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The women behind Black Lives Matter

The women behind Black Lives Matter

The murder of 46-year old George Floyd by Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin on 25th May, 2020 sent shockwaves around the globe.

Caught on camera by several bystanders, the repeated pleas of ‘I can’t breathe’ have become just one of the rallying cries of protestors who mobilised almost immediately in response. Bowing to immense public pressure, all 4 police officers involved have now been sacked, charged and arrested. Yet the blatant use of excessive force by Officer Chauvin against the unarmed George Floyd has ignited a fire that only seems to be growing. Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests have taken place across the world, and all of us have been forced to acknowledge the uncomfortable truths that systemic racism and White Privilege are very much alive and well in our societies.

Historically, American civil rights leaders were Black men – think Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph – who became the public faces, and voices, of the movement. Women, primarily white and middle class, instead rallied for women’s rights and led the feminist movement. Black women have therefore occupied a difficult and overlooked space, excluded from both civil and women’s rights movements. The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and subsequent organisation in 2013 marked a turning point. Founded by three African American women as a response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin, at its very core BLM is both a civil rights and women’s movement. It is intersectional, inclusive, and growing, with white women increasingly joining the fight against police violence and structural racism. This post aims to highlight the key role of women within the BLM movement, and how we can all play a role in battling these injustices. As early 20th century civil rights activist Amy Ashwood Garvey famously said, “the Negro question is no longer a local one, but of the Negroes of the world, joining hands and fighting for one common cause.”

The media tends to portray Black women as grieving wives, mothers, partners, sisters of the countless Black men killed at the hands of police violence in America. These women are however also victims of racially motivated police brutality (often sexual in nature), as well as leaders and organisers of a new wave of civil rights groups and movements. Building on the rich yet less well-known history of Black female civil rights campaigners such as Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hammer, Rosa Parks and Dorothy Height, BLM has harnessed the power of social media in highlighting racial injustice like never before. The #SayHerName campaign aims to shine a light on the often-forgotten Black women and girls killed by law enforcement in the US. Launched by the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) in 2014, the movement offers support to victims’ families as well as holding vigils and publishing reports to raise awareness of the disproportionate danger to Black women in police custody.

Co-founded by three women – Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi – in 2013, Black Lives Matter has utilised social media platforms and grass-roots organisation to create a truly global mass-movement. Since the very first BLM protests in Ferguson after the fatal shooting of 18-year old Michael Brown, social media has been the driving force, mobilising activists, spreading the message to new audiences and allowing the movement to control the narrative around systemic racism. 7 years and hundreds of protests later, BLM is once again dominating our Instagram, Twitter and Facebook feeds. More than ever before, white activists and allies have joined the conversation, with the understanding that racism is a fundamentally white issue. To enact truly meaningful change, every section of society must stand with Black Lives Matter. The movement is more inclusive and intersectional than ever before, with not only women but gay, trans and queer participants at the helm. As activist Netta Elzie said in a 2015 interview, “police brutality doesn’t care about your gender. It doesn’t care if you’re light-skinned or dark-skinned. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we include all the different types of people who fall in the category of black.”

One thing is clear from the BLM protests in reaction to George Floyd’s murder last month: the importance of white participation in the movement against racism. White women especially, have a long and proven history of marching without fear of police violence or legal reprisal. Take the Women’s March on Washington in January 2017, the largest single-day protest in US history.  Close to 500,000 people marched in reaction to Donald Trump’s inauguration and the new President’s anti-women statements. Of the overwhelmingly white, female protestors, not a single arrest was made. This example throws into stark relief the racial bias held by the US police against Black men. Understanding White Privilege is fundamental to progressing the BLM movement. As white women, we have a responsibility to attend marches, speak out on social media and challenge employers, friends, and family members on overt or latent racism. The BLM movement has united women of all colours and ethnicities around the globe. Drawing on the immense bravery and dedication of Black women in this struggle, we should all feel empowered to stand up and with them. Our work has only just begun.

&SISTERS was founded in the spirit of inclusivity, and we strongly condemn all acts of racism – violent or otherwise. We believe the best way forward is to lean in and listen to black voices with open ears.

At &SISTERS, we’re always listening. If you have any stories, ideas or suggestions that you’d like to share with us, please get in touch.