Opal Tometi

What might a global Black Lives Matter movement look like? A discussion with Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi, a Black feminist writer, communications strategist, cultural organizer, and co-founder of the BlackLivesMatter Network. She is also executive director of the US' leading Black organization for immigrant rights, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.

Opal Tometi: We have about 10% of the immigrant population actually being black. Many of those being from the Caribbean, almost half now and almost about half from the continent of Africa. From different parts of the continent so from West Africa, East Africa and from Southern parts of Africa and so those demographics tell us a number of things. That we need to be more aware as to how our immigration policies actually play out in those communities. As we're advocating for more just immigration policies, ensuring that they're really inclusive and they take account for the different types of ways that black immigrants might be migrating and the different type of paper work, if you will, that they have as opposed to maybe folks who are migrating from Latin America or different parts of Asia. There are some very unique differences but also some very unique similarities, surprising similarities. So I think it's really important that we understand those nuances because the implications are very real.

Laura Flanders: Well let's come back to those implications in a minute but first, take us back a couple of years. Were you conscious of the fact, in 2013 when you saw that black lives matter post from Alycia, I think it was, that here was an opportunity to connect your issue, the issue of immigrants rights and justice, to the black justice movement in this country? Was it a conscious thing?

Opal Tometi: It was absolutely conscious. When I reached out to Alycia to say, 'hey I really think we need an online platform to connect our groups and to connect our communities,' I had in mind that it was really important that we establish a really broad notion of who is black America, these days. A really broad notion to ensure that communities like the ones that I represent, so my parents are Nigerian immigrants, the communities that I work with are Afro-Latinos and Caribbean and so on, I wanted to ensure that this platform was big enough that they could also have their voice and their concerns heard. It was really important to us to ensure that it wasn't just a movement about police killing black people but it was also about structural racism and justice for all black people.

Laura Flanders: What progress do you think we've made particularly in telling that structural story? Going beyond justice for this one or incarceration for that one, make sure this cop is arrested. There's a structural story as you said, is it getting told?

Opal Tometi: I believe it is. I think it's been really difficult for our nation to really grapple with what it means to be living, what folks are trying to name as a post-racial, color blind society and really come to terms with the fact that we're not. That black people have specific grievances and concerns and are really being devalued across the board and what does that look like that's, what's happening there.

Laura Flanders: Where do you see the progress?

Opal Tometi: So some of the progress that I'm seeing is the types of narratives that we're hearing these days. I think that different groups from the labor sector to immigrant rights to the LGBTQ rights community are beginning to take up issues around racial justice in ways that I haven't heard before. I'm having people approach me day in and day out saying you know, we want to actually address the inequalities in our education system, for example, in ways that folks weren't quite talking about race explicitly like they are now. I think the conversation has changed.

Laura Flanders: Has the immigrant rights movement changed?

Opal Tometi: The immigrant rights movement is changing.

Laura Flanders: Diplomatic reproach.

Opal Tometi: It's changing. I think folks are really blown away by what their hearing and seeing in the news. The immigrant community has really been suffering a great deal of backlash and hate for many years, from Arizona. In many ways Arizona was ground zero for anti-immigrant laws and the testing of these different types of draconian laws like SP1070. I think people were fighting those types of push backs and roll backs and with that didn't really take notice of what was happening in the broader black community. I think as they're seeing the killings, as they're hearing more stories of inequity and seeing the structural conditions of black communities, they are becoming more and more aware and they're taking note also that there are black immigrants in the movement who also have specific issues that need to be addressed.

Laura Flanders: You said you're from Arizona but Nigeria also got mentioned. Do you want to tell us your story a little bit?

Opal Tometi: Yes, thank you. My parents are immigrants from Nigeria who immigrated to Arizona looking for a better future for their children basically, for going to school. Being born and raised and coming of age in Arizona, I knew really acutely the impact of racism on my own family but also on my community.

Laura Flanders: How so?

Opal Tometi: I remember many times my dad being pulled over by the cops. Being racially profiled for what we call driving while black but the implications for an immigrant are quite different depending on your immigration status and depending on a number of different things. So that was real concern for my family. Time and time again we would have aunts and uncles and different kinds of people in our community who were being profiled and whom some of which were detained and some of which were deported. That was something that my family knew very well.

Laura Flanders: Because having run ins with the cops can jeopardize your immigration process just like that.

Opal Tometi: Exactly.

Laura Flanders: Did you know you were going to be an activist and an organizer? Is that in your family?

