I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to go hear Opal Tometi speak at the Siegel Center last week. Black Lives Matter is obviously a huge movement right now, and although I agree with the movement I haven’t been actively engaged with it very much – most of my information about it comes from the news or from videos and posts on social media. This talk helped me really understand the Black Lives Matter movement – its origins, its goals, and what else people are doing besides the protests we hear about in the news.
One part of the talk that was really powerful for me was hearing how the movement was founded. Tometi spoke about how she felt after George Zimmermann was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin – she said she saw the news and her stomach immediately dropped as she thought of her own younger brother and knew that the same thing could happen to him. The court system had, in her eyes, essentially said that Trayvon Martin’s life, and black lives in general, do not matter. Later, she read an article written by another activist, a letter written to black Americans telling them that their lives do matter and that she supported them. As Tometi said, Black Lives Matter was literally birthed from a love letter to black people.
This stood out to me because a week or two ago I got in an argument with a conservative guy from my high school (always a good idea) who called BLM a “hate group” because of the violence that has come out of some protests in the last few years. I was angry and struggled to find the words to respond to his comment at the time, because I couldn’t ignore his reasoning that we should judge people and groups by their actions rather than their words. I couldn’t quite find the words to convey my conviction that while some protests have devolved into violence, the people looting and rioting aren’t representative of the core of the BLM movement. But hearing Tometi speak, I was face to face with the core of the movement and could see clearly that it is a movement born out of love – courageous love, love that is willing to disrupt the status quo.
Another powerful moment was Tometi saying that there is no neutral – that neutral affirms and maintains the status quo. In a system that works against black people, staying silent allows that system to continue and reaffirms that black lives do not matter under the current system. By not speaking up, especially as a white person who benefits (whether I am conscious of it or not) from a racist system, I am allowing an unequal system to continue. Hearing Tometi talk, I was inspired by the love that she spoke of to speak up more, to learn more, and to be more of an ally.