It was standing room only inside the fellowship hall of the historic Big Bethel AME Church on Thursday for the first meeting of the Atlanta chapter of Black Lives Matter. Nearly 200 people responded to a call to action in defense of countless black lives both known and unknown that have been slaughtered at the hands of a corrupt police state.
Founded by three queer identified black women, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter has spurred grassroots movements across the country and awakened a new generation of young activists that are demanding accountability from state and federal officials.
Atlanta is next in line.
Mary Hooks, regional campaign director for Southerners on New Ground (SONG), is organizing the Atlanta chapter. “Black Lives Atlanta will be the polarizing force to “wake people up,” she says
“In this city, we need that force to break up the idea that we’re “a city too busy to hate,” says Hooks.
“It was important that the chapter was created, not so much that I needed to be leading the creation. I stepped in to help make the chapter happen after a mandate from my comrade Dre, who has been one of the many Black gay men organizing for racial justice and engaging the Black mothers that have had children murdered by police in Georgia. The mandate came from our conditions and desire to change them.”
The first meeting, a black-only space was intentional and Hooks is aware that the decision may be viewed as exclusionary.
“There is something we call the “white effect,” which is what happens when white folks are in the room with Black people and they talk too much or shed guilty tears,” she says. “Rooms like that create a dynamic where Black people do not feel comfortable talking about white supremacy, have to code switch when we talk, or have to yield our unapologetically Black space to satisfy the comfort levels of white people.”
Hooks believes their is a role for white allies in the broader movement for racial and economic justice and encourages them ” to take the same level of risk that Black folks have been taking by putting our bodies on the line.”
Queer and trans visibility at the forefront
The contributions of queer and trans folks to Black Lives Matter Atlanta are not taking a back seat to the phobias and heteronormative expectations that are often synonymous with black political movements.
A lesson in preferred gender pronouns permeated the space early on during Thursday’s meeting, which set the tone for affirmation of all black lives regardless of one’s level of understanding of queer identified people.
Activist and performance artist Mickyel Bradford (who prefers female pronouns) was one of several queer activists that carried out the agenda along with Hooks. She acknowledged the challenge of creating a space for black queer individuals within the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I feel like folks are fighting for that space. I don’t think that space has been made for them,” said Bradford. “I think black folks who are not queer identified-who are cisgender- are realizing that these are the folks that have been in their families. And it’s not they’ve had an issue with it, but they’ve been left out of the conversation, so we’re bringing them back into the fold and we’re all coming together as one big family moving forward in strength and unity.”
“The Black Lives Matter Principles” which were given to all in attendance made it clear that in Black Lives Matter Atlanta:
“We are committed to acknowledging, respecting, and celebrating different commonalities.”
“We are committed to embracing and making space for trans brothers and sisters to participate and lead. We are committed to being self-reflexive and doing the work required to dismantle cis-gender privilege and uplift Black trans folk, especially Black trans women who continue to be disproportionately impacted by trans-antagonistic violence.”
“We are committed to fostering a queer-affirming network. When we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking or, rather, the belief that all in the world are heterosexual unless s/he or they disclose otherwise.”
These principles, while not up for debate, didn’t go unchallenged as a meeting attendee insisted that the “feminization of black men” be added to the agenda as an issue to be addressed by the movement.
Anthony Antoine, Atlanta activist and HIV prevention counselor also present at the meeting, tells Georgia Voice that “there was a collective intention to ensure folks knew LGBT people were not only in the room but at the core of this Atlanta chapter being organized.”
Antoine and Bradford seized the opportunity to speak the names of black queer leaders such as Bayard Rustin, Essex Hemphill, James Baldwin and local activists Craig Washington and Pat Hussein as instrumental in the liberation of black lives.
“It was well received by the larger group and agreed upon, which was powerful,” says Antoine. “Now that doesn’t mean that some didn’t sit in silence or think something different as it was going on, but if one black life is left behind, then we are all left behind. This movement is inclusive of all black lives.”
Bradford remains encouraged that those within the movement who are not queer affirming will come around.
“We know that that is not a response to us, but a response that they have not been engaged in queer and trans liberation work,” she says. “We know that white organizations have left them out historically so that’s not their fault. We just have to work from the perspective that they do want to love us, they just have to be taught how.”
Hooks tells Georgia Voice “that the next three years in Atlanta and Georgia will be game changers.”
“There are key opportunities coming down the pike that we can take advantage of to amplify and strengthen local community organizing to address police and state violence that is already happening,” she says. “Having synergy as unapologetic Black people who are ready and willing to get free by any means necessary will unify us and get us to victory.”