2020 has been the year Black Lives Matter became a household name,
The aftermath of the death of George Floyd sparked international protests, institutional change, and a collective energy against inequality that we haven’t seen for a generation.
Painted on the banners, on the streets, on the lips of the protesters, were those three simple but unimaginably powerful words.
Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi says this level of recognition for the fundamental concept of equal rights is long overdue.
‘Sadly, there has been so much apathy and complicity for so long,’ Opal tells Metro.co.uk. ‘And the consequences of this are incredibly serious for Black people and for communities of colour.’
Opal is an activist. Her heart is with her communities, with advocating for the people who have had their agency and their power taken from them. As a leader, she tells us she will always welcome more people into this journey – the more the better – but at the same time, she is not about to slow down to allow people to catch up.
‘We can’t wait for anyone,’ says Opal. ‘You don’t get to people being killed in the street with impunity overnight.
‘But also, that means things are so dire that we can’t afford to mince our words, or slow down for everybody to catch up.
‘We have to keep going. We’ve still got a long journey ahead of us.’
Opal knows that some people will take longer to comprehend the seriousness of the implications of racism. Those without lived experience have to make an active decision to care about this issue. She appreciates every single person who has made this choice, but she needs them to get there on their own.
‘I encourage people to get on board quickly,’ she explains. ‘We can’t coddle people. We are all adults. When we witness racism squarely we need to address it.
‘We don’t get to act as though Black lives are theoretical. There are real consequences to these value systems, there are real consequences to racism in the workplace, or at our schools, or in the healthcare system. There are real, deadly consequences, quite regularly and routinely.
‘I encourage our allies, or would-be allies, to get on board and get on board quickly. They have to do the work themselves.’
It’s no surprise that Opal doesn’t feel like she has the time to hold people’s hands as they awaken to the realities of racism.
2020 hasn’t been a revelatory year for Opal and her co-founders. They have been campaigning for Black lives for a long time. The movement may have gone truly global this summer, but Black Lives Matter began seven years ago after an unarmed Black child was killed for no reason at all.
‘What I was feeling at the time was a deep sense of pain,’ says Opal, ‘and rage to be quite honest, about the killing of Trayvon Martin. Trayvon was killed by a man who was a self-appointed security guard, but really that man was steeped in his own racist world views.
‘That man stopped and killed a 17-year-old boy. And then he was acquitted of the murder. I was heartbroken because I have two younger brothers, one of whom was 14 at the time.
‘I couldn’t imagine that my brothers – that the baby in particular – would hear the story, and what they would think about their lives, and whether or not they mattered to anybody in this society.’
The name of the movement was born of a desire to confront the problem of racism unflinchingly. For Opal and her co-founders, there was no skirting the issue – they had to be direct.
‘I come from a school of thought that you aren’t able to address an issue if you can’t name an issue,’ says Opal. ‘So, it was very intentional for us to name the platform Black Lives Matter, because we had to be very explicit about what was going on in our society.
‘We also wanted to send a message to our own community members, that we will always cherish love and value our lives, despite what wider society may say about us.’
It feels like this year, that message has finally connected on a wider scale. The impact of the 2020 BLM protests is still being felt.
Since June, there has been an uptick in reforms to address police brutality in the United States and around the globe. Businesses have poured money into anti-racism and diversity schemes. Monuments to slave owners and racist historical figures have been toppled. Important conversations about race and equality are being had between families, friends, across generational divides.
The importance of this progress is not lost on Opal. Far from it. But she is wary, and all too aware of how quickly public opinion can shift, forget and move on.
‘While I’m very heartened by the moment that we’re in, by witnessing millions of people around the globe rise up, I also know that it’s important for people to be part of institution building that allows us to shift power,’ says Opal.
‘We need to have more people, millions more people, empowered by their governments, by their societies, and we need social equity. That’s the real change we’re looking for.
‘The real test is whether or not people are committed to building the types of organisations and the types of sectors that will actually enforce this change. They have to be transformed so that they are equitable.
‘Until those types of real, transformative measures take place, it won’t be a victory.
‘We are just beginning to see the signs of interest, but we need real investment, we need real commitment in order to achieve the justice we seek.’
Opal is saying that a social media post is not enough. Writing some words on a banner is not enough. Engaging with this movement during one summer while it is trending is not enough. She wants allies who are willing to go so much deeper to effect change.
‘I’m trying to ensure that people don’t give into an Instagram post version of doing the work,’ she says. ‘Are they willing to do the work behind the scenes for the long haul?
‘Because we also did not get here overnight. This is generations of disinvestment in Black communities. This is laws and policies that have been entrenched and codified. We have a lot of work to do.
‘It’s not going to be done by simply saying a few different words, or finding the right phrase. We we need real change in our society, we deserve real change. I’m hoping, praying, and – crucially – working to ensure that change is at the institutional level, not just at the surface level.’
The protests have dwindled, the Black squares on Instagram are harder to find, the news cameras have shifted their focus, but Opal and her co-founders aren’t taking their feet off the gas. Their motivation is the same as it always was.
‘Black Lives Matter is the most important and influential human rights movement of the 21st century,’ says Opal.
‘It is so foundational to the larger struggle for human rights and social justice for us to understand and to address anti-Black racism, as it occurs not only in the US, but around the world.
‘This is a core problem. It is impacting lives, not only in the diaspora, but on the African continent. The legacy of colonialism, the ways in which it still plays out in our societies, and our world today has real consequence.’
Opal says that 2020 is the year that we learned how to be honest, and she believes that it is vital we carry this energy forward.
‘It’s time for us to be real truth tellers,’ she says. ‘It might be painful, it may be hard. But we have to be honest.
‘This year it has been amazing to see that there are so many courageous people around the world who are right there with us, who are now part of this movement.
‘It doesn’t change unless we make it change. People are finally recognising that being apathetic or being “neutral”, only maintains the status quo, and to do so is to be complicit with the system as it is.
‘This year we have invited people to show up differently. And it is for all of our sakes.’
The State of Racism
This series is an in-depth look at racism in the UK in 2020 and beyond.
We aim to look at how, where and why individual and structural racism impacts people of colour from all walks of life.
It’s vital that we improve the language we have to talk about racism and continue the difficult conversations about inequality – even if they make you uncomfortable.
We want to hear from you – if you have a personal story or experience of racism that you would like to share get in touch: [email protected]
Do you have a story to share? We want to hear from you.
Get in touch: met[email protected]
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