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Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi says structural change is essential for Black liberation

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Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi emphasized the importance of investing money into Black communities and fighting systemic racism to create lasting change for Black people at a Friday event.

Amid the pandemic and a series of fatal police shootings, Black Lives Matter (BLM) has garnered an influx of national attention this year. The movement was founded in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Founders include Tometi, a human rights activist and one of Time 100’s most influential women of the century, civil rights activist Alicia Garza and artist and activist Patrisse Cullors.

“This movement is part of a long history of freedom struggle,” Tometi said. “BLM is part of a larger tradition of human rights struggle for Black people.”

Tometi said that divesting tax-payer dollars from policing and instead using this money for jobs, education and after-school programs would be crucial to supporting the Black community: “We could use these dollars for initiatives that actually keep us safe and keep us healthy, because we know that the safest communities are the communities that have the most resources. Our communities don’t end up being the safest because we don’t have the resources because they were divested from us.”

She attributed divestment of resources from Black communities to the reduction of welfare and the criminalization of poverty under the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, which she said has made Black communities more vulnerable to attack.

In addition to divesting from the police, Tometi said that transforming institutions “across the board,” such as the healthcare system, the employment system and the criminal justice system are also necessary for creating tangible and long-term change for Black people because this is the only way to ensure that they have “a dignified existence in whatever institution that they find themselves in.”

For these institutional transformations to take shape, she said, people need to have the discipline and courage to say what their values are and stand by them, emphasizing the need to be “unwavering and unapologetic about what it is that we need.”

Tometi attributed the continuation of police brutality and anti-Blackness to the criminalization of Blackness, which she said stems from implicit bias. According to her, this bias is inescapable because it is ingrained in United States society, and it informs both the policing system and the criminal justice system. 

She said that when police officers who hold these implicit biases are given lethal weapons and are authorized to operate them, it results in “the type of disparate, violence against Black people at the hands of police, people who are supposedly supposed to protect and serve.” 

While Tometi has done an immense amount of activism in the United States through BLM, she said that her concern for human rights extends beyond the U.S. borders. She said that Black Lives Matter is not specific to the U.S. — it’s a global movement.

For example, she brought up human rights violations committed by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in Nigeria and encouraged viewers to support the End SARS movement, saying, “It is incumbent upon us as people who care and believe in human rights to speak up right now and to continue to be a practical support to our people — because they matter.”

While Black Lives Matter has achieved success in garnering attention and prompting nationwide discussions about anti-racism, she said that “this is a marathon, not a race,” and that the work is far from done. She emphasized the importance of remaining vigilant and a part of the conversation, regardless of whether or not BLM is trending.

Event organizer Abi Lopez ’22 said she organized the event to “support Black voices — especially Black gender marginalized voices.” 

For attendee Gabby Crooks ’23, the event was a positive and valuable experience. 

“After a stress-filled week due to the election, it was refreshing to hear from an experienced organizer dedicated to the things that matter, especially given the racial climate this country has weathered this past year,” Crooks said.

Contact Malaysia Atwater at matwater ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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