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Beyond the Hashtag: How to Take Anti-Racist Action in Your Life

Thanks to my daughter, Courtney, for sending me this article.

In this op-ed, Zyahna Bryant — a Charlottesville-based activist, organizer, social impact strategist, and a Wahoo — offers insight into how people can take anti-racist action.

In the wake of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Nina Pop, Sean Reed, and now George Floyd, it is imperative that we have a conversation about where we, as a society, go from here. It seems there is an overwhelming expectation that Black activists and organizers will say something profound about Black death, but what I have to offer is not some profound truth but a simple request: Take action.

I feel this way because, for years, I’ve found myself constantly reflecting on how long we've been having these conversations about police brutality. I look at pictures from protests that I had in a camera roll from 2013, 2015, 2016, and 2018. For so long people have tried to paint these killings of unarmed Black people as isolated incidents, despite the movement that has worked to clearly establish the links between them. What I’ve also seen is the tendency to lean into and perpetuate the narrative that there are “good apples” and “bad apples” when it comes to cops. However, there is also an inability to point out and directly cite the fact that the system of U.S. policing as we now know it is rooted and deeply entangled in the need to control and surveil Black people. This system is a pillar of white supremacy. Its modern manifestation dates back to chattel slavery, post-Civil War Reconstruction, and can be specifically found in Black codes and vagrancy laws that were prominent in the South. The inability to reckon with violent racism and the long list of historical wrongs found at the core of many political and social systems that make up our nation is exhibited in the incidents that we see today. All white people seem to have to do is see a Black person in a public space, claim that they feel threatened solely by their presence, and then, just like that, the fate of a Black person is in the hands of a police officer and an entire system that has been structured to target them. This is fundamentally why we say Black Lives Matter: Not only is it a signal to call out the injustices that have prompted us to continue to take to the streets to defend ourselves, it is simply the act of saying that we do matter in a world where it’s obvious some people believe some lives matter more than ours. We simply want to be recognized as human.

Hashtags and online discourse aren’t enough in this time. Many of the organizers who do racial justice and equity work are exhausted from revisiting these conversations week after week and year after year with no sustained push for change from allies beyond trending hashtags. Meanwhile, turning to the ballot box necessitates an ongoing conversation about how racism and white supremacy permeate every facet of our democracy. This all means that starting racial justice work can be hard and uncomfortable for many, but if not now, when? Anti-racist work isn’t easy, and amid the COVID-19 crisis, things look a bit different than they used to. But there are still powerful ways to show up.

Educate yourself! Reading the work of Black scholars who break down issues of the justice system, policing, and prison abolition are great places to start. Some of my personal recommendations include works by Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Michelle Alexander, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Ida B. Wells, and The 1619 Project, edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones. Resources like the Abolitionist Futures conference, the Prison Culture blog, and the African American Intellectual History Society have compiled extensive reading lists on policing, incarceration, and the racism baked into both systems. Other groups, including Critical Resistance, have published documents like an “Abolition Organizing Toolkit.” And in Minneapolis, MPD150 is a group of local grassroots organizers pushing for the abolition of the city’s police department, and it also has a handy zine for frequently asked questions about abolition.

Invest time and resources in on-the-ground community abolitionist efforts. In the current situation in Minneapolis, these efforts can include Freedom Funds like the Minnesota Freedom Fund, which directly supports activists and organizers who are doing work on the ground. The Minnesota Freedom Fund is “supporting a movement constellation of formations,” according to its Twitter, where they also advise donating to the Black Visions Collective, Reclaim the Block, and Unicorn Riot. And as the Floyd family mourns their loss, you can offer direct support to them through GoFundMe and by supporting the work of groups like MPD150.

Respect the leaders on the ground who have been doing the work and leading the way. As documented by the National Bail Fund Network, freedom and bond funds exist all over the country, and they need support even when police brutality isn’t in the headlines.

Get involved locally. This is an important national conversation that gets renewed every time another city is seized by racist horror, but good politics start locally. Sign yourself up for a local listserv or organization that is working to create a lasting organizing infrastructure in your community. If you need help getting started, look for local news reports of anti-racist protest actions, find out who is organizing them, and if you can support their ongoing work.

Uplift and center the voices of the most marginalized people. In all conversations, it is crucial that we uplift and center the voices and experiences of the people who are most impacted by these issues. Lift up and listen to people like Tami Sawyer, Da’Shaun Harrison, Delaney Vandergrift, Clarissa Brooks, Bree Newsome Bass, and many others. Say the names of Black women who often go unheard of and unseen on major news and media platforms, and make room for Black women to speak for themselves.

Take action in your own life. Name and call out racism, misogynoir, transphobia, homophobia, queerphobia, fatphobia, and white supremacy in all its forms. It may be uncomfortable to confront your parents, your boss, your teacher, or your peers, but that’s no excuse not to do it. Fighting oppression is uncomfortable work by its nature, and working to make change in the systems you’re already a part of is as important as plugging into conversations about systems you don’t interact with regularly.

Why does it matter?

It is important to be part of building the organizing infrastructure in our communities so that the next time there's another hashtag mourning another death, we already have the playbook to act. We have the leaders and gatekeepers (who do the work) positioned to continue to lead in a sustained way, but they need the support of everyone who wants to see an end to these racist systems. So many have wanted to shy away from discussing race, but we have to talk about white supremacy. We have to talk about police violence and the surveillance and profiling of Black folks. Until we can truly discuss all of this, we are failing to address the root causes of these issues. Now is not the time to recoil.

We are so tired of trying to prove our humanity. It is time for everyone to step up and act. Respectability, silence, and turning the other cheek to “avoid conflict” is no longer enough.

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