#BlackLivesMatter, the iconic hashtag for a nationwide protest against police brutality, may have inadvertently become a symbol for another kind of uprising — a protest against a lack of interest in the lives of black women.
That disinterest includes the three community organizers who co-founded #BlackLivesMatter — Alicia Garza, 34, Patrisse Cullors, 31, and Opal Tometi, 30. After nearly two years of laboring in anonymity, ultimately turning their hashtag into a grass-roots organization with 26 chapters, they finally received some long-overdue recognition last week at an awards breakfast sponsored by the New York Women’s Foundation.
But the long-delayed recognition cannot make up for the continuing lack of respect.
Erika Totten, a co-founder of #BlackLivesMatterDMV — focusing on the District, Maryland and Virginia — ignited a firestorm earlier this year with her account of a meeting she attended in Alabama.
In a Facebook post, she noted that as participants began giving each other goodbye hugs, one of the men in the room “held me really tight to his body, hugged me well past the appropriate amount of time.” Totten wrote “I just got groped by a Black man . . . at a #BlackLivesMatter protest. Every DAY I’m fighting oppression and violence towards Black bodies in ALL its forms and I have to fight it IN the movement too?”
Her post was met with some derision, but it also resonated with many women who saw parallels between what happened to her and the marginalization of black women activists during the 1950s and ’60s civil rights movement.
It is clear that #BlackLivesMatter struggles to generate as much concern for the safety and welfare of black women as it does for black men. The death of Natasha McKenna in the Fairfax County jail is a case in point.
McKenna, who suffered from mental illness, was shocked four times with a Taser stun gun by a sheriff’s deputy. She was in coma for several days before she died. A “Students March for Natasha McKenna” was supposed to have been held earlier in May to protest her death, which was ruled accidental. But the march has been postponed because of a lack of participation.
A meeting to discuss ways to drum up more interest in the march was scheduled for Tuesday in Fairfax City. More than 300 were invited on Facebook. Only 35 have confirmed, with 26 saying maybe.
“Black women are actually more prone to be abused by a police officer than by anybody else,” Garza told me. She mentioned the white police officer on trial in Oklahoma City who was charged last year with sexually abusing at least eight black women. Thirteen black women, ages 34 to 58, have accused the officer of raping them while he was on patrol.
“They are not being murdered at the same rate as black men, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t being severely traumatized,” Garza said.
Which makes all the more abhorrent the decision by so many black men they support to push them aside.
“For the three of us and for millions of black women around this country, we aren’t just taking to the streets to demand justice, but also trying to create justice in the home, the workplace and the community,” Garza told me.
The trio responded by writing and posting “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement” on the organization’s Web site. In it, they make clear that marginalizing women who work just as hard as men for civil rights was a 20th-century mistake that would not be tolerated in a 21st-century freedom struggle.
“We saw that the three of us were being erased, and we did not think that was appropriate,” Cullors told me. “We knew that erasing us would mean the erasure of black women and intersections that link all black lives.”
Tometi added: “The movement is about creating a multiracial democracy that works for all black folks. We have to stand up for all marginalized people — black transgendered people, black immigrants, black people struggling in poverty.”
#BlackLivesMatter grew out of a love letter to black people, written by Garza following the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain in Florida, in the killing of an unarmed black youth, Trayvon Martin.
“I said, ‘I love us. We are not trash. We don’t deserve to be killed with impunity,’ ” Garza told me. “We need to love ourselves and fight for a world where black lives matter.”
All black lives.