Dialogue 3: Rage, resistance & transformation
The movement for Black Lives Matter in the United States turned the shocking crime of the murder of George Floyd into a powerful force for change within weeks, but the explosion of energy arose out of years, decades and millennia of Black organizing. The recent stage of organizing against police brutality goes back at least to 2012, when Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager, was shot in Florida and his murderer later acquitted. The movement began to organize locally and coordinate nationally, bringing attention to a series of murders of Black people, many by police, including another landmark case when Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri.
Community organizing expanded, often below the radar of the media. As the movement grew broader, the analysis went deeper. It built on generations of struggles against police brutality and mass incarceration, and in many places adopted a platform of abolition of policing–a demand considered unattainable until the City Council of Minneapolis, where Floyd was murdered, voted to disband its police force in a stunning victory for the movement. In cities throughout the country, the movement has built a broad base with a natural intersectionality since many of its leaders are feminists and members of the LGBTQ community, with an openness to make common cause with other struggles in their towns and regions.
The movement for Black lives rapidly went global in the midst of a pandemic that has put humanity at risk and sparked new connections across borders. The protests against Floyd’s murder, captured over an excruciating eight minutes and 46 seconds of video, spread across the world. These were not only protests in solidarity with what was happening in the United States, but mobilizations to denounce racist violence and racist policing in their countries. The killing and the rise of the movement sparked discussion on the prevalence of racism and the different forms it takes.
For the second Dialogue on Women Radically Transforming a World in Crisis, JASS brought together six Black feminist leaders to talk about the “movement moment” that the confluence of rage, hope and connection has created. Joined by thousands of viewers and moderated from South Africa by Phumi Mtetwa, speakers Mary Hooks of SONG (USA), Glenda Joanna Wetherborn (Afro-Guatemalan), Ruth Nyumbara (Kenya), Makda Isak (Germany) and Sheila Carvalho (Brazil) talked about the lived experience of racism in their countries, how they are organizing, what confronts their movements and what sustains them. The comparisons provide fascinating insights into the nature of racism and its different forms and contexts. Speakers noted, for example that while blatant in the United States, in countries that deny its existence, like Guatemala and Brazil, racism is less visible and sometimes harder to confront.
Here’s a brief summary of the luminous discussion that came out of bringing together this amazing group. The video in its entirety can be found below.
Memory and the History That Never Ended
The massive demonstrations around the world are not only, or mainly, the result of today’s indignation, or expressions of solidarity with specific cases—the rage is cumulative and everywhere.
“What we’re seeing is years and generations of heartbreak,” said Mary Hooks of the U.S. Southerners on New Ground (SONG). “Generations of heartbreak and disappointment of what it has meant to be stolen people on stolen land, by the U.S. empire.”
The panelists described how those histories of slavery and colonialism traverse the contemporary global experience of Black people. Joanna Wetherborn said, “The structural racism and historic exclusion that the Garifuna and Afro-descendent populations have suffered is something we are still bound by in modern times. It might seem like that’s behind us, after the abolition of slavery and the signing of peace agreements, but it’s not.”
Even historical breakthroughs have proved insufficient. Joanna described how the institutional changes after the end of the armed conflict in Guatemala to reduce racism and exclusion were never fully complied with and have come under attack to this day.
Ruth noted a similar situation in Africa after national liberation struggles, saying that “the hopes and aspirations of the anti-colonial struggles did not eliminate many forms of violence.”
“To be African is to be illegal even on this continent,” she stated. “The anti-Blackness isn’t just something that happens in the African diaspora.” Ruth cited the crisis of refugees and undocmented migrants within Africa today as an especially egregious example of the continued criminalization of blackness
For Sheila Carvalho of The Black Coalition for Rights in Brazil, a failure to acknowledge that past efforts merely reconfigured racism has been a serious obstacle in the present. “There’s a racial democracy myth in Brazil for many decades, that Brazil is miscegenated, we don’t have a problem with race, we don’t have to discuss racism,” she said. “There was legal abolishment, but not real abolishment—we’ve had 132 years of unconcluded abolishment.” Sheila noted that every 23 minutes a young Black man is killed by police in Brazil, and the murders have increased during the pandemic.
