By Anna Liss-Roy
Opal Tometi, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, spoke to a sold-out audience at an event hosted by Scripps Presents on Thursday, March 22. Tometi discussed her experience as an activist and offered an intersectional approach to topics including immigration and anti-black racism in conversation with Professor Maryan Soliman of the Intercollegiate Department of Africana Studies.
While she is best known for her involvement with Black Lives Matter, Tometi is active in a number of other organizations including the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, where she is the Executive Director.
Tometi is currently based in New York, but says she was heavily shaped by her upbringing in Phoenix, Arizona. As a child of undocumented Nigerian immigrants raised in a predominantly Nigerian community, she witnessed the intersections of race and immigration firsthand. “That is the basis of why I do the work that I do,” Tometi said. “I’ve seen it.”
Tometi’s parents, undocumented for much of her childhood, were at one point in deportation proceedings. “My upbringing instructed me in the fact that we’re not just our familial ties, we’re part of larger webs of kin,” said Tometi. “I remember how our community rallied behind our family.”
While enrolled at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Tometi witnessed members of the Minuteman Project, conservative activists who mobilized to monitor the flow of undocumented immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. To combat these efforts, at age 18 she began volunteering with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Tometi’s work with Black Lives Matter began as a series of interactions on a Facebook post in the wake of the shooting death of 17-year old Trayvon Martin in 2012. “I went online after hearing about the not-guilty verdict [in the Trayvon Martin case],” said Tometi. That was when she came across a Facebook status posted by fellow activist Alicia Garza, which concluded with the phrase “Black lives matter.”
Those words struck her. Tometi began a dialogue with Garza and activist Patrisse Cullors, who had commented on the post. The three women would eventually co-found Black Lives Matter. “I bought the domain name a few days later,” said Tometi.
The Black Lives Matter movement is often referenced in the context of police violence against black people in the U.S., but Tometi views it as a response to the array of contexts in which anti-black racism continues to fester. “We had to have a more systematic, more holistic conversation about what’s happening. It’s state sanctioned violence, and it’s happening in the ways in which our court systems work, in the ways our housing system works … we were so desperate to have that conversation, about how we deal with racism across the board,” said Tometi. “The entire system is guilty, so we need to deal with it from that level.”
Several opposition groups, including Blue Lives Matter, have emerged in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, but Tometi dismisses these responses as perpetuating a false equivalency. “It’s black people who are being systematically killed,” she said. ““The way in which white supremacy operates, it cannot stand black people asserting their dignity.”
Tometi discussed Black Lives Matter’s intersection with immigrant rights, condemning the use of immigration enforcement as a tool to criminalize black people. “So much of the criminalization of immigrants has been practiced on black immigrants,” said Tometi.
“Using the anti-immigrant logic opens up the gates to all sorts of other types of reversals of the gains that were made by the civil rights movement, by the black liberation struggle, using immigration as an entry point,” said Tometi. “We have to keep an eye on how immigration is being used to further repress.”
In reflecting on her own activism, Tometi expressed a forward-looking approach. “We have to be in deep conversation, deep reflection, we have to be committed to reading in order to inform our actual lived practice … and inform the ways that we build a new world,” she said.“Because we’re going to need to do that. This one isn’t working.”