According to the Washington Post’s Fatal Force database, 963 people were shot and killed by police in 2016. 233 individuals, or 24 percent, were African-American. So far in 2017, 25 percent of the 250 individuals shot by police have been African-American.
Four years prior, in 2013, the international Black Lives Matter movement started in response to the shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman. In the City of Williamsburg, the BLM movement was established to address institutional racism, particularly in criminal justice system, and the commodification of black lives and bodies.
Now, Williamsburg’s BLM, in partnership with the students at the College of William and Mary involved with BLM, are kicking off the third annual Black Lives Matter Conference to educate, agitate and organize students and community members, under a tagline, “Built on Our Backs.”
I definitely think [what] it promotes is uplifting black lives, but within that is, when you uplift black lives who are the most targeted in society, you’re uplifting the lives of all minority groups and frankly all people in the community who experience the systemic injustice and oppression,” Student Assembly Secretary of Diversity Initiatives and BLM organizer Erica West ’17 said.
“I definitely think [what] it promotes is uplifting black lives, but within that is, when you uplift black lives who are the most targeted in society, you’re uplifting the lives of all minority groups and frankly all people in the community who experience the systemic injustice and oppression,” Student Assembly Secretary of Diversity Initiatives and BLM organizer Erica West ’17 said. “We are centering narratives of people across the spectrums. It’s important that we recognize that it’s about black people uplifting what’s been going on historically and at the present day, but also the intersection there. I think diversity runs throughout that.”
The week’s events include a keynote speech by activist and former Green Party vice presidential nominee Rosa Clemente, a “walk out” and march on Williamsburg, a discussion on environmental discrimination, tabling and performances the College’s Pride festival and a spoken word and candlelight vigil.
Additionally, in its third year, the conference received funding from Student Assembly through the Black Lives Matter Conference Act, which allocated $7,550, primarily for the keynote lecture.
“I think it’s important to hold this conference because a lot of people on this campus think that because we are in Williamsburg as a mostly white community about whether they have a place here or if they are important,” BLM organizer Damiana Dendy ’17 said. “I think people need to know how to educate themselves, reflect upon their own opinions and then be able to organize and act in an activist community in an effective way.”
According to one of the conference’s supporters, Idan Woodruff ’20, the tagline “Built on Our Backs” is important because of the College’s history with slavery. He said that this was even more relevant after controversy emerged Charter Day weekend when the Thomas Jefferson statue was spray-painted.
“It’s relevant to the specific setting of our campus,” Woodruff said. “‘Built on Our Backs’ is very much important, there was the thing with the Jefferson statue which stirred up controversy of its own. The College was built by slaves, built with their labor … As far as ‘educate, agitate, organize’ goes, that’s kind of what we are trying to get people out here to do. I think there are a lot of people on campus who aren’t against the movement but are ignorant about what it’s about. A lot of this week is about making sure people understand why BLM is important.”
Beyond this conference, BLM has been present in Williamsburg since 2014. One community member, Beth Haw, said that community activists work to promote visibility and recognition of the group in Williamsburg.
“We have the lemonade stand every Saturday,” Haw said. “We try to engage [people] in conversation about why black lives matter. Black people don’t need to keep telling people why they’re important, but it’s important for us as white people to talk about this issue. We give people an opportunity to think about it from a different perspective, maybe not trying to change their minds, but trying to let them think on a broader scale by suggesting books and movies. We’ve been doing it since last August. Every time we come out, we get someone to stand there and talk to us for at least an hour about the issue.”
Kicking off the week’s events, Clemente took the stage to lecture on the systematic oppression she saw in today’s political structures March 26, starting with her interpretation of the current state of political activism.
We, as a part of the Black Lives Matter movement, have to be clear that we don’t have a movement right now,” Clemente said.
“We, as a part of the Black Lives Matter movement, have to be clear that we don’t have a movement right now,” Clemente said. “We don’t have any national movement in this country. We have mobilization and protest with no tangible wins. We have daggering and reactions with no tangible, political resources or changes that affect the majority of our people who are poor, who are struggling to pay rent, to eat food, to have clean water, to not be deported, to be able to be in their faith.”
Clemente then discussed the effects of the presidential election, police violence in places like Ferguson, Mo. and the public education system. By tracing the history of organizing community movements and her personal experiences, Clemente highlighted the necessity of organizing the events.
Finishing her keynote lecture, Clemente said that she was determined to organize activism against current oppression in all its forms.
“I do believe that we are going to win but I know we are about to a lot more losses,” Clemente said. “My faith lies in the people and people’s power. This group of us all over the country, we’re committed to striking the hammer to the system of white supremacy every day. The fight you’re in right now is a fight for very existence, and with every tool I have acquired, with every fight, I gain more momentum. We have to go out on our feet, with our power fists out, confronting unbridled, unchecked power and we can’t ever stop until we’re free.”
One student who attended the keynote address, Travis Harris Ph.D. ’18, said that he thought the lecture was inspiring, particularly in addressing BLM goals in public education.
“Scholar activism empowers and equips scholars to go out into the community and be activists,” Harris said. “We can’t just stay in the class instead of going into the community. A lot of what she said confirmed what I both believed and have been doing. I’m actually the one who organized Black Lives Matter in Williamsburg so it was a confirmation of the work I’ve been doing.”
Another student, Alex Yeumeni ’18, said that she thought the lecture highlighted the importance of being connected with the communities that organizations were serving.
“Work never finishes, and the fight never ends,” Dendy said. “This week, for me, is to the students and the community and after this week, is going to be me doing work with the students and with the communities. Come to our events to educate yourselves, to learn to how to organize, and after the conference, you’ll have the tools to act on those things.”
Reporting was contributed to this article by Flat Hat Senior Staff Writer Kayla Sharpe ’17 and Flat Hat Associate News Editor Yutong Zhan ’20.