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Opal Tometi on the Ongoing Fight Against Police Brutality, From Nigeria to the U.S.

Opal Tometi on the Ongoing Fight Against Police Brutality, From Nigeria to the U.S.
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Photographed by Stephen Tayo

A summer of protest over racist policing in the United States has recently given way to a similar movement in Nigeria, where locals are taking to the streets to make a stand against police brutality.

For activist Opal Tometi, the protests in Nigeria are all too familiar; as one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, she’s used to being part of the fight for Black liberation. As a first-generation Nigerian-American, the movement against the controversial Nigerian police unit known as SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) is particularly relevant. On Monday, Tometi spoke to Vogue about the star-studded new solidarity video she helped create, what America has to learn from Nigeria’s protests, and what she wishes the world understood about her work. (And make sure to check out the full video, which features Uzo Aduba, Yvonne Orji, Jidenna and a host of other Nigerian-American celebrities.)

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Photographed by Stephen Tayo

How did the inspiration for the video come about?

After watching was happening in Nigeria, for several days, it was very clear that our siblings on the ground needed some additional support. Many of us have loved ones there, we have family members there; we’re getting calls, texts, tweets, you name it, we’re in touch with people who are sharing their direct experiences with us. Some of us have been through it, so it was clear that we needed to speak out, and we know that we’re stronger together. And that’s ultimately what I think this video is about. It’s about showing people that we are united in solidarity with our family, with our siblings, with our friends and loved ones on the ground in Nigeria. Many of us were essentially doing our own thing, and we just decided, “Well, why don’t we come together and do something?” We have all these friends who are high-profile and who care just as much; why not mobilize them in this moment as well, and why not do it together? It’s really organic, it comes from true friendships, people we hang out with, people we do business with, people we party with, people we respect and care for who also care about Nigeria.

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Photographed by Stephen Tayo

How would you compare how this protest is being received in Nigeria, versus what we saw this summer in the U.S.? What do you think the U.S. can learn from Nigeria’s protests?

It’s incredible to see as a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, and there are so many similarities with the Nigeria protests, starting with the fact that women are really some of the leading catalysts for this movement and are doing the incredible work of ensuring people are safe and have food and legal support and services. And that’s been phenomenal and similar and very true to what’s happening within the movement in the US. The use of technology and social media is is quite similar as well, as we have people who are using the digital tools that we’re all familiar with to amplify their voices and share about their concern and organize these mobilizations around the country and throughout the diaspora. The thing is, Nigerians are everywhere, right? We’re the largest country in terms of population of Black people. And because the conditions on the ground in Nigeria have been so difficult for so many years, many people have been forced to migrate. We are literally around the world, so the diaspora is huge. When we decide to speak up, it’s heard. I see things for us to learn from one another, so we’re having some conversations behind the scenes to discuss how we can best support. People have essentially said, “Enough is enough, we’re tired of being brutalized, we’re tired of this uncertainty about our future.”

True to what’s happening in the U.S. and around the world, with the pandemic, people have just been pushed until they break. They’re already living paycheck to paycheck, living at the margins of society in terms of the ability to survive, and then you have police who are brutalizing them. It’s like, how much can you take from us? So the fact that our lives are quite literally being taken and snuffed out and we’re being brutalized and beaten, you know…it’s just, “Enough.” The imagery and the rallying cries are so incredibly similar, because the issues are connected; poor governance, poverty, injustice in every system, from health care to high unemployment rates to the criminalization of poor people. Especially for those of us with Nigerian passports, it’s time to just be really honest about what’s going on and why many of us have had to migrate over the years.

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Photographed by Stephen Tayo

Is there anything about your work of resisting oppression that you wish people understood better?

It should be straightforward, but the fact of the matter is, we continue to have people who are upset that Black people would speak up for themselves and organize, and that we would have allies who are right there alongside with us. We have so many people who are courageous and who have a conscience and who also are right alongside with us. We have groups and leaders who lie about us every single day, right? They quite literally create fake news every day about me, about Black Lives Matter, and about our other leaders. Some of it is rooted in sexism, a lot of it is homophobic, because you know, we are a movement that stands for all of us. A lot of it is xenophobic as well; people say things like, “Deport Opal.” But to me, lies aren’t misconception, right? Those folks who are doing that are trying to undermine the movement and trying to cause confusion, but what’s unfortunate is that due to the way we consume media these days, people might get only certain types of news, and as a result, may be confused. I hope they would go to the source—go to my social media, go to our website—and you would see the information directly from us.

The other thing that’s disconcerting to me right now is that I’m looking particularly at what’s happening in Nigeria, and there are a lot of messages being circulated on WhatsApp that are queer-phobic, transphobic, all of that. They’re calling people witches, which is similar to what they did here in the U.S., because, you know, all of our societies are patriarchal. We see niche media being created to try and peel people off from the movement and play into a lot of people’s fears and prejudices. We also see these literal violent attacks; in Nigeria, there are paid thugs—people quite literally being paid by the government going out with machetes, knives, and weaponry to these protests to attack people, even in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. That’s extremely alarming, but I bring up what’s happening in the U.S. because I don’t want people to think it’s different. We had vigilantes go to protests and kill people. We’ve had police put tear gas and rubber bullets in people’s faces. Police have protected armed vigilantes at these protests. I don’t want anybody to think that we’re so far above that, because we know these things are happening with us as well. So let’s not deceive ourselves. However, human rights organizations and people of conscience—people who are witnesses to what is happening—should all rise up and stand alongside each other for justice, no matter what context or country we find ourselves in.

Source: vogue.com