"black and breathing" sign

Friday Feminist Fuck Yeah: An interview with a Black Brunch organizer

Ed. note: This post was originally published on the Community site.

Most direct actions aren’t meant to be a pleasant experience for their intended audience. From the Civil Rights Era sit-ins to the Montgomery bus boycott, they are meant to, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.” 

This is the quote that Jova Johnson Vargas referenced when I interviewed her about #BlackBrunch. Black Brunch is a series of direct actions that started in Oakland, CA and has spread to cities like New York City, St. Louis, and Chicago, in which black organizers accompanied, in some cases, by white allies disrupt diners in predominantly upper-income white neighborhoods in order to sing and bring to light the issue of police brutality.

“The point of direct action is to make people uncomfortable,” said Vargas. “We felt like there are so many people here who are just moderate, who don’t want to deal with the reality of state-sanctioned violence, who don’t want to deal with the reality of state sanctioned murder. And so, we thought, ‘What can we do to activate those people?'”

Vargas is one of the members of a collective group of black organizers from Oakland, CA that was behind the very first Black Brunch. The collective has been involved in organizing many direct actions, including the epic shutdown of the Oakland Police Department. The Oakland organizers have created one of many powerful models within the #BlackLivesMatter movement that can teach us a lot about direct actions, social media, and rotational leadership roles.

"black and breathing" sign

This became very clear, especially when I asked Vargas about the critiques and backlash to #BlackBrunch, especially #BlackBrunchNYC. Although most of the backlash, specifically on Twitter, has been utterly racist, many Twitter users have even used Martin Luther King, Jr’s name to criticize the protests. One particular user who has a picture of Dr. King as his Twitter default said: “Read MLK speeches. MLK sought the support of the white masses. #blackbrunchnyc is counterproductive.”

But Vargas notes that King deliberated used direct action”as a tool, a tactic, or mechanism for sort of waking people up in a way that they wouldn’t. MLK has also taught us so much about what it means to be willing to go to places that people wouldn’t think of usually,” she explains.

That’s clear from the depiction of King in the recently released film Selma. In the film, we see that activists insist on marching from Selma to Montgomery despite the fear of a violent backlash. Although many questioned the effect that such a march would have, King insisted that the march must occur. He deliberately did so to bring to light the actual backlash that was imminent. Similarly, a backlash with #BlackBrunchNYC did occur.

Vargas say that some of the backlash questioned the decision to hold these actions at restaurants when the Civil Rights Movement fought precisely to allow restaurants to become desegregated. She said, “We have to think about state sanctioned violence as another kind or form of segregation, as another way that black people are oppressed. We have these establishments where yes, we can enter but once we get there, how are we treated upon arrival right? What do these folks think about our lives?”

Recently, Oprah Winfrey, who acted as one of the producers of Selma, said that the Black Lives Matter movement was “leaderless.” Yet a good look at the movement actually shows quite the opposite. Although there isn’t a prominent leader or spokesperson, even when some do seem to covet that title, the movement has given rise to many different leaders, including women like Synead Nichols and Umaara Elliott who were behind the Millions March NYC, Erica Garner (Eric Garner’s daughter), and Carmen Perez, the Founder of Justice League NYC.

Vargas states that in the collective where she organizes, they claim that the movement is “Leaderfull, not Leaderless.” “There are so many different ways to communicate and I actually think it’s very beautiful and important that this movement remains leaderless or leaderfull with multiple leaders. From what I have learned, it allows the collective voice of a people to be heard rather than just one voice,” she says.

This approach to leadership may well allow voices of marginalized people that are often overseen in these movements to become more prominent. Alicia Garza, one of the co-founders of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign wrote on Feminist Wire that Black Lives Matter “goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all.”

Vargas states that “social media has allowed national messaging to become cohesive, allowed us to have national solidarity, and gives the people information in an easy way.” Nonetheless, she reminds us that not everyone has a Twitter account.

The collective that Vargas is in continues organizing around the issue of police brutality. On the weekend of January 18th they staged an action called #WakeUpTheMayor outside of Oakland mayor’s Libby Schaaf’s home. During this protest, at 6am, they projected a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. with a quote that read “Silence is betrayal.” Vargas wasn’t in attendance at that protest, but she was actively tweeting about it.

“As long as we are black and breathing”, she says, “we will honor the lives of our lost ones.”

New York City

Amanda Alcantara is a writer, a journalist, and a community organizer. Her work has appeared on Guerrilla Feminism, El Diario La Prensa and The Grio. She is a Co-Founder of La Galería Magazine, a magazine for Dominican Diaspora, and author of the blog Radical Latina. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Journalism & Media Studies and Political Science from Rutgers University where she helped relaunch the Latin American Womyn's Organization. Amanda also does community theater and writes poetry. She's a firm believer in healing through art and in fighting for liberation. A map of the world turned upside down hangs on her wall.

Amanda Alcantara is a writer and freelance journalist

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