Black Lives Matter Activists Reflect on Activism, Origins

Leaders from the Black Lives Matter movement, including Baltimore mayoral candidate DeRay Mckesson, encouraged students to engage in issues of racial injustice in a panel in Copley Formal Lounge hosted by the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice on Tuesday

The panel, titled “Black to the Future: Activism, Community, and the Movement,” featured Morgan DeBaun, founder of media startup Blavity, civil rights activist Johnetta Elzie and Samuel Sinyangwe, a data analyst on online research project Mapping Police Violence, who reflected on the evolution of modern-day civil rights struggles and barriers to current progress. The event was part of the Lannan Center’s annual Spring Symposium speaker series.

Mckesson began his remarks by explaining the role and nature of impatience as an impediment to the most progress in the fight for racial justice.

“I think there are some people who are more interested in fighting than winning and that worries me when I think about the movement space sometimes,” Mckesson said. “There is something that wakes us up and I think there is sometimes impatience when we think about this work.”

Elzie recounted the origins of her involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement, which occurred after the shooting of teenager Michael Brown and the resulting riots in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

“I had my revolution on August 9, and unfortunately, not everyone came to Ferguson. So if you missed it, you missed it. I have earned my stripes and have done all these horrific things like fighting the police and cursing out the national guard. I don’t have to prove to anybody, so if I feel like my way to get black people free is the way that I go, then that’s what it is,” Elzie said.

DeBaun said there were major discrepancies between the news coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson and that in San Francisco. This led her to quit her job and expand the reach of Blavity, a website serving as a platform for minority voices and exploring issues across different cultures.

“My Facebook feed was blowing up from people in St. Louis, but in the [San Francisco] Bay no one knew it was happening and no one was covering it,” DeBaun said. “Black publications weren’t covering it, major newspapers weren’t covering it, like CNN or Vice. Seeing that disparity and that asymmetry is what made me quit my job and I think access to information is one of the challenges that we have.”

When the discussion centered around barriers to progress and addressing racial injustice, Sinyangwe explained how there continues to be a disconnect between academics and those who are participating in protests and movements actively.

“One of the barriers that I see is the ability to move together and in solidarity across generations and across spaces. This means working with academia to not just produce papers that get produced by other professors but also produce work that other people on the ground can actually read and understand and use in action,” Sinyangwe said.

Influenced by the protests in Ferguson, Sinyangwe said the Black Lives Matter movement continues to divide younger activists from the older generations.

“On August 9, the world changed for our generation, but many folks who had been doing this work for 20 or 30 years just didn’t see that, didn’t feel that, weren’t connected to it, so there was this divide that formed, whereby it was like business as usual in the workplace, while the world was changing outside, and I think, ‘How do we bridge that divide?” Sinyangwe said.

Following the events closely, many students expressed their appreciation for the diversity of views brought forth by the panelists. Ellen Singer (COL ’18) found value in the range of issues discussed and believed all the speakers brought nuance to the discussion of how to tackle racial injustice in the 21st century.

“I thought it was valuable to hear speakers from such different backgrounds, professions, and regions come together around the same goal,” Singer said.

Chris Wadibia (COL ’16) specifically found the views expressed by McKesson to be nuanced and reflective of what activists must overcome in order to successfully achieve their goals.

“I especially enjoyed the insights of Deray McKesson. At one juncture, when highlighting the need for authentic, justice-oriented leadership, McKesson stated that what is important is not always popular. This offering is deeply relevant for my generation. I hope these words were noted by many and will be honored by even more,” Wadibia said.

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