Getting Free in Cleveland

[Savage Minds is pleased to present the last essay in the series “Making Black Lives Matter: Reflections on the Declaration and the Movement.” In the past week, events have taken place in Minneapolis and Chicago which demonstrate the need for even more fieldnote reporting and analysis of the Black Lives Matter Movement, the impact it is having in this moment of social and political transformation, and the violence these change agents are encountering from police and others. We find ourselves experiencing deja vu–a moment terribly similar to the one we experienced on November 24th last year, when the killer of Michael Brown was not indicted in Ferguson, Missouri and the streets erupted. And yet this moment is slightly different–filled with the energy, hope, persistence, and radical communal love of those that have been consistently fighting against white supremacy, anti-Black racism, and police violence for over 365 days, and are strengthened by the victories they have accomplished during this time.  We shall not be moved.

As editors of this series (and another that will be published in Anthropology News early next year), Bianca Williams and Dana-Ain Davis hope that these reflections from the ever-shifting ground of this Movement will inform you, encourage you, challenge you, and move you into action. This last essay is by Lynn Roberts, a professor of Community Health Education in the Program in Urban Public Health at Hunter College. Dr. Roberts’ research examines the intersection of race, class, and gender, and the resulting impact of multiple oppressions on the dating relationships and sexual behaviors of young women and men of color. She writes about her journey to the Movement for Black Lives Convening this past summer, and shines light on the healing process that is integral to the journey of getting free.]

My Journey.

My bus rolled into the Cleveland bus station on Chester Avenue at 2:30 AM on Saturday July 25 for Day 2[1] of the Movement for Black Lives National Convening (a.k.a. M4BL). This was a gathering of 1500 unapologetically Black family members in tremendous need and want of safe space and communion with each other to grieve, heal, and breathe from the days, months, decades, and even centuries of being denied equal protection and remedy from the state violence visited upon the collective body of our kinfolk. In the Newark bus station on Friday evening, I sat riveted by the live-stream of the M4BL Opening Ceremonies and quietly wept as the families of those lost in the distant and recent reign of terror against Black bodies[2] shared fond memories of their loved ones, so we could lift up the beautiful and precious humanity behind the hashtags and viral videos to be reminded: “This Is Why We Fight!” Calling upon the joy of resistance and ditching the pious sanctimony of my early roots in the A.M.E. Zion church[3] I imagined myself rising up out of my waiting room seat in jubilee with my fellow family members as they danced through the aisles, and filled the stage of the Waet Jen Auditorium of Cleveland State University (CSU) to Kendrick Lamar’s hip-hop anthem of blessed assurance that “We Gon’ Be Alright”.  Having this virtual connection almost made up for not directly experiencing the beloved community, strategic insights, and healing offered in the 50 workshops and film screenings that took place earlier in the day.

Mourning, Healing and Getting Free!

Despite only a few hours of sleep, I made sure I arrived early, eager to be ushered inside for the Saturday morning convening. From the moment I stepped onto the CSU campus, I fell into the warm embrace of family in much the same way we greet each other at funerals—with direct eye contact and a gentle smile or a nod of familiarity, even if not sure if or how we might be related, and a tight reassuring hug from those we do. This ritual of seeing and being seen by each other provided the affirmation that comes from knowing we are family and part of a beloved community united in envisioning and fighting for all Black lives to matter. In the truest sense, we were gathered for a national day of Black family mourning and reunion[4]. Only ten days earlier Sandra Bland had been found mysteriously hanging in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas and her funeral was being held this same day in the Chicago suburb of Lisle, Illinois. Ever mindful of “the loss that sits at the core of our work”, the M4BL Convening Team took special care to provide an “open space for seeking, practicing and receiving healing.” The team was explicit in their advance communication stipulating that this gathering would be restricted to our Black family of movement builders but I witnessed an intervention with a young white woman (accompanied by her Black partner) after she snapped and tweeted selfies during the Saturday morning convening.  The team also put forth M4BL Guiding Principles and a Community Safety plan to ensure that all family members felt safe and protected from harm and violence. It was disheartening for me to learn that a Friday night after-party at a local club was marred by violence against and inadequate protection of some of our transgender family members and bathrooms were not gender neutral and inclusive. My soul was lifted, however, whenever our Black family members lovingly took each other to task and did their part (both individually and collectively) to know and do better.

