an early age.
Melanne Verveer Well, and these are terrific lessons you’ve just imparted, you know, in terms of learning the meaning of advocacy from your parents at a very young age and your appreciation for diversity and just the sense of empowerment that you were gaining. So I suppose it’s not surprising in some ways that some years later you became one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter.
[ARCHIVAL AUDIO: OPAL TOMETI SPEAKING AT TED TALK WITH BLACK LIVES MATTER CO-FOUNDERS] And anti-Black racism is not only happening in the United States. It’s actually happening all across the globe. And what we need now more than ever is a human rights movement that challenges systemic racism in every single context.
Melanne Verveer And that was in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who murdered that 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Take us back to the moment when the idea for Black Lives Matter was born.
Opal Tometi Yeah. So Black Lives Matter was born… Oh, my gosh, over seven years ago now. And it really came about because myself, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, are community organizers. We are people who’ve been part of our own local communities and have been engaging in activism in a strategic way over time. Right. And had been engaging in campaigns and advocating for ourselves and alongside others for our communities. And what is important for folks to know is that we started because a 17-year-old boy was shot and killed in his own neighborhood, in his own community for no reason.
[ARCHIVAL AUDIO: 911 CALL PLAYED DURING TRAYVON MARTIN TRIAL]
Operator: Good morning this is police, fire, medical?
Jayne Surdyka: Yes, I’m at 3031 Retreat View circle and I’m looking out my back townhome and someone’s screaming “help” and I don’t know… I heard like a bang.
Opal Tometi And George Zimmerman, you know, the man who murdered him, was on trial and everyone around the country and really around the world were watching this court case unfold. And it felt as though the young Trayvon Martin, 17-year-old boy, was on trial for his own murder. And it was unconscionable. It was intolerable the way that they tried to really scrutinize his character and just almost – gosh – assassinate his character in so many ways. It was really awful and disturbing to watch. We were upset and then got the news that George Zimmerman was acquitted.
[ARCHIVAL AUDIO: GEORGE ZIMMERMAN VERDICT BEING READ IN TRAYVON MARTIN CASE] In the Circuit Court of the 18th Judicial Circuit in and for Seminole County, Florida, State of Florida versus George Zimmerman, verdict: “We the jury find George Zimmerman not guilty. So say we all, foreperson.”
Opal Tometi I got the news via text and tweets, and just cried. And then it occurred to me that it was because of my youngest brother. I have two younger brothers, but my youngest brother at the time was 14. And I remember thinking to myself that he is going to remember this story for the rest of his life and that this story is going to mark his generation. And because it’s such a historic case and a historic outcome that I didn’t want that to be the end of the story. I quite literally was like, “This is not it. This cannot be… We can’t just take this guilty verdict and not say or do anything about it.”
And so, like many people, I went to social and began to see different texts and tweets and so on, and I saw Alicia Garza’s Facebook post, which essentially read as a love note and said something to the effect of, you know, “Black people, I love you, I love us, our lives matter. ” And Patrisse Cullors, who I actually didn’t know at the time, she put a hashtag in the comments section. And I reached out to her the next day and said, “I don’t know what you’re doing, I hear some murmurings, I’m seeing this post, but I think we really should do something here.” And, you know, I was already community organizing with an organization called the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. I was already directing that group, an explicitly Black organization working on immigrant rights and racial justice. But I knew that something more needed to be done. And she also agreed, and so I bought Blacklivesmatter.com, and then I created our Facebook page and started our Twitter page and then sent an email blast to a network of, you know, dozens and dozens of Black community organizers and essentially invited them to join the project. And let them know that, “hey, we’re starting this thing. You know, we’re going to start all using the hashtag Black Lives Matter, and we should all share what we’re doing to ensure that Black lives do matter”
That was back in 2013. But then, you know, 2014 came around and what took place in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, was equally as important and equally seared into the imagination of the entire United States, but also around the world. And that is the murder of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson and the acquittal that happened soon thereafter.
