Race in America | Dismantling Structural Racism with Opal Tometi

By Karen Attiah | The Washington Post

Tometi is a Nigerian-American human rights leader, community organizer and writer. As one of the three founders of Black Lives Matter, she is credited with initiating the project’s social media strategy which turned a hashtag into one of the most successful civil rights campaigns in modern history. Tometi has been active in the #EndSars movement in Nigeria where demonstrators have called for the dissolution of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a police unit accused of extortion, harassment, kidnapping and extrajudicial violence. Tometi joins Washington Post global opinions editor Karen Attiah to discuss the work being done in the U.S. and across the world to dismantle structural racism and injustice

MS. ATTIAH: Hi. Good afternoon. I’m Karen Attiah, and I am the global opinions editor for The Washington Post, and welcome to Washington Post Live. Today I’m here to welcome one of the cofounders of the Black Lives movement, the founder of Africa–of Diaspora Rising, excuse me, human rights advocate. And just to name a few of her–this is just a few of her accomplishments and bona fides, but Ms. Opal Tometi. And I just want to thank you so much for being here and so glad we can do this.

MS. TOMETI: Thanks so much for having me. It’s a real pleasure to join you.


MS. ATTIAH: Great. Well, there’s so much to talk about. We only have 30 minutes. I’m going to do my best. But I want to just start off, you know, this conversation which I want to be, you know, free flowing and to be, you know, natural and to speak with what’s on your heart, and I just wanted to start off with I came across a profile of you in the Guardian by Ellen Jones. And the first paragraph said–and I’ll just read it very quickly–“Maybe Opal Tometi is not the image of a great U.S. civil rights leader that lives in your head. For a start, she’s not an austere man in a dark suit. She’s a 36-year-old woman in Pilates gear who laughs often. She doesn’t need the sonorous tones of a Southern Baptist preacher to make her point–she’s got social media–and with Nigerian-born parents, her ancestors were not amongst those enslaved and transported across the Atlantic. Yet, as one of the three founders of Black Lives Matter, Opal Tometi has helped to reignite the civil rights movement.”

There’s so much to unpack in just that description of you, including the obvious reference to Martin Luther King and this image that we have of what it means to be a civil rights leader. And I want to get in to unpack all of that–in this conversation. But I want to just–even just go back to like the beginning for you with Black Lives Matters and to help–so that we can understand this moment that we’ve seen in 2020.

So, can you like, like, very briefly, like, take us back to 2013? You know, you were already an activist and organizer in Arizona. And tell us about your decision to register blackslivesmatter.com. What was going through your mind when you decided to do that?


MS. TOMETI: Yeah, gosh, so much. So, in 2013, I was actually in New York. I was living in Brooklyn, New York. I was the executive director for the national–sorry, the first national immigrant rights organization called the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. I had the privilege of serving in that capacity and leading alongside so many amazing people on my team. And I was already doing explicitly Black work–right?–Black organizing across the country. And so, I felt very privileged and I felt very, you know, committed to the mandate of advancing Black lives. But it was clear to me that in 2013 when I heard that George Zimmerman was being acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin, that something woefully unjust and, you know, just immoral was taking place, and it was something that was being witnessed and experienced by people not only in this country but around the world.

You know, people were watching George Zimmerman’s trial on TV, and it felt as though Trayvon Martin was actually on trial. And I remember hearing the testimony, seeing everything transpire, and often just reflecting on my youngest brother. I have two younger brothers. My baby brother at the time was 14 years old, so three years younger than Trayvon Martin. And all I could think is that he’s going to have to hear this story. And . He’s inevitably going to be impacted by this news and that he would hear that the outcome was that George Zimmerman was found not guilty, like that this jury could not find anything substantively wrong in the case and that this–the man who stalked and killed a teenage boy in his own community, that teenage boy armed with nothing less than–or nothing more than a bag of Skittles and, you know, Arizona Iced Tea and, you know, wearing a hoodie was okay, right? That this was going to be okay and this was going to be the story that people would hear.

And for me, like I said, I was already working in the Black communities, already organizing. But hearing this not guilty verdict, essentially, this acquittal, I knew that something more needed to be done. And quite honestly, the day that I heard about this story, I had just watched the film called Fruitvale Station, so the story of Oscar Grant, an unarmed Black man who was killed on New Year’s Day in Oakland by police. And I just watched that film, walked out of the film with a fellow friend who was also a community organizer, stood on the street corner, opened my phone, got the text and the tweets saying that this happened–right?–that George Zimmerman was acquitted, and I was shook. You know, I was hurt. I was–had a visceral reaction like–and he did too, right?

