Week 10 – Black Radical Imagination III: Black Lives Matter

Page Illustration: Max Bender, Unsplash, 2020

Assigned Readings and Media

Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta (2016). “Chapter 7: From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation,” From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Chicago: Haymarket Press, pp. 191-219.

Smith-West, Corey (2016). The Sounds of Black Lives Matter. Pitchfork, October 17, 2016.

Herlock, Ethan (2020). A Playlist of Tracks Soundtracking the Black Lives Matter Movement. The Face, June 19, 2020.

The Movement for Black Futures

I’d like to say that as we embark on Week 10, our final week in the course, that things are coming full circle – but if we have learned anything from this term it is that past/present/future is not so simple. We continue to exist in those spaces of possibility where past/present/future all interact simultaneously – where time and space, power and resistance, possibilities and limits breath the same breaths.

It is within this moment that the movement known as “Black Lives Matter,” a movement self-consciously understood as a movement for Black futures has taken root.

To begin this week, we will dive into the play “The Death News” by Amanda Parris and directed by Charles Officer. The Death News is part of a series called 21 Black Futures, a production of Obsidian Theatre, Canada’s leading theatre for Black art.

This play, written by Amanda Parris, takes place in a near-future world not unlike our own, where premature Black death is an inevitability. But there is one significant shift from the present: Black folks now have the power to define the stories of their own lives on the hit television show The Death News. In this 12-minute play, we meet a young man who grapples with what to say when he records his obituary for a future episode — date TBD.

Watch The Death News

Reflection

After (or while) watching The Death News reflect upon the following questions: 

- Despite the grim theme, reflect upon the way the lead character shifts the focus from death to life? Why is this shift important? How could you relate it to the movement for Black lives?

-Reflect on the regional (Toronto) dialect of the lead character. How does his way of speaking situate his life in a specific time and place? Why do you think the playwright was intentional in developing a script and choosing an actor who spoke with this dialect? 

- Look up Amanda Parris and Charles Officer.  What is their background? What other plays have them written/directed? How does The Death News relate to a longer history for both of them of engaging with these questions of the lives of Black people in Canada?

#blacklivesmatter

In 2012, as a response to the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year old Black teen by George Zimmerman, three Black queer women (Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors) created the #BlackLivesMatter as a means of expressing their outrage over another death but also as a means of affirming life.

From the first tweet on July 13, 2013, until today, we can witness the way in which #blacklivesmatter has become a rallying slogan for a vast swath of disparate, decentralized, and geographically dispersed movements globally that focus on Black futurity. As we can see below, from July 2013 to March 2016, the #blacklivesmatter exploded in use. It also resulted in the rise of the reactionary #alllivesmatter response by many who felt either defensive by the claim to Black futures, or who sought to suppress the message through overt forms of racism. Despite this spread, by the end of 2016 the hashtag was still seen as pretty radical and was most often used with Black communities and/or among progressive and radical circles of social movements.

However, following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, the hashtag #blacklivesmatter exploded into the mainstream. It is now much more ubiquitous – gracing the windows of small businesses closed during the pandemic, painted on the main thoroughfares of major streets in North America, printed on flags hanging in people’s windows or put up on the lawn like election signs.

In this final lecture for the course, we examine the movement that brought this slogan to the mainstream. We assess the way in which people in popular culture have engaged with the politics and visions emerging from this disparate movement. We unpack how the media has sought to shift and re-take control of the narrative of what “Black Lives Matter” is. We then draw on the writing of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor to analyze the political development of the movement – from what she describes as #blacklivesmatter to #blackliberation.

Three Waves of BLM

In From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor argues that the key events that have led to uprisings under the slogan #BlackLivesMatter are parts of a series of waves of Black resistance that have emerged from the current historical context. Taylor draws a historical trajectory of the long history of the movements that comprise Black Lives Matter from abolitionist struggles against slavery, to the civil rights movement, to the riots of the late 1960s/70s, to the COINTELPRO demobilizing of Black resistance, to the crack epidemic and subsequent “War of Drugs” of the 1980s-1990s, to the riots after the Rodney King verdict in the 1990s, and to the neoliberal economic context that has brought about an increased impoverishment among working class Americans and a renewed white supremacist movement aimed at stoking racial hatred and creating disunity among the working class.

