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Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi visits App for Diversity Celebration

Laura Boaggio

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A Black Lives Matter movement co-founder spoke at App State April 10 about anti-black racism, immigration and how the Black Lives Matter movement was born.

Opal Tometi’s talk, “Black Lives Matter: Justice, Faith, and Joy,” was a part of App State’s Diversity Celebration week.

Tometi said Black Lives Matter was a project that started between a few people and evolved into a network involving people around the world who wanted to stop anti-black racism.

“We didn’t quite know what we were creating when we created it,” Tometi said.

Tometi co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement four years ago alongside Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza.

The movement started in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, according to the Black Lives Matter website.

Tometi said watching her 14-year-old brother see this occurrence unfold struck her, and she thought about how this story was going to shape him growing up. This incident was what spurred Tometi to do more for black rights than she had done previously.

“I just couldn’t imagine this was going to be the end of the story,” Tometi said.

Around the time of the event, Tometi went online and saw a Facebook post from one of the other co-founders that included the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. She said the simplicity yet magnitude of the hashtag resonated with her, and with her background in communications, she started making this phrase into the movement it is today by creating an online platform for the project and popularizing it on social media.

The movement truly gained popularity after the 2014 murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Tometi said.

“It was completely traumatizing for anyone that was in the community,” Tometi said.

Danielle Carter, director of Multicultural Student Development, grew up in St. Louis County and lived in a municipality right next to that of Ferguson.

“The police constantly harassed people of color. They would arrest them because of suspicion, not necessarily because they did something,” Carter said. “They pulled people of color over more often than white people, so it was a history of harassment.”

Carter said it was difficult for her to hear about the murder of Brown because her aunt, sister and nephew lived in the same housing complex as he did and lived right around the corner from what happened.

“It was a bad event and a painful event in the community, but an event that made people understand that ‘I must take action,’” Carter said.

Tometi visited the town of Ferguson after the event and said people were outraged by the shooting and took their mourning to the streets. The protesting was necessary but with people being public about it, they were met with a military presence, Tometi said.

“Ferguson is happening everywhere,” Tometi said. “Folks knew that they had work to do at home, and they knew there was something powerful about collecting together.”

Tometi said there are many examples of the systematic devaluation of black lives and that the facts are evident.  

She said the Black Lives Matter movement has been labeled extremist by some outsiders, and members of the movement have experienced gaslighting as a result.

“We get criticized for having the audacity to say being black is not a crime,” Tometi said.

Tometi said the government has labeled certain individuals as “black identity extremists” and considered them a domestic threat. She said this has happened in our history before, with the Black Panther Party during the civil rights movement.

Carter said that instead of looking at the majority of the population and how some have created an unsafe environment for people of color, the government is shaming black people who want to organize and fight for their rights.

Tometi said we have to take a hard look at our culture, our policies and the sustenance of our democracy if we want to create equality in our country today.

It is also important to look at the Black Lives Matter work from an intersectional lens, Tometi said.

“This fight for Black Lives Matter also includes black trans women and black disabled people,” Tometi said. “We are not going to silo ourselves into different sections.”

Tometi said that some of the movement’s fiercest leaders are intersectional, and if people do not center the issue then they are missing out on everybody.

“The one thing I knew but I didn’t know the depth of was her work for black immigrants,” Carter said.

Tometi is a daughter of Nigerian immigrants and executive director for the country’s leading black organization for immigrant rights, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.

“When talking about immigrants, the focus has been on Mexico,” Tometi said. “Black immigrants haven’t been in the focus.”

Every week there is a new type of immigration policy that threatens communities, Tometi said.

Tometi mentioned people protected by DACA, Haitian immigrants and Liberians are some examples of immigrants threatened in modern day.

The government is rolling back protection for a number of communities, Tometi said.

The Supreme Court backed up an agenda that included detaining immigrants, even green card holders, indefinitely without or with a very high bail bond, Tometi said. She spoke of her friend who is on a $30,000 bond, and she has heard bonds as high as $50,000.

Tometi said this is “exploiting those who are the most marginalized and disenfranchised because of their stance as a citizen.”

When fighting injustice in our country, Tometi said that white people need to be the most vocal against anti-black racism. She said it is the responsibility of white allies to speak up about what is happening in their communities and country.

“In your homes, at your dinner table, these uncomfortable conversations need to happen,” Tometi said.

Over 125 people attended Tometi’s talk on Tuesday, Carter said.

Diversity Celebration provides a venue where diverse perspectives, cultures and values are accepted, appreciated and celebrated, according to a press release. Carter said this is the first year for the Diversity Celebration Week, but the Diversity Celebration has been going on for 16 years.

Nile Chump said although the diversity at App is small, it is also powerful.

“I feel like it’s really pure, it’s really unique, it’s really cool, and I feel like Diversity Celebration week gives it the opportunity for all those to come out,” Chump said.

Story by: Laura Boaggio, Intern Reporter

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Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi visits App for Diversity Celebration