The recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests have highlighted the prevalence of anti-Black racism and police brutality in every corner of the world. Activists across more than 60 countries – from Finland to South Africa – were sparked into action after the death of George Floyd, taking to the streets to push their respective governments and institutions to address systemic racism.
Since the BLM movement was founded in 2013 by Opal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza in the wake of George Zimmerman's acquittal for killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the organisation has grown legs and expanded globally, with Black Lives Matter organisations spearheaded by the diaspora.
Nigerian-American Tometi in particular has always had a global perspective on Black struggles. She worked as the Executive Director at Black Alliance for Just Immigration, an organisation that seeks to aid African-American and Black immigrant communities "organise and advocate for racial, social and economic justice". While Executive Director, Tometi oversaw the successful campaign to get family reunification visas for Haitians who were displaced by the earthquake in 2010. Since then, she has gone on to address the United Nations and has worked with the United Nations Global Forum on Migration.
Last month, Tometi released a video titled "Diaspora Rising". The short film, shot during Ghana's "Year of Return", was released to launch her newsletter, which seeks to "equip Africans who are newer to the diaspora… with information about the social issues of our day". Over Zoom, we spoke about the global nature of the Black Lives Matter movement and how the diaspora is working together to fight anti-Black racism.
VICE: Did you envision that Black Lives Matter would become a global movement?
Opal Tometi: When we first started Black Lives Matter, I always knew that this needed to be a global movement and that we needed more people to participate. The issues of police brutality, extrajudicial killings and anti-Black racism requires everybody to pay attention. I knew from the beginning that the project was big, that the mandate was big and that, if we use new media and technology – social media, specifically – we could get the message out there to thousands, if not millions of people. I'm extremely gratified that people have heard and are taking ownership of Black Lives Matter. People now know that in their respective industries and countries, they have the responsibility to ensure that Black people are respected, protected and affirmed.
The work of Black Lives Matter has been happening for a long time, but this particular moment feels so significant. Recently, Black Lives Matter UK raised over £1 million. What is it about this moment that feels so electric?
We are finally achieving a mass consciousness. We're seeing a widespread awareness and commitment to anti-racism that we have long needed. People are now alert and active because the pandemic demonstrated how interconnected our lives are. We finally had time to sit at home and reflect on how our society functions and whether or not it's functioning well for all of us. The overwhelming consensus was that it is not, it is insufficient – in fact, it's been unsustainable for decades, if not generations.
People have begun to engage in mutual aid and support for their neighbours. Even if people didn't have much, they were still looking out for each other. Through this, we began to see the ways in which new webs were being constructed. When you're sitting at home or living at a slower pace and you see that Black folks in your community are attacked, killed, murdered by vigilantes and by the police, you wake up, you rise to action, and you rise quickly.
We are now in a moment where people have no excuses to deny the injustice that's happening in the middle of a global pandemic. Things feel different this time because we were able to tap into a sense of our own agency, our own power and our genuine love for each other.
Seeing these uprisings across the world shows you that anti-Blackness is a global issue that needs global solutions. How do you feel like we could better organise with other global campaigners to create change, but still cater to our communities?
I always think we should be acting locally, but thinking globally, right? The truth of the matter is we are living in the age of globalisation, for better or worse, culturally, economically, politically and geopolitically. My suggestion and my hope are that people will begin to get involved at the local level, but ensure that they are part of global networks. It's important to be part of global campaigns that allow you to address issues that span across the globe in addition to assessing the local change in your community.
We don't want to live in a world where people are punished for speaking out against injustice, so it does sometimes require international pressure. It requires people's conscience in different countries supporting your campaign or your effort. We can't allow for Black people in any part of the world to be treated as though their lives don't matter. Hopefully, through the use of technology and real on-the-ground efforts, we can support transformation in societies around the world so that they reflect our aspiration.
What other global race issues should we be championing at this time, with all of the focus on Black lives at the moment?
Well, you know, the other thing I've been thinking a lot about is climate change. Anti-Black racism is global – quite literally, on a continent to continent level, we see it play out largely by the climate change impacts on the African continent. The Open Society Foundation did a report a few years ago which illuminated that, of the ten most acutely impacted countries by climate change, six are in Africa.
African countries aren't the ones polluting at the same level as those of us in the West, they aren’t creating the same kind of disruption to the environment, but we are the ones who are faced with the impact. We see the floods, we see hurricanes, we see cyclones, we see people being quite literally displaced because of climate change.
We have to recognise the fact that this level of disdain and disrespect for Black people is playing out at the continent to continent level. If we are also to address climate change, we have to take a lens that addresses race and specifically protects African lives.
In what ways do you feel like colonialism still influences a lot of the issues we're fighting for today?
I think there's no way that we can disconnect what happened historically to what is present. If we know the origin of a story, we can surely predict the outcome, right? We are quite literally bearing the fruit of the legacy of colonialism, and even neocolonialism. One of the ways I think we have to begin to understand the legacy of colonialism is by looking at the way immigration is happening and why people have to migrate.
When I think about the effects of colonialism, both on the continent and the way it's played out on the lives of Black people throughout the diaspora, I can't help but think about the ways in which we're all subject to substandard living conditions, substandard education, discrimination in the workplace and so on.
So many countries have been systematically disinvested in or underdeveloped as a result of colonialism. We know that the World Bank and IMF play roles in this; structural adjustment programs leave formerly colonised countries in these very disturbing and dangerous relationships with former colonisers. This is probably the thing that worries me the most. Out of all the things that I work on, this is probably one of the most disturbing attributes of anti-Black racism.
Diaspora wars are also a remnant of colonialism. What sort of community work can we do to better remedy those factions between us?
When I was Executive Director for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, we used to engage in a programme with Priority Africa Network called African Diaspora Dialogue. Its premise was that we bring our stories and experiences into the room so that we can engage in a community dialogue. What people soon find out is that what holds all of that together has been white supremacy and the desire to divide and conquer our communities. A lot of the stereotypes that place one type of culture over another is rooted in the legacy of colonialism.
I do believe that storytelling is key. I believe that having spaces where we intentionally gather and meet with one another is important. With my platform Diaspora Rising, my hope is that this allows us to learn a bit more about each other, our respective cultures, but also understand how we are part of a larger global Black family. What does it mean for us to find some ground not just for unity's sake, but so that we can have the justice we deserve? If we are clear on the damage and harm that has happened to all of us, then we can collectively come together to fight for justice.
With separate marches like All Black Lives Matter taking place to represent Black trans lives and the LGBTQ+ community, how do we reconcile that with the rampant homophobia that exists in Black countries and communities because of colonialism?
I think it is core to Black Lives Matter that all Black people have their dignity and their rights respected. From day one we always affirmed queer folks, trans folks, immigrants, undocumented people, poor Black people, people who are in prison, those in immigration detention and beyond – that has always been central to our mandate.
We also believe that we cannot truly become free when marginalised Black communities are kept at the margins and are forgotten. We don't believe that there can be a trickle-down social justice. We believe that people on the margins must be brought centre.
We know that it's increasingly more important to step up and stand for all Black lives, including queer and trans folks and the international community have to play a role in this fight. It is fundamentally about all of our human rights, that includes folks on the continent and folks who are queer or trans.