In her analysis of Black Lives Matter, she affirms that its trajectory and futurities are not clear or set in stone. For Taylor, the political consciousness of the various individuals, collectives, and groups that have converged under the slogan #BlackLivesMatter is being worked out through organizing and relationship-building in action.

The development of consciousness is never linear—it is constantly fluctuating between adhering to ideas that fit a “common sense” conception of society and being destabilized by real-life events that upend “common sense.”

Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, 2016

Content Warning: The following section deals with the multiple and frequent deaths at the hands of police or other forms of law enforcement by Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour in Canada and the United States. It is not a comprehensive list. I am referring to these cases only in so much as we need to understand them in the context of key moments of evolution of the Black Lives Matter movement.

For more information: Say Their Names; Remembering Black, Indigenous, and other People of Colour Killed by Police in Canada

To best understand how the strategies, tactics, and goals of BLM have evolved and transformed since 2012, we can perhaps organize our study into three waves:

Wave 1 (2012 – 2014) – #BlackLivesMatter

Image: Trayvon Martin by Shepard Fairey, 2012

As we’ve noted above, we can trace the origins of the rallying slogan #blacklivesmatter to the social media response of Patrice Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza to the slaying of Trayvon Martin in 2012.

Martin’s killing at the hands of George Zimmerman and the imagery of a young Black boy wearing a hoodie and coming back from a store after purchasing Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea being stalked and then eventually shot by a self-appointed “neighbourhood watchman” stirred protests and rallies.

However, it was not until Zimmerman’s acquittal based on Florida’s “stand your ground” laws that we saw the mass upsurge in movements and organizing – one that was aided by the # hashtag #blacklivesmatter.

Martin’s death brought about organizing that focused on the impunity of killing Black people in the name of “law enforcement”. Following Martin’s death, those of Rekia Boyd, Renisha McBride, and others in 2012-2013 at the hands of the police mobilized even more people in their local communities to begin organizing and demanding an end to police brutality.

Some commentators in the media, like Geraldo Rivera on CNN, started victim-blaming those who were killed (like Martin) suggesting, for instance, that Martin was at fault for being a Black kid wearing a “hoodie” which could be considered threatening. These attacks on the character of victims of shootings would become a common narrative and a means to justify the deaths.

In his 2017 track, “DNA,” Kendrick Lamar samples a segment from Rivera’s media comments where he explicitly attacks the rapper for saying “hate popo, wanna kill us in the streets for sho” on a track in To Pimp a Butterfly (itself written after the first wave of BLM uprising). Rivera goes on to suggest that he’s told his latinx sons to not wear hoodies because you look like thugs.

As BLM was emerging as a movement in 2012-2013 in the US, a formal coalescence had yet to occur in Canada. However, in Toronto in 2013 thousands mobilized on the streets in support of Sammy Yatim, shot to death by Toronto police in an empty streetcar where Yatim was having a mental health breakdown.

Image: Sammy Yatim, 2013

Yatim’s death at the hands of Constable James Forcillo, was part of a long line of incidents of police violence resulting in death in Toronto. His killing was one of in a long line of shootings that themselves have created waves of uprisings, including the so-called “Yonge Street Riot” in 1992, the 1979 protests following the killing of Albert Johnson in Toronto (protests that led to the creation of the Special Investigations Unit), and many other protests and uprisings including those around the shooting of 16-year old Filipinx teen, Jeffery Reodica in 2004.

These killings at the hands of police intertwined with the increased surveillance and policing of racialized and Indigenous youth in Canadian urban centres, the reduction in funding for mental health and social welfare programs, the increased acceptance of NYC style “broken windows” policing as a model in main municipalities, and the tightening of relationships between police officers, social workers, immigration enforcement officers, and other public service employees.

In 2014, a series of police killings: Eric Garner (New York City), Mike Brown (Ferguson, MO), Laquan McDonald (Chicago), and Tamir Rice (Cleveland) prompted a more organized, sustained, and widespread resistance to police brutality.

