Two months after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police and the protests that followed, we visit the city of Minneapolis to speak to the individuals and collectives calling for action, lobbying for change and rebuilding the city brick by brick with the goal of a positive and inclusive future. Dive into a day of stories that look at the activism, music and culture bursting forth from the city.
When George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, Black Visions Collective – a non-profit organisation for Black liberation based in Minnesota – mobilised to seek justice, not just for Floyd and his family but for Black communities as a whole. They put forth the demand to #DefundPolice on 25th May, the same day George Floyd died. That demand has caught fire all across the country and beyond, becoming the rallying cry for protests in all 50 states. Eventually, protests spread to multiple continents as well.
For many years, Black organisers have been calling into the question the validity of police forces, dubbing them agents of violence rather than protection. Oluchi Omeoga, co-founder of the Black Visions Collective, is a Black trans organiser carrying forth the legacy of abolitionists – those who are imagining new forms of collective safety that do not involve police and prisons. We spoke to Omeoga to learn more about their mission.
So what is different about this moment, in particular, from when Black Lives Matter became an international declaration and an international movement?
Protesting is a part of organising, but it’s not the whole picture, right? We were agitating folks, we were activating folks, but we weren’t giving them the political education necessary for them to understand that the systems under which we live are what’s actually at fault. We were asking for accountability for this specific police officer; we were asking for convictions for this specific police officer. But what we weren’t doing was questioning the reality of the system on a holistic level. Now, we are putting in question the validity of the entire system, so that’s where we saw #DefundPolice got very big, very quickly. These are things that were being said in 2013, 2014, but were not as popular, because people weren’t in that space. And we just had to do the political education necessary for them to get into that space.
There was a conversation that Dr. Angela Davis was part of with the Dream Defenders. There’s a moment in the conversation where she suggests that we wouldn’t be where we are if trans leaders hadn’t pushed us as a society to question what we take for granted as normal. And she explicitly states that if we can challenge the gender binary, then we can abolish police and prisons. What’s different about Black Visions as opposed to many national Black-led organisations is that it’s queer and trans-led. You, as a co-founder, are a Black trans person. Why is it important for people to lift up Black trans leadership in this time?
Whenever we look at social movements, it’s always those who are most at the margins who are actually doing the work. At Stonewall, we saw trans women of colour and gender nonconforming people of colour at the forefront, at the frontlines pushing people to dream of something new. Because trans women of colour have that lens of actually dreaming of a world where their body that has been so policed is actually celebrated and validated, they can imagine a world where police aren’t relied upon. Trans people are always the stewards of our social movements, because our systems of oppression oppress them in a specific way, especially trans people of colour. It’s necessary to talk about this because not only do they get oppressed by capitalism, but also patriarchy and racism.
I’d love to hear you speak more personally about how you as a Black trans person have had tensions, if any, grappling with movements that haven’t done the internal work to center Black trans people.
Initially I thought all of the people that were running the Black Lives Matter movement were cis, straight Black men, not understanding that the hashtag was created by three Black women, two of which were queer. It showed me that we can center those who are at the margins and win societal change for those who aren’t at the margins as well. When trans Black women are free, inherently everyone is free, because all of those systems have to fall down.
But even with the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s very much so contextualised in the U.S. and American ideas of Black freedom. As a person who is a migrant, that caused a lot of tension which is why I started organising with the organisations that I do now — the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project (BLMP) and Black Visions — because we have a global context to the work we’re doing. What does it look like to do intentional global work within the Black diaspora? Migration is a Black issue. How capitalism and white supremacy have criminalised migration is very real and something we have to interrogate within Black liberation spaces.
You speak poignantly about Black trans women being free means everyone is free because all of the systems of oppression have to topple down. Can you talk more about what the cost is when people don’t specifically centre Black trans people, whether they’re migrants or not? What do we lose?
We lose people. When we’re not centring those most at the margins, we’re not thinking about who we’re leaving behind. Charlene Carruthers, former executive director of BYP100, said, “When you’re at a table and you see who’s there, you must ask who is not at this table?” Someone we both know, who has been integral to our understanding of disability justice, also asks, “What happens when we forget disability justice?” In this time of Covid-19, when everyone’s at home and everyone conveniently gets to work from home, we don’t talk about why we haven’t done this before. There are people who can’t leave their houses. There are people that are unable to do the things that some people are able to do. When we don’t think about them, we’re telling them their lives are irrelevant.
I also want to emphasise that when we lose people, it’s very literal. What happens when Black trans people aren’t centred is that the systems that actually kill Black trans femmes continue. Just in the last two weeks, we’ve lost six Black trans women, one of whom was just 17-years-old. That is why what you’re saying is so important.
Can you speak more to why defunding the police has to be about an expansive understanding of the carceral state as a whole?
When I say “defund the police”, I don’t mean just the Minneapolis police department. What I mean is that we have to defund the military, because the military is just the police on another soil. We have to defund ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and CBP [Customs and Border Patrol]. We have defund all the systems of policing we see. It’s not just about these institutions, it’s also about defunding the ways that we police each other.
Some of the values of the Black Visions Collective is healing justice and transformative justice. Why are they so integral to your work and how are those values an antidote to the policing systems in our culture and in our law?
Trans people and poor people are criminalised for making ends meet. Layleen Polanco was criminalised for sex work – for trying to shift the conditions she lived in the way she knew how. How do we transform the person that commits harm rather than punishing people? We often don’t have any other choice, because of intergenerational trauma, because of poverty, because of oppression, a lot of folks have to commit harm. How do we heal and transform people so that harm can no longer exist.
What would it look like if all the demands put forth by organisers were met — including abolishing the police and prisons, including shifting culture to a point where we’re actively practicing healing justice and transformative justice – what would that world look like?
How many people know who their neighbours are? How are we communicating with each other and community safe which in turn keeps our world safe? It’s three different things: it’s deconstructing the systems of oppression, it’s putting forth alternatives to those systems, and the last piece is personal transformation. Even if we get rid of police tomorrow, if we don’t transform the way we think and live, we will still fail.