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Guest Op-Ed: A Movement’s Second Reckoning: Black LGBTQ Lives Matter

The aftermath of the Rayshard Brooks murder at the Wendy's in Atlanta where he was shot by former APD Officer Garrett Rolfe. (Photo by Craig Washington)

By Craig Washington

Rayshard Brooks was a 27 year-old father of four who planned to take his 8 year-old daughter skating for her birthday the next day but he never made it. The assorted footage offers us snapshots of a man who once drew breath, spoke softly, negotiated peacefully, wrestled mightily, ran as if both desperate and hopeful, all the while looking forward to his daughters smile and a tomorrow he would not live to see. He would offer to walk home to his sister's home. “I don't want to be in violation with anybody”, he assured his killers. When he broke free from the arrest and ran, turning their taser back on them, they shot him three times in the back. In the flash of a instinctive killer's reflex, another Black father and husband will never come home again. In the worldview of the police, enforced by a cultural code no amount of sensitivity training will erase, Brooks was born “in violation”.

Former APD Officer Garrett Rolfe searches Rayshard Brooks for weapons moments before Brooks is murdered. (Screenshot)

The South Atlanta Wendy's is, or rather was 3 blocks from my apartment. That evening I picked up my “No Justice No Peace” sign and made my way to the swelling crowd at University Ave. I made the sign last week for a rally in Midtown. I added “Rayshard Brooks” to the five other names which had included Tony McDade, a Black trans man who was shot by police in Tallahassee, FL. His killer was heard to shout “Don't move nigger” then shot McDade without further warning. I did not expect another entry to the list in less than one week. Rally organizers including Devin Barrington Ward and Jonathan Lyle roused the crowd with spirited chants. They noted how this latest murder was another mark of a warrior-oriented police culture.

Later that evening, that Wendy's was set on fire and completely destroyed. That edifice could not be allowed to stand because it was no longer a Wendy's. It was now an affront to the neighborhood. By Sunday night, the barren shell was turned into an altar so that what happened would not be forgotten. Modest bouquets and messages graffitied across charred brick redeemed the wreckage as a memorial for a community in rebellious mourning.

Photo by Craig Washington

The leaders of BLM may be steering us to the brink of true revolution. They draw from earlier movement strategies as references rather than models to identically emulate. Their demonstrations and consistent messaging have scored significant successes. In over 20 U.S. cities, efforts are under way to reduce police utilization for community safety, prohibit excessive force tactics, and reallocate funds from hefty department budgets to cash poor social services programs. While these changes are not the sweeping health, education and anti-poverty overhauls needed to achieve equity, this is a pivotal shift. To dismantle institutions that perpetuate slavery through the brute force regulation of Black bodies, is meaningful change.

There is more than one reckoning this movement is summoning forth. BLM was founded by Black queer feminists. LGBTQ liberation has always been an integral principle of their praxis, not some non-essential side bar. Several demonstrations have raised the lesser known names of Black transgender victims alongside cisgender victims. Black transgender lives, routinely overlooked by the majority, are now being lifted to the front and center of this conversation.

(Left to right) BLM Founders Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza. (Courtesy of Patrisse Cullors; Hank Willis Thomas/Courtesy of Opal Tometi; Kristin Little/Courtesy of Alicia Garza)

Progress is inevitably met with some counterforce committed to maintaining status quo. There are many Black folks who read BLM's attention to Black queer issues as a form of co-opting Black centered movements. White queer organizations' misappropriation of Black activist tools and quotes to restore white privilege deepened this distrust but it is not the sole cause. The same people who do not see LGBTQ liberation as legitimate anti-oppression work will dismiss Black LGBTQ activists as well. It was not long ago that Black feminism was forcefully rebuked as a distraction to the larger movement, a conspiracy of man-haters and anti Black lesbians serving Eurocentric interests. If this sounds familiar it is because defenses of Black patriarchy are recycled for each generation. Beliefs and practices that challenge it are branded as an alien threat to cultural integrity.

BLM is not yesterday's movement nor will it cave to old fears and prejudices. Black people cannot expect to change the world without being changed. Some Black heterosexuals quickly disavow male or heterosexual privilege due to the racism they suffer. A critical component of that change is the revelation that one can occupy at once oppressed and privileged positions. Black folks will have to examine the ways in which we collude with white supremacy by holding on to our own oppressive practices. This is no false equivalency with the anti-Black violence that threatens our survival. I am a Black gay man fighting for all of me to be free not just the parts that meet others' approval. I want to experience Black folks loving Black folks without cowardly conditions, not in spite but inclusive of our differences. Can we envision more than an end to racism? Can we envision what we need to begin?

"I am a Black gay man fighting for all of me to be free not just the parts that meet others' approval."-Craig Washington (pictured)

I attended a Black Trans Lives Matter rally three weeks ago which was dedicated to Tony McDade. The organizers had spoken with hetero folks who had planned a march in the same area. They had agreed to coordinate efforts and have the trans rally attendees join the march once the rally in Piedmont Park was done. But when the hetero march folks arrived, the Black trans men were still addressing the crowd. It was a rare event to see Black trans men so lovingly featured yet the march organizers were visibly restless in their entitlement to space. Toni-Michelle Williams, CEO of Solutions Not Punishment, Inc. intervened with a firm toned diplomacy. It was a graceful assertion of control. She narrated the original arrangement and the miscommunication. And when the female organizer who had waited too long became agitated, Williams calmed her down. “It was her intention to rally her people and she wanted the mike in order to do that,” Williams told me. “I knew if she would have done that, if she had taken her folks with her who were present in that moment, people would lose trust in her leadership as a Black woman”. Williams explained that the trans men present hardly ever get to speak publicly about their experiences with police violence and no one asks to hear from them. She elaborated on what Piedmont Park means for LGBTQ people.

Toni-Michelle Williams, trans activist and Executive Director of Solutions Not Punishment speaks during a rally at Atlanta City Hall in 2015. (Photo via Facebook)

“I wanted her to trust my leadership as a Black trans woman. If we are re-imagining this world, we also have to see clearly past the ways in which we have been together.”

I stopped by Rayshard Brooks’ memorial on University Ave while it still stands so that I too do not forget. The differences between our circumstances are not so important in the face of death which I must someday face. I am Black and I have fallen asleep at the wheel of my car. If I shared his position, then he shared mine.

Craig Washington is a writer, HIV advocate, and public speaker living in Atlanta.

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