Written by: Cazembe Jackson, Black Lives Matter — Atlanta
When #BLM’s Director of Communications, Shanelle Matthews, asked if I could go to the UK for a week to speak about how BLM is organizing in the States, I felt extremely honored and apprehensive. My passport said male for the gender, but I hadn’t had top surgery. I didn’t think I would “pass” and cis gender (non trans). I was scared of being the recipient of transphobia without my community there to protect me.
Opportunities to represent my political home overseas don’t come along every day so I said yes, and began mentally preparing to travel as a nonbinary-presenting trans person.
Because I said yes, I have been reminded again and again that we do have community that is capable of taking care of us, and willing to do so. In fact, I had just gotten my first passport, with my affirming gender, in January 2017 because Trans(forming), SNaP Co., LaGender, Inc. and Lambda Legal, working together, sponsored a clinic to help trans folks get their affirming genders on their passports. They even paid the processing fees!
I also got to pick a person to come with me, and I chose Prentis Hemphill, #BLM’s Director of Healing Justice. They were the BEST travel companion.
National Union of Students (NUS), the group that brought me to London, invited me to represent Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives on a panel titled, “Trump, Brexit and Beyond.”. I focused on how Trump came to power in the US, and spoke about the strategy the New Confederacy implemented in building a racist, xenophobic, homophobic, sexist, and capitalist electoral college that elected Trump, even when he failed to win the popular vote. I also spoke about the dangers of having a movement that focuses solely on resisting Trump’s administration.
Now is the time to be building a united front that is based on an intersectional, disciplined political line that can truly lead the development of an alliance on the left. Our work must have a foundation that is a combination of the multi-national working people’s movements and oppressed nationality movements. We have to start seeing issues that seem to belong to other marginalized groups as our own issues. An attack on Muslims is an attack on all oppressed groups, and we must defend all oppressed people.
I spoke about lessons I felt #BLM organizing has taught us. Some of them were that while direct action gets the goods, we must also fight on the offensive. Social media is a great tool that mobilizes millions of people, but cannot be used alone to organize people. Cultural organizing is more than singing at the beginning of the meeting or playing a game at the end. Cultural organizing has deep roots in the Black American struggle for freedom, going as far back as the slavery abolition movement.
The NUS panel included Gary Younge, Yasser Louati and Malia Bouattia, who all spoke of the need for international solidarity to combat a rise of right-wing populism happening globally and almost identically in our respective countries. Yasser spoke about the fact that France had been the laboratory for anti-Semitism and now was the lab for Islamophobia. He used this as way to explain why we all have to defend each other. That if they come for you first they will come for us next. Malia reminded us that the politics of Trump are present in the UK today, and that Trump AND May are building walls and targeting immigrants, despite the fact that migrants are in both countries largely due to our presence in their countries.
We found out shortly after arriving in London that Parliament was about to vote on whether or not to let EU immigrants stay, since the UK already voted to leave the EU. Folks on the left in London called an emergency rally in front of Parliament the day of the vote, my second full day in London. The organizers of the rally wanted BLM to speak. I of course said yes. I spoke about the need for us to all be in solidarity with each other, that we are stronger together. That means a Muslim ban must be a queer and Black issue, and a Black and queer issue must be a Muslim one. This is why when Trump signed the executive order banning Muslims, BLM activists were at the airport demonstrations with everyone else. This rally was for EU immigrants, but I said I support the right for all people to be able to move freely. I led them in one of my favorite chants: “Our communities are under attack! What do we do? Stand up! Fight back!” It was a really powerful experience to actually practice being in international solidarity with folks fighting the same fight as us.
