In a crowded ballroom hotel in New York, Essence editor-in-chief Vanessa De Luca asked #BlackLivesMatter cofounders Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi about Sandra Bland — a black woman who was arrested last Friday and found dead in her cell days later.
"It just hurts my heart to talk about it," said De Luca, who was moderating the first keynote at the BlogHer15: Experts Among Us Conference that focused on #BlackLivesMatter.
This somber moment kicked off what would be a 40-minute talk on how Cullors and Tometi, along with fellow cofounder Alicia Garza, started the #BlackLivesMatter movement after George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the death of teenager Trayvon Martin in July 2013.
The verdict — and Trayvon's death — made Tometi think of her then-14-year-old brother who was living in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. And I got goosebumps thinking of my own sons, also living in the suburbs of Phoenix and often the only two black faces in their schools and activities.
"We were all in this kind of collective moment of grief and rage," Tometi said. "I, too, was searching; I was searching for people who felt the same way who wanted to do something about it. When I heard about this hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, I said, that’s it. It resonated really, really deeply with me."
Both Cullors and Tometi said the movement, which now has 26 chapters across the country and internationally in Ghana and Toronto, Canada, became much bigger than they could have imagined.
"An organizer’s dream is for something to go viral. Did I imagine this? No. Did I imagine Essence would put us on the cover? But I’m grateful for it," Cullors said.
Tometi added, "We created the platform online but it was really to impact our lives offline.”
#BlackLivesMatter and its focus on black lives and not "all lives" has sometimes been a source of contention, but both Tometi and Cullors say the hashtag has been mostly well received — and that it is absolutely critical to focus on black lives.
"I think it’s absolutely a problem when folks are challenged with explicitly standing with this message as it is," Tometi said. "That’s how stressful racism plays out. And how privilege plays out. We are living in a crisis era and people are still wanting to be color-blind and to gloss over and to act like we’re in this post-racial era. And we’re not. We know we're not."
She added, "We know that all lives matter, we're well aware of that... but reality is that anti-black violence is killing our people and it's undermining our lives at every corner, and we have to get very real and precise about what is taking place.”
Cullors said that an Assata Shakur quote, which the group recites at all its events, is perfect to symbolize that the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag should matter to everyone, regardless of race.
Starting in a whisper and ending in a shout, the nearly 2,000 attendees spoke as one.
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
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