“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” —Assata Shakur
On August 9, I was preparing for my trip to Geneva, Switzerland. I remember listening to Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet,” reading about his life, and understanding how the struggle for Black freedom is a human rights struggle.
I was particularly involved in studying Malcolm because I was going to Geneva to continue the work he pushed so hard for—to hold the United States accountable, in a world court, for the crimes and human rights violations it has committed against us people of African descent—Black folks.
My plane left late that morning. I remember being nervous, wondering if what I said would be powerful enough, if it mattered enough, to add to the barometer of social change. I was going to Geneva to bring evidence of racism in the U.S. to the United Nations at the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, specifically looking at housing injustices. I was armed with personal stories about how racism has impacted me, ranging from such issues as food access to education and incarceration. I was guarded by the souls and energies of my ancestors to continue the struggle. I knew I owed at least that to them.
When I arrived in Geneva, I was tired, already jet-lagged, hungry, and a bit put off by the loss of my luggage. But despite my personal irritability, I was thrilled. I had been thinking of all the stories I could tell, and how to fit them into just three minutes. I thought of meeting Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, and how urgent the work is—whether I would be able to remain cool as she told her story, or if I had learned enough to prepare me with sufficient wit to respond or adjust my advocacy approach on the spot. In some ways, I was young, green, and energetic, and in others, a complete emotional wreck.
Days went by, filled with advocacy, organizing, strategizing, and operating at high capacity with hardly any sleep. We were in day three of the convention and somehow I had managed to get through it, and, according to others, do well. On this particular day, the U.N. committee members would interrogate the U.S. government based on all the evidence and testimony that we, civil society, had brought forth.
I remember not being able to sit still.
I remember the room being hot. I had already had three bottles of water and loosened the collar of my shirt and tie. I remember that not being enough. I remember the sound of papers shuffling. I remember we were all swiveling in our chairs. I remember whispering and frantically writing strategy notes. Then I remember being caught in silence.
I don’t know how long I sat in silence.
The silence was broken by an African woman, a UN committee member. She sharply confronted the U.S. government while we were all there to bear witness. “What happened to the man who murdered Trayvon Martin? Is he free?” she asked. I don’t remember anything but the chill and the heaviness that smothered the room. I don’t remember the expressions on anyone’s face. I don’t even remember breathing, but soon enough I came back to awareness of my person.
While I was there suspended in grief, I searched the room for Sybrina Fulton’s face. I looked for Jordan Davis’s father, Ron. I looked to see if there was any sign of relief that someone, somewhere, cared for our children—that we, as people of African descent around the world, loved each other. While I searched the room for those eyes, I got distracted by the same committee member’s next question: “And what is going on in Ferguson?”
Wait, what’s Ferguson? I thought. My comrades around me seemed thrilled that she was addressing it, and I had no idea what they were talking about. That was the first I had heard of it. Later that evening, as we all went back to the hotel to strategize, I was updated on what had happened just a couple of days earlier back in the States. I learned that the young people had taken to the streets, taken up an urban rebellion, and were refusing to go home. I thought again of Sybrina Fulton and Ron Davis, and all the mothers and families who lost their children due to violence against Black folks.
There, in Geneva on August 13, fueled by Malcolm, the international human rights framework, emotions, and the power of my ancestors, family, and other activists, I understood I had to go to Ferguson.
Shortly after I returned to Madison, I began connecting what was happening in Ferguson to what was happening here at home. It is clear that to win any of the fights to improve the lives of Black folks in Madison (ending the school-to-prison pipeline, tackling homelessness, etc.), we need to see the connections between Madison and Ferguson. For example, how do we as a community understand that police violence, poverty, and mass incarceration are all linked and are all forms of state violence? The more I learned, the more obvious it became that I and other members and leaders of Freedom Inc. needed to go Ferguson.
Freedom Inc. is a grassroots collective and nonprofit with a mission to end violence within and against low-income communities of color. We do this work by building the leadership and community organizing capacities of women, queer folks, and young folks from those communities. Freedom Inc. gathered a group of women and young queer Black and Hmong leaders and set out for Ferguson.
I set out to Ferguson with these goals in mind: (1) support the local rebellion and movement, (2) strengthen the connections between Ferguson and Madison, and (3) learn about and participate in creating political strategy that will ultimately end police violence against Black communities and lead to deep sociopolitical change for the Black community.
