As a part of Colorado College’s Social Justice Series, Dr. Michael Sawyer sat down for an intimate discussion with Dr. Melina Abdullah, professor of Pan-African Studies at California State University and co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter. The talk focused on the politics of protest, the policing of Black lives, and what it means to be an activist.
They began by defining exactly what “political protests” are. Dr. Abdullah explained how she was “born into protesting,” growing up in Oakland, Calif. in a turbulent period of protests against police violence, such as those surrounding the Rodney King case. She explained how during the 1980s and 1990s, activism died down as a “desire to replace protest with efforts towards incorporation” came about. This was because they were “duped into believing we didn’t have to engage in that anymore.”
After the L.A. Riots of 1992, Abdullah explained, people began to interrogate every aspect of Black life. Even with the long pause in activism, “each movement builds on the previous.” Even as these moments in history come to a close, the residue remains.
For Abdullah, activism is more than an art form; “it is a sacred duty.” After injustices such as the Trayvon Martin tragedy, she saw it as her duty to change the system that would allow for a 17-year-old boy to be murdered in cold blood, simply because he was Black.
Looking more specifically at police violence toward Black communities, Abdullah explained how “police violence is not an aberration,” but is rather “what policing is designed to do,” as it evolved from slave-catching. She emphasized the importance of understanding the relationship between police and capital, as law enforcement is put in place to protect the rights of the capitalist class. Mass incarceration of people of color, specifically of Black Americans, evidence this. We must never forget the capitalist implications of each arrest and each imprisonment.
Abdullah emphasized the importance of everyday activism in which we can all engage, including the boycott of the gym chain 24 Hour Fitness, which has shown discriminatory practices without any repercussions. Abdullah commented on how she “doesn’t consider herself an activist, [she] considers herself an organizer.” Voting does make a difference, but it is not necessarily a form of protest which forces a response. For Abdullah, it’s not just about reforming; rather it is about transforming society as a whole.
Although police brutality and racial discrimination continue to exist, fight is not futile. Dr. Abdullah encouraged us all to “take the time to see each other, take time to really fall in love with each other.” By finding love in a movement that loves you back, real, true work can be accomplished.