What is your group, and how did it come together? Were you inspired by, or involved in, protests against recent police killings, such as Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, etc? What about earlier incidents, like Katrina, Oscar Grant, or the Jena 6?
BLMHTX is an organization of academics, activists, artists, religious leaders, and community organizers that aims to educate, empower, and build coalition in order to address issues that impact black lives in the city of Houston. Our official formation was inspired in the wake of recent violence and brutality against black lives that continues to sweep the nation in general and by local acts of brutality against black lives in the city of Houston and state of Texas, more specifically.
Several members of our collective were directly involved in organizing and protesting the arrest and death of Sandra Bland. Before this, the indignity brought about by the public spectacle of Mike Brown’s murder and abandoned body along with the wrongful killing of Trayvon Martin led members of BLMHTX to think critically about the prevalence of state violence, especially as it plays out in the context of public spectacle, in their scholarly work. Even more broadly, members of our collective have been directly affected by the 2005 flooding of Katrina in ways that led many of us to think critically about the inequalities that made the most vulnerable folk in New Orleans and the MS Gulf Coast area suffer so horribly.
Given our connections with other African American leaders in the city, we initially came together to see how we could contribute to the movement. In particular, we sought to recognize and acknowledge the need to reject status quo models of black leadership (which Jena 6 highlighted significantly, by the way) that promote hierarchal, narrow approaches to movement building or that hinge on one solitary spokesperson. Recognizing the various forms of rich expertise and perspective that academics, artists, activists, as well as progressive religious leaders who all live right here in our community offer, we sought to create spaces for these folks to come together, collaborate, and engage in critical dialogue that would enable all of us to articulate and think more broadly about the issues that impact black lives in our city.
In addition to critical dialogue and collaboration, we also saw it necessary to have an art/creative expression component that would offer a fuller representation of African American identity and politics and spur greater imagination when it comes to thinking about and building communities where black lives matter. We thus aligned ourselves with the national “Movement for Black Lives” while being intentional about calling attention to local issues and local work by activists and organizations who are a part of this work. Yet, because of our unique composition we desired to remain autonomous, setting our own agenda for how we engage in our work. Specifically, we wanted to ensure that our breadth was represented in our self-definition and work. As a result, as we explain later, we wanted to form as a local community organization rather than identify as in the #BlackLivesMatter organization and network, a distinguishing factor which requires more room.
The rioting in Ferguson and Baltimore was controversial throughout the nation. What role do you think rioting plays in the movement?
When the oppressed have no voice and see a lack of accountability, rage builds. One cannot expect that an individual can continue to see injustice without emotionally reacting. There are several ways that we can address those emotions and some have chosen to express their rage with rioting.
Rioting isn’t new. We’ve seen our people riot after the murder of Martin Luther King. Our people rioted in Watts as a result of ongoing police brutality. When a people have been stripped of their basic human rights and dignity what is one to expect would occur.
The riots that have occurred in Ferguson and Baltimore have brought about awareness in this country. While the narrative that the media chooses to deploy is one of property damage, WE get to see our people crying out in the streets. WE get an opportunity to collectively share in their pain. WE get an opportunity to stand in solidarity with them in the continued fight for justice.
While we believe that there other ways to bring about change, and that destruction of our own communities is devastating, we also can empathize with those that chose to express themselves in that manner after experiencing continued injustice.
Some groups have proposed reforms that they think will help lower the rate of police brutality, such as body cams, campaign zero, sensitivity training for cops, or civilian review boards. Do you advocate for any reforms? Do you think these reforms will be effective?
We advocate for reforms that hold those in power accountable for their actions. While these reforms have the potential to bring about the change that we would like to see, they are ineffective if there is no accountability. As we all know, there have been several incidents where footage is readily available but the result is a no bill. Changes in policy have to be met with enforcement of said policy. In order to be truly effective, you have to have both to balance the equation. Until that happens the scales will continue to tip in the favor of those in power.
