Shamell Bell, left, Melina Abdullah and Povi-Tamu Bryant are key leaders of “leaderless” Black Lives Matter. (Photo by Shane Lopes)
There was a time when Melina Abdullah wanted to be the next Maxine Waters.
A year or two ago, I recognized that those middle-class aspirations are done,” Abdullah says now, in the soothing voice of a therapist or guidance counselor. “You can’t go in and yell at people or camp in front of the mayor’s house and go, ‘Now I’m running for office.’ I had to make peace with that.”
Abdullah lives in a three-bedroom house in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles with her three children. She drives a Volvo. She’s a tenured professor and chairs the Pan-African Studies department at Cal State Los Angeles. She’s a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first black sorority. She was appointed by Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas to the county’s Human Relations Commission. Abdullah, in other words, has more than a toe in the American middle class.
But Abdullah, who was born in East Oakland and whose dad was a union organizer and self-proclaimed Trotskyist, has chosen to immerse herself in the black working class and its struggles.
She’s not unlike most of the Black Lives Matter leaders — college-educated, middle-class black women who felt compelled to fight against police violence directed at the black community. “Our degrees won’t save us, our middle-class status won’t save us,” she says. “Who’s being killed? Andrew Joseph in Tampa, Florida. His parents are college-educated, middle-class people. Trayvon Martin was killed in a gated community. Aiyana Jones, 7 years old, sleeping on her grandmother’s couch. I have two little girls. How can you sit back? That’s how a lot of us feel. We’re really facing wartime conditions.”
Black Lives Matter co-founder Melina Abdullah is a tenured professor and chairs the Pan-African Studies department at Cal State L.A. (Photo by Shane Lopes)
In a nation where black women are still stuck at the bottom of the power structure, Black Lives Matter is the only major national protest movement to be led by them in modern times. It has in the past two years become the most prominent left-wing movement in the country, a persistent topic on the national news and in both Democratic and Republican presidential debates.
The Black Lives Matter movement also could end up having a significant impact on local, state and national elections — which might be cause for concern among politicians like, say, Mayor Eric Garcetti.
The national organization founded by three black women — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi — takes its cue from the local chapters; the L.A. chapter, in which Abdullah is a key figure, was among the first.
The elements of Black Lives Matters’s DNA — young, female, gay-friendly, artsy — set it apart from every previous civil rights movement.
Although the group prides itself on its leaderlessness, Abdullah is one of five or so black women who, having helped start the L.A. chapter, now serve as its chief organizers. Nearly all are rooted in academia or performance art — or both. Their rhetoric leans toward the highbrow, their tactics toward the theatrical.
“We’re fighting against white supremacist patriarchal society,” says Shamell Bell. “That’s why you need black women to fight it.”
Bell, who’s been involved in Black Lives Matter from the beginning, is perhaps its prototypical organizer. A 31-year-old former professional dancer and former student of Abdullah’s, she’s currently a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA. In a movement that draws on each of its members’ gifts and abilities, Bell often leads street protest dances. While occupying the mayor’s front lawn, she taught a group of activists Jerkin’.
Cullors, 32, who coined the now-global hashtag #blacklivesmatter, is a performance artist who studied religion and philosophy at UCLA. When she was just 17, she joined the Bus Riders Union, a somewhat iconoclastic advocacy group in L.A. that pushes for more funding for the bus system and less funding for light rail.
A distinctly working-class nonprofit, the Bus Riders Union was Cullors’ entry into political organizing. She later started Dignity and Power Now, a coalition that fought brutality by sheriff’s deputies who work inside the county jails.
Cullors grew up in 1990s Pacoima, a low-income northeast San Fernando Valley neighborhood, during the height of the federal war on drugs that disproportionately imprisoned thousands of minorities. Cullors’ father and brother were in and out of prison for most of her adult life.
Black Live Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors coined the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. (photo via laweekly.com)
“That really shaped my understanding of what it meant to be black in this city,” Cullors says. “I had a lot of anger. And I was clear that I wanted to do something about it.”
In Los Angeles, Black Lives Matter has emerged as Mayor Eric Garcetti’s fiercest antagonist. Garcetti was elected without much support in the black community, which backed Wendy Greuel. But Garcetti will almost surely need the backing of black voters should he run for higher office, as is widely assumed.
“Whether he’s running for governor or U.S. senator, the political calculus that his consultants are going to use is that the black vote in Los Angeles can put him over the top,” says Dermot Givens, a political consultant. “Which is why he has to do everything he can to solve this situation.”
Garcetti, who appears galled by this vocal new opposition from the left, has dealt with Black Lives Matter rather clumsily.
After 25-year-old Ezell Ford, who’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, was shot to death in August 2014 by LAPD officers in South L.A., the group camped out on the front lawn of the mayoral mansion in Hancock Park. Garcetti made the news, along with Black Lives Matter, when he was caught on video trying to sneak away in a black Suburban SUV.
Bizarrely, when the well-to-do, Encino-raised Garcetti finally met with these black leaders in July, he at one point started speaking to them in Spanish. In the eyes of the organizers, it was as if he saw all minorities as the same and dealt with them accordingly.
“[Garcetti] does a really good job at tokenizing people,” says Black Lives Matter co-founder Cullors. “He does a really good job placating. But he doesn’t actually do the work that it takes to change the culture and change policies that are anti-black.”
“There’s been a shift in politics in the black community,” says Givens, who argues that Black Lives Matter has not so much caused this shift as it has reacted to it. “And the mayor is playing old-school politics. He’s surrounding himself with old-school black people who have no idea what’s going on.”
The origin of Black Lives Matter dates to July 13, 2013, when George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida.