Unapologetically Black: Activism on (and off) the Streets with the Black Youth Project 100

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photo by Adrienne Battistella

The pattern of American police murdering people of color, an everyday reality for some communities, came to the rest of the world’s attention in 2014. The ongoing governmental failure to prosecute some higher-profile cases triggered introspection, protests, and large-scale uprisings in many American cities.

New Orleans has its own martyrs, and its own roll call: Jenard Thomas, Raymond Robair, Henry Glover, Danny Brumfield, Ronald Madison, James Brisette, Adolph Grimes III, Dawonne Matthews, Wendell Allen, Justin Sipp… those are just a few of the names of Black New Orleanians murdered by NOPD within the last decade. If you go back a little further, you find many more. You find the Hot 8 Brass Band’s trombone player, “Shotgun” Joe Williams. You find Adolph Archie, beaten to death inside the NOPD First District Station, and you find Kim Marie Groves, assassinated by a NOPD-hired hit man for having reported police brutality. At present, there are only two NOPD officers on death row for having killed civilians; the vast majority of our police who murder walk free.

In cases where people of color are murdered by someone besides NOPD, the police and an increasingly complacent, incurious press must satisfy themselves with abusing the corpse, mounting a posthumous assault on the murder victim’s reputation. Mirroring a trend seen elsewhere, NOPD had a longstanding practice of responding to the murder of Black folks by trumpeting the victims’ arrest records, implying they had it coming. After the February murder of 21-year-old Penny Proud, the fifth trans woman of color to be killed nationally in the span of a month, NOPD and local corporate-owned news sneeringly misgendered her, disrespecting her identity and suggesting that Ms. Proud was a sex worker who thus somehow courted her own brutal death.

Is there any hope for a future different from this past and present? Several things distinguished New Orleans’ “Black Lives Matter” protests from our city’s usual sign-wavings, including that much of the visible leadership was young Black women, part of what may be an emergent new generation of civil rights organizers with a radically different analysis and approach. I sat down to talk to three of them: Toya Lovevolution Ex, Mwende “FreeQuency” Katwiwa, and Christine “Cfreedom” Brown, all members of the New Orleans chapter of BYP100, a new organization aiming to mobilize communities of color beyond electoral politics.


 

Can you explain how BYP100 started, and how y’all came together as a chapter?

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photo by Peter Nakhid

Cfreedom: The founder of the Black Youth Project, Cathy Cohen, called for 100 young Black activists between the ages of 18 and 35 across the country to meet, just to get us in the room together. It just so happened the Trayvon Martin verdict was released the same weekend that we met each other. So we got together off the momentum of all these things happening nationally. There were three New Orleans members of BYP100: Dee-1, who’s a rapper, got signed; Nicole Tinson graduated from Dillard and went to Yale; so that left just me. Knowing that New Orleans had a lot of powerful activists, I felt it necessary to make sure we had a chapter representing in the South. I had to pull some more people together.

FreeQuency: I think each of us who are in this room, and a lot of the faces that you’re talking about seeing recently, those young women of color, are all people who do this work outside of this moment that we’re in nationally. When Cfreedom called us all together, about a dozen of us came to that first meeting. The Black Youth Project is all Black people, so it was all Black folks. Three founding members of the New Orleans chapter are men, but the rest of us are women. A good number of us are queer women. That’s something that attracted me personally. You hear about how the Black woman is the pillar of the Black community and support and all this, but you don’t necessarily see Black women in the forefront or the leadership—but before the BYP100, the Black Youth Project was a research body, started by a Black queer woman. And when she expanded it out, when BYP100 was formed, they were intentionally formed under aqueer Black feminist framework… So Cfreedom had called us and we were meeting, and there became a need for an organizing body that had all the different elements of resistance but also community healing, so we just kind of stepped into that place and were accepted by the community. We weren’t actually ready for the level of acceptance we received… especially from the elders in the community who were like alright, well, here’s a load off our shoulders.

Cfreedom: I think that’s important— Toya held a meeting here with some elders, organizers in the community, and they really have been waiting to pass it forward.

 

There have been so many Black New Orleanians murdered by police. When I saw these rallies for Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, I couldn’t help but think: why hasn’t New Orleans been able to sustain this kind of mass outrage or consciousness over the killing of Black people by NOPD?

Cfreedom: We have so much violence in New Orleans, I think many times it happens and then gets swept under the rug—on to the next person and the next time it happens. I think because there’s this new national and even international awareness, we’re able to have greater momentum.

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photo by Adrienne Battistella

Toya: I think to add to that—it’s just in the past two years smartphones have been in the hands of more people, and more people have been able to catch things and immediately post things. That’s playing a part. People finding it online and picking it up, making it harder to ignore.

Cfreedom: Local awareness already existed with the Wendell Allen case, the Justin Sipp case, and countless others like Adolph Grimes III and the killings during Katrina, way before BYP was even thought of. But when the case in Ferguson happened, we had the opportunity to hold a magnifying glass on this. Currently, we’re trying to magnify some more recent situations that have happened down South—like Victor White, where they’re saying he “Houdini-d” himself, shot himself while his hands were cuffed behind his back.

