When I arrived in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 24 to cover the Movement for Black Lives Convergence, an all-Black radical conference, I stumbled into the Cleveland State University auditorium with my camera equipment and bag of clothes. The opening ceremony was under way. On stage were relatives of victims of police violence — including Tracy Martin, father of Trayvon Martin; Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner; Amberly Carter, cousin of Emmett Till and more — sharing their stories. Their words were ones of strength and sorrow. The audience began singing: “I pray for you, you pray for me. I love you, I need you to survive.”
Since my partner of five years took her own life last year, the memories of us sharing our love have been intermixed with images of her lifeless eyes. That year, 2014, was also marked by the image of Michael Brown Jr.’s lifeless body lying in the street in Ferguson, Missouri, along with the video images of other Black men, women and children snuffed out on YouTube repeat. For many, including myself, the Black Lives Matter movement appeared as an oasis of resistance and healing in the middle of a war against the Black spirit and body.
From the events of the very first night of the inaugural Movement for Black Lives Convergence, I could see that this conference would be different than any other I had been to. The organizers had intended to create a space where, in their words, Black people could “reflect on our histories of struggle, build a sense of fellowship that transcends geographical boundaries and begin to heal from the many traumas we face.” Only Black people were allowed to attend, so that we might have a safer space to gain relief and perspective and share blunt truths about how our Black skin is seen through the white gaze. And indeed, the conference, attended by an estimated 1,500 people, felt like a living, breathing history where we could contemplate our present conditions and begin to heal together.
It also became a place where we could take concrete action together. At the venue for the opening party, a Black trans-man was kicked out of a bathroom. In response, all of the conference partygoers left the venue in solidarity and brought the celebration outside. This moment represented the reality of being Black in America, the persecution and discrimination, but also the importance of community. The walkout was our way of affirming that the Black Lives Matter movement has to manifest as something more than just theory and talk: It has to turn into real action for the survival of our communities, not least of them queer, trans* and gender non-conforming Black people.
At the conference I spoke with Dionne Smith-Downs, the mother of James Earl Rivera Jr., who was shot 48 times by police in Stockton, California, on July 22, 2010 — the day before his 17th birthday. Five years later, the police have yet to release dashcam footage of the carnage and Smith-Downs still hasn’t seen justice.
“When you lose a loved one by the system or police, who do we call for help?” She asked me. “A lot of these small cities have no activists, so you have to learn by yourself.”
In Cleveland, where more than 100 panels and workshops were held, learning together was the order of the day. One panel featured Marshall “Eddie” Conway, a former Minister of Defense for the Black Panther Party of Baltimore, who was a political prisoner for more than 44 years. After being released in 2014, Conway had thought that he would live out the rest of his life enjoying his freedom. Instead, he’s found himself back in a movement space, once again fighting for Black lives. On another panel, Michael Brown’s father, Oscar Grant’s uncle and the cousins of Emmett Till discussed the erasure of Black fathers in media narratives of police murders and brutality.
The conference was a product of a decentralized movement, and while a diversity of people came, the tenor was set by a new generation of Black organizers who no longer see centralized leadership as an effective tool for fighting white supremacy. The gathering was less about creating a structure or agenda than about situating the movement in a history of resistance and facilitating personal connections and empowerment. “I never been a part of anything like this,” said Eldred Harris of the Multicultural Resource Center in Ithaca, New York. “A space where academics can think. A place that can allow people to heal and cry. A place to allow regular working-class people to come and engage and to give their insight. It’s beautiful. It’s an amazing opportunity.”
For me, it was an overwhelming experience of love and resistance. It was a place where, as a Black man, I felt human. It was a place where my pain and my struggle to survive was a valid feeling. I haven’t felt this way in a long time.
But the real world and the dangers of being Black in a culture of white supremacy remain. As the conference ended, near the venue a 14-year-old Black teenager was being harassed by the police over an open container of alcohol. Activists marched to the confrontation. Unintimidated by pepper spray, they conducted a nonviolent direct action, forcing the officers to release the boy from custody.
And a cultural shift has begun. Three days after the conference concluded, University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing was indicted on murder charges for shooting Samuel DuBose, a 43-year-old unarmed Black man, in the head during a traffic stop. A body camera video of the incident led the prosecutor to indict. In the very recent past, this indictment would never have happened, whether or not there was video evidence.
Black Lives Matter is a new Black consciousness awakened, at attention and ready to act, respond and enact justice — not in the distant future, but now.
Messiah Rhodes is a New York City-based independent journalist and filmmaker.
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