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Black Lives Matter Allies in Change

Interview by Margi Clarke and Preeti Shekar

In September 2015, Reimagine! invited five Bay Area activists to discuss how their organizations and communities relate to the Movement for Black Lives.  Our wide-ranging discussion lasted over 90 minutes.  You can listen online at: reimaginerpe.org/radio. Below we share some edited excerpts of the conversation, organized by speaker.

© Asians4BlackLivesChinese Progressive Association - Alex Tom

What does a good ally look like?
I think a lot of the people who are on the streets right now in different communities of color have a lot of outrage in knowing how Black folks are being systematically killed, one every 28 hours.

For us, the support looks similar to what we’ve done in the past, to today when Black liberation [work] has reached a peak. We see solidarity as part of our historical trajectory. The Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) has been on the frontlines with Black folks from the 70s and on, from the Black Panther Party to many other Black-led movements

Asians 4 Black Lives is living in that legacy of solidarity in a new form. So, for myself being a member of Asians 4 Black Lives and also the executive director of CPA, it’s come in a lot of different forms. With Asians 4 Black Lives, we have developed protocols and principles around how to show our solidarity. (See resources at end of article.)

And that’s been really important on how we show our solidarity on the streets, and how we organize our own folks and to really do the hard work of talking about anti-Black racism in our own community, while addressing the fact that the right-wing really exploits our divisions and uses them as a divide-and-conquer strategy to uphold racism and white supremacy.

Seeding Change, one of CPA’s national projects, organized a call with Black Lives Matter and the Southeast Asian Freedom Network, and within two weeks, we got over 800 people on a webinar to talk about Black-Asian solidarity.

It was surprising for us to see a new sector, a new layer of the community—mostly young people, in high school and college, and people who are working professionally—had so many questions about what to do in this moment. Of course, we didn’t have all the answers, but with Alicia [Garza], Patrisse [Cullors], and members of the Southeast Asian community and South Asian communities, we are coming together to really talk. This is the moment for us to struggle together and think about the moment as a way to advance liberation because it’s all connected.

The thrust for Asians 4 Black Lives is naming, specifically, the reasons for Asians to be in solidarity. Especially in the Bay Area (where the Asian American population is over 25 percent), we feel our responsibility is to respond to the call from the Black community for Asian folks to literally and figuratively put their bodies on the line.

How do you challenge anti-Black racism?
I think that there are multiple fronts around anti-Black racism that happen in the [Asian] community. On one level, it is a system issue, because of gentrification and the displacement of Black folks that are leaving San Francisco that are being replaced by primarily Chinese and Asian families. There is a lot of tension between Black and Asian folks.

It has been historic, in the sense of the last 10 to 15 years that this has happened. Now the Black population is about 3 percent in San Francisco, probably half of them are locked up in county jail. So you can see that with these tensions, systemically, people are pitted against each other, and that is a challenge that we face all the time.  There is an increase of Black-on-Asian violence because there’s a perception that Asian immigrants are coming into the neighborhood. So that’s on one level.

The other level is that there is anti-Black racism in general in the community as well. So this is ingrained in society: perceptions of Africa, African Americans, Black folks. There is a historical pattern of immigrants that come to this country who don’t know about the contributions of Black folks in this country fighting for freedom and how that has really expanded liberation and freedom for all people.

What we try to do is a lot of political education: just studying history and sharing in a popularized way, understanding the right to vote or where people get their services, and connecting the different histories that we’ve had in the past. Black Liberation also lifts the voices of the marginalized in our own community (for example, Arab, Muslim, queer, trans, Southeast, and South Asian folks) in defining what it means to be “Asian American.”

Because the Asian American community and Asian immigrant community will consistently be about a third recent-immigrant for the next period of time, this is going to be an important ongoing role for us. For the grassroots organizations that exist in the communities, our job is to talk to our people in a way that’s compassionate and is going to build unity, but also to really address the anti-Black racism that does exist as well.

So it’s not an easy task and it’s something that’s going to continue for a very long time. I would say with some folks who have been in the country longer, who are maybe younger or who have been exposed to understanding what’s happening in other communities and Black communities, there is a huge opportunity to agitate them and bring them onto the streets. We can do both at the same time, right? That’s what’s really important.