As Yamahtta-Taylor describes it:

In the summer of 2014, the Black working class of Ferguson “caught a glimpse of freedom and tasted a bit of self-determination” when they stood down the police and National Guard and stayed in the streets for Mike Brown. Their local struggle inspired Black people around the country to take to the streets and stand down the police. What began as a narrowly conceived demand for justice for Mike Brown has erupted into a movement largely identified by the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” It reflects the political maturation of this stage of the movement.

Similarly, in Canada, the murder of Jermaine Carby by Peel Police, resulted in the organizing of Black Lives Matter-Toronto.

BLMTO, in their own words:

Black Lives Matter – Toronto is the first chapter of the Black Lives Matter Global Network outside of the United States. We are the local Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter, an international organization and movement fighting police and state violence and anti-Black racism.

We are a platform upon which Black communities across Canada can actively dismantle all forms of anti-Black racism, liberate Blackness, support Black healing, affirm Black existence, and create freedom to love and self-determine. We work to forge critical connections and to work in solidarity with Black communities, Black-centric networks, solidarity movements, and allies in order to to dismantle all forms of state-sanctioned oppression, violence, and brutality committed against all Black communities, including African, Caribbean, Afro-Indigenous, migrant, queer, trans, and disabled Black communities.

BLMTO, 2020

Wave 2 (2015 – 2019) – “Pragmatic Utopianism

Following the mobilizations and rallies of 2014, Black Lives Matter started to coalesce into a decentralized network of collectives, individuals, and supporters. What had once been a simple #hashtag affirming the importance and value of the life of a young Black man gunned down because of white supremacy, had become a broader rallying cry for a multitude of dispersed campaigns against anti-Black racism – a concept that itself was more clearly and specifically defined in this period.

The second phase of Black Lives Matter is described by Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor (in the word of Michael Dawson) as “pragmatic utopianism.”

She explains:

Political scientist and radical, Michael Dawson argues for “pragmatic utopianism” that “starts where we are but imagines where we want to be … based on the utopian imaginings of a much different America—one we are repeatedly told was impossible to obtain—combined with the hardheaded political realism that generated the strategies and tactics necessary to achieve their goals.

Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, 2016

This pragmatic utopianism is, in other words, the Black radical imagination that we have been studying since the start of this course. It is a means by which people organize not simply to resist racist policies or call on the state for justice, but rather a space where folks begin to dream of the possibilities of liberation and the societies they wish to create.

Image: Sandra Bland, Say Her Name, 2018

In the United States, a new wave of rebellions and uprisings took place following the killings by police officers of Freddie Gray (Baltimore), Kalief Browder (New York City), and a BLM activist Sandra Bland (Waller Country, Texas).

The mobilizations that blossomed out of these deaths resulted in significant shifts in the popular discourse. In Baltimore, the Baltimore Orioles baseball team were forced to play a game without fans (something that is now common in the era of COVID, but which was unprecedented before). The game was played without fans because of mass riots that erupted following the release of a cell-phone video that showed the brutal beating Freddie Gray received at the hands of police only minutes before his death (in a police van). Many of the white players made light of the fact that there were no fans, while the teams most senior Black player, Adam Jones, was forced into the spotlight and put in the position of trying to quell the riots. Watch him struggle through this press conference, trying desperately not to blame the youth, but also repeating the line “don’t destroy your own community”.

Recognizing that mass media were focused centrally on the deaths of young Black men, the Black queer women organizers of BLM began to attempt to re-focus the importance of recognizing state violence on Black women. The slogan #sayhername emerges out of this struggle and begins to grow precipitously following the death of Sandra Bland.

Blood Orange, release a track dedicated to Sandra called “Sandra’s Smile”

In Canada, the intersections of anti-Black, anti-migrant, and discrimination against people with mental health issues resulted in the killing of Andrew Loku by Toronto police in his home. It was Loku’s death that formalized the organization of Black Lives Matter-Toronto and resulted in a multi-week tent city in front of Toronto Police Head Quarters, the blocking of the Allen Expressway and a many other smaller scale actions calling for justice and an end to anti-Black racism in Toronto.

We see in this era the expansion of tactics and strategies used by people who mobilized under the slogan #blacklivesmatter. We also witness the first vestiges of BLM in the mainstream, with predominantly Black athletes (save for a few exceptions like professional soccer player Megan Rapinoe) begin to tweet using the hashtag and discuss actions.