The idea that racism ended with slavery has made it especially hard to organize in Europe, said Makda Isak, the daughter of Eritrean refugees in Germany. “Racism is not being fully grasped or understood in the public discourse. We still have to discuss with the public and the media what racism means and how black people experience racism.” She noted that police violence against Black people, particularly refugees, is a huge problem in the country but not visible.
All agreed that recovering the historic memory and fully understanding its role today is crucial. Mary pointed out that the memory can also yield positive lessons:
“It’s so important for Black people across the diaspora to remember the ways in which we have taken care of ourselves outside of the state, the ways we have addressed community harm outside of the state, and be able to name the places where we didn’t get it right too, particularly as it relates to patriarchal violence,” she stated.
Diversities that Unite
While a common history binds them, speakers emphasized the need to understand and honor the differences.
“Black people are not homologous, wherever they are. Even in my own country, even in Kenya, in Nairobi, Black people are not this block, this undifferentiated mass,” Ruth noted.
These differences determine forms of violence and forms of resistance. For example, while Black men suffer most racist attacks, specific forms of violence and discrimination must be recognized, even within Black communities.
“Black men sit on very particular intersections of state violence against them, but we know that we live in a society where to be trans, to be queer, to be a woman, to be non-binary gender conforming attracts even more levels of violence,” Ruth stated.
She cited US Black feminist, Jaqui Alexander: “’We have to become fluent with each other’s histories.’ This fluency with each other’s histories allows us to not make assumptions of the particular histories of oppression or the contexts that different people across the continent actually experience.”
Makda said that Frankfurt’s movement, made up largely of young people, actively incorporates the differences. “They are very radical when it comes to asking ‘Which Black lives are we talking about? Is it just Black men or is it also regarding the intersections of queer phobia and others in our own communities?”
From the Americas, Joanna added, “While it’s true that the gaps of inequality have left Afro-descendents and Garifunas on a second or third plane in general, women are even more relegated in all spheres, because our contributions are erased, negated, unerestimated.” Sheila pointed out that in Brazil too, police violence kills mostly Black men, but women suffer the loss of husbands and sons and a higher rate of incarceration on drug-related charges.
It’s impossible to talk about rage and transformation without talking about utopias and what this moment offers. Some powerful thoughts on the envisioned community emerged from the conversation:
Ruth Nyumbara: “We have to think what a radical liberation looks like—not a masculinist liberation, not a pro-capitalist liberation, not a western-centric liberation… We have to think about a politics of imagined communities: What is community to us? That allows us to move from these very reductionist ideas or possibilities of organizing to actually thinking about potential alliances…””
Makda Isak: “The first thing is giving up space–giving up space for marginalized women, giving up space especially for black women, when it comes to the situation in Germany, where we are one of the racialized communities that are most invisible…”
Joanna Wetherborn: “This is an invitation to find ways to unite our struggles transnationally, and connect with history and the demands in other places in ways that allow us to redirect, to revitalize our struggles and our proposals and really move forward.”
Sheila Carvalho: “In Brazil, we have a movement led by mothers… they base their struggle on four pillars: memory, justice, truth and liberty.”
Mary Hooks: “There is some amazing synergy happening right now as it relates to folks who embody and carry the feminine divine and what opportunities are in terms of not just the ideology, but what it looks like in practice… Generational trauma happens and it is passed down, but we can also pass down Black love, Black joy and Black healing. So, I think how we do the work is just as important as the work we’re doing.”
Watch or listen to the full recording with friends, and find the music we played on Soundcloud.
