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Opal Tometi on Building a Transnational Movement for Black Lives

Black Lives Matter cofounder Opal Tometi discusses building connections between movements, in the US and internationally.

Black Lives Matter cofounder Opal Tometi. (Photo: GritTV)

What might a global Black Lives Matter movement look like? We may find out sooner than we think.

I recently had a chance to sit down with Opal Tometi, who cofounded Black Lives Matter with Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors.

Never simply a reaction to police violence against African Americans in the United States, Black Lives Matter was always conceived of as a strategic response to white supremacy, Tometi said. It’s not just an organizing network, but also a strategic concept broad enough to go beyond borders, she added.

Tometi’s concern with transnational organizing is no surprise, because she is also executive director of the country’s leading Black organization for immigrant rights, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.

“It was really important that we establish a really broad notion of who is Black America,” Tometi said.

Extreme poverty, wealth and war are linked to extreme policing of bodies and borders. How do activists bring that global awareness into the work where they live? Tometi is already part of a conversation taking place within immigrants’ rights groups internationally. Gradually, she said, that global consciousness is coming home.

Through being “open about who we are,” namely, connected to families that are really global, she says, people of color in the United States can not only reimagine their organizing networks, but also gain a new understanding of what they’re up against. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership are also “Black Lives Matter” issues, she explains.

She also describes the Safety Beyond Policing network, which is focusing on root causes: “We’re saying let’s stop criminalizing poverty; let’s stop policing poverty. Why don’t we do things to address those challenges that our communities are having?”

You can watch this interview and my conversations with Garza and Cullors at as well as on KCET/LINKtv, (DIRECTV Ch. 375 and DISH Network Ch. 9410) and in Spanish and English on the Latin American network TeleSUR.

Laura Flanders: Opal, welcome to the program.

Opal Tometi: Thank you so much for having me.

It’s about time. You complete the triad! You are the head of the leading Black immigration justice organization. Somewhere I read there weren’t that many of them.

There aren’t. Sadly, there aren’t, in a nation that has millions and millions of immigrants, and 10 percent of those being Black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. We’re the only one that’s a national organization that’s working with those communities and doing a lot of work with our network of about 30 other organizations.

Take us back a couple of years. Were you conscious of the fact, in 2013 when you saw that Black Lives Matter post from Alicia, that here was an opportunity to connect your issue, the issue of immigrants’ rights and justice, to the Black justice movement in this country? Was it a conscious thing?

It was absolutely conscious. When I reached out to Alicia to say, “I really think we need an online platform to connect our groups and to connect our communities,” I had in mind that it was really important that we establish a really broad notion of who is Black America, these days. A really broad notion to ensure that this platform was big enough for the communities like the ones that I represent (my parents are Nigerian immigrants; the communities that I work with are Afro-Latinos and Caribbean and so on) and that they could also have their concerns heard. It was really important to us to ensure that it wasn’t just a movement about police killing Black people but it was also about structural racism and justice for all Black people.

What progress do you think we’ve made particularly in telling that structural story? Going beyond justice for this one or incarceration for that one, make sure this cop is arrested. There’s a structural story as you said; is it getting told?

I believe it is. I think it’s been really difficult for our nation to grapple with what it means to be living in what folks are trying to name as a postracial, colorblind society and really come to terms with the fact that we’re not; that Black people have specific grievances and concerns and are being devalued across the board and what does that look like, what’s happening there.

Where do you see the progress?

So some of the progress that I’m seeing is the types of narratives that we’re hearing these days. I think that different groups from the labor sector to immigrant rights to the LGBTQ rights community are beginning to take up issues around racial justice in ways that I haven’t heard before. I’m having people approach me day in and day out saying you know, we want to actually address the inequalities in our education system, for example, in ways that folks weren’t quite talking about race explicitly like they are now. I think the conversation has changed.

Has the immigrant rights movement changed?

The immigrant rights movement is changing.

Diplomatically put.