Yasser, Prentis and I also went on somewhat of a speaking tour to a few colleges (high schools) and universities. I mostly talked about organizing strategies that BLM members are trying out here in the States, including the following highlights of how we are loving on each other and healing ourselves as we fight:
- Queer folks getting married before inauguration day
- Building genuine community, sharing meals, and raising kids together
- Making sure that trans and gender nonconforming (GNC) folks know that the space is safe for them, whether the purpose is a meeting or an action
- Respecting people’s pronouns, including explaining what they are and why they are important and defending trans people when they are misgendered (if the trans person wants that)
- Resting, relaxing, and resilience, including projects such as Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity (BOLD) and Highlander Research and Education Center
- Rejecting volunteerism (the idea that movement requires you to donate ALL of your time in order for us to get free)
- Holding each other accountable to regular and consistent self-care
- Giving grace when mistakes are made, holding folks accountable, and then welcoming them back into the family
In these talks, I was tasked with explaining how and why I organize the way that I do. I identify as a “Southern Black Queer Nonbinary Trans Man” in my bio. People didn’t understand why it was important to include “Southern.” I explained that being a Black Southern organizer meant something. We have been fighting the New Confederacy for decades in the South. It’s deeper than that though. The history of slavery and Jim Crow is still very present in the South — and still visible in Confederate flags and lingering whites only signs. The South was and is the heart of every movement for The Black American freedom struggle. When the south wins, we all do.
But what stands out to me is the way we build relationships in the South. We know the folks we organize with. We go to church with them. We send our kids to the same schools. So if we need to boycott a bus system or Uber, for example, we will have relationships with folks and will know who needs a ride and how to get them set up. The history of the Black American freedom struggle is also a history of Black spirituality. I was born and raised in a Missionary Baptist tradition that used spirituality as a way to sustain, a way to keep a moral compass, and a way to endure the evils of white supremacy and capitalism and fight them and win. I organize at the intersection of faith, race, gender, class and sexuality. All of those parts have been equally influential in shaping my unique style of organizing.
At the University of Leeds, a student asked me what I meant when I said organizing with Black Lives Matter has informed my politic and how I treat myself. My answer surprised even me. I said that learning to talk to Black people about why their lives matter forced me to recognize that my own Black life matters. Knowing that my life matters means I have to speak up and be a part of building strategies to get us free. I can no longer sit back and let other folks figure it out because I feel like am still new to this. None of us are new to being Black, or poor, or otherwise marginalized. Experience plus theory is the breeding ground for true leadership. When you believe that you matter, you look and act differently. The resulting behavior is part of why people want to be a part of this movement.
We also took a trip to Brixton, a historically Black part of London. My favorite part of Brixton was the market. There were so many different nations represented — from French coffee and pastries to Nigerian vegan sandwiches. I had a really great conversation with a female Somali shop owner. I told her I was here from the States to stand in solidarity with Muslim immigrants and their right to stay. She opened up and told me about her family’s history in the UK. They had been in the country for over 30 years, and will be among the folks who will have to leave because of Parliament’s vote. She knew about the Muslim ban that Trump ordered also. She said that this wasn’t new for her. Being a Black woman immigrant who is also a Muslim had provided her with enough experiences to expect folks to always target her. Yet, she and her sisters and cousins owned this amazing African fabrics store and are giving so much culture to London. Another store called “Chip Shop” Had walls spray painted with hip hop legends — Eazy-E, Jam Master J, Biggie, Pac and more.
David Rosenberg gave us a private tour of historic Cable Street in the East End of London, a street made famous by the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 between the Police, members of the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosley, and basically a united front of anti-fascist demonstrators. The alliance of anti-fascists included local Jewish, Irish, socialist, anarchist and communist groups. Mosely planned a march to go through their neighborhoods to basically trash talk them. The Jewish and Irish folks lived in the same neighborhood, but on different parts of the street. They had to be taught to hate each other and not work together. (Sound familiar?) But the anti-fascists fought back and they won! Not only did they win, but there is a huge mural that was painted as a celebration of the victory right in between the two neighborhoods on Cable Street.
It was amazing to hear this story and be reminded that fascism is not new and Trump and May are not original. If we can study what has happened in other periods, we will be able to make accurate predictions on what they Trump and May will try. When we get good at that, we can start to build offensive movements that not only resist, but that also build new systems for the world we are fighting for. It was a blessing to hear about a time when fascism and right-wing populism was on the rise and the people won!!!!!!
