On Sept. 24, McMaster played host to Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It was a huge, huge deal,” said Ismaël Traore, one of the event’s organizers. Traore explained that he and the other organizers began working on the initiative to bring an activist to McMaster in late 2014. “We wanted to bring in a millennial, someone who’s on the front line,” he said.
During the Black Lives Matter presentation, Garza talked about the beginning of the movement and how it has changed since its inception. “It began as a love letter to black people,” she said during her speech. Garza spoke fondly about the beginning of the movement and shared her fear about its possible slide into a passive social media phenomenon. “Hashtags are not movements,” she said.
Garza’s presentation struck a chord with many audience members, including Traore. “This is actually a civil rights movement… [but] lot of people aren’t giving it the seriousness that it deserves,” he said. He stressed, however, that the movement differs from the civil rights movement of the 1960s. “It is advocacy for all identities of blackness… The older civil rights movement was very heterosexual and dominated by men,” he explained, while BLM has a strong focus on advocating for black women, LGBTQ+ persons, and persons with disabilities.
Despite these leaps forward, work remains to be done.
During the last presentation by McMaster professor Vanessa Watts, three protesters who go under the group name Project Black disrupted the event. Kermeisha Williams, Kayonne Christy and Halima Hatimy were all involved with “Black, Brown, Red, Lives Matter,” the OPIRG-run chapter of BLM at McMaster. Christy and Hatimy were originally slated as co-facilitators of the Sept. 22 event. However, they felt marginalized and abused within the BBRLM community and chose to leave it altogether.
“Even when we would leave the group, specific members would come and try to pull us back into an abusive situation. We’d leave to protect ourselves and they would pull us back to further exploit our labour,” Hatimy said.
The trio maintained an air of professionalism throughout their protest. They stood quietly at the back of the room while Watts gave her presentation. They waited until they were noticed by Alicia Garza, who then invited them to join her outside the room to discuss their concerns. After the presentation, they marched to the stage and listed their demands.
“The demands were broken down into three sub-categories. One addressed Black Lives Matter, one addressed McMaster, OPIRG specifically, and the other addressed the city of Hamilton at large,” Christy explained. The group hopes OPIRG will hold its working groups more accountable for their actions, and check in with members of said groups to ensure they are maintaining anti-oppressive practices.
Even with these changes, Hatimy was adamant that the current organization is not working. “At this point we want BBRLM to be dismantled, the reason being it doesn’t have a good history. There were a lot of people who were hurt and oppressed,” she said. “We want it dismantled because we don’t want there to be an avenue for certain people to be able to bully and harass members of the community and obviously students at Mac.”
While Hatimy, Christy and Williams are proud of their first step in diminished the internal conflict within BLM, they feel there is much work that remains to be done.
“We feel our actions were radically misunderstood by people in the community. It was treated, specifically by the moderators of the group, like it was just another segment, so I think that really minimized the significance of why we did what we did,” Hatimy explained.
Traore, for his part, spoke positively about the disruption. “I appreciate disruptions. I am an activist myself… and these disruptions are strategically necessary sometimes,” he said. “And so I think it was great that a space was made for these three women to be able to speak, instead of [shutting them down].”
He did mention, however, that ideally the demonstration would have taken place during the question and answer period rather than during the presentations. “Vanessa Watts is an amazing speaker… and I felt hurt that the protest occurred while she was speaking,” he said. “How can we talk about the erasure of the voice of one group [when] the protest is also erasing the voice of another group?”