It was during this time that Colin Kaepernick decided to protest the national anthem as a symbolic gesture in recognition of the condition of Black Americans facing state violence. Kaepernick has since been blacklisted from the NFL and there is continued discussion on sports TV that politics and sports should never mix.

During this time we see the spread of a diverse array of tactics and strategies to achieve transformational gains – and there is an immediate backlash.

That backlash might look different but often fell into the same trope:

“I support the message and understand why they are doing what they are doing – but I don’t agree with how they are doing it”

Let’s examine this claim through examples of the various tactics used by BLM organizers and the way that they are either dismissed or rejected by mainstream media:

  • Intervening in ElectionsExample #1 (Bernie Sanders)

While social movements seem and often are reported as though they are cohesive political organizations, the reality is that social change happens through the disparate and decentralized actions of multitudes. What, as we learned in a prior week, Fred Moten calls “small scale actions with infinite proliferations.” These actions, however, culminate into a vast and powerful movement that has place many people on the defensive – including those who are overt white supremacists and those who, like the family in Get Out see themselves as progressive liberals.

Movements are meant to be disruptive and change doesn’t happen without conflict.

Activity 1: BLM-TO Pride 2016 Sit-In

In February 2016, Pride Toronto released a press release announcing that Black Lives Matter-Toronto, a group led primarily by queer and trans* Black people, would be the "Group of Honour" during that year's pride march. As the "group of honour" BLM-TO was asked to lead the 2016 Pride March in Toronto.

The press release from Pride Toronto read as follows: "We look forward to standing beside and honouring the extremely important and significant work of Black Lives Matter - Toronto, who are leading a timely movement in our city both boldly and fiercely," said Pride Toronto Board of Directors Co-Chair Alica Hall.

"We hope to bring awareness and attention to meaningful conversations and engage social actions. The ways we have intersected in the past remain today, through our desires to come together and fight alongside one another for liberation. Pride Toronto, our staff and volunteers, all openly welcome the opportunity to learn from the coalition, celebrate their successes and give support to the continued fight for Black lives" (Pride Toronto, 2016).

The Strategies, Tactics, and Goals
Prior to the Pride Parade it was announced that the Toronto Police Services would be unveiling a mural to honour the LGBTQ community in Toronto's gay village. Organizers from BLM-TO sought to resist the media spectacle surrounding the unveiling by bringing to light the ongoing harassment, discrimination, and violence faced by queer and trans people of colour at the hands of the police.

You can read about this action here: Black Lives Matter protesters interrupt Pride mural unveiling by Toronto police.

During the Pride march, organizers also engaged in a sit-in action that blocked the intersections as they unveiled a list of demands that had been put to the Pride Toronto committee. Organizers sought to push Pride Toronto to transform the space of pride and to recognize the important and continued struggle of many queer and trans* communities – particularly Black, Indigenous, and people of colour who still face systemic violence.

You can see a video of BLM-TO's action here: Black Lives Matter - Toronto

Black Lives Matter-Toronto, along with various community groups, including BQY and Blackness Yes have the following demands:

1. Commit to BQY's (Black Queer Youth) continued space (including stage/tents), funding, and logistical support.

2. Self-determination for all community spaces, allowing community full control over hiring, content, and structure of their stages.

3. Full and adequate funding for community states, including logistical, technical, and personnel support.

4. Double funding for Blockorama + ASL interpretation and headliner funding.

5. Reinstate and make a commitment to increase community stages/spaces (including the reinstatement of the South Asian stage).

6. A commitment to increase representation amongst Pride Toronto staffing/hiring, prioritizing Black trans women, Black queer people, Indigenous folk, and others from vulnerable communities.

7. A commitment to more Black deaf and hearing ASL interpreters for the Festival.

8. Removal of police floats/booths in all Pride marches/parades/community spaces.

9. A public town hall, organized in conjunction with groups from marginalized communities, including, but not limited to, Black Lives Matter-Toronto, Blackness Yes, and BQY to be held six months from today. Pride Toronto will present an update and action plan on the aforementioned demands.

This action created a flurry of controversy within the media and among members of the LGBTQ community. Below you will find a variety of articles written with different thoughts, opinions, and historical contexts of the action. Take a moment to read them before answering the final set of questions.