MS. ATTIAH: Yeah, so if you can–so then why–with all that energy, was it just like a spur of the moment like I’m going to register a website, like that was–that was what first came to your head?

MS. TOMETI: No, what came to my head was that people needed to know that this not guilty verdict, this acquittal was not the end of the story and that we can actually do something about it. That was what came to my head, was I want to get more people involved in community organizing, and I know organizers across the country, so why not figure out how to invite people into this moment, invite people into an ongoing commitment for racial justice and equity? That’s what I was thinking.

And so, I went to social media, so Alicia Garza, a fellow cofounder of Black Lives Matter, saw her Facebook post, which essentially read as though it were like a love note. I guess something like, “Black people, I love us,” you know, “Our lives matter.” And then Patrisse Cullors, who I actually didn’t know at the time but soon got to meet her later, she did a hashtag within the Facebook post–right–or within the comments section. And mind you, seven years ago people aren’t really doing hashtags on Facebook, but I saw it. And as somebody who was already doing Black organizing, it resonated with me in a very profound way. It was very simple. It was an invitation, yet it was also a demand.

And for whatever reason, it quite literally hit my spirit and I called Alicia the next day. I quite literally called her and said, not sure what the plan is with this, but I think we need to do it. We need to build for real, for real. We’re all organizers across the country, so we need to encourage other people to join, because we–this work is too great for just–you know, just us. We need to invite more people into this movement. And of course, she agreed. And I said, you know, I have my background. I have bachelor’s in communications. I’ve been, you know, doing communications work for social movements for many years. And so, I was like, I can just buy the domain. I can build us a quick little site. I can use Tumblr. I can–you know, I can kind of do those things and get us set up and, you know, launch our social media. I’ll invite the organizers we know to start using, you know, the Black Lives Matter hashtag and start amplifying our work, really start telling the story of what we’re all doing to ensure that Black people matter in this country.

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MS. ATTIAH: I love–I love what you said about–and it’s perhaps the most clearest and concise thing that I’ve heard about Black Lives Matter: It’s both an invitation and a demand. And of course, since 2013, we have seen so many hashtags. Of course, Mike Brown in Ferguson in 2014. I mean, the list is endless almost at this point. Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, so many that have captured national attention. But seven years later George Floyd, this summer, or earlier in this year, has mobilized not only, you know, Americans to get out on the street under Black Lives Matter but the entire world, right? And so, I would just love to know, I mean, what have–let’s–just what have the last six, seven months been like behind the scenes for you?

MS. TOMETI: Gosh, the last few months have been bananas, right? It has been incredible to see that the entire world is now paying attention to what is happening with Black people–you know, yes, you know, in the United States, but also folks are also acutely aware that Black people across the world are actually facing a great deal of types of hardships, and so on.

And so what it’s looked like for me–and I think, you know, for the movement has been where we’re seeing that there are people from all walks of life who, despite, you know, a pandemic that is impacting people–health, economically and beyond–the reality was that they saw that Black people are faced with multiple types of pandemics that are going on within our communities and preexisting condition–right?–preexisting context of racism in the U.S. and that despite this pandemic that you would think that people could stay in their homes, people could, you know, be with their families, people could, you know, do–be doing things that could protect themselves. Instead, we’re still being faced with anti-Black racism and anti-Black violence specifically that is killing us–right?–that is quite lethal. And it–you know, it shows up in the ways of the pandemic numbers, but specifically people were moved to get involved and get into the streets because they saw a Black man being killed in the streets, you know, while people watched. And we were all traumatized, right?


MS. TOMETI: We were all traumatized and moved to action. And so while there have been a lot of people who might not have been in the streets with us over the years, they realized that their opting out or thinking that they had nothing to do with this or that apathy or kind of indifference was an option, they recognized that, no, no, no, no, this thing is not going to stop unless I get involved. And so, then you see the largest mobilizations in history.

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MS. TOMETI: Which is a real testament to people, not just like a clever hashtag or something like that, but it’s real people, you know, getting in touch with humanity, their feelings and being willing to put some skin in the game.

MS. ATTIAH: So, I mean, like I said, there have been so many–and again, we were talking about police brutality specifically, and we know that structural racism is not just that, but, you know, for the purposes of this part of the conversation I want to focus on that. Again, there have been so many videos. There have been so many hashtags. In your opinion, what do you think was different about George Floyd that really felt like a tipping point?