[ARCHIVAL AUDIO: ST. LOUIS PROSECUTOR WESLEY BELL ANNOUNCES NO CHARGES WILL BE BROUGHT AGAINST OFFICER IN MICHAEL BROWN’S DEATH] Although this case represents one of the most significant moments in St. Louis’ history, the question for this office was a simple one: “Could we prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that when Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, he committed murder or manslaughter under Missouri law?” After an independent and in-depth review of the evidence, we cannot prove that he did.
Opal Tometi Mike Brown was murdered in Ferguson, Missouri, and his body was left to lay in the streets for over four and a half hours. And that entire experience, that incident of seeing his body laid in the street was jarring and disturbing for the entire community and really for the entire world. So many of us really decry what took place as though it were a public lynching, because if you remember in the past, there were these lynchings and they would leave Black bodies for the entire community to see. And that was how this felt. And it caused the community of Ferguson to mourn in public, but to be outraged in public.
[ARCHIVAL AUDIO – FERGUSON PROTESTS]
Opal Tometi And what took place was that they were met, you know, their righteous mourning, their righteous rage was met with a militarized police force and they were tear gassed and they were brutalized and the entire world watched. And we largely were watching via social media, via streaming by some amazing activists on the ground. And so we went to Ferguson because we saw what was happening and we wanted to ensure that we were showing up for one another. And so with less than two weeks of organizing, there was a mobilization of over 500 Black people to Ferguson, Missouri. And we were engaged in rallies. We had healing circles. We did a lot of really amazing work.
[ARCHIVAL AUDIO – PROTESTORS INTERRUPTING THE ST. LOUIS SYMPHONY WITH TRIBUTE TO MIKE BROWN]
Opal Tometi But out of that gathering came the inspiration for creating a global network. So those are, I feel, the two important things for folks to know. We were never just an online social media hashtag and “that was all we are” but we were always about embodying our values and using the online tools to take action in our real lives, you know, offline.
Melanne Verveer So interesting and of course, the issues that you rallied around at the beginning have continued to demonstrate how important your work is and the need for it. What does it say that you and your co-founders are all women? Does gender play a significant role in Black Lives Matter?
Opal Tometi It should be no real surprise to people that Black Lives Matter was founded by three women. However, I find that oftentimes people are surprised to learn that. And, you know, the fact is that Black women and women, period, are oftentimes key architects of social movements, of community organizations. And they’re really pioneering in so many ways. And far too often we get erased from the books and our names don’t get shared and so on. But the fact of the matter is, and especially in this case, that, yes, three Black women helped to found Black Lives Matter. And we have been community organizers for many years, which is what allowed us to see this moment. Right? To see the crises and provide input. Right? Provide sound guidance and strategize so that we can find our ways to solutions that work for all of us.
And I love the fact that we’re three women who started this. I think it’s brilliant. I think the fact that my sisters are queer, myself with a background of having immigrant parents, just the diversity even within who it is that we are allows us to have a necessary perspective and organizing framework that is really inclusive and that demands that we support, protect and defend all Black people, period. You know, whether you have a disability or whether you are undocumented, we’re here for all Black lives and we’re unapologetic with it because we are Black women. And because Black life comes through Black women. And so there’s something about our analysis and our set of contributions that is really looking at the spectrum and the breadth of who it is that we are. And that, to me, is our strength.
Melanne Verveer And here we are. On the threshold of having a Black woman, the first woman ever in the United States to be elected vice president.
[AUDIO – KAMALA HARRIS GIVING HER VICTORY SPEECH AFTER THE 2020 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION] But while I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last. [CHEERS & APPLAUSE] Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.
Melanne Verveer It must make you feel just filled with tremendous joy in many ways. What are your hopes both for Vice President-elect at this point, Kamala Harris, and what are your hopes for the new administration?
