Maxine Beneba Clarke on the Black Grapevine and the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.
Black Lives Matter in Australia
1. The Black Grapevine’s always been a key means of mobilisation. You better believe we all up in each other’s business: smug eyebrow raised over the fence and knowing what’s what. Goes down like this: your-mama-shouts-your-neighbour-calls-her-aunty-tells-the-milkman-whispers-to-the-boss-back-at-the-factory-goes-home-and-tells-his-missus-gathers-the-children-does-Uncle-Buddy-know-yet-someone-better-run-over. Brush fire becomes roar.
In 2013, in the wake of the verdict that saw the killer of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin exonerated by an almost all-white jury, writer and activist Alicia Garza posted an open love letter to black people on Facebook. We don’t deserve to be killed with impunity. We need to love ourselves and fight for a world where black lives matter. Black people. I love you. I love us. We matter. Our lives matter. Artist and activist Patrisse Cullors then turned #blacklivesmatter into a hashtag. Soon, writer, strategist and community organiser Opal Tometi came on board. Black Lives Matter, a queer- and femme-led movement in support of black lives, blew the concept of Black Grapevine to Violet Beauregarde proportions. Your-mama-shouted-the-neighbour-called-her-aunty-told-the-milkman, and the whole black world started making noise.
2. It is a testimony to the original three founders that the Black Lives Matter movement does not lend itself well to individual portraiture. It has evolved to be every black face, and have no face at all. Indigenous Australians have a fierce history of colonial resistance in this land, dating back to white invasion. Black lives mattering here starts not with black arrivants, but with the recognition of sovereignty unceded. Black Lives Matter makes room for geographical context. Black Lives Matter is history and future. It is a movement borne of love, that must grapple with the most potent hate of all. Black Lives Matter is war cry and warm hug; laughter and tears; David and Goliath.
3. The lawn outside State Library Victoria is jam-packed. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags fly high. Bodies of all colours, shapes and sizes lean in to Aboriginal and African diaspora speakers. I adjust my backpack, strain to hear from the back of the crowd. Always was, always will be Aboriginal land! The speeches finish. Thousands-strong, we make our way towards Flinders Street.
Hands up, don’t shoot. Hands up, don’t shoot. The rally chants the words credited to 18-year-old Michael Brown, shot dead in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, in an incident that has galvanised the movement Alicia, Opal and Patrisse started. The words black lives matter are now known the world over. We collectively draw in, and begin chanting them.
In the eyes of Bourke Street Mall onlookers a skittering fear is lurking. A mass of so many bodies, moving with one will, cannot easily be contained. This is one of the crucial lessons of people power. Show up. Put your body on the street. Stand together. Be visible.
The Black Lives Matter chant is born of Black Love. And yet, to the diseased gaze of White Conservatore, the Black Lives Matter movement is irrational hulk: an impulsive brute force that dances Molotov-in-hand on the hoods of burnt-out cop cars, causing riot squads to ring cities.
The sister in front holds a placard that reads I can’t breathe, the last words of Eric Garner, killed by NYPD stranglehold in July 2014. The brother next to me wields a cardboard sign: We Gon Be Alright. He presses play on his portable ghetto blaster. Bob Marley rings out.
In just over a month, in the Western Australian mining town of Kalgoorlie, an Indigenous boy younger than Trayvon Martin will be run down and killed. In just under a year, his killer will similarly be handed a sentence that defies any sense of human decency, again by an almost all-white jury. But today, we raise our voices together, against an impossibly blue sky. Don’t worry ’bout a thing. Cause every little thing’s gonna be alright.
4. It’s May 2016. It has just been announced that the three black women who founded #blacklivesmatter have been awarded the 2017 Sydney Peace Prize. Cyberspace lights electric. Aunty-tells-the-milkman-tells-his-boss-who-tells-the-missus.
A year-and-a-half later, Patrisse Cullors is here with Rodney Diverlus, the lead organiser for Canadian Black Lives Matter. On the ground, community organising has been happening for some time. Tell-the-children-to-tell-their-teacher-to-tell-the-janitor-and-does-his-Uncle-Tariq-know-yet-someone-better-get-a-hold-of-him. The two treat their time in Australia as listening trip and celebration. I follow along on social media, as they talk with Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, South Sea Islander and African diaspora communities. They address The Press Club. They hear from members of the Stolen Generations. The press swarms, and black lives matter.
5. Sydney Town Hall looms in front of me. Pedimented windows. Sandstone Second Empire architecture. Imposing clock tower. Walking up the stairs, I feel a haunting unease. I am achingly aware of what lies beneath: the stolen land of the Eora nation. This November afternoon, I will scale the steps of 1880s colonial majesty to host a celebratory conversation with the United States and Canadian representatives of the Black Lives Matter global movement. A peculiar irony.
Sombre-faced security officials stationed at the door direct me to pass my bag through a conveyor belt X-ray machine. My bag is handed back to me. I continue through under impossibly high ceilings and intricately moulded archways, across stunningly mosaiced floors.
Aunty Yvonne Weldon’s heartfelt Welcome to Country opens proceedings. Uncle Archie Roach’s soul-felt and stirring baritone snakes up the enormous blue-lit pipe organ. Professor Larissa Behrendt and Aunty Gracelyn Smallwood detail the pride and resilience of First Nations people, in the face of chilling oppression. Patrisse Cullors reads a rollcall of those taken, unfathomly brutally and impossibly soon. Beautiful black people and black lives matter supporters celebrate the power of all of us together, and the strength of each of us coming just as we are.
6. It is our duty to fight for our freedom. Patrisse Cullors thunders into the microphone, left fist raised high in the air. The audience leans forward, repeating the sentence as one. It is our duty to win. The room choruses the words back. We must love each other, and support each other. The words of this last line are drawn out long and soulful, hover in the air for several seconds. We have nothing to lose but our chains. Patrisse steps back from the microphone, shoulder-length black braids threaded with golden strands, charcoal gown flowing. The Sydney Town Hall explodes in thunderous elation.
Tell-your-mama-to-shout-your-neighbour-to-call-her-aunty-to-tell-her-doctor about Black Lives Matter Global Network.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 18, 2017 as "Movement in B major".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription
Letters & Editorial