MS. TOMETI: I honestly feel that what was different was that we watched, you know, in the middle of a pandemic a man being murdered, you know, with another human being’s body quite literally crushing them to death. And while we were already sitting with a certain amount of grief and instability within our own lives, you know, from home or, you know, the people who are essential workers, that they were sitting–or they were engaged in their work, but there was something about witnessing a man being killed in that manner that unleashed our sense of righteous rage–and rightfully so. Like, we should be outraged. In the 21st century, just to witness such a thing that we thought lynchings were over, we thought that this should not be happening, and yet we essentially witnessed that in broad daylight in the year 2020.

And I think that was a moment that changed everything for our nation but of course it set people all across the world into also righteous rage alongside us. They were joining and are joining in solidarity with us, because they, too, are concerned with what is happening with black people. Why is this violence against Black people continuing to persist? Why is this the status quo in the United States?

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MS. ATTIAH: Yeah. I–you talked a lot about, you know, this time it seemed a lot of people had woken up–right?–and seen, you know, again, what Black people have been saying literally for generations about the violence against us and other people of color as well.

I wanted to press you a little bit, a little bit about, like, I would say what a lot of us were worried about in many ways when we saw this outpouring of response and awareness and, you know, allyship. I’m sure you remember the sort of Black Tile Tuesday. Many influencers and brands and accompanies blacked out their Instagram squares and Twitter, you know, in solidarity of Black people, and activists were saying don’t do that. You know, that’s actually, you know, harming the cause, which is visibility of Black people. And I just–I just–I think that there were a lot–there was a lot of concern that this was going to be an energy that would fade out. And so do you feel, you know, since, you know, we’ve had all sorts of initiatives and promises of diversity and promises from brands, you know, White people to do better–but do you think this has been sustained, or do you feel like it was just kind of, you know, anti-racism was a summer trend and now we’re back to regular programming?

MS. TOMETI: Quite honestly, this is something that I grapple with and having deep conversation with organizers and other, you know, types of leaders across the country about whether or not this is truly sustainable and whether or not this kind of infusion of activism and solidarity is going to prove to have sustained recourse.

And I’ll say this. As a–as a community organizer, as a leader, as someone who has tried to agitate and inspire and encourage people to get involved in community organizing, the participation has been encouraging. I have genuinely appreciated the various ways in which people have shown up. Some practices are more impactful than others. And while I can’t judge whether or not people are genuine or what their motivations might be, the fact of the matter is that we as a nation and we–you know, people around the world need to be talking about anti-Black racism, period. We not only need to be talking about it. We need to be making plans of action to transform our societies so that we don’t continue to see the types of degradation of Black people that we’re continuing to experience.AD

So, my sense of that has been I know that there are people who are pushing different institutions. I know that there are people who are working both within and outside, attempting to engage in different types of strategies in order to get the types of gains and justice that our communities deserve. And my philosophy is I welcome most of it. I welcome most of it. And I also encourage people to not only talk, but they need to walk the talk, right? They need to put real dollars, real programming, real investment into Black communities, into Black people if it’s in their companies or in their sector. I think that needs to happen. That is a must. We have to have substance along with these symbolic–you know, these statements and imagery. We need to make sure that behind the scenes, that those changes within institutions are actually happening. That’s going to be the real deciding factor for me as to whether or not any of those kinds of calls or black tiles of whatever it might have been truly matter.

MS. ATTIAH: Yeah. Speaking to substance, which is a–which is an important question, one thing that has come out of this summer with the George Floyd situation has been serious calls to defund police. We’re now looking at a different discourse around policing. And what might have been radical, this idea of defunding the police even, you know, several years ago is now very, very much in the mainstream. So, I’d like to ask, you know, you, do you think that defunding the police is a necessary step for dismantling systemic racism?

MS. TOMETI: Yes, I absolutely believe that defunding the police is fundamental and essential. When we look at our budgets, these are documents that are–that are moral, right? They share with, you know, the public what our values are. Do you value education, or your healthcare system, or military or police? And they dictate how we quite literally manage and govern. And so, yes, I think the reallocation of taxpayer dollars to solutions that truly work for all of us is absolutely paramount. And the fact of the matter is that we’ve seen, you know, year in and year out, you know, day in or day out, week in, week out that Black people continue to bear the brunt of excessive police force, of hyper policing of our neighborhoods. And we can no longer be the victims of this terrible, you know, experiment. You know, we have been talking about this. We’ve been rallying. We’ve been protesting for generations.