Opal Tometi I hope that they will continue to listen to the voices of the people who’ve taken to the streets, but who also went to the polls and voted them into office. We need them to listen to our demands, listen to our concerns, concerns from, you know, police brutality to how we’re handling the pandemic. Black people are the most acutely impacted by this virus. We’re seeing in the US that disproportionately Black people are contracting and dying from COVID-19. And so, to me, we need leaders who are going to address this crisis head on that aren’t going to pass the buck, that aren’t going to prioritize big business over families, and that are going to address issues of systemic inequality, of racism, of sexism, the gender disparities head on. And my hope is that, as folks who worked tirelessly and organized around the clock, that our voices will be heard, that we will have a seat at the table, and that we can have real partners who work with us to build the kind of democracy that works for everybody.
Melanne Verveer And the work will continue as it must. You know at Georgetown, we’ve often, in our work, focused on the struggles of women in conflict zones. But not just their struggles: the fact that they’re leaders and their voices are critical around the tables where decisions about them are being made. But sometimes I think we overlook our own communities that still don’t have peace and security here in the United States. Can you just say a little bit about the kind of peace and security that you think is still missing for Black people in America?
Opal Tometi Issues of peace and security are central to the movement for Black lives. You know, oftentimes people think about human rights being something that happens abroad. But the reality is the concerns are right here. They’re within this nation. And when I think back to the rallies and the protests and the courageous people who believed so much and know that Black lives do matter, that despite the pandemic, they chose to go to the streets. Yet they were met with tear gas. They were met with a militarized police force. They were met with rubber bullets. Some people were bulldozed with vehicles or run over. And it was extremely disturbing, it was heartbreaking. I know myself as a community organizer, there were so many times where I just could not believe that this was happening in our own backyard.
And to me, the peace and security that we need is that of the protection of people who choose to raise their voices, choose to advocate, choose to be community organizers or activists in their community. We have to defend the rights of activists, the rights of human rights defenders, because when they’re under attack, that means all of us are under attack. And while we have this amazing track record and we’re being celebrated as the largest movement in history, you know, I’m really proud and happy about that, however, we are also met with a similar kind of factor. And that is: we are the entity with the most disinformation in history and we’re living with both of these distinctions. We can’t have a healthy democracy if we have a democracy that is still criminalizing people who speak out. That’s just not how it works.
Melanne Verveer Well, thank you so much Opal Tometi, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter. Thank you for your passion, for your leadership and for your great and deep commitment to ending racial injustice. Thank you for all you’ve done and for what you will do in the years to come. Thanks, Opal.
Opal Tometi Thank you so much for having me, Melanne. This was really great.
Melanne Verveer Opal Tometi’s latest initiative seeks to unify the global Black community through a digital digest called Diaspora Rising. It focuses on pertinent issues of Blackness around the world. To learn more about her work, visit www.opaltometi.org
Today’s interview was produced by Martina Castro and Caro Rolando.
If you liked what you heard, please share it far and wide. You can find all of our episodes on your favorite listening app or at seekingpeacepodcast.com.
In our next episode, we’ll talk about a struggle that far too many Black mothers face in the United States: losing their children to police brutality. We’ll hear from Kenithia Alston, whose son was killed by police as they tried to arrest him in 2018.
Kenithia Alston When I said hello, she says “Marqueeese has been shot.” And so of course I am a spiritual individual. And so I instantly thought, okay, “what hospital are we going to? Because I know he’s going to survive this.” And so I asked her, “what hospital are we going to?” And she said, “we’re not going to the hospital. He’s gone.”
Melanne Verveer Ms. Alston has spent two years seeking answers from the police and the Mayor of Washington, only to be met by a wall of silence.
That’s next time, on Seeking Peace.
The second season of Seeking Peace is a production of Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security, and Adonde Media, in collaboration with Our Secure Future.
I’m your host, Melanne Verveer. Thank you for listening.