The Long Way Home.

As many of us were still departing the sanctuary of M4BL, our newly replenished spirits and collective resolve that “We Will Win!” were tested by the arrest of a 14 year-old Black youth at a bus stop just blocks away from where the closing ceremonies were held. Concerned for his safety, M4BL family members quickly mobilized a non-violent direct action that resulted in the youth being safely remanded to his mother’s custody, but not after a Cleveland Transit Police Officer had violently pepper-sprayed the crowd.[5] I spent my last moments at ML4B administering to two family members who were among those pepper-sprayed. I left filled with gratitude to be accompanied for several hours by a local resident[6] who enlisted himself to ensure my safety as I made my way back to Chester Avenue for the 10:30 PM bus home.

Afterword.

These notes reflect just an inkling of my life-long journey and this particular moment in the continuum of struggles that have given birth to and are being transformed by the Movement for Black Lives. I hesitate to share more detailed reflections on M4BL in social media, let alone in an academic journal. My reservations are multi-fold. First, I consider this private family gathering to heal from our collective grief much too sacred for public consumption. Second, I do not want to reveal even one stratagem of our organizing lest those who wish to undermine our movement have a field day at our expense. Third, as someone who identifies as a scholar activist and works in academe, I cannot separate how I conduct and where I publish my research from my existence and resistance as a Black woman in America, yet I do not wish to make a career out of it. Finally, as others have already and will continue to document this gathering of Black Love and Resistance I encourage everyone who reads this volume to know it was all of this and so much more than anyone of us can possibly tell.

[1] My promise to be present for my youngest son as he took his driver’s test (his second attempt) prevented me from participating in the first day of the M4BL Convening on Friday, July 24.

[2] Families represented included: Emmett Till, Kerry Baxter, Von Derrit Meyers, Jr., Mike Brown Jr., Kendrick Johnson, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Sr., Cary Ball Jr., Oscar Grant, Jr., Anthony May, James E. Rivera, Jr., Mario Romero, Meagan Hockaday, Jordan Davis, RaMarley Graham, Tesfaye Mokuria, Andrew Joseph III, Tamir Rice, and Tanisha Anderson.

[3] My father and both grandfathers were ministers in the A.M.E. Zion Church – the church home of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass. Despite its long history of bold and defiant resistance against state violence and oppression, I witnessed firsthand how the Freedom Church was also a place where, in the 1960s, my father was chastised by our local church elders for wanting to hold dances in the basement of the church so Black youth had a safe place to be free.

[4] For many of us, this gathering brought us into physical reach of those we have been connected with only in cyberspace, those we had not seen in ages, and those we knew from wherever we called home. We scheduled time with our kinfolk during and after the convening to share a meal, hold strategy meetings, and, depending on our generational position, to “get loose” or “turn up”.

[5] With Love: M4BL Interrupts CPD Stop and Frisk Arrest of Black Teenager. Statement of M4BL, July 27, 2015. Accessed 7/28/15: http://movementforblacklives.org/with-love/

[6] As he and I walked the gentrified streets of downtown Cleveland, there were subtle signs that this local member of our M4LB family might have been living on those same streets or in a shelter.   Before we parted, we exchanged cell phone numbers and, at his insistence, I promised to text him when I reached home, just like family.

I am a cultural anthropologist and Africana studies professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. My research includes examinations of Black women and their pursuits of happiness; the impact of Black women's emotional labor in higher education institutions and academic spaces; and Black feminist leadership studies, particularly in relation to #BlackLivesMatter.