MS. TOMETI: You know, I can’t help but think about all the other families and the people whose names we don’t even know that have endured this outright violence and, you know, loss of life of family members who are no longer going to be, you know, at their dinner table, or so on.

So, this is–this to me is paramount. The fact of the matter is that resources that are allocated to communities should be used in a way that respects the people that it’s supposed to serve, that looks at a myriad of solutions. And the truth is that we have ideas that have yet to be funded. We have ideas on how to address certain concerns in our communities. And we know that the safest communities are the communities that have the most resources. And Black communities end up not having those types of resources and end up being made vulnerable–right?–created to be vulnerable. And we have police forces that are sent in and essentially are acting in a way that is continuing to criminalize, you know, our being poor. And it leaves people vulnerable.


MS. TOMETI: And so, yes, we have to reallocate funds. We need to reallocate those funds to programs that keep us safe, like education, like mental health services, like the healthcare system, and so on.

MS. ATTIAH: Yeah, yeah. I think–I think–I think this is–this is something that has been fascinating to watch. I think there’s so much to talk–

MS. TOMETI: And can I just say one more quick thing about it? Do you mind?

MS. ATTIAH: Sorry?

MS. TOMETI: I just want to say one more quick thing about it, if you don’t mind.

MS. ATTIAH: Sure, and then I want to mov to the next question. Mm-hmm.

MS. TOMETI: Yeah, okay, for sure. I mean, this is the thing. So, I was organizing in New York, I was telling you. And as a leader, I kept getting asked the question, you know, why do we continue to see Black people being killed by police. And when we kept coming back to it, it was the fact that we were being hyper policed. About six years ago, my self along with a number of amazing organizers in New York created a campaign called “Safety Beyond Policing” that was essentially begging this question and saying why is the NYPD getting a hundred million more dollars in the wake of the murder of Eric Garner to–you know, they’re getting a hundred million dollars to hire a thousand new police officers–when we know that the people don’t want that, that we’re already being hyper policed, that the NYPD is resourced to an excessive amount and have military-grade equipment, and it just didn’t make any sense. And to me–and you can say any organizer or any thinking person, some of these things just don’t make sense.

MS. ATTIAH: Right.

MS. TOMETI: When you continue to have the same challenges come up time and time again, it’s like, different solution. Let’s stop that. Let’s move and try something else.

MS. ATTIAH: Right, yeah. Absolutely. So, I’d like to bring in an audience question. And this will–this will get to maybe–you know, and we don’t have a ton of time left, but like to get to the question of the elections, right? So, William Harris from Oregon asked do you think elections are the best mechanism to deal with structural racism? And if you can keep the answer maybe a little short, I’d love to hear what you have to say. Go vote, they say, on racism.

MS. TOMETI: They do say that. I think they are part of the solution, right? I do think–you know, you do need to vote your values. You do need to engage in those systems that do have power and influence. I think we’d be remiss if we stepped away and didn’t get involved in that. I know a lot of times, even as movements and as organizers sometimes we shy away from engaging in electoral politics. But I was so moved with how, you know, the movement for Black lives and the broader kind of racial justice movement really took the call to get involved in this election cycle. And we clearly made a tremendous difference, and it’s been amazing and inspiring to see. But of course, we know that this is just one small battle in a much larger war to stop violence against Black people.

So, I think this one facet, it is clearly not the only facet to the work. The work is cultural, it’s policy, it’s so multifaceted. I wouldn’t want anybody to think that you can vote away racism. Clearly, Black Lives matter started with a Black president–right?–in office. So, to say that it’s just, you know, one person or a few people in leadership is going to change the very kind of roots of this nation is I think disingenuous and it’s really shortsighted. However, we must take any tool or any strategy that might help contribute to this larger struggle for having a democracy that really works for all of us and respects our diversity.

MS. ATTIAH: Yeah. I wanted to–and I wanted to jump quickly overseas and talking about police brutality overseas. You know, you are Nigerian-American. You’ve also started an organization called Diaspora Rising, and you frequently write and talk about how a lot of these issues that affect Black people in the U.S. also, you know, similar issues in Europe and just this consciousness about the sort of Black African world.

Can you–and maybe I’ll just briefly, you know, just say to the audience that basically Nigeria itself has been going through an uprising, in many ways, against a pretty brutal police force called SARS, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. And you’ve been engaged as well in that. So can you talk very briefly about what you see as the parallels, you know, as America has taken to the streets against police brutality, as Nigerians are also seeing historic uprisings against, you know, their form of police brutality, what do you see as the commonalities and what we can take away from both of these movements this year?