The last thing I will say is that it’s really important to, in the work, just have community and have space with Black folks and Asian folks coming together, not always on the streets, but to basically be able to break bread together. I’m talking about our grassroots members being able to talk to other mothers and to hear their stories, and when they hear about violence that’s happening in their community, they can actually talk about their experiences and be able to have a way of using stories as a way to carry a compelling narrative.

What’s your vision for the future?
We are in the belly of the beast, and I feel like many of us as organizers—young people and folks who have been oppressed—we have been robbed of our ability to imagine and robbed of our ability to even dream. I want to see a society that can shift from centering capital and capitalism, to our human development.

How that relates to this conversation is that the idea of solidarity and allyship is sometimes,  in U.S. context, very siloed and static. Yet we can build a society that can be transformed and where we are transformed as individuals. Things would not be so rigid. It would be dynamic, it would be fluid, it would be actually normalized that we are one: that we do not need to say, “I’m an ally of this, and I’m an ally of that.”  Solidarity is needed when you’re transforming society, and transforming culture, and transforming yourself. n

Alex T. Tom is a member of Asians4BlackLives and the executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association in San Francisco.  Alex is also the co-founder of Seeding Change, a center for Asian American movement building, and is a new father.


© 2014 MUA Mujeres Unidas y Activas - Karina Muñiz

When and why did you start working with Black Lives Matter?
When the decision came out around Trayvon Martin and the Black Lives Matter movement began, we began to think about how to show up. One of the major shifts that happened for us really was when Alicia Garza wrote an article called “Herstory” for The Feminist Wire in October 2014 (www.thefeministwire.com/2014/10/) and to me, that really hit home and really made us think.

One of the things that it called out and made important was that it’s really easy for us within the Latina/Latino community to jump on this bandwagon of “Black Lives Matter,” to say Black and Brown Lives Matter. That’s true, but this was/is about being in solidarity for Black Lives, and stepping up as allies. What does that look like? What does it mean in terms of anti-Black racism within our own communities and how do we address that?

So we realized that solidarity for Black communities and solidarity around supporting Black liberation, meant deepening our work and looking inward at our communities and addressing racial hierarchies that exist within the Latina/o communities and addressing real tensions and racial divides. The way we started doing this was by doing political education in our groups at our general meetings, and in our leadership and facilitators trainings.

How do you challenge anti-Black racism?
We felt like it was important to start with Afro-Latina/o history in the Americas—to both understand the root causes of anti-Black racism from our countries of origin, where many times Black experience has been rendered invisible, and to highlight and learn about Black communities throughout the Americas. We also began with speaking about personal experiences within our families. This has created a space for self-reflection, and an opening to transform. From there we talk about socio-political context within the United States, and what solidarity for Black lives and racial justice as a whole looks like for us here.
Anti-Black racism also shows up within Latina/o communities by how whiteness within the community is privileged over dark skin, with Black being at the bottom. It shows up in assumptions, stereotypes, and fear based on skin color and not on an overall understanding of systemic structural racism and white supremacy.

How has MUA moved this work forward?
As a result of our internal leadership trainings and open discussions around race, we’ve been able to respond and integrate this into our work. For example, when Freddie Gray was killed, we moved into action. We put up a solidarity statement and did it in English and Spanish, to make visible where we stood as an organization. It’s not static and finite because the real tragedy of all this, as we know, is that there are so many different times when we need to speak up and raise our voices, and be in solidarity with BLM movement and leaders at the intersections as women, migrants and queer communities.

Karina Muniz is a Xicana writer and political director of MUA , a Latina immigrant rights organization with a double mission of personal self-transformation and building community power through social justice.


© 2014 Josh Warren White Bay Area Solidarity Action Team - Megan Swoboda

When and why did you start working with Black Lives Matter?

The Bay Area Solidarity Action Team (BASAT) formed last year, was mobilized to support the Black Friday 14  folks who shut down our subway system here in the Bay Area on the day after Thanksgiving. That was sort of the driving force.

We asked, “What do you want white people to be doing right here, right now, in the Bay Area?” The answer was: to really turn up.

With our Ruckus Society connections to direct action training and support communities, the request was really specific for us:

  • Use those skills and experience, use that white privilege for the movement for Black liberation and Black Lives Matter. 
  • Really help escalate the movement at that moment, and show that white folks can’t just sit idle.