In the short term, we need policies in place that will disrupt the current system. As an example, one step in the right direction can be observed in California’s decision to ban the secret deliberations of grand juries in cases involving the shooting of civilians. This type of policy change engenders a policing and accountability that are the keys to establishing some inkling of justice in this current system. In the long term, we feel the system needs to be deconstructed entirely and reconstructed to ensure justice for those most vulnerable in this society.
The movement has sparked wide-ranging online discussions of strategies for black liberation. What do you think of strategies such as “buying black”? Forming black worker or consumer cooperatives? Strengthening the black family? Are there any other strategies you’re seeing discussed that you feel strongly about, for or against?
We believe in the education, empowerment, and uplifting of our people. If buying black helps one to appreciate, value, and support his or her people, then buying black in good, inasmuch as it can contribute to defraying the economic inequality of black small businesses. The key in all of these strategies is implementation and having a strategic plan. Questions that one should raise are: Are these strategies sustainable? Are these strategies inclusive? Do these strategies negatively impact one marginalized group within the struggle to elevate a collective? Will this liberate all black people? Is the strategy considerate of the immediate community in which it is to be implemented? We think it’s important to ask these key questions before considering any strategy.
Cooperatives, as a whole, seems to be an alternative that many in the black community have discussions about. It seems to stifle at least some of the damaging effects of coercive labor within this capitalist structure. Though we’d certainly see ourselves as anti-capitalist, until a society is created here in which everyone has access to a livable wage in ways that frees them from suffering in unemployment or underemployment then cooperatives, where labors have a vested interested in the success of the organizations, are good alternatives to think about.
As it relates to narratives about “strengthening black families” we are highly skeptical about what under-girds such thinking. It buys into a type of respectability models that presumes different comportment and representation is necessary, like variegated black being is a problem. White supremacy inculcated many of these ideals in the black community in the early 20th century and many still use this a way to victim blame. We repudiate such claims. The black family, though tried and splintered by the legacy of colonialism and white supremacy, is resilient. What needs to happen is that we must bring scrutiny to bear on what we perceive to be the normative understanding of “family.”
What has been your orientation to the Say Her Name protests? What ways do you see questions of gender arising in the movement? Do you see a revitalization of feminism occurring? If so, what are its features? If not, why?
A central part of our work is to imagine and create communities where all black lives matter. This means that we go about our work in a way that acknowledges the various forms of oppression and violence that impact black lives, including sexism and misogyny. Thus, in addition to joining demonstration efforts here in the city that bring attention to police violence against black women, such as Sandra Bland, we also ensure that discussion about the nature of sexism and misogyny within the black community is a significant part of the critical dialogues that we create through our symposiums. Most importantly, perhaps, we are constantly doing the work of ridding our interactions with one another as a BLMHTX core team of any vestiges of sexism and misogyny. This involves actively holding one another accountable to the ways in which male privilege crops up during our team meetings as well as decentralizing our “leadership” in a way that does not reinforce patriarchal, hierarchical models of community organizing and activism.
To be sure, as it has for the past several decades, black feminism continues to be a prolific area of black intellectual thought and consciousness. But its reach and influence has largely been limited to the academy. Fortunately, with the developments of movements such as Say Her Name, along with growing conversations among activists about the need for “intersectional” approaches to justice work, black feminism is gaining ground beyond the academy and within the general public in a way that it has not since its initial inception among black women creative writers during the 1960s and 1970s. In this more public iteration, the influence of black feminism can be seen not only in the aforementioned activist movements, but also through social media, such as the twitter affirmation #blackgirlmagic and the conversations on Twitter and Facebook about the too often unnamed, unacknowledged, or erroneous justifications of sexual violence against black women and girls.
What do you feel is the place of nonprofit organizations in the movement? Are they a positive or negative influence, and why?