Over the course of the last months, Freedom Inc.’s young Black and Hmong queer organizers have gone to Ferguson four times to participate in the rebellion and movement. We answered the call of the young leaders in Ferguson to go home and do it in our own city. Returning to Madison, we began building a solidarity campaign—forming alliances and building the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition. Our work begins to connect the dots: What are the experiences of the Black communities here? How are Black communities being impacted by police violence? State violence?
Currently, we are engaged in a direct action campaign to increase awareness of state violence against Black communities and to (1) stop the building of a new jail, (2) secure the immediate release of 350 Black folks, incarcerated due to crimes of poverty, and (3) see funds invested in Black communities led by young Black folks, so that we have a resource for creating our own human rights solutions to the oppression we face. In the process of building our own movement here in Madison, in a majority white city, we have been tasked with challenging white folks to address these issues as their own. In other words, how do we inspire people to take up the fight and see too that their humanity is bound with ours? And to focus on a more specific issue relevant to this piece: How do we engage our non-Black, queer counterparts, so that they understand how the freedom and lives of Michael Brown and Eric Garner—Black lives—matter to them?
If you can, imagine how I have been filled with emotion—rage, hurt, confusion—when non-Black queer folks disregard the murder of Michael Brown, with rhetoric such as “It is not a queer issue.” Was the way that I had been personally impacted not proof enough of it being a queer issue? Were the hundreds and thousands of Black queer folks who took to the streets not proof enough that it was a queer issue? Were the countless murders of Black queer folks by police violence, the same violence that murdered Michael Brown, not proof enough that this too is a queer issue?
I offer the following:
1. Anytime there is an issue of body safety and the right to live free of violence, it is a queer issue. The murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Tarika Wilson, and Aiyana Jones are all the result of historical, cultural, and systemic violence against Black bodies, in these cases by the police, that devalue and dehumanize Black folks. We as queer people are also devalued and dehumanized, and violence is targeted at us interpersonally, culturally, and systemically. I am not equating race oppression to queer oppression but rather offering a human rights framework that says that anyone—Black, queer, undocumented, etc., anyone—has the right to walk down the street, stand outside, carry Skittles, sit at home with our children, and not be murdered. If we believe that these are our rights as queer folks, because we are human, then they must too be the rights of Black folks, because we are human. Therefore it is our obligation as queer folks, those who are fighting for freedom and whose lives are also threatened by oppression, to be outraged by these murders.
2. Anytime there is an issue of gender performance or presentation, we queer folks must undertake it as our own. Though it may not be explicitly stated, many of the Black men killed have been thought of as being overly masculine or hypermasculine, and therefore aggressive. The dress and demeanor of Black men is also made criminal, and that is seen as warranting their murders or policing. As queer folks who fight adamantly for the rights and diversity of gender presentation and performance, this analysis and fight must extend to Black folks. We will not win our fight if we validate only the gender presentations in drag, for example, but not of those who sag or wear hoodies as a way of presenting our gender. We must principally stand against all the criminalization and violence toward people whose gender and/or gender presentation or performances are seen as deviant or unacceptable by dominant power structures. We must also broaden our analysis and undertake a human rights approach.
3. Queer people are Black, too. Perhaps this is the most obvious of the points, but it is worth stating. All queer folks have race, class–identities. None of us stop being any of these other identities and exist only as queer. Therefore, if we are going to fight for the justice and liberation of all queer people, this must include liberation for Black folks as well. Many of the folks leading the fight, and acting as a vanguard, are young, Black, and queer—both locally and nationally, including the leaders of #BlackLivesMatter and the uprising in Ferguson. Folks are fighting for the fullness of their lives to be valued—both the queer and the Black parts—inseparably. In fact, if we do not take seriously the work of ending racism, then the lives of the countless queer Black folks killed will continue to go unnoticed and unvalued.
There are several other reasons we as queer folks must see the struggles in Ferguson and elsewhere—Black liberation—as integral to queer justice and liberation. To learn more, please contact us at Freedom Inc. We are in a critical hour, when we must choose a side, because history proves that there is no neutrality. We as queer folks must be on the side of human rights and freedom for all, and therefore be unwavering and unapologetic in our commitment to Black liberation.
“If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.” —James Baldwin to Angela Davis
M’s other work on this subject, “Foward From Ferguson,” will be available for sale at Rainbow Bookstore or directly from the author.