Opal Tometi: Not exactly but my family was always involved in taking care of one another. As people were migrating to Arizona from Nigeria and from other parts, my family was always on the look out. They were always encouraging me to learn about other cultures and praise them, value them and really take note of what was happening in our society. When they also had challenges they would look out, people would look out for us and they also in turn were looking out for others. So I think that value of taking care of ones community was always instilled in me. Also really taking pride in our culture, in the Nigerian culture. My parents had a lot of pride and so did our community and we were unapologetic about who we were.

Laura Flanders: Do you feel the international aspect of your life is being brought into this black lives matter movement? We talked to Patrice about going to England and Palestine, Ireland as well. She said that she wanted there to be closer international ties so this needs to be a global movement. Is it moving in that direction? I know that you were in a meeting of immigrant rights groups in Europe not so long ago.

Opal Tometi: It's actually happening and I think what's really great is the way we have technology these days and we're using social media and different tools. We're able to connect more quickly with our comrades in different parts of the world and so we're hearing more quickly stories of what's happening in East Africa and Europe and so on, in ways that we might not have heard as quickly and been able to show up in solidarity.

Laura Flanders: How does that change things for you or your organization? Or does it?

Opal Tometi: It absolutely does. In particular for the immigrant rights community. We have a trans national commitment but honestly our families are a broad and then we're also working and living here. There's this kind of natural inclination to keep in touch with our family, keep in touch in terms of what's going on with the politics and changing dynamics on the ground. For me that's meant being in touch with more immigrants rights activists in places like Europe and in places like Africa.

As you mentioned, I was in Berlin meeting with a number of different immigrant rights organizations from across Europe and they were sharing with me their stories of what's taking place in Europe. Sharing with me what's happening in terms of the crisis of migrants being forced to flee their countries to make a better living. Sometimes dying in the Mediterranean sea. Sometimes dying due to the detention facilities in various countries. Dying as they're crossing different parts of Europe. I think that this connects our movement. Even just the knowledge around what's happening abroad. The same thing is actually happening in the US between the US and Mexico border. We're seeing these connections about how our struggles are actually more intimately tied than not. That's actually changed our own perspective in terms of how do we show up consistently and powerfully because the reality is we're living in the United States of America. We have a lot of power and we have a lot of influence as people who reside in the United States.

Laura Flanders: Are there particular policy positions or policies that you think give you an opportunity to talk about these questions? To fight? Thinking of trade policy. The trans pacific partnership, things like that.

Opal Tometi: Yes. I think that there are some opportunities for us to connect the dots. There's stuff that happens with our foreign policy but there are also trans national corporations which I think we can follow. I'm thinking, as you mentioned the trans pacific partnership, this is international trade agreement that's in the works right now that many of our communities don't know much about and will actually be acutely impacted by it. This is imperative that we actually main that this thing is taking place. We look at the history of trans national corporations and these foreign trade policies like NAFTA, so the North American Free Trade Agreement and how it devastated our communities. Not only in the United States but abroad in places like Mexico displacing 6 million farm workers, forcing them to migrate to Northern parts of Mexico and even across the border to the United States. Really changing the demographics but also really undermining their own livelihood, their dignity, and their ability to stay home and be with their families.

Laura Flanders: We're talking about a very big picture and I want to ask you a little bit about your strategies as an organizer when it comes to getting people to absorb a big picture because you're talking trans gender, trans national, trans pacific partnership. There's a lot of trans here. But you're also talking really macro economic and political challenges. What are people, particularly in our communities, in our neighborhoods where we're most effective organizing, they've got enough on their hands dealing with schools and public transport and policing. So how do you do it?

Opal Tometi: How do I do it? I think the way that we do it is by being open to who it is that we really are. I'm thinking about the Haitian immigrant community that I work with right here in Brooklyn, New York, in Crown Heights. How they're at the margins of the margins of even the immigrant community here. The lowest wages. Highest unemployment. Most discrimination in the work place. But they're also witnessing some family members in the Dominican Republic being deported and being dehumanized at their core.

Laura Flanders: The Dominican Republic recently just withdrew citizenship status or even immigration, residency status for Haitian's, people of Haitian descent.

Opal Tometi: Right. They're denationalizing Dominican's of Haitian descent. We know that people here who are Haitian and their allies care about that. We know we can't sit idly by while that takes place.

Laura Flanders: We can't but we are pretty worn out. I mean, black lives matter has people on the street on a regular basis that are going to go out on the street to support the Haitian's for sure but what about this problem of it's all just too much, it's too big, how do I take it all on?

