In this blog entry, I (Alison Reiheld, Director of Women’s Studies at SIUE) summarize our recent Featured Speaker for the 2015-16 year and provide a copy of my introduction to her talk. Both show why we very much need to be talking about Black Lives Matter and focusing on local causes of injustice.
On April 13, Ashley Yates spoke to SIUE students, faculty, staff, and community members. Her talk, “Pulling Out All the Stops: How Local Municipalities Stonewall Black Families,” examined the unique features of North County and the municipalities surrounding St. Louis.
In part as a direct result of white flight from St. Louis and attempts by those who fled to draw boundaries around their communities that would insulate them from black and other ethnic minorities, there are over 90 municipalities and 10 unincorporated census-designated places. Many are less than 1 square mile in area, with populations under or just barely over 1,000. Nearly all have their own municipal system including courts and law enforcement. Many give vastly more tickets for traffic offenses than there are residents, funding their systems through penalties which seriously damage the financial and legal status of those on whose backs these systems are built. These backs are overwhelmingly black. A person can run afoul of multiple police departments in a 10-mile stretch of Natural Bridge Road. If that person cannot pay the ticket fine, they begin to incur court fees. If they cannot pay these, a warrant may be issued for their arrest. Once arrested, they lose jobs, gain a criminal record, and sometimes lose the right or ability to vote. This is a very real debtors’ prison.
Cycles of poverty, loss of money, loss of voting rights due to felony convictions or loss of picture ID now required for voting: all of these disenfranchise voters who are, again, overwhelmingly black. As Yates said, over 60% of black men in St. Louis have lost the right to vote. While more women retain this right, the pervasive sense that both black men and women are governed by systems over which they have no democratic control–due to literal inability to vote, or by law enforcement from municipalities other than their own having frequent control over their lives and finances–leads to a very real and often very correct sense that black folks in North County are not truly seen as citizens nor are they able to exercise their rights of citizenship. How to engage with your own society, your own government in the face of losing traditional means of political citizenship? Use others. Build cadres (Yates’ own word). Protest. Bring legal challenges. Use media. Continue when the cameras are no longer watching. Use social media. Repeat.
Yates did a masterful job presenting these realities, making effective use of excerpts from a documentary video which you may wish to view. These are realities that we have good reason to become and remain aware of, as I argued in my introduction of Yates, below.
This talk would not be possible without the mutual support of the SIUE Black Studies Program and its Director Prince Wells, and the continued support of the SIUE Women’s Studies program by SIUE’s College of Arts and Sciences including Dean Greg Budzban, Associate Dean Wendy Shaw, Grant Andree, and Shavonda Mitchom. Without them, we could neither bring Ashley Yates here to speak with us today nor provide refreshments of any kind, much less cookies. Did I mention there are cookies? Feel free to partake at any point. Before we begin, I would like to say a few words about Ashley Yates and the reasons her talk here tonight is so valuable.
In 1993, legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw published one of the most powerful elucidations of a long-recognized phenomenon: that people who have membership in multiple groups have social positions determined by those overlapping memberships. She called this “intersectionality” and argued that the discrimination affecting women as a class manifests quite differently for some women than for others. Thus, straight white middle class women are in a very different social situation from straight black middle class women, who are in turn in a very different social situation from poor lesbian black women. These traits, Crenshaw said, are not just additive. Rather, the whole is great than the some of the parts. Women differ from each other by race, class, ability status, sexual preference, class, educational level, and gender expression.
To borrow a phrase, what difference does this difference make? All the difference there is. For activists and scholars who work on injustice, intersectionality has become a fundamental concept. Failing to account for it in analysis or in actual policies sets us up for failure. Those who respond to “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter” dismiss the value of intersectional analyses, as well as dismissing the history of black folks’ treatment in our society which has not at all conveyed that all lives matter. Those who respond to calls for women’s rights and security by dismissing the term “feminist” and calling for “humanism” make the same mistake. We go badly wrong when we assume that all people share the same opportunities or lack thereof, that all women share the same opportunities or lack thereof, that all black folks share the same opportunities or lack thereof, that all poor folks share the same opportunities or lack thereof, that all families share the same opportunities or lack thereof. Focusing on the way that social and political systems treat different people differently is a fundamental task of the work of justice. Without it, we cannot hope to undo injustice.
We have invited Ashley Yates to speak today because her work does just this. With Black Lives Matter in Missouri and California, and in her own right, Yates has levied coordinated policy critiques that account for intersectionality and for systemic injustice. Her social media presence under the Twitter handle BrownBlaze garners thousands of likes and retweets daily. Yates was involved in the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, against militarized police and systematic injustice in municipal government. Of her involvement in those protests, Yates has said “The killing of Mike Brown and the subsequent reaction by the police department—from the initial brutalization of community members in Canfield to the mass terror enacted upon those of us on West Florissant and at the Police Department—left me no choice but to fight with every fiber of my being to do my part to enact change. None of these events should have ever occurred in 21st-century America, much less been allowed to continue with impunity.” Yates became instrumental in the growing Black Lives Matter movement along with Alicia Garza of Oakland, Opal Tometi of New York, and Patrisse Cullors of Los Angeles who were involved in the very beginnings of Black Lives Matter in 2013. The movement coalesced after George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin and after the shooting of Michael Brown and police responses to protests. Yates’ activism did not begin, though, with the Ferguson protests after the shooting of Michael Brown. She became politicized as a teenager when her aunt introduced her to the writings of James Baldwin, Sonia Sanchez, and Assata Shakur. She served as political chair of the Legion of Black Collegians at the University of Missouri Columbia, where she learned many skills she now deploys in her social justice work. These efforts and her work with Black Lives Matter led her to be invited to the White House along with other activists to meet with President Obama and his staff.
Today, Ashley Yates will share with us her hard-won, carefully-developed knowledge of the way that small town and city policies can affect black families. I urge you to consider what this calls us to do. And if in hearing it you are filled with a righteous anger that fuels the flame of change, so much the better. As the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle said, it is a virtue to be angry with the right people and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose and in the right way. And as black lesbian scholar and poet Audre Lorde has urged, the right use of anger is not guilt and defensiveness, but corrective surgery. First, however, we must know where to operate.