It’s changing. I think folks are really blown away by what they’re hearing and seeing in the news. The immigrant community has really been suffering a great deal of backlash and hate for many years, from Arizona. In many ways Arizona was ground zero for anti-immigrant laws and the testing of these different types of draconian laws like S.B. 1070. I think people were fighting those types of pushbacks and rollbacks and with that didn’t really take notice of what was happening in the broader Black community. I think as they’re seeing the killings, as they’re hearing more stories of inequity and seeing the structural conditions of Black communities, they are becoming more and more aware and they’re taking note also that there are Black immigrants in the movement who also have specific issues that need to be addressed.

You said you’re from Arizona but Nigeria also got mentioned. Do you want to tell us your story a little bit?

Yes, thank you. My parents are immigrants from Nigeria; they migrated to Arizona looking for a better future for their children basically, for going to school. Being born and raised and coming of age in Arizona, I knew really acutely the impact of racism on my own family but also on my community.

How so?

I remember many times my dad being pulled over by the cops. Being racially profiled for what we call “driving while Black,” but the implications for an immigrant are quite different depending on your immigration status and depending on a number of different things. So that was real concern for my family. Time and time again we would have aunts and uncles and different people in our community who were being profiled and whom some of which were detained and some of which were deported.

Do you feel the international aspect of your life is being brought into this Black Lives Matter movement? We talked to Patrisse about going to England and Palestine, Ireland as well. She said that she wanted there to be closer international ties, that this needs to be a global movement. Is it moving in that direction? I know that you were in a meeting of immigrant rights groups in Europe not so long ago.

It’s actually happening now and I think what’s really great is the way we have technology these days and we’re using social media and different tools. We’re able to connect more quickly with our comrades in different parts of the world and so we’re hearing more quickly stories of what’s happening in East Africa and Europe and so on, in ways that we might not have heard as quickly and been able to show up in solidarity.

How does that change things for you or your organization? Or does it?

It absolutely does. In particular for the immigrant rights community. We have a transnational commitment, quite honestly. Our families are abroad and then we’re also working and living here. There’s this kind of natural inclination to keep in touch with our family, keep in touch in terms of what’s going on in terms of the politics and changing dynamics on the ground. For me that’s meant being in touch with more immigrant rights activists in places like Europe and in places like Africa. As you mentioned, I was in Berlin meeting with a number of different immigrant rights organizations from across Europe.

Are there particular policy positions or policies that you think give you an opportunity to talk about these questions? To fight? Thinking of trade policy, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, things like that.

Yes. I think that there are some opportunities for us to connect the dots. There’s stuff that happens with our foreign policy but there are also transnational corporations that I think we can follow. I’m thinking, as you mentioned the Trans-Pacific Partnership, this international trade agreement that’s in the works right now that many of our communities don’t know much about and will actually be acutely impacted by it.

It is imperative that we actually name that this thing is taking place. We look at the history of transnational corporations and these foreign trade policies like NAFTA, so the North American Free Trade Agreement, and how it devastated our communities. Not only in the United States but abroad. In places like Mexico, displacing 6 million farmworkers, forcing them to migrate to northern parts of Mexico and even across the border to the United States. Really changing the demographics but also really undermining their own livelihood, their dignity and their ability to stay home and be with their families.

We’re talking about a very big picture and I want to ask you a little bit about your strategies as an organizer when it comes to getting people to absorb a big picture.

I think the way that we do it is by being open to who it is that we really are. I’m thinking about the Haitian immigrant community that I work with right here in Brooklyn, New York, in Crown Heights. How they’re at the margins of the margins of even the immigrant community here. The lowest wages. Highest unemployment. Most discrimination in the workplace. But they’re also witnessing some family members in the Dominican Republic being deported and being dehumanized at their core.

The Dominican Republic recently just withdrew [citizenship] for Haitians, people of Haitian descent.

Right. They’re denationalizing Dominicans of Haitian descent. We know that people here who are Haitian and their allies care about that. We know we can’t sit idly by while that’s taking place.

