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Melina Abdullah, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement’s Los Angeles chapter, spoke to 120 members of the University community in honor of Black History Month Thursday in the Campus Center Ballrooms.
Abdullah spoke about the state of American policing, highlighted various historical figures within the black community, and discussed the Black Lives Matter movement before a packed audience.
“Black Lives Matter is working for a world where black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise,” said Abdullah, who is also professor and chair of Pan-African studies at Cal State Los Angeles. “It wasn’t an accident that Wakiesh Wilson was murdered. It wasn’t an accident that Christopher Deandre Mitchell was murdered. It wasn’t an accident that Kisha Michael and Marquintan Sandlin were murdered… Those aren’t accidents.”
Black Lives Matter is a movement, not a moment, Abdullah said. When speaking, her intentions are to remind people that the struggle for black freedom is not only the responsibility and sacred duty of black people, but of non-black people as well, she added.
“In fact, it may be more your responsibility because you benefit from the structures that oppress us,” Abdullah said. “You need to do your work of betraying your privilege in toppling the systems that you think empower you, but oppress us.”
The Black Lives Matter movement began on July 13, 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted of charges and given his gun back after murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black minor targeted by racial profiling. On that day, black mothers began marching the streets. Thousands of people gathered to express their outrage as they continued to march for three days.
“All black lives matter. Black queer lives matter, black trans lives matter, black women’s lives matter, poor black folk’s lives matter, black formerly incarcerated – black incarcerated folks lives matter,” Abdullah said. “All black lives matter, and in doing that and affirming that, we reject respectability politics both in terms of whose life matters but also in how we get down.”
The Black Lives Matter movement does not believe in police reform because, typically, this reform only means feeding into a systematically oppressive system, she said. They believe in abolitionism, which she described as completely toppling the systems put in place to oppress black people, such as the incarceration system.
However, as long as there is an incarceration system in place, it should be full of the officers who murder, instead of the overwhelming amount of black people who are incarcerated today, she said.
“We have to prosecute the police who kill our people. Even though we’re abolitionists and we don’t like saying ‘send people to jail,’ if we’re going to send somebody to jail then it needs to be one of the 575 cops, or all of the 575 cops, who have murdered our folks over the last six years,” Abdullah said.
Audience members were given a chance to ask Abdullah questions afterwards. The first question was posed by an unnamed audience member, who explained that he did not understand how his brother, a police officer, contributes to the systematic oppression Abdullah referenced. He simultaneously asked if she really believed that black people are not equal enough in this day and age to oppress others.
“It’s important that when we are in an institution of higher learning you commit yourself to actually learning, not to entrenching yourself into some kind of dogma that helps you to justify what your brother does,” Abdullah said. “There’s no instance where black people have been able to engage in racism… Racism requires the power to oppress, black people as a whole do not have the power to oppress based on race, white people do.”
“This is about his [your brother’s] willingness to participate in a system that intentionally targets black people, and brown folks, for their demise,” Abdullah said. “I’m not saying it’s your brother pulling the trigger in these murders, but what I am saying is that we all have a responsibility to resist systems that are murderous.”
She went on to explain that people who try to enter into an oppressive system with the intentions to change it from within are instead changed by the system themselves. Abdullah said that intentions are pointless when they are still contributing to the oppression of her people.
Sheila Hines-Brim, aunt of Wakiesh Wilson who was murdered in police custody, attended the discussion with Abdullah. She told the story of her niece who had a mental illness and was treated unfairly, and ultimately murdered, by police officers who were there to protect each other, not the people.
“Your brother, whether you know it or not, is protecting the ones doing wrong. When your silent and not saying anything, you’re just as guilty as the ones pulling the trigger,” Hines-Brim said. “They always come up with excuses. My niece, 22 minutes of the tape missing, what happened? I’m here to say that no, I don’t like the cops. They all, now, today, wear the white uniform of the KKK.”
The emotion behind the voice of Kim Dieu, assistant professor of psychology, could be heard by everyone present in the room. She said that sitting there, she could feel in her gut how upsetting it is that nobody says anything as these issues come up in social media and news segments – the murders of black people that she equated to lynchings of the past.
“How can we live with ourselves like that?” Dieu said. “Is there hope?”
Abdullah said that in remembering those who have lost their lives to a systematically oppressive system, it can get heavy. They sometimes forget to acknowledge their victories, such as Los Angeles County’s move this month to shut down Men’s Central Jail and replace it with a mental health facility.
She also mentioned the victory of seeing five police officers lose their jobs due to injustice, as well as the resignation of Police Chief Charlie Beck of the Los Angeles Police Department.
“We have to count our wins,” Abdullah said. “Everybody here had heard of Black Lives Matter before they came into this room, that’s a victory. We keep winning.”
One last question was posed by Jonas Poggi, a sophomore political science and speech communications double major, who explained to Abdullah that within the last year, students on campus have been calling into question the cultural competency of faculty members through protest.
“My question is, as an educator yourself, what do you believe that other educators can do to advance the betterment of lives of people of color, and what can we as the student body do to best hold educators who fail to meet that standard accountable?” Poggi asked.
Demand for a real ethnic studies department, not just a program, is necessary, Abdullah said.
Knowing how to interact with others while actually understanding their stories is much more important than learning how to dissect a frog, referring to the general education requirement of a science lab, she said.
“You can demand these things, and what that will do is force you to have faculty members who are experts,” Abdullah said. “Don’t accept some watered-down version of an ethnic studies requirement where historians and English professors think that because they read James Baldwin once they get to teach you ethnic studies. Demand a real Ethnic Studies department.”
“Don’t ever just sit there. Be an ally.”
Jocelyn Arceo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.