On Friday, more than 1,500 people converged at Cleveland State University for the first national convening of the Movement for Black Lives. At the end of our weekend of workshops, plenary sessions, healing circles, rap cyphers, chants and politicking, we were reminded of how acutely unsafe spaces centered around Black politics are. During the convening, a significant matter under consideration was forthrightly grappling with how to make organizing spaces safe for queer and trans Black people who have been at the fore of organizing the current movement. Many of us were forced to acknowledge all the ways that racial justice work has been and remains unsafe for those Black people who are not straight or cisgender. But there are the things we must struggle with together among each other, and there are the threats that come from outside.
As we left the final session, milling about outside, saying goodbyes and stocking up on cool T-shirts, a group of people ran up to say that just one block away, a 14-year-old Black kid was being arrested by police. A couple of hundred people immediately got up and began moving down the block. By the time I got there, the scene was chaotic. The police had already pepper-sprayed several #M4BL activists, who were sitting or lying on the ground, writhing in pain, screaming and hyperventilating. Meanwhile another group of activists had surrounded the cop car, refusing to let the police officer leave with the 14-year-old young man, who was being arrested for an alleged open container violation.
During the course of the arrest, activists had obtained the teen’s mother’s phone number, and also advised him of his rights. Some activists pleaded with the police to release him into his mother’s custody, since the alleged violation was so minor. The cops insisted on arresting him, which only further emboldened protesters to sit down directly in front of the police car to prevent it from moving.
His mother did come, and protesters managed to secure the teen’s release into her custody. When the teen, a tall kid, clad in a blue shirt, with unruly hair, got into his mother’s car, the applause, cheers and chants were ear-splitting and raucous. For once, we kept the police from disappearing another one of our children into the system for engaging in minor youthful misbehavior. How reasonable it would have been for the officer to insist that the teen pour out his beverage and call his mother. That is what policing that is invested in the safety of communities, rather than the criminalization of Black people, looks like.
While protesters were securing the teenager’s release, I was among a group of attendees helping those who had been pepper-sprayed – filling emptied water bottles with milk to treat the spray, holding hands and rubbing the backs of those writhing in pain, reminding them to breathe while I did the same. I won’t soon be over the horror and helplessness of that moment. I won’t soon forget the sound of Black people screaming from the effects of pepper spray, because they had stood up to protect the safety of a Black child. I haven’t stopped wondering how those activists who have been on the front lines since last August manage to be subjected to such violent bodily violation regularly.
But we were reminded, after a weekend of loving each other and affirming the value of our lives, that the police do not inherently value all lives. They do not value our lives. Moreover, some police forces are not immune to engaging in retaliatory acts against those who speak out against anti-Black state violence. None of us see it is as coincidental that the police chose to harass a child for a minor violation, exactly one block away from our convening, at precisely the moment that they felt it would be over and we would be leaving.
Throughout the weekend, leaders vocally reminded attendees that this space was not safe from surveillance. We could trust that there were some among us who were not with us, who had their own agendas, who sought to provoke discord and confusion. As a new series of documents obtained by the Intercept through the Freedom of Information Act reveals, the Department of Homeland Security has been profiling and surveilling the activities of young Black activists since the Ferguson rebellion last summer. However, anyone connected to movement organizing did not need a report to tell us what we already knew.
The U.S. government has perfected its techniques for surveilling all citizens and done so specifically by targeting Black citizens, who have never been outside the reach of the government’s eye or its extreme policing tactics. So part of what it means to decide to be part of a radical political movement is to make a conscious decision to deal with the effects of being watched. On my drive to the convening with a good friend and colleague, I said to her, “You know that this is the weekend when we officially become visible to those who are watching. If we weren’t already?” She nodded somberly in reply.
Black communities are intimately acquainted with both micro and macro iterations of what Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins has termed the politics of surveillance and containment. Over the years I have had myriad conversations with Black people about what happens when our white colleagues at work or school happen upon three or more Black people engaging in a conversation. Said white person usually walks by and says something like, “Oh, what are y’all up to here? What are y’all plotting?” They try to mask their alarm with a show of nonchalance. None of us is ever fooled. Black people moving through institutions are very aware that we are being watched, that we are perceived as a threat, that the goal is always to identify and contain our distress or disaffection.
At the convening, over dinners and in courtyard conversations, attendees traded war stories about increased police surveillance, an uptick in traffic stops and tickets issued to them, and stories too scary to recount about acts of aggressive policing they have experienced since becoming involved in movement work.
In Cleveland, there was heavy police presence on the interstates coming into town and leaving town, and in town we saw cop cars parked everywhere. During our impromptu and entirely peaceful protest, more and more police were dispatched to the scene, telling those from our side who had chosen to speak with them that they were increasing their presence in order to “deescalate the situation.” But more police officers do not deescalate crowds, especially when it only takes one officer to escalate the situation. The police officer who used pepper spray has been placed on administrative leave.
After the protests, many attendees were scared to walk alone to their cars for fear they would be followed, harassed and forced to share their personal information with police. Our many encounters with police have proven that they are not above harassment and retaliation. They are not above abusing their considerable state-sanctioned powers to surveil and subdue Black citizens.
State and institutional surveillance is meant to make us acutely aware of our lack of power. It is meant to “put us in our place.” It is meant to make us anxious, paranoid and self-policing. It is meant to induce fear. This is the reason why so many police officers resent counter-surveillance from citizens using smartphones. It is the reason why so many municipalities have attempted to pass laws preventing citizens from surveilling the police. The level of resentment should tell us something about how powerful a weapon surveillance is against social movements.
Our act of refusing to let a police officer snatch a child off the street for a youthful indiscretion was a way of putting the state on notice, that although no one else may care about our Black lives, we do. We are people who believe that government is of, for and by the people, and we are determined to make the police accountable to our communities again. We are determined to stand up, for, and with each other, and to dismantle these cultures of policing that make each and every American citizen unsafe. We are tired of being a democracy in name but not practice. I am still processing all that I heard, saw and felt this weekend. But I know for sure that a change is coming. And to the naysayers, haters and provocateurs, I say, “Don’t believe us, just watch.”