During a heavier part of the trip, we went to an inquest, a judicial hearing to determine the cause of death when people die in police custody. We listened, along with a courtroom full of people, to a white cop talk about how he killed this Black man. He kept saying how phenomenally strong and big Mr. Olaseni Lewis was. It was very similar to the way police who murder Black folks in the States describe them. Mr. Olaseni Lewis’s mother and father and other family members were there. We also met Marcia Rigg from the United Friends and Family Campaign.
When it was all over, we went to tell the mother goodbye. The whole courtroom, except the family and friends, seemed to just go on with life as if nothing important had happened. We were all moving a little slower and feeling just a little bit more tender. I hit a breaking point when I looked into Mr. Lewis’s mom’s eyes. I have seen that look of despair and hopelessness so many times. I was embarrassed by my tears and went outside. Later, I had a conversation with Marcia, whose brother was murdered while in police custody, and she made me proud of my tears. She said my tears meant that I wasn’t numb to what was happening to our people, that feeling and expressing our righteous rage is part of what would sustain us.
This trip was full of so many highlights, but meeting the Black Lives Matter UK chapter was AMAZING! It was my first time outside of the continental US. I was nervous about how everyone would get along and if our differences would make it hard for us to bond in the short time we had to share with each other. But as soon as the first hugs and smiles were exchanged we knew we were kindred. It was just like I was in Atlanta at one of the homies’ houses sharing a meal with other chapter members. We ate a beautiful vegetarian meal mainly with our fingers. We talked about so many different topics, including our work and the complications we were facing, the contradictions, the successes and the things we have learned. We fell in love with each other in a few hours. We shared rituals and practices and traditions with each other. It was in this conversation that I remembered how much my own spirituality and upbringing influenced my own rituals.
Being able to travel to London was an amazing experience. Black means something else in the UK than it does in the States. When talking with Black people in the UK, they would tell me the country that their folks are from, almost like they wore their nationalities as badges of honor. I met so many Black Muslims who were also in danger of being deported because of Brexit and its fallout.
There are experiences that I had that I can’t describe in words that you will only ever get if you leave the US. Black people need to be able to see each other surviving and thriving in different areas of the diaspora. It is then that we can see just how powerful our people are. Under every type of oppression — chattel slavery, Jim Crow, imperialism that forces immigration — we also make magic. It is the only way I can describe the connection I felt to Black people in the UK. Our ancestors and we ourselves are so magical. It’s incredible and makes perfect sense that we can all have different experiences and be from different places and still know the code. We will always be able to find our tribe, because we have turned what white supremacy planned — to kill us — into to something that only we can possess. It’s deeper than Black pride. Its Black magic.
Before leaving the UK, we talked about “political Blackness,” The idea that a group of folks may not be phenotypically Black, but have a relationship to capitalism and imperialism that is similar to the Black experience. But Blackness can’t be put on and taken off. Granted, this was my first experience with this concept, and admittedly I am in the process of learning more about it so I can develop a strong analysis on its usefulness.
Folks in the UK LOVE BLM. Many people wanted to talk to me about how to get more BLM activity going on their campuses outside of London. It’s exciting to help with the important work of building international solidarity. But we also have to be careful not to allow the way we fight anti-Blackness in the US to be exported to the UK or wherever we go in a way that erases the non American context. While folks in the UK knew all about our political landscape and the players involved, I don’t know many Americans who are well versed on the U.K. We need to be intentional about the way we build with folks so that we are understanding the context of Blackness where we are and building strategies according to that. We need more folks traveling overseas, but we also need more of them traveling to the States.
This trip forced me to take a good long look at who I am. Why do I do my work the way I do? Why is BLM my political home? I am a Southern trans man from Texas. A Black Queer Baptist A singer, storytelling, testifying, mixed gender,sensitive, asthmatic, low-faded, loving, kind, short person who loves being overdressed. But I am also courageous and confident. Not only does my life matter, but so does my voice. I am still getting used to the fact that people care what I have to say. My experience has lessons that we can all learn from.
We are better as a collective when we are all willing to be pushed to do new, scary things. We have a community that is capable of taking care of us, and willing to do so. Wherever Black people are, we have potential family there also.