You’re part of something called the Safety Beyond Policing movement? What is that? Tell us about that.

Safety Beyond Policing is a campaign that members of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Black Lives Matter, Million Hoodies, Black Youth Project, a number of organizations across New York City and I have launched. This is a campaign that really re-examines our notions of safety on our terms. So safety meaning our ability to reside in dignified communities, our ability to have a good job, our ability to get mental health services and support when we need it. As opposed to what we’re seeing in New York City, which is the hyper-policing of low-income communities. Often times those low-income communities are Black or Brown, and so we’re saying let’s stop criminalizing poverty; let’s stop policing poverty. Why don’t we do things to address those challenges that our communities are having?

Are you having any luck inserting those metrics into a movement or into a moment where people are saying, “we’ll reform policing; we’ll add body cameras”?

What we’re saying is that we have to actually challenge the very notion of criminalization of our communities. So with that, we can actually see that happen at the very local level. For example, in New York City, we had a budget and the City Council’s examining the budget, negotiating the budget and for $170 million they could have 1,300 more police in New York City.

Or a whole lot of other things.

Or a whole lot of other things. So our challenge, as a people, [is] to advocate for other things, other resources for our communities as opposed to police. We already have the largest law enforcement in the nation and the seventh largest military is the NYPD [New York City Police Department], the way that they’re militarized, weaponized, that is happening here in New York City. What we can do at the local level is challenge the very notion that we need more police and say we actually need a lot of other things – educators, social workers, public health professionals.

But we lost that fight even with a progressive caucus majority inside the City Council and a mayor who says he’s for police reform.

Right. So that thing that happened – they undermined us, right? People are now beginning to question our entire system. How can democracy play out when we didn’t actually have a say in where those monies went? And that is on [Mayor] Bill de Blasio and the City Council to account for that.

I want to close by asking you about something that I read from Ta-Nehisi Coates recently, where he talked about the American dream. He said the American dream is inseparable from slavery because slavery is the dream.

Oh wow.

As somebody who tracks global migrations, and I’m sure the story takes you back to slavery often, what do you think about that? And how do you see us unraveling this mess that we’re in?

That’s a really profound question and a profound statement. I think the sad reality is that we do hear echoes of enslavement, of forced migration, of capture, of exploitation in the ways our current migration happens. Right now there are billions of people who are forced to migrate, according to the United Nations. This is a global occurrence and it’s happening in more exponential numbers because of the ways in which economic globalization is destabilizing nations and disenfranchising local communities, making the poorest of the poor even more poor.

Extreme poverty is forcing people to migrate across the globe. They might be migrating to different parts of Africa, they might be migrating to Europe, they might be going to the US – and that’s happening because they’re being exploited. Sadly on top of that, we’re seeing the criminalization of their movement. This really reminds me of enslavement of Black people. It’s not exactly the same; I would never conflate it and say that it’s the exact same but there are elements that are there.

So for me and the work that we do with the Black Lives Matter movement and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, we’re here to really challenge the root causes of economic injustice. The displacement of people across the globe, the gentrification that’s happening even within the US in places like Brooklyn, New York, where I live … we’re looking at the ways in which corporations at the local level and real estate has a hand in the criminalization of our people, and the policing of our people, and trying to move us out from our neighborhoods in order to build more, to have new communities in there, more shops and so on.

To end on a slightly different note, tell us what’s the most fun thing about working with Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors in Black Lives Matter.

Oh my gosh. The most fun thing about working with them is that we’re a true sisterhood. We are learning more and more about one another, and we’re challenged by each other, in terms of learning about who we are. From being queer Black women to me having the roots of immigrant parents, and being able to share more intimately our upbringings. We come from really different places, and it’s just been really amazing to have this sisterhood that’s gone from a very unique, local, kind of occurrence and it’s now having implications and flourishing across the world.

Thank you so much; it’s great having you on the show. You can see my interview with Patrisse Cullors and also Alicia Garza at our website.

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