Lead Story Local News West Edition

Black Lives Matter brings new energy to civic activism

LOS ANGELES – As Black Lives Matter activists drove throughout the city Aug. 11, bouncing from one rally to another, Jasmine Richards summed up the purpose of their movement.

“We’re not trying to sit at the table anymore, we’re flipping the table over,” she said.

The table represents anything that supports state violence, according to organizers, and includes “all of the ways in which black lives are deprived of [their] basic human rights and dignity.”

“Black Lives Matter is a rallying cry,” said Melina Abdullah, one of the lead organizers of the local chapter and chair of Pan-African Studies at Cal State Los Angeles. “It’s a movement. It’s designed to affirm and say, ‘Our lives matter,’ and to understand our own power and envision a world that we want to live in.”

Demonstrators proceeded to do just that Aug. 11 as they gathered to demand their inalienable rights for a day-long commemoration on a date that marked two anniversaries: the start of the Watts Riots 50 years ago and the Los shooting of Ezell Ford last year.

The anniversaries gathered chapter members from Los Angeles, Long Beach and Pasadena for “Turn up Tuesday for Ezell Ford” where the organization, in conjunction with allies such as the Youth Justice Coalition, the Service Employees International Union-United Long-Term Care Workers (SEIU-ULTCW), and Dignity and Power Now demanded their voices be heard by public officials.

Semja Ford, the 11-year-old cousin of Ezell Ford, holds a candle Aug. 11 during a vigil held near the site where Ezell Ford was killed. (Photo by Gary McCarthy)
Semja Ford, the 11-year-old cousin of Ezell Ford, holds a candle Aug. 11 during a vigil held near the site where Ezell Ford was killed. (Photo by Gary McCarthy)

“Ezell Ford, for us, is Ferguson’s Michael Brown,” Abdullah said. “Our purpose is to uplift the name of Ezell Ford and claim our power. The system is failing the people.”

At a Los Angeles Police Commission meeting, President Steve Soboroff paused the meeting after activists booed at a speaker for mentioning “black-on-black crimes.” For several minutes, Ford’s supporters erupted into a loud medley chant of “We don’t get it, shut it down,” “They think it’s a game, they think it’s a joke,” and “Too black, too strong.”

Before leaving the meeting, Black Lives Matter members delivered subpoenas for Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and the officers involved in the Ford shooting, Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas. The subpoenas demanded that all three attend a “people’s liberation tribunal” scheduled for Nov. 14.

“I’m doing this to show, there’s more to life than to accept the status quo or business as usual, said Pamela Templeton of the SEIU-ULTCW.

Templeton, a mother of two sons, was en route to another Black Lives Matter demonstration held at the county Board of Supervisors meeting, where activists opposed the construction of a jail and mental health treatment facility for men and women in downtown L.A.

Living in Compton, the 56-year-old health care worker said she feared for her sons’ lives.

“I sent my oldest to an out-of-state black university,” Templeton said. “So he could see how people lived elsewhere — that there is more for his life.”

She said her son’s chances for survival were slim to none in South L.A. and she is advocating for every black person.

The call and response to “rise up” grew from the hashtag — #blacklivesmatter — after the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida, but the movement really blossomed after the death of Michael Brown in Missouri, according to Alicia Garza, one of three founders of the national movement.

With the movement gaining media attention in recent weeks, especially for disrupting events hosted by Mayor Eric Garcetti and Democratic presidential candidates Hilary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders, local organizers say 2015 is their year.

So far, Abdullah said the surrounding chapters have managed to work closely with families who have lost children to police violence, created dialogue with longtime established civil rights activists and successfully demanded regular meetings with Mayor Garcetti.

“The quarterly meetings with the mayor will be held in the black community with an agenda we want,” Abdullah said.

Much like the catalyst that set off the Watts Riots in 1965 with the arrest of a black motorist by a white police officer, policing in minority communities continues to be an issue. Deadly police brutality cases were seen in Ferguson with Brown, Staten Island with Eric Garner and the greater Los Angeles area with Ford, Kendrec McDade, Charly “Africa” Keunang and Brendon Glenn.

The deaths, and even non-fatal encounters with local law enforcement, such as the beatings of Marlene Pinnock and Clinton Alford and the shooting of Jamar Nicholson, have people questioning whether a new civil rights movement is burgeoning.

“Movements happen in a continuum and this already started when we got here,” Abdullah said. “This is a watershed moment founded in the movements connected to civil rights, Black Panther, black liberation, sub-African …”

The speed in growth for the movement’s presence on social media has captured the attention of observers.

“They’re almost shadowing the presidential race. It’s amazing,” said Earl Ofari Hutchison, president of Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable. “It’s a good thing because the public focuses on black lives and police abuse, especially the gunning down of unarmed black men and women.”

M. Keith Claybrook Jr., a professor of Africana Studies at Cal State Dominguez Hills, said the technological advances seen in modern times cannot be overlooked.

“Technological innovations, like the ACLU mobile app for police brutality, are holding police accountable at a higher rate,” Claybrook said. “Things go viral so quickly.”

The professor said the use of social media and innovations — like the live streaming app Periscope — are not necessarily a game changer for the movement, but it does present more players in the game.

It has the potential at least to disrupt the ease of the popular narrative, he said.

The organizers use of non-traditional tactics is a drastic departure from the peaceful sit-ins and marches seen in the mid-20th century civil rights and anti-war movements. And it is visibly led by female organizers.

Today’s movement draws similarities and differences to the civil rights and black power movements seen in the 1960s, Claybrook said.

When asked whether the organization’s use of disruption best fits the movement’s agenda, Claybrook said: “I am one who believes when an individual or group is clear in their strategy, no strategy should be taken off the table. If strategy ‘A’ isn’t working, then try strategy ‘B’ and so forth.”

If they tried to go the so-called appropriate route and their objectives were not met, people should use a different strategy, he said.

Some activists agree.

“Being nice doesn’t work,” Templeton said. “You have to disrupt what they’re doing. I think there should have been another rebellion in Watts and South L.A. because nothing has changed.”

In addition to their nonconformist tactics, some say there is another pressing matter.

“My question is staying power,” Hutchinson said. “My hope is that this energy is going to be here in August 2016. Will they stand the test of time? Or here today, gone tomorrow? Because police violence is not going away.”

While critics may agree that the fight against police brutality is a noble cause, many are quick to say activists are nowhere to be seen in regards to black-on-black crimes, but Abdullah said the movement is concerned with violence on black people everywhere and by everyone.

“Everyone can’t do everything. Our focus is on the system that keeps us oppressed,” she said.

However, some members of the movement began a “100 Days, 100 Nights Peace Walk” throughout the city earlier this month after neighborhoods in South L.A. began experiencing an increase in civilian homicides.

Richards, a lead organizer of the Pasadena Black Lives Matter chapter, said her brother was killed on the same streets they march on.

“We need numbers if all black lives really matter,” Richards wrote in a Facebook post, urging people to join the walk. “The hood is tired.”