In this conversation, Alycia Ellington and Diana Saavedra – graduate students at San José State University – talk about their experiences of growing up as women of colour in California, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and participating in the ongoing anti-racism protests over the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and many more in the hands of the police and racism in America.

Since 1776, Black Americans have fought against institutional, systemic, and structural injustices in events like Nat Turner’s rebellion, the Civil Rights Movement, and in political organisations such as the Black Panthers.

Of these injustices, police brutality and an inequitable criminal justice system have long been topics of focus. Black people have been disproportionately over-policed and unfairly punished compared to their White counterparts. When White folks perform criminal acts, such as mass shootings, they are arrested peacefully and face little to no repercussions from the justice system.

Earlier last month, as the COVID-19 pandemic surged, White nationalists armed with assault rifles took over and ‘protected’ the Michigan state capitol building, and were applauded by President Donald Trump. On the other hand, in 2014, at just twelve years of age, Tamir Rice was fatally shot over a toy gun in Cleveland, Ohio.

And in 2012, 17 year-old Trayvon Martin was murdered for looking ‘suspicious’ in a hoodie while purchasing skittles. In response to Trayvon’s death, three Black radical organisers, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, created the Black Lives Matter organisation.

A #BlackLivesMatter demonstration in Washington DC, November 2015 | Photo: Johnny Silvercloud, Flickr

Since the organisation’s inception in 2013, they have grown to nearly forty chapters throughout the United States, and have fought against the discrimination and murder of Black folks at the hands of white supremacy and police brutality.

Today, the Black Lives Matter movement is one of the leading forces in the protests driven by the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and has received global attention and support. 

DIANA: Can you tell me about your experience as a Black woman, growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area of California?

ALYCIA: As a Black woman, I have faced discrimination throughout my lifetime. I first learned about racial inequality while in preschool, when a White classmate told me she could not play with me due to the colour of my skin. I have been called the N-word, been watched and followed in a store by employees, accused of stealing, had my race and culture made into a joke by non-Black folks, been the subject of tokenism, forced to alter my appearance to ‘fit in’ (for example, straighten my hair), forced to code switch, and have had discriminatory remarks made to me by White educators.

Although I have faced some racial hardships while growing up, I did find some positives here in the Bay Area, such as thriving communities of colour that are rich in history, culture, and traditions.

DIANA: What has your experience been participating in the #BlackLivesMatter protests? What or who inspired you to get involved in the movement?

ALYCIA: I attended a protest in San José where police corralled us like cattle, threw tear gas, and directly shot rubber bullets into the crowd. It was very emotional seeing folks who looked like me fighting together against a corrupt nation that is targeting Black communities.

I want to also acknowledge and applaud the brave Black youth who are using their voice and putting their lives at stake, as so many of the demonstrations are youth driven. You deserve to be here, you deserve to be heard, and you deserve to have equal opportunity in this world.

George Floyd protests in San José, California | Photo courtesy: authors

DIANA: Yes, you’re right. It has been very emotional getting involved in such a powerful movement. Overall, I think the various works of Black and brown women around the world have really radicalised me and made me passionate about fighting for social equality. I owe so much to them for their intellectual labor.

With regard to the recent protests, I attended a demonstration in Oakland. We were met by tear gas and by a standoff with the police. People were rightfully angry and you could feel everyone’s grief, passion, and rage within the crowds. It’s crazy that we’re simultaneously experiencing a poorly-handled pandemic that disproportionately affects Black people while protesting the murder of Black people by the hands of the police. It’s so symbolic of a nation that is literally sick of its social disparities and the lack of equal protection.

DIANA: There are different opinions on what protests against police brutality should look like. What are your thoughts on the manner in which the movement has been perceived in the media, such as reports of looting, vandalism, and property damage?

ALYCIA: There are multiple sides to every story, and this is my sole opinion on the matter. All the protests that have taken place throughout the world have started off as peaceful, until in most cases the police arrived and applied aggressive force. I believe the media only showcases one side of the story, which is mainly how protestors are causing mayhem and destruction throughout the world, while masking the peaceful and uplifting moments, and in turn diminishing the overall movement.

