Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Black Lives Matter: Now a Local Chapter
Wed Feb 10, 2016.
By Bill Chaisson

In a meeting that included a rap, a poetry recitation, a short speech that attacked capitalism, and a question and answer period, Black Lives Matter Ithaca was launched in the Beverly J. Martin Elementary School auditorium/library. The Feb. 3 meeting began at 6:40 p.m. and drew over 50 people. It followed an event at Cornell where the founders of Black Lives Matter—Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors—spoke.

Cornell professor Russell Rickford called the meeting to order and yielded the floor to local activist Jodi An, who briefly welcomed the crowd and thanked them for coming.

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, a Cornell student perhaps better known by her stage name Sammus, delivered a rap about the lack of representation of people of color in video games, television shows, and toys while she was growing up. “Kinda thing hurt me when I was small … Black girls want a hero too … all kids tryin’ to get that mirror …” Lumumba-Kasongo expressed bitterness at the memory of being asked to draw and remembering that the first impulse she had was to draw blonde-haired, pink-skinned little girl.

Dubian Ade then recited incantatory verse that cataloged the recent media-documented crimes against African Americans by police. In a low, calm voice, Ade concluded with a vision of “screaming loud, so loud that America cracks open.”

Ade then formally announced the launch of the local chapter of Black Lives Matter, reminding the audience that the national effort had been founded in 2012 by three black, queer women in the aftermath of the acquittal of George Zimmerman of the killing of Trayvon Martin. It began, he said, as a call to action, but has over time broadened to include addressing “all ways black people have been left powerless at the hands of the state.” Ade traced the root of local BLM-inspired efforts to the formation of the Shawn Greenwood Working Group in 2010, which came together after the killing of Greenwood by Ithaca and Dryden police officers when they tried to apprehend him outside of Pete’s Grocery in the West End.

In July 2015 a teach-in at Congo Square Market in South Side was organized under the BLM banner, and in August 2015 Ithaca residents traveled to Ohio to a BLM convention. Ade stressed that BLM Ithaca would remain a grassroots organization without a board of directors, and he asked the audience to not consider the people on either side of him at the front of the stage to be “gatekeepers” to some sort of establishment. “It is time,” he said, “for a different organization, not the pursuit of respectability. We need to be accountable to the realities of our people.” Among the issues he said BLM Ithaca would address were poor housing, gentrification, food security, violence against women, LGBTQ oppression, and white supremacy.

Rickford spoke at greater length, addressing the historical societal problems that make Black Lives Matter necessary. He began by describing a bimodal population made up of African Americans who had been in effect co-opted versus those who continued to be oppressed. He reminded people of the paradox of living in a society that began talking about the “end of racism” upon the election of a black president and yet racial incidents, both high profile and undocumented, continue unabated.

He placed the unofficial beginning of the local BLM effort at the teach-in held earlier this fall, held in the same auditorium and coinciding with unrest on the Ithaca College campus and elsewhere around the country. “We have to seize the political moment,” he said, “and determine how to sustain campus energy and channel it.” Rickford said that it was important for African Americans to develop a positive sense of identity and to build an “anti-racist” movement based on agitation and education.

Fostering an anti-racist consciousness means more than not being racist, Rickford said. Simply claiming to be colorblind is passive and does not threaten a deep-rooted system of oppression. “Anti-racism,” he said, “is a commitment to confrontation with the racist reality that surrounds us. You have to fight on multiple fronts, including in the streets.” He urged solidarity among anti-racists of all colors; his audience was more than half white. Something has to be done about “the distress and insecurity that our people face every day in this decadent society,” he said. “We have to create a better future for our children.”

Rickford suggested that the first thing white people in the audience should begin to do is to listen. They also needed to become more self-conscious about their own privilege. “You need to think about yourself,” he said, “so that you can help someone else.”

After a short hesitant silence audience members began to ask questions at Ade’s invitation. A white audience member suggested that there was a difference between racism and prejudice and that teaching people the difference was important. The speakers would have none of it. An lamented that he might be suggesting that it was necessary for black people to teach white people about racism. As they had not invented racism themselves, she didn’t think they should be called upon to do such a thing. Rickford objected to characterizing the issue as an “awareness problem.” He compared “whiteness” to capitalism in that benefits were conferred to those who believed in it. “When you start to move against white supremacy, just as when you start to move against capitalism,” he said, “you are going to encounter resistance. So you can’t just go to the people who are resisting and say, ‘Let’s have a conversation about racism versus prejudice.’”

Further remarks from the audience could be divided into white people asking what they could do to help further the cause of Black Lives Matter and black people describing the difficulties they and other people of color face while living in Ithaca. 

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