Read the following three articles: 

It's OK to support a movement without agreeing with its tactics, opens in a new window

Black Lives Matter-Toronto Co-Founder Responds to Criticism, opens in a new window

Black Lives Matter Toronto recaptures Pride's activist roots, opens in a new window

Questions: 

- Reflect on the way that tactics are used as a means to police, discipline, dismiss, and reframe the message of social justice movements. 
- Think about how BLMTO seeks to develop a politics of black futurities by situating their movement within a historical context. 
- Reflect on the work of the Black radical imagination in this situation. 

Once you've complete this - do a google search to follow this story up to today. I want you to check out the way that this sit-in tactic at Pride spread globally in the movement for Black lives. I want you to reflect on the changes that have taken place within Pride Toronto. 

Thinking about the response of the mainly white/non-Black audience at Pride, what were the teachable moments that Alexandra Simone, the BLM organizer with the megaphone in the first video was referring to when conflict began with the crowd! 

Wave 3 (2020 – Present) – Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation

On March 13th, 2020 – the same day that most of Canada had gone into lockdown in response to the outbreak of COVID-19, Breonna Taylor, a Black paramedic on the frontlines of containing the virus, was shot and killed in her own apartment by Louisville police officers conducting a raid.

Taylor’s death was a symptom of a widespread issue that was becoming apparent as the deaths from COVID-19 were piling up amidst denial, mockery, and resistance to fact from President Trump, the US media, and many others: Black people and other poor, marginalized, and working class people would bear the brunt of the virus.

Image: Jallicia Jolly, Abolition Journal, 2020

As Jallicia Jolly, wrote in Abolition Journal‘s blog, “To be a person of color and an immigrant in this country is to know its cyclical violence intimately.” Taylor’s death prompted mobilizations despite the dire nature of COVID-19 and resulted in an important public discussion on the way anti-Blackness is institutionalized in every space in the United States, Canada, and globally.

By May 25, 2020, when George Floyd died of asphyxiation with police officer Derrick Chauvin’s knee on his neck, the movement that erupted had learned the lessons of the past decade of organizing. Organizers in Minneapolis (as well as elsewhere) were making the links clear between anti-Black racism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, ableism, and were drawing very clearly on the foundations set by groups like the Combahee River Collective 50 years ago.

In fact, when people burned down Minneapolis’ Third Precinct in response to George Floyd’s death, polls showed widespread support from the general public.

Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, writing four years prior to this moment, urged this as the next turn in the BLM movement:

The next stage will involve progressing from protests aimed at raising awareness or drawing attention to the crisis of police violence to engaging with the social forces that have the capacity to shut down sectors of work and production until our demands to stop police terrorism are met. The movement has shown that violent policing does
not exist in a vacuum: it is a product of the inequality in our society. the police exert their authority in a fundamentally disordered society.

Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, 2016

The ensuing protests shut down America, Canada, and many other countries in the world amidst a global pandemic – perhaps only briefly – but powerfully. There is a sense that movements for Black lives have indeed started to see pathways toward Black liberation that are situated in abolition, see the role of social service providers in contemporary policing, and are practicing new forms of conflict resolution outside of the state.

These moments have situated class solidarity against capital, queer/trans* liberation, and intersectional feminism as central to struggles for justice.

Popular music has paralleled this move with many artists like Tierra Whack, Ric Wilson, Noname, City Girls, Dua Saleh, Junglepussy, Pink Siifu, among others making clear ties between class, race, gender, ability and liberation.

To finish, let’s analyze a track produced by Philadelphia-based artist Tierra Whack called “Unemployed” that seeks to make those links more clear. Think of the parallels between Whack’s video and Peele’s film Get Out.

Lyrics: Click Here.

We end the course turning back briefly to Hartman’s words that opened up the course in Week 1. Her description of the beautiful experiments in living free amidst the wayward lives of her young Black subjects at the turn of the 20th century are a lesson for these times more than ever.

As though writing for this very moment, Hartman reflects:

This collective endeavor to live free unfolds in the confines of the carceral landscape. They can see the wall being erected around the dark ghetto, but they still want to be ready for the good life, still want to get ready for freedom.

Saidiya Hartman, 2018, p.24

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