The killing of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man, by two white men in Georgia received little attention in February. But in early May, after a video circulated, it became big news, fueling protests across the nation.
"It's heartbreaking. It is 2020. And this was a lynching of an African American man,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said this week.
Social justice activists are now assessing how to mobilize while adhering to the constraints imposed during this pandemic. Opal Tometi, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, has been thinking about the role of the activist movement in a post-pandemic world.
“Nothing will ever replace human beings gathering together,” she says.
Since its creation, Black Lives Matter has used the internet and social media to share and connect with others with the goal of mobilizing an in-person movement, Tometi says. Despite stay-at-home orders, she says the virtual movement to bring awareness to Arbery’s case has been “heartening in this time.”
“Despite the fact that we're in the midst of this pandemic, we saw this amazing movement for justice for Ahmaud emerge, where people were running for Ahmaud,” she says. “They were doing all that they could to elevate his name.”
A similar online movement has formed around the recent death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT in Louisville, Kentucky, who was killed by police in her home.
Protests for Arbery have been happening throughout the country, where people are gathering in person to say “enough is enough,” she says. Tometi says people at these gatherings have been following social distancing guidelines and wearing masks.
“They're being very safe as they do it,” she says. “And I think that's important. I think that's going to be some of what we see here in the future and we're not going to stop gathering and demanding change.”
On how Black Lives Matter has used digital activism since 2013
“It was so important for us to start utilizing social media because we knew that we needed spaces where we could be unapologetic about who we are, about what our concerns were. And so true to previous social movements, the civil rights movement and beyond, we are making use of whatever the tools are at our disposal for that given time. It's not too dissimilar from what maybe a [Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] would have done with a newspaper or television and beyond. We're just using the means that we have for our time to make similar concerns to those of our ancestors known.”
On the disproportionate amount of black Americans who have become sick or died from COVID-19
“What I'm seeing come out from this large racial justice movement is that there are many different groups highlighting the fact that this isn't just happenstance or because we're negligent or doing something wrong, but we do have systemic issues in this society that allow for black people to be impacted in this very acute way. And it's really disturbing. I know people who have passed away as a result of this virus, and it's something that I think we could have predicted. But to see it firsthand, it's been very, very difficult. But, yes, our movements are definitely speaking up about this or doing all that we can from mobilizing online to getting together in person to organizing mutual aid and just being very creative about how we show up for one another.”
On BLM being called a terrorist organization
“It's been so disturbing to see how black organizers and people who have the right and we know we have the right to speak out and to name injustice in our community and assert our dignity, that we're being mislabeled, that our message is being manipulated and misconstrued on purpose for an agenda that is rooted in white supremacy and racism. And we know that this has happened to many human rights leaders before us. You have your Martin Luther King Jr., you have your Rosa Parks, you have various leaders over the years who their actions have been maligned. And they weren't necessarily the most popular people in their generation, but history proves them right. They knew that they were right and they had the moral high ground. And it's been disturbing to see that even decades later, the lessons of those times haven't really been applied and haven't really been learned. And we're seeing the same type of malignment of our movements as well. And it puts us in danger when we are the ones who are trying to make peace. They target us. They troll us. They try to put our private information online. And we have to take our own precautions to ensure our safety in this time and beyond.”
On what the future holds for BLM
“What I see as what's next for our social movements is that we continue to grow, that [people] continue to feel safe joining organizations. It doesn't even have to be the formal network that we have. But there are many different groups across the country that are doing such phenomenal work. We think it's important that at the local level, people get involved.
"We have an opportunity right now to transform the way things are done. We've seen some wins over the years and we need to see a fundamental transformation of our democracy. And so there are 351 people who have been fatally shot by police just this year. And that's despite this pandemic. And it's not just about the police brutality, and I think that's what people also are getting, they understand that issues of racism cut across all the spheres of our lives, including the health care sector as we're seeing. I'm encouraging people to continue to pay attention and to make sure that their voices and their concerns are known. I think even as the elections are coming up, we have an opportunity to mobilize and encourage folks to get out the vote. And we're going to need us. We need all of us to show up and transform our nation.”
This segment aired on May 14, 2020.