FreeQuency: I just interviewed his dad the other day, for TheGrio— it was basically just a discussion me and him had about why his son’s case hasn’t received so much attention. We talked extensively about how being in the South had a lot to do with it. Toya and Cfreedom are from New Orleans. I’m from Kenya, the global South, but my roots in organizing were in the North, and it becomes clear as you’re organizing in the U.S. South that there’s a real disconnect between what happens in the South and national organizing.

 

I thought New Orleanians taking and holding the lobby of the 8th District NOPD station in August, after the murder of Mike Brown, was extremely newsworthy— possibly unprecedented—and there was zero news-media coverage of it. But it got livestreamed, and images and discussion of it went all over Tumblr and Instagram. It made me wonder if my mindset of “Where’s the media? Why isn’t the media covering this?” might be outdated.

Cfreedom: I’m a photographer, so I’m definitely gonna be my own media, wherever I go. It depends on what you’re doing. Sometimes you want the news media there, but the media will put it out the way they want to.

FreeQuency: And that’s if the media comes out. Which goes back to your earlier point, Toya, about social media and being able to create our own narrative—we can do that for ourselves, if people aren’t willing to cover it. The big media pick and choose—they highlight certain things.

Toya: They leave out women.

FreeQuency: Yeah. Those four killings of mostly young Black men that made nationally televised news happened between July and August, in a one- month timespan. The month before, four trans women of color across the country had been murdered, but nobody said anything about it. So when we’re talking about organizing on behalf of all Black lives, we’re saying that the deaths of those four women of color who were trans should have sparked as much national outrage as those four Black men who were killed.

 

Operating in New Orleans with this intersectional, queer, and feminist politic, have you encountered a generational disconnect?

Toya: Man, we had a really deep conversation last night—I’m not going to share too much of it, but we talked about this, and there was an elder in the room who really had to get schooled by a young female about how the patriarchal society we live in actually hurts the movement. The movement won’t get nowhere with y’all thinking that if Black women are saying, “women need equal rights,” that we’re just picking up some white women’s movement. Last night people were dropping history knowledge, how tribes native to this land thrived off a matriarchal society, and many African tribes—

FreeQuency: All these African tribes y’all wanna be throwing back to—oh, my Kings, my Queens—do y’all realize a lot of these tribes had zero problem with homosexuality and women-centered leadership? Yeah, that disconnect is something I personally have run into in New Orleans, especially with organizers who come from a religious background, which is very big in the Black organizing community—historically the Black church has played a really, really big role in the movement. Personally, I think it’s about valuing yourself and all your identities, all your manifestations of Blackness, and demanding that other people do that as well. And being upfront and honest about it and asking people, “Hey, when you say Black, exactly what do you mean? How do you feel about these queer Black people, or those ‘thugs’”—because it’s not just a problem of homosexuality. There’s a lot of respectability politics in general in the Black community, a lot of poverty shaming, a lot of slut shaming. It just naturally happens because the Black community has for so long been in a struggle for survival, and for so long had to choose the “best” representative in order to shine for us. Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old Black teenager, refused to move to the back of the Montgomery bus before Rosa Parks, but then she got pregnant a few months later and the movement said, “We can’t use you— because you are a young Black woman who’s pregnant, you cannot be the face of this movement.”

 

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photo courtesy of Cfreedom Photography

Both nationally and locally, with actions like the die-ins at malls and the Black Friday boycotts, there’s been a larger economic focus to this movement, an analysis that connects the patterns of state violence and police murder with the larger apparatus of economic oppression. That economic angle seemed new to me.

Cfreedom: It’s new? When you think about the bus boycotts, how much power those had… Now, we know how much money Black people spend a year, and how we are constantly giving all our money to the people funding our oppression. We see that if you have enough money, you’re protected. We’re not protected. We need to withdraw our money and put it back in our community, so we can protect ourselves. I talk to kids in school, to tell them to think about working and creating businesses and working with each other versus trying to go work for somebody else.

Toya: Economics would be the immediate campaign, because we’re still dealing with a police system that has come from slavery, to keep the poor in line, to keep slaves in line, and protect the property of the rich. Police do the same thing, to this day. But our overall campaign would be to shift what police do: actually protect and serve us. Don’t just paint it on the cars, actually do it.

 

But when you look at NOPD, for instance, do you think that policing as an institution can even be reformed? Is that possible, given the principles this country operates on?

Toya: Oh—that word, reform…

FreeQuency: Reform is a weird word. Transform I think is the real thing. What Toya is saying is true—when we’re talking about the police and say, “the system is broken,” the system is not broken. The system is working just fine, the way it has been working, the way it is designed to work. When we’re talking about how we move beyond it, we have to move outside of it.

 

It’s a pretty huge undertaking. How do you not feel overwhelmed by it all?

Cfreedom: Strategy.