Ruth Nyambura is a feminist political ecologist and organizer from Kenya working on the intersections of gender, economy, and ecological justice. She is the founding member and convener of the African Ecofeminists Collective. Also, she works with several regional agrarian and climate justice movements to track and challenge the privatization of the agrarian and ecological commons. Ruth holds an LL.M in Comparative Law, Economics and Finance from the University of Turin (UNITO), Italy, and has previously served as a judge on the International Tribunal on the Rights of Nature.
Glenda is a journalist, communicator, academic, and popular educator of Afro-Guatemalan descent committed to black feminism. She has been responsible for Communication/Visibility and is a member of the Advisory Council of the Network of Afro-Latin American, Afro-Caribbean, and Diaspora Women (RMAAD).
MARY HOOKS, United States
Mary Hooks is a 38yr old, Black, lesbian, feminist, mother, organizer, and co-director of SONG (Southerners on New Ground). Mary joined SONG as a member in 2009 and began organizing with SONG in 2010. SONG is a political home for LGBTQ liberation across all lines of race, class, abilities, age, culture, gender, and sexuality in the South. SONG builds, sustains, and connects a southern regional base of LGBTQ people to transform the region through strategic projects and campaigns developed in response to the current conditions in our communities. SONG builds this movement through leadership development, coalition and alliance building, intersectional analysis, and organizing. Mary’s commitment to Black liberation, which encompasses the liberation of LGBTQ folks, is rooted in her experiences growing up under the impacts of the War on Drugs. Her people are migrants of the Great Migration, factory workers, church folks, Black women, hustlers and addicts, dykes, studs, femmes, queens, and all people fighting for the liberation of oppressed people.
“The mandate; to avenge the suffering of our ancestors, to earn the respect of future generations, and to be transformed in the service of the work. Let’s get free ya’ll!” – Mary Hooks
Sheila is an activist and human rights lawyer at Black Coalition for Rights (Coalizão Negra por Direitos). She is a UN Fellow in the program for people of African descent at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
Makda Isak is a daughter of Eritrean refugees and grew up in Frankfurt, Germany. She is currently a graduate student in Sociology and doing research on African Feminist epistemologies. Makda is a Black Feminist who has been involved in antiracist and feminist grassroots organizing for the past six years. She is part of the Frankfurt chapter of the Initiative of Black People in Germany (Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland) and works for the Berlin based African, Afrodiasporic & Black empowerment community project Each One Teach One as a political educator.
Phumi Mtetwa is an activist working on issues of economic, gender and LGBTI equality and justice. As a former Co-Secretary General of the International Lesbian and Gay Association she contributed in bringing issues of concern in the global South to the organisation, including creating the LGBT South-South Dialogue, that strongly contributed LGBTI perspectives in the processes of the World Social Forum. She has been part of the leadership of many organisations, including the AIDS Law Project, FEDAEPS, the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project; is co-founding member of the Masithandane End-Hate Collective. She is a Social Change Initiative Fellow (reflecting on her campaigning and political activism). Today she occupies herself with one of her great passions: Feminist Popular Education in her role as Regional Co-Director of JASS Southern Africa.
Resources shared by Joanna Wetherborn
Umalali Project (voice, in Garifuna language)
Umalali Proyecto de mujeres Garifuna is the musical collection of stories, organized and produced by Ivan Duran. The album is based on the voices of local women in Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala. The Garifuna are residents of the Caribbean coast of these countries.
Proyecto de mujeres garífunas is a collection of stories from the natives, stories of “hurricanes that wiped out homes and livelihoods, a child killed in a distant village, the pain of childbirth and other struggles and triumphs of daily life. Then there are the personal stories of the women who participated in this magical recording project: mothers and daughters who, while working tirelessly to support their families, sing songs and pass on the traditions of their people to future generations.
Resources shared by Mary Hooks
Attached: Southerners On New Ground workshop on History, Memory, and Legacy (see attached pdf files)