BASAT turned into a vehicle for affinity groups to use white solidarity to take direct action that pinpoints white supremacy and supports the movement for Black liberation.  Sometimes we take the lead on coordinating actions from A to Z; sometimes we’re working closely with Black Lives Matter groups or multiracial tactical teams in executing direct actions. And other times we’re being asked to just plug in folks to participate in the actions on the ground.

How do you challenge anti-Black racism?
We wanted to call out how the anti-Black racism in our country is particularly [expressed through] police violence. Supposedly, it’s in the name of safety of white folks that the police carry out their mission of brutality and murder.

[T]his idea of “safety for white folks” is embedded in police in a systemic way. They argue for raising police budgets, and to increase police beats, and all of that in the name of safety. The safety that they’re talking about is the safety of white people, so we need to combat these ideas of what safety really is.

One of the things we’ve been trying to combat through our actions is the issue of people turning Black Lives Matter into “all lives matter,” the invisibilizing, decentralizing, and denying of Black experience specifically and trying to insert white lives and all lives. We highlight how problematic that is and how much it hurts the movement and ourselves as well.

What’s your vision for the future?
We seek dismantling white supremacy, capitalism, and working towards total prison abolition. Like our friends at the Catalyst Project and Ruckus Society, and lots of others of course, we talk about collective liberation, and I think that’s really the heart of it. [We know] the history of how the Black community’s fights and struggles for justice have really uplifted everyone across history and will continue to. This is an extremely important part of the road to collective liberation. We need to lift up Black Lives and do everything we can to make everyone free.

Megan Swoboda organizes with BASAT, works at the Center for Story-based Strategy, plays trumpet with the Brass Liberation Orchestra, and is a member of The Ruckus Society where she served on staff for eight years.


© 2014 SURJ Showing Up For Racial Justice - Felicia Gustin

When and why did SURJ start working with Black Lives Matter?
SURJ Bay Area is the local chapter of Showing Up For Racial Justice, a national network of approximately 100 chapters and affiliate organizations around the country all working to organize white people to work for racial justice.

SURJ creates a space for people who are brand new to racial justice work and, in some cases, new to movement work, who are outraged about what they’re seeing happening in this historic moment in this country and are becoming aware and awakening in terms of their own consciousness to the attacks on Black lives, and racism and white supremacy in general.

In terms of our local chapter, we’re creating the infrastructure to channel a lot of the energy as well as work to develop white people’s political education.

There have been local actions where SURJ members turn out for vigils, such as for Sandra Bland or after the killings in Charleston. Most recently, we’ve been working on a more focused canvassing campaign working in conjunction with the Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP), going door to door talking to people about the case of Yuvette Henderson, who was killed by the Emeryville Police earlier this year.

We talk to people about the militarization of police and call on them to pressure the city council and the mayor to demilitarize the police and stop having military hardware within the police department. We’re also distributing Black Lives Matter window signs and lawn signs and asking folks to put those out and take a stand.

Our goal as a national organization is to engage seven million white people in the next seven years to work for racial justice. Little by little we’re going to do this.

At the national level, SURJ has an accountability council and relationships are formalized with Black-led organizations to provide accountability and direction in terms of what we’re doing.

SURJ as an organization is also committed to everything we raise financially, half of the money goes to Black-led organizations. .

In the long run, how can we dismantle racism?

It’s a deep question, you know? Personally, I’ve had the benefit of having some of my political development take place outside of this country and within a socialist reality, having lived and worked in Cuba for many years. So that informs me and who I am and how I view the world, which is unique to my experience, and I think each of us have unique experiences.

While we’re specifically talking today about racial justice, I don’t believe we can truly have racial justice, economic justice, or justice for any community—women, LGBT folks, whatever—without really transforming our society as a whole. What will that look like? I can’t answer that. I’m not a theorist. I’m not a philosopher. Like I said, I’ve gotten a glimpse of what the future can look like and it was pretty damn exciting.

Felicia Gustin is a long-time activist in racial justice, international solidarity, and labor movements. She’s on the Coordinating Committee of SURJ Bay Area ([email protected]), as well as BASAT and is co-director of SpeakOut.