Toya: Unity. Strategy and Unity.

FreeQuency: And self care. Self care and self love is so real in movement building.

Cfreedom: We just keep passing it on, and connect with other people who do other things. I’m a documentarian and photographer so I gotta hold that part up—we take the different tools we’re blessed with and come together.

FreeQuency: I’m tired of this notion that an activist is a certain type of person. Activism is something that’s been romanticized—again by the media—where if you don’t have a bullhorn, if you’re not out in the street, you aren’t doing it. There are people who cannot afford to be out there in the streets, but there is something realistic within their means and their livelihoods that they can do to support the movement. I’m always telling people: look within your life. Whether it’s something small, like you’re only gonna support Black-owned businesses, that’s your commitment, and no one has any right to shame you for that. We don’t need everybody out there in the streets. Street-based protest has its value, but I’m always more interested in what we do beyond that. If you’re an artist, paint something. You gotta figure out what makes the most sense for you in your identity, in your skill set, and then go for it and just trust and know that people will accept it, if you really are doing the right kind of work in your community. And I tell that to white folks too, who ask, “But how can I help?” I’m like, just stay in your lane. Organize your own people. If white people were organizing their people on behalf of other people—not in their own interest, but in the interest of greater equity—this fight would be half as long. White people who just want to be in the streets, I’m like, go home and talk to your uncle about this shit.

 

photo by Adrienne Battistella

photo by Adrienne Battistella

This movement seems very consciously centered on those most affected by police violence, which is to say, nonwhite people. At the risk of now making the conversation about whites, I’ve seen some well-intentioned white activists struggling to come to terms with what their role should be.

FreeQuency: If not being centered in something is so hurtful for you that you can’t participate in the liberation of others, I don’t fucking want you in this movement. I’m beyond that point of catering to white people and whiteness. The last civil rights movement involved catering to whiteness, seeking acceptance within that structure. I don’t think this movement that we’re in right now is about acceptance within that structure. We’re not just making demands of ourselves as Black people and Black community and Black leadership, but also in terms of our relationship to white people and the power structure. We’re saying hey, this is our movement. We welcome any support and any real solidarity, but we’re going to demand that we define what solidarity is. It’s not going to be a slogan, it’s not gonna be you showing up and taking pictures and saying you were here. It means you understanding how whiteness has impacted us, and also how whiteness has impacted yourself and how you operate—and that unwillingness to not be at the center is part of growing up in whiteness, under white supremacy, and being told all the time that white voices need to be heard.

 

What’s next for y’all going forward? What are you looking forward to in 2015?

Cfreedom: BYP100 nationally has an “Agenda to Keep us Safe,” a booklet with different asks, some of which are for policies we already have in Louisiana, so we’re talking about creating a New Orleans version of it that’s more reflective of the South. Like, we already have body cameras on police here, so our focus is trying to get more police accountability, to establish what the consequences are if a police officer doesn’t have a camera or turns a camera off. And we’re focused on mobilizing young Black voters, and activists, and training young people coming up… with Black Lives Matter, you’re seeing a lot of organizations coming out of that focused on younger activists. That’s a part of what BYP is.

FreeQuency: The Black Lives Matter thing was started by three queer Black women, the two main organizers in Ferguson are two queer Black women who just got married the other day—it really is a national thing, and it’s beautiful not to have to apologize for claiming liberation for all parts of your Black identity. All of us had been doing organizing before this happened, and I don’t know about y’all, but a lot of times I would find myself having to conform to different types of organizing and different definitions of Blackness. This new movement has really created this space where we don’t have to do that in order to do our work. It’s like, if you want the youth struggle, here’s where we are. There’s some folks, some heads in New Orleans who in the past, I’d try to have these conversations and they weren’t really having it, but since the BYP actions, recognizing the power and the momentum we have, they’re kind of like, “Alright, alright. We see y’all. We’re gonna meet you on your level.” It’s a beautiful thing.

 


For more info, check out byp100.org

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  • George Babbitt

    “And I tell that to white folks too, who ask, “But how can I help?” I’m like, just stay in your lane. Organize your own people. If white people were organizing their people on behalf of other people—not in their own interest, but in the interest of greater equity—this fight would be half as long. White people who just want to be in the streets, I’m like, go home and talk to your uncle about this shit.”

    “We’re saying hey, this is our movement. We welcome any support and any real solidarity, but we’re going to demand that we define what solidarity is.”

    I’m having trouble reconciling some ideology here. This seems to be a one-way demand. You want whites who have an interest in improving relations ‘to stay in your own lane’, and you demand to be the only one who defines ‘solidarity’ (presumably between blacks and whites). It seems to me that your approach is exactly what you decry about past white treatment of blacks–one-way self-interest, and is equally doomed as a path to peace. Refusal to seek mutually beneficial solutions results in never finding a solution. Is that what you intend? To refuse common ground and have a permanently dual nation?

  • Kris Tastic

    Yes to this. Just… Yes. I have so much respect for these activists and artists. I love this interview!

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