Opal Tometi: I think you take it on one step at a time. You really do. It's a bite size. You have to do something and it might not be a global action of solidarity but there is a time and space for that.

Laura Flanders: You're part of something called the safety beyond policing movement? Tell us about that. Is that one of those bite sizes?

Opal Tometi: It is. It's actually quite local. Safety beyond policing is a campaign that myself, members of the black alliance for just immigration, black lives matter, million hoodies, black youth project and a number of organizations across New York City have launched. This is a campaign that really re-examines our notions of safety on our terms. So safety meaning our ability to reside in dignified communities. Our ability to have a good job. Our ability to get mental health services and support when we need it. As opposed to what we're seeing in New York City, which is the hyper policing of low income communities. Often times those low income communities are black or brown and so we're saying let's stop criminalizing poverty, let's stop policing poverty. Why don't we do things to address those challenges that our communities are having.

Laura Flanders: Are you having any luck inserting those metrics into a movement or into a moment where people are saying, 'we're from policing, we'll add body cameras.'

Opal Tometi: What we're saying is that we have to actually challenge the very notion of criminalization of our communities. So with that we can actually see that happen at the very local level. For example, in New York City we had a budget and the city councils examining the budget, negotiating the budget and for 170 million dollar they could have 1300 more police in New York City.

Laura Flanders: Or a whole lot of other things.

Opal Tometi: Or a whole lot of other things. So our challenged as a people to advocate for other things, other resources for our communities as opposed to police. We already have the largest law enforcement in the nation and the 7th largest military in the NYPD, the way that they're militarized, weaponized, that is happening her in New York City. What we can do at the local level is challenge the very notion that we need more police and say we actually need a lot of other things. Educators, social workers, public health professionals.

Laura Flanders: But we lost that fight even with a progressive caucus majority inside the city council and a mayor who says he's for police reform.

Opal Tometi: Right. So that thing that happened, that whole, they undermined us, right? People are now beginning to question our entire system. How can democracy play out when we didn't actually have a say in where those monies went? And that is on Bill De Blasio and the city council to account for that.

Laura Flanders: I want to close by asking you about something that I read from [Tunheezy Coats 00:18:32] recently. Where he talked about the American dream. He said the American dream is inseparable from slavery because slavery is the dream.

Opal Tometi: Oh wow.

Laura Flanders: As somebody who tracks global migrations, and I'm sure the story takes you back to slavery often, what do you think about that? And how do you see us unraveling this mess that we're in?

Opal Tometi: That's a really profound questions and a profound statement. I think the sad reality is that we do hear echoes of enslavement, of forced migration, of capture, of exploitation in the ways our current migration happens. Right now there are billions of people who are forced to migrate according to the United Nations. This is a global occurrence and it's happening in more exponential numbers because of the ways in which economic globalization is destabilizing nations and disenfranchising local communities making the poorest of the poor even more poor.

Extreme poverty is forcing people to migrate across the globe. They might be migrating to different parts of Africa, they might be migrating to Europe, they might be going to the US and that's happening because they're being exploited. Sadly on top of that we're seeing the criminalization of their movement. I think this really reminds me of enslavement of black people. It's not exactly the same, I would never conflate it and say that it's the exact same but there are elements that are there. So for me and the work that we do with the black lives matter movement and the black alliance for just immigration, we're here to really challenge the root causes of economic injustice. The displacement of people across the globe. The gentrification that's happening even within the US in places like Brooklyn, New York where I live, which the gentrification here, we're looking at the ways in which corporations at the local level and real estate has a hand in the criminalization of our people and the policing of our people and trying to move us out from our neighborhoods in order to build more, to have move, to have new communities in there, more shops and so on.

Laura Flanders: With their own private police forces.

Opal Tometi: With their own private police forces.

Laura Flanders: I've gotta ask you to end on a cheery note. Tell us something about Alicia and Patrisse that we don't know.

Opal Tometi: Oh.

Laura Flanders: Or what's the most fun thing about working with them?

Opal Tometi: Oh my gosh. The most fun thing about working with them is that we're a true sisterhood. We are learning more and more about one another and we're challenged by each other in terms of learning about who it is that we are. From being queer black women to me having the roots of immigrant parents and being able to share more intimately our upbringings. We come from really different places and it's just been really amazing to have this sisterhood that's gone from a very unique local kind of occurrence and it's now having implications and flourishing across the world.

Laura Flanders: Black lives matter and your lives matter. Thank you so much.

Opal Tometi: Thank you.