© Cy WagonerBlack Alliance for Just Immigration - Devonté Jackson

When and why did you start working with Black Lives Matter?
I’m the Bay Area organizer for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI). My boss is Opal Tometi, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter. Immigrant rights have always been a part of our work, and though most African Americans have citizenship, we are treated as second-class citizens in this country.  We do a lot of work to empower Black immigrants and African Americans to unite to work towards Black liberation.

There’s a lot of Black folks in this political moment, looking to do intentional building amongst Black people. I know, in the Bay Area Black Lives Matter chapter, it’s an all-Black space, and folks really value that because oftentimes we’re marginalized in spaces. So having a Black space has been important, and  I think there’s been a lot of hesitancy around the alliance-building work.

What makes a good ally?
I guess there’s been several actions and things that we can refer to. For example, on September 11, we had an action against Urban Shield, which is a SWAT team training, a special weapons exposition. It was a multi-racial-action in which Black Lives Matter played a leadership role. 

One of the best practices in allyship is being patient. It takes a while to develop strategy and when Black folks are at the lead in developing so much strategy in the area, it’s just easy for us to get overwhelmed. So I think it’s being patient in response time, while also preparing for rapid response because often times we don’t have a very long lead-time, and we have to act quickly. So I think folks who are patient and who are rigorous in thinking about how to prepare are good allies.

I think other good practitioners are folks who are authentic in the work—make it enjoyable. I have a lot of experience working with white folks. Before my work with BAJI, I worked in a labor union which had predominantly white staff, and I think what characterized a lot of relationships in the organizing world with white folks would be like a transactional relationship, something really based on extraction, how we can produce things together instead of a genuine transformational relationship, really getting into solidarity.

When the work doesn’t feel like work, when folks are really moving with our personalities, and our vibes more than concrete needs and next steps for each other, I think the work is more productive and meaningful when we have those genuine, authentic relationships. I really value that those authentic, genuine relationships are being built right here in the Bay Area.

How do you challenge anti-Blackness?
Of course, anti-Blackness is inherent in U.S. society, and Black folks definitely internalize oppression and that manifests in many ways in our community. I think [you can see it in] some of the larger conversation around tactics in the Black community. There has been a lot of discussion and debate about whether or not Black Lives Matter strategists, organizers have been doing the right tactics. There’s been some policing around respectability politics that are going on within our own community. So there’s that level of what we’re dealing with—internalized oppression. Then just in the day-to-day dealing with anti-Blackness in the world, and how that manifests in organizing, in movement building work, is challenging as well.

In terms of anti-Blackness in “allied” communities—I want to put “allied” in quotation marks—the impact it has made is that some Black folks are very hesitant to want to do alliance-building.

So there’s only a few folks who actually do a lot of multicultural coalition-building work. Then there’s a lot of folks who are just sticking within the Black community, and there’s a large need to focus and put intentional effort into organizing and building within our own communities.

What’s your vision for the future?
In the long-term, we are dismantling the systems of white supremacy and capitalism and replacing those systems with things rooted in justice, love and self-determination. That’s really a social revolution that we’re talking about, replacing systems of oppression. That’s this deep work that we’re in and committed to.

Also, in thinking about transforming systems, we have to look at the prison system and think about abolition. Think about how to make our communities safe in ways that don’t police our communities and criminalize our communities. An overall reimagining of safety and community is what we’re really out to do. This is about transforming systems of oppression, which really is thinking about social revolution in the U.S.

Devonté Jackson is the Bay Area Organizer for BAJI. He grew up in Oakland, San Leandro and San Lorenzo, and is passionate in addressing social and economic inequality in the Bay Area. Devonté has organized with AFSCME Local 3299 and with students across California on labor issues within the University of California system.


Action/Mobilization
Ferguson Action: www.fergusonaction.com
Campaign Zero:  www.joincampaignzero.org
Black Alliance for Just Immigration: www.blackalliance.org
Catalyst Project for Collective Liberation: www.collectiveliberation.org/
White Noise Collective: www.conspireforchange.org
Until We Are All Free: www.untilweareallfree.com

Ally Resources
Protocols and principles for people working to support the Black liberation movement:

BASAT: https://baysolidarity.wordpress.com/2014/12/19/protocolandprinciples/
SURJ: www.showingupforracialjustice.org/accountability
Asians 4 Black Lives: https://a4bl.wordpress.com/who-we-are/

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