By Sikivu Hutchinson
Last week, activists from the Black Lives Matter Los Angeles (BLMLA) coalition spearheaded the Occupy LAPD encampment, demanding a meeting with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck as well as the firing and prosecution of the officers who murdered Ezell Ford. The issue of black self-determination—queer, trans, disabled, undocumented—is at the forefront of this thriving mass movement, which not only challenges white supremacy but challenges the orthodoxies of mainstream patriarchal hetero-normative civil rights organizing. On Tuesday I spoke to BLMLA activist Povi-Tamu Bryant, who was waiting to address the LAPD Commission after the dismantling of Occupy LAPD’s encampment and the arrest of fellow BLMLA organizers Sha Dixon and Dr. Melina Abdullah. Dixon, Abdullah and Bryant, along with fierce black women BLM founders Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza, have brought an intersectional lens to the movement in an era where black youth of all genders and sexual orientations don’t see the complexity of their communities represented in hyper-segregated classrooms with apartheid curricula. Bryant’s comments on Ethnic Studies and the need for culturally responsive education were especially relevant in light of the recent implementation of a new California law banning suspensions for willful defiance in grades K-3. Willful defiance has long been used to target and criminalize “unruly” black children as early as preschool. For children of color, criminalization at the preschool level is often the first phase in a path that leads to pushout in later grades and incarceration in adulthood. It is also one of the most devastating tools in the destruction of culturally responsive education. This partial victory is important in context of the growing leadership of community organizers who have waged daily resistance to police and state violence which has resulted in the stolen lives of black youth like Ford, Aiyanna Jones, Tamir Rice and Rekia Boyd.
SH: Historically when we look at civil resistance to state violence there has been a lot of focus on black male leadership and black male victims, often to the exclusion of black women who’ve been murdered, as well as of black women activists who have been on the frontlines of movement organizing. What motivated you to become involved with Black Lives Matter L.A.?
Bryant: I was motivated to become involved last year after the acquittal of George Zimmerman. I realized in that moment again just how little black lives are valued, and it made me feel like it was important to be around black folks, to share my rage and grief with black folks and to be showing up for myself, my community and my family. BLMLA has a particular frame around the value of all black lives mattering; showing that black trans lives matter, black women’s lives matter, black disabled lives matter and black immigrant lives matter. Having that frame allowed me to show up as myself—as a black queer gender-bending woman—and it has allowed me to really be involved with lifting up the disparities that black communities face.
SH: You mention the impact that state violence and dehumanization have on queer black women in particular and we know black trans women have high rates of physical abuse and criminalization. How has that critical consciousness been factored into the emerging movement in terms of bringing forward activists that are doing intersectional work?
Bryant: With BLM we went from a hashtag to a movement. We’ve tried to be super-intentional about creating space that lifts up the voices of folks that aren’t often lifted up when we think about black liberation and black struggle. We come out of a very visible civil rights history in that a lot of the leaders that held up are often black men. We see a lot of that happening today. We’re trying to disrupt that narrative and flip the frame around what it means to do movement work to allow things like emotional labor be understood as movement work, to allow things like healing justice to be recognized as movement work. We work with amazing orgs like the Trans Women of Color collective, who’ve been informing our thought process and dialogue and building our infrastructure around how do we make our space inclusive of trans women. How do we make sure that the violence that’s experienced at super high rates by trans women is part of our narrative.
SH: There has been an increase in very frontal criminalization of black girls (both nationally and here in L.A.) which flies under the radar, especially with regards to national policy emphasis on young boys of color such as President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. How can we incorporate the intersectional work BLM is doing into high schools and middle schools when it comes to classroom engagement with young people?
Bryant: We’re thinking about all black lives, including black youth who have been at the forefront of our conversations. I think there’s a way for empowerment. I think that’s important to inform policymaking decisions and decisions about the use of funding. We recently got Ethnic Studies passed – what are those curricula going to look like and how are they going to lift up the lives and leadership of black queer folk, black women, black youth and all of these folk who are at these marginalized intersections? How do they actually get folded into the conversation so that the students see themselves reflected in that curriculum? Educators should be engaged in this dialogue around what it means to have an intersectional approach in the classroom. I think there are tons of institutional barriers already, but to not even be able to see yourself in the classroom–that’s adding layers of trauma to what we’re already experiencing in the classroom. There’s a part of me that thinks that’s the very least of what we can do. I think that we have some people around the table in BLMLA and in BLM nationally who are thinking about these things.