Nonprofit organizations can both benefit and negatively influence the current mode of black freedom struggle. What we mean by this is that there is a way that nonprofits, which are not aligned with status quo socioeconomic and political agendas, can greatly assist new valences of black struggle to succeed and be innovative. For instance, one positive way “nonprofits,” as they are called here, have been helpful to the movement here in Houston, and with BLMHTX specifically, is by providing financial, structural, and institutional support to local activists without attempting to co-opt activist efforts by leveraging such support. Many non-profits provide space for meetings and money for activists to do their work as well. Yet, as we think about what this question may insinuate, nonprofits that have been co-opted by local and national political interests can greatly stifle the radicalism of the movement. Some of the BLM chapters in the country have been accused of being co-opted and it is a valid concern as these chapters, and individuals within the movement, seek to establish relationships to those in power. In short, nonprofits can be dangerous to the movement and require deliberate activists who are not easily baited by prestige and power. In most non-profit models, it becomes easy to be co-opted because most nonprofits form themselves in hierarchical models that make it easy for one person to be swayed.
What relationship should the Black Lives Matter movement to have to the established political parties, if any? To the electoral system in general?
BLM should keep political parties accountable as they have been through direct action initiatives. And we feel it’s the responsibility of BLM activists to be informed of the policy platforms that negatively or positively affect the most vulnerable members of our community in order to put pressure on political leaders for revision. Most of all we should bring scrutiny to bear on problems within these party systems and seek to inform the electorate of the things that adversely affect them on the local level.
What relationship does the Black Lives Matter movement have to other movements in the U.S, like the immigrants rights, prisoners, or student movements? How do they mutually influence one another other?
The Black Lives Matter movement has certainly gained national attention for its demonstrations against police brutality. But, at their root, these demonstrations are in response to the continued perpetuation of white supremacist violence. Without a doubt, white supremacist violence is at work in the forced and violent deportations of immigrants, it is at play in the prison system and it is certainly at the root of the discrimination and violence that black students are facing on college campuses across the country. In this way, Black Lives Matter is tied to, wrapped up in and connected with these other movements. If Black Lives Matter does not see itself as connected to these movements, it risks short-circuiting its own efforts.
Are there any struggles around the world that you think resonate with the struggle for black liberation in the U.S? Which, and why?
The struggle for liberation is not unique to African Americans in the U.S. Although there is a particular valence of African American struggle for liberation that does distinguish it, the type of racialization that African Americans experience in the United States is quite similar to the dehumanization and domestic terror that Palestinians face at the hands of Israel; it is certainly similar to the violence and structural discrimination that black South Africans experienced at the hands of Afrikaners during the system of Apartheid and even know after the Apartheid state has fallen. In each of these instances, the same system and structure of racialized “othering” and colonization in order to maintain power and a monopoly on resources was and is at play. They are forms of violent, racialized practices that structure every economic, judicial, social and political means by which black Americans, Palestinians and South Africans are to pursue fulfillment in their respective countries. Although BLMHTX is intentional about speaking to the particular empirical experiences of African Americans in the United States in general and in Houston more specifically, we see our work as deeply connected to the global fights for liberation that are occurring globally on behalf of the oppressed.
Recent years have seen a resurgence of right-wing violence, such as the Charleston Emmanuel AME massacre and the shooting of protesters in Minneapolis. How should we orient ourselves to this rise in violence?
We wouldn’t necessarily characterize these incidents as a “rise” in violence but as a normative response by white supremacist radicals to African Americans’ demand for liberation and justice. Similar to the Mike Brown case there has been a long history of white rituals of violence. Whether it’s been lynchings of blacks and auction blocks of the not-too-distant past or the current police brutality and media depictions of violence carried out against innocent blacks– no one should be surprised by these attacks. Church assassinations are not new. The public specter of white on black violence with impunity is not new.
Our response to this type of violence is to continue in struggle and to think of innovative ways for self-defense as a community, where state protection is not expected.