MS. TOMETI: Yeah. Well, I’m glad you raised this, you know, question because I do see so many commonalities. Maybe it’s because of my perspective as a Nigerian-American, but I think just as a Black person, period, as we look at what’s happening around the world and particularly in Nigeria, it’s clear that poor, [unclear] poor Black folks and even middle-class Black folks in that country are being targeted, you know, by this police unit. And the types of violence that people were experiencing from, you know, extortion to sexual assault to outright murder was the status quo of this special squad and quite honestly other units of the Nigerian police. I don’t want to just kind of act as if it’s solely that, right? The calls are for end police brutality, period.

And I see, one, the frequency at which it happens is quite–it’s more in Nigeria. However, the type of acuteness is comparable to what’s happening in the U.S. I see the types of uprisings and absolutely, you know, similar to what we experience here in the United States with the BLM uprisings and the mobilizations. And to be quite honest, I see the backlash being quite comparable as well.


MS. TOMETI: So not only are we seeing just, you know, the root causes–right?–poor governance, bad and poor decision making around the distribution of resources and wealth in that country, which is very similar to what’s happening right here in the U.S.–but also the outcome of that, right? So, the outcome being that people speak up, they continue to protest. People have been protesting SARS–against SARS for years.

MS. ATTIAH: Right, right.

MS. TOMETI: They “reformed” quote-unquote, for years. And now we have these massive mobilizations. We see the tear gas. We see the brutality that has taken place. So quite similar to what we’ve experienced here. I don’t want folks to think that it’s, oh, my god, you know, what’s happening in Africa is divorced from or more appalling than what’s been happening here in the United States.

MS. ATTIAH: We absolutely–now I know we’re almost out of time, which is–you know, speaking of criminal–which is criminal. There’s so much more to talk about. But I want to ask like more of a personal question for my–for my last question of you. As an activist, I mean, we’ve heard stories of activists who have really suffered, who have burnt out from this work. How do you as an activist sustain yourself? And can you talk just even about like what you do to keep yourself safe as you do this work?

MS. TOMETI: Yeah, thanks for that question. And I can’t believe we’re almost done as well. Honestly, being an activist in this time is difficult. There never has been–you know, there hasn’t been a time when we’ve had so much, you know, outright support yet at the same time we see real calls for violence and targeting of people like myself, and of course, you know, other activists across the movement. And so, it has been extremely nerve-wracking. It has been scary at times, because there are real death threats. I have, over the years, had to relocate and make other types of decisions in order to keep myself safe and my loved ones safe. And so, there’s–that’s real.

So, while we might get awarded and applause and all that, there are also, you know, real consequences to speaking up. However, I would never change a thing. I know I’m on the right side of history. I know that all of us who are involved are on the right side of history. So, I won’t shy away. And it won’t deter me from speaking out and organizing. However, the way that I deal with it is by being in real community, right? I know that despite what attacks I might get or if something were to–like if something were to actually happen to me, I know that there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people who are also doing the work.

And so, we are, you know, almost more safe than we’ve ever been because we don’t have the type of leadership model that existed in the civil rights movement. We are very leaderful, and people around the country and around the world are the one who are really making the change on the ground every single day. And you know, I’m one of thousands of people who are part of the struggle.

And on a day to day, what I do in order to keep myself sane is engage in real self-care. And I’m really unapologetic about it these days. I do what I can to be in motion with my body, because I have some long-term chronic health issues, so I’m doing what I can there. I do my Pilates. I pray. I meditate. I’m in community and talk with my family almost every day now, because that gives me a lot of joy and allows me to feel connected and resilient. And then I also am very diligent about connecting with our comrades, our colleagues around the world, and that keeps me really deeply inspired and encouraged to continue the work that I’m involved with. Because I see the kinds of sacrifices and gains that they too are making.

MS. ATTIAH: Well, I think, you know, on that–on that positive note, I hope, well, thank you so much. I wish you had so much more time. We’ll just have to bring you back, perhaps. But thank you for taking the time to speak with me today and just to, you know, give us a little bit of what it’s been like for you during this time.

And I want to thank everybody for tuning in. And if you join us tomorrow at 3:00 p.m., my colleague Robert Costa will speak with Governor Jared Polis about the latest coronavirus updates in Colorado.

And as always, you can find out more about upcoming Washington Post Live interviews and register to watch at WashingtonPostLive.com. Once again, I’m Karen Attiah, and thanks for watching Washington Post Live.

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