Black Lives Matter movement co-founders Opal Tometti and Alicia Garza as well as affiliated activist Janaya Kahn participated in a panel discussion as part of Cornell’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Lecture held in Sage Chapel.
The event was highly anticipated on campus and in Ithaca. Ushers had to turn people away after Sage Chapel was filled to capacity—750 seats.
The discussion was moderated by Ithaca College Professor Sean Eversley-Bradwell, education, and featured the panelists discussing the genesis of the Black Lives Matter movement, its meaning, and other issues regarding race and racism in the United States and abroad.
Much of what the panelists spoke about consisted of giving examples of institutional, structural, and systemic anti-black racism, with other topics including white supremacy, white fragility, the role of love in the Black Lives Matter movement, and the issue of black-on-black crime. On the last topic, Garza said she wishes to “retire” that phrase and prefers to focus instead on the violence of the state, claiming “not all violence is created equal”.
Towards the end of the event Tometti turned to the topic of “structural racism on the global scale”. After commenting on the European migrant crisis, she turned to the issue of free trade, calling trade deals between European and African countries forms of “anti-black racism” and “neo-colonialism” because according to her they have worsened African economies. In consequence, she stated that global capitalism is unsustainable. Climate change, also, is a form of “global anti-blackness” according to Tometti because six out of the 10 countries that ranked highest on the “climate change vulnerability index” are in Africa, according to a study she referenced.
Absent from the event was the third co-founder, Patrisse Cullors—the first to actually write “#BlackLivesMatter”—due to personal reasons. Garza explained that after the announcement of the not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial she wrote a message on Facebook which was shared by Cullors along with the now-famous hashtag.
Preceding the panel discussion were several performances and introductions, including ones from Cornell Vice President Ryan Lombardi and President Elizabeth Garrett.
Lombardi spoke of the “most meaningful conversations” he had last semester, his first at Cornell, which he said were those with students about creating a “more just campus environment… and eradicating the systemic racism that still plagues the nation.” Garrett praised the Black Lives Matter movement for “fighting the myth [that] since the Civil Rights movement [the] United States has become color-blind or post-racial.” Concluding this thought, Garrett also said that eventually Black Lives Matter and affiliated activists will successfully “turn history around”, which suggests that history is an object, or rather a force, in motion, a notion that might seem familiar to some.
When speaking about the origins of #BlackLivesMatter, Garrett, quit oddly, called George Zimmerman “a white man” (in contrast to her calling Trayvon Martin “a black man”) in such a way as to draw attention to that contrast, despite the fact that Zimmerman is mixed race (half White, half Hispanic) and identified himself as Hispanic on his voter registration. This glaring error was even corrected by panelist Alicia Garza later in the event, when she referred to Zimmerman as “actually not a white person.”
Last year’s MLK commemorative lecture featured MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, whose speech was widely covered in the press after a video taken by The Cornell Review caught her on video saying she hoped Trayvon Martin “whooped the shit out of George Zimmerman”.