“The movement is very male-centered. Nobody does a mass protest when a black women or black trans woman is a victim of police brutality,” says 20-year-old Ardo Hersi.
She’s right. When you think of the Black Lives Matter movement, you probably picture black heterosexual males affected by police brutality — people like Eric Garner, Mike Brown and Oscar Grant.
This isn’t a new problem, says Na’Quel Walker, 22, and a University of Washington student and activist.
“Our whole lives, we’ve constantly heard about the men who fought for black liberation,” Walker says. “We hear about Martin Luther King, but not the countless number of unnamed black women who made things happen before, during, and after MLK.”
There have been hundreds of marches and rallies under the #BlackLivesMatter banner in recent months — with dozens here in the Northwest.
Walker explains that a lot of people talk about the movement in terms of needing a leader — and when we think of leaders for movements the typical ideal is a man.
But in fact, it was three women — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi —who co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement.
Through peaceful protests, unifying actions, and productive dialogues, local groups like Women of Color for Systematic Change are tackling the issue of police accountability.
Still, many black women here in the Northwest say they feel excluded from the movement.
When the publicized faces of black victims of police brutality are only males, that conveys a message: that black female victims of police brutality matter less — or not at all. People take to the streets for Mike Brown, but not for Rekia Boyd. That’s a problem.
“There’s always been so much focus on black men as opposed to black women. The public at large is accustomed to thinking about black men,” states Julia Ismail, 38, and founding board member of Africatown Center for Education & Innovation, located in Seattle’s Central District.
Black women put their very safety and lives on the line for black men who have been victimized, being a constant presence in demonstrations, and almost always leading them, as far as I can see.
This was certainly the case at a protest and march in downtown Seattle last month in solidarity with Baltimore and Freddie Gray. Black women were leading the march with a huge banner that said “Black Women’s Lives Matter.”
“What I would love to see is black men standing up for black women’s lives,” Ismail says. “Of course it’s happening, but one area that I’m looking forward to seeing is black men being more vocal in the ‘Black Women’s Lives Matter’ movement.”
“Women have come so far in the past hundred years, but at the same time, we really haven’t come that far,” states Maya Milton, 19, Seattle Central College student and local artist. “We’re still fighting to get equal rights. Women are treated very unfairly,”
She says it’s unfair that women created the Black Lives Matter movement, only to see it overshadowed by men.
Hersi, who is a youth organizer with YUIR (Youth Undoing Institutional Racism) says that if you don’t go out of your way to follow Black female activists on Twitter or on Facebook, you won’t be exposed to them at all.
Mainstream media has literally silenced Black women’s, and Black trans women’s voices. To Walker, that erasure happens at least partially due to stereotypes that marginalize black women’s perspectives as angry or unreasonable.
“People continue to say ‘there’s a right way to go about it, there’s a constructive way,’” explains Walker, “but as a Black woman I know that there’s never a ‘right’ way to say something. As long as I’m a black woman, what I say and how I say it will forever be labeled as angry regardless.”
“You know what? I am angry, and I have a right to be angry.”