Black folks have been peacefully protesting for years, and in turn, are ridiculed. In 1965 Martin Luther King Jr. marched in Selma, Alabama where these demonstrations were deemed ‘not peaceful’. And in 2016 Colin Kaepernick, formerly of the SF 49ers, took a knee during the national anthem, where he was deemed a disgrace by President Trump.

A shopping cart on fire at a George Floyd protest in Oakland, US | Photo courtesy: authors

We have tried peaceful protests, but no matter what approach we take, it is always seen as a disturbance and unlawful. We shouldn’t have to fight for equal opportunity, against police brutality and supremacy, and for our lives. But we will use our voices to stand up and support one another, and fight against an unjust system that is constantly trying to silence us.

DIANA: I completely agree that peaceful protests have a long history in the US, yet they’re never taken seriously when they’re led by Black, Indigenous, and people of colour. I think we live in a violent country that sadly only responds to violence, and people are understanding this. People are grieving and they’re taking it out in ways they know it hurts a capitalist state the most. And so, big companies and corporations that have a long history of anti-blackness have been targeted.

Yes, small businesses and properties are also being looted, but there’s plenty of footage out there that exposes the police and non-protestors as the main agitators. Property damages, unfortunately, are a hidden cost of the plight of police brutality. But either way, whoever is behind the looting, I don’t think people should be valuing and focusing on material goods and property over actual human lives. It takes attention away from the root causes of the protests and feeds into a capitalist mindset.

ALYCIA: The fight against racial inequalities, institutional corruption, and police brutality has dominated the US, and has gained global attention. Can you tell me about your thoughts on the global solidarity for Black folks in America?

DIANA: It’s so amazing to see! Not only are protests present in all 50 US states, but people are marching all around the world! I think everyone is watching right now and their solidarity is really telling on how global police brutality and other related issues are.

However, it’s really worrying remembering that we are also in the middle of a global pandemic and people are risking their lives supporting the movement. So many people everywhere are opposing the shelter-in-place and curfew orders to take the streets in solidarity. Seeing everyone in masks and gloves is a reminder that it is still possible to get infected by COVID-19.

Protest march in Washington DC against the murder of George Floyd | Photo: Ted Eytan, Flickr

Black people who choose to attend protests not only risk their lives against a fatal virus that disproportionately affects their communities, but are also forced to take the risk of falling victim to police misconduct, produced and fuelled by the protests. But, I also think it shows the love that we have for each other as a global community and the measures we will take to fight for one another.

It shows that our anger and frustration with systemic inequalities stem from our love for our Black peers. It’s crucial to not stop here and to keep fighting, learning, and undoing racist structures and systems nationally and globally. 

We hope that the ongoing global movement triggers extensive systematic changes to better the lives of the Black community within the US.

We hope that allies educate themselves on how to become anti-racist, rather than just being against racism. We believe that allies should continue to show solidarity in ways that are effective, rather than just doing it because it is trendy or to gain social capital. We hope that the world can develop into a place where authorities are fully held accountable for their unlawful actions.

Protesters react to tear gas at George Floyd protests in Washington DC, 30 May 2020 | Photo: Rosa Pineda, WC

In addition, community resources should be developed and implemented to strengthen community protection, and decrease the need for policing. Further, we demand equal and fair treatment for all Black folks throughout the nation.

And finally, we hope that everyone can support honest politicians, and in turn, the judicial system holds those that are corrupt and not immune to the justice system accountable for their heinous actions.

With these changes, we hope the US and the world can become a more equitable place, where all Black folks can feel safe and appreciated.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Alycia Ellington was born and raised in San José, and is currently a Masters student in Environmental Studies at San José State University. Her thesis work focuses on community-based environmental education for disadvantaged students in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Diana Saavedra grew up in Southern California and now resides in the East Bay. She is an Environmental Studies Masters student at San José State University. Her work revolves around building equitable transit systems in marginalised communities that prevent gentrification and displacement.

Featured image: Mural portrait of George Floyd by Eme Street Art in Mauerpark, Berlin, Germany | Wikimedia Commons