My Silence Will Kill Me: Opal Tometi speaks on the Black Lives Matter movement

Opal Tometi poses with Jerome Clarke '17 at the annual Gondwe Lecture. Photo courtesy of Jerome Clarke

Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi with Jerome Clarke ’17 at the annual Gondwe Lecture. Photo courtesy of Jerome Clarke

By Kayla Britt, News Editor

Students, faculty and other members of the campus community flooded Mara Auditorium the evening of Oct. 8 at 5:30 p.m. to hear Opal Tometi, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, speak about the movement and its significance. Tometi is the tenth speaker to be invited to campus as part of the annual Derrick K. Gondwe Memorial Lecture series, which began in 2006 to honor the first black tenured professor at Gettysburg College.

A leader, activist and public speaker, Tometi is the child of Nigerian immigrants, and she advocates for both racial justice and immigrant rights. As such, it is fitting that she began her speech by showing “Welcome to America,” a rap song by Lecrae which depicts the reality of the American experience from different perspectives.

Tometi grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, which is considered by some to be ground zero for the anti-immigrant movement. An immigrant’s status is important, as deportation and contention are harsh realities for those who are undocumented. As Tometi herself is the child of Nigerian immigrants, she has seen family members who have struggled with their undocumented statuses.

She believes that although blacks’ culture and contributions are embraced by mainstream America, blacks’ critiques and concerns are oftentimes not embraced so seamlessly. In the wake of the shooting of Trayvon Marton and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watchman tried for his murder, Tometi created the Black Lives Matter movement to advocate for the rights of black Americans and to bring awareness to issues plaguing the black community.

Tometi describes hearing about the verdict and feeling a sense of apathy. She thought of her brother, who was about the same age as Trayvon Marton, and wondering “could that be him?” She had received countless texts and emails from friends and loved ones who were crushed by the verdict and knew something had to change. Ashley Fernandez, a senior at Gettysburg, identified with Tometi’s sense of purpose: “Her work is fueled by the love she has of her younger brother. My activist work is also fueled by the love and fear I have of my younger brother and all my friends who can at any point become a target, hashtag and another dead body.”

Tometi realized that many people are fixated on interpersonal issues as it pertains to race, but she is streamlining her focus on the bigger picture. It is systemic bias, she believes, which has a much greater impact. First, she spoke about implicit bias, which causes unconscious dehumanization. One interesting study she talked about found that in some cases, white Americans tend to view black children as being older than they are, which could have implications for perceptions of threat.

She then spoke about power dynamics, and how the system has “a disproportionate impact on black bodies.” She believes that the roots of belief systems enable the fruits of poverty and police brutality to flourish. Tometi believes that America’s history has left a rippling effect of a legacy which is still impacting us to this day, and that laws and policies are upholding this legacy. Although she spoke about legislation, policy and history, she did so in an understandable manner. Jerome Clarke ’17 appreciated her straightforward approach: “I honestly expected her to be more academic, but in retrospect, I really appreciate her interpersonal tone and pathos. On college campuses, we tend to try to logic and rationalize everything, forgetting the lasting emotional and psychological impacts of these issues. I believe she definitely humanized Black Lives Matter for folks in the audience.”

The Broken Windows Theory, which is the idea of criminalizing minor offenses to prevent more serious crimes from occurring, the gentrification of communities of color and the increased policing of certain communities are examples of these laws. The statistics support structural anti-black racism, as 40 percent of those incarcerated are black, although blacks comprise a much smaller percentage of the population.

Unfortunately, it is this very system that creates sizable barriers to dissent and to change. There is a common belief that we live in a post-racial era, and that because a black man holds the highest office in the country the struggle for justice is over. The notion of color blindness is a myth. “Not naming it does not allow us to address the issue in the first place,” said Tometi. Despite the pain that stems from the shame of American history, the solution is not to cover it up. “That is not tolerable,” she emphasized.

Therefore, the Black Lives Matter movement is a demand for transformation, for structural change. It is not just a social media campaign, not just an organization, not just a social movement and not just a philosophy; it is all of the above. Tometi advocates for a non-violent approach to resistance, similar to the strategies used by Gandhi and other remarkable leaders. However, when asked about some members of the movement who have interrupted politicians and caused disruption, Tometi calls on us to see the direness of the situation at hand. “There are times in history where you have to rise up and do something,” Tometi said firmly.

After her lecture, Tometi also took several questions from the audience. Some questions asked covered the topics of her choice of the words “Black Lives Matter” for the name of the movement, what she believes the best method is of achieving the movement’s goals, and the impact of the recent defacing of one of the posters advertising the lecture. She answered every question with candor, in a manner that truly resonated with the audience. She spoke of the defacing of the poster as a symbolic act that equated with the erasing of the black experience and pointed to leadership from queer and trans people of color who are marginalized and can shed light on the issues that they face. “The lecture itself met my expectations, but it was the Q&A and Opal’s candor that took that one step further and exceeded them,” said Ashley Fernandez ’16.

Tometi’s lecture was well-received by the packed audience. Many loved the quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. she used to end her speech. “Something that stood out to me was her quote about the arc and how it will bend to justice– but not by itself,” said sophomore Daniella Snyder. Raichl Davenport ’17 agreed that the audience was engaged in the speech: “There weren’t any hecklers, and much respect was shown during the talk.”

Tometi received a standing ovation when she concluded her speech: “I have received death threats, phone calls and letters. I am very aware that there are people that want to silence me. But I also know that my silence, my silence will kill me too.”

 

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