The Role of Accountability in Building Power for Black Liberation

One of the best quotes I’ve heard in the last year of attending several workshops, direct actions, and conferences is:

Oppression is deeply complex; we can expect our pathways to liberation to be just as complex.

Although I don’t remember the name of the person who said this, it has stuck with me in my experiences of facilitating consciousness in various spaces and participating in the movement to build power for black liberation ever since. What I think particularly stands out to me in this evolving #BlackLivesMatter movement is the role of fostering a deep sense of accountability in the innovative and holistic spirit of creative strategic engagement for social transformation. This call for accountability is exemplified in Alicia Garza’s piece, A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement. I first discussed this piece in an article written last December for this blog. Since the writing of that piece, I have had plenty of opportunities to engage with the question I ended it on, “What’s Next?”

Alicia Garza

As we see the political projects of the #BlackLivesMatter movement maintaining national attention and (more importantly) gaining traction across grassroots collective organizing efforts, there is an ongoing need to mitigate the harmful effects of co-optation as it inevitably occurs. It is clear that in many ways the movement’s “hotness” is shaping and prompting more programming and generative work within progressive networks on racial and economic justice issues. However, there is a danger that happens when the language of a movement is adopted, but not the full fierce analysis behind it. Time and time again, this is how the reproduction of cultural hegemony takes place in movements for social justice which is ultimately dis-enabling. As Garza states,

In 2014, hetero-patriarchy and anti-Black racism within our movement is real and felt. It’s killing us and it’s killing our potential to build power for transformative social change. When you adopt the work of queer women of color, don’t name or recognize it, and promote it as if it has no history of its own such actions are problematic.

Within this call to be accountable to the legacies of queer black leadership in this movement and the historical and political framework set out by its creators, there is great potential for building mass participation in the work for black liberation in ways that are radically intersectional and deeply accountable to those most impacted by the violence of marginalization. Those with more access to power and resources often have more opportunities to shape public discourse than the people involved at the grassroots level. We must allow for multiple voices to take up space and disrupt this patterning in order to continue to root the work in the contributions of the organizers and the historic contributions of invisibilized collaborators in past movements for collective liberation.

Some recent, particularly impressive, disruptions of co-optive behavior that I witnessed this year occurred at the Creating Change conference on LGBTQ Equality in Denver, CO on the week of February 5, 2015. In the wake of the murder of Jessie Hernandez at the hands of Denver police, a group of queer and transgender people of color (QTPOC) organizers took over the stage and demanded that the LGBTQ movement shift its focus from access and privilege to ending state-sanctioned violence against queer and transgender people and to hire more transgender women of color in leadership positions. This protest ultimately blocked the speaking engagement of the Denver mayor, which was called out as ‘hypocritical’ given the prevalence of state violence in the city, which has the second highest rate of police killings in the country.

Following this direct action was a conversation called, Ferguson On Our Minds between the Executive Director of Race Forward and the Executive Director of Color of Change. There was a co-optive tension to this dialogue because several young LGBT activists from Ferguson were present at the conference, as well as the three queer black women who started the #BlackLivesMatter platform and neither group was asked to speak during this opening plenary conversation.

Despite the amazing work and contributions of both Executive Directors, there was this undertone of organizational clout in that dialogue and a downplaying of the trans-led action that had just taken place before the plenary discussion, which did receive a brief thanks for “keeping the movement accountable”. The next day, the conference organizers invited the Ferguson activists to speak before the State of the Movement Address, but they were only allotted 5 minutes. Instead, they took over the stage for over a half an hour and invited black trans people in the audience to take up space in that moment as well.

At a conference attended by over 4,000 people and in a movement that has been heavily and rightly critiqued by queer and trans people of color organizers, it was so potent to see a consistent string of events where folks were confronting the “business as usual” within this movement for social transformation. Soon after I returned from the conference, I was told that it is a sign of maturity when the left, right, and center of a movement becomes visible. As we move forward in divesting from these systems and ways of being in relation to one another that do not serve us, I hope that we are willing to shed all that we must along the pathways to get free.

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