These Savvy Women Have Made Black Lives Matter the Most Crucial Left-Wing Movement Today

Shamell Bell, left, Melina Abdullah and Povi-Tamu Bryant are key leaders of "leaderless" Black Lives Matter.
Shamell Bell, left, Melina Abdullah and Povi-Tamu Bryant are key leaders of "leaderless" Black Lives Matter.
Photo by Shane Lopes

There was a time when Melina Abdullah wanted to be the next Maxine Waters.

A year or two ago, I recognized that those middle-class aspirations are done,” Abdullah says now, in the soothing voice of a therapist or guidance counselor. “You can’t go in and yell at people or camp in front of the mayor’s house and go, ‘Now I’m running for office.’ I had to make peace with that.”

Abdullah lives in a three-bedroom house in Crenshaw with her three children. She drives a Volvo. She’s a tenured professor and chairs the Pan-African Studies department at Cal State Los Angeles. She’s a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first black sorority. She was appointed by Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas to the county’s Human Relations Commission. Abdullah, in other words, has more than a toe in the American middle class.

But Abdullah, who was born in East Oakland and whose dad was a union organizer and self-proclaimed Trotskyist, has chosen to immerse herself in the black working class and its struggles.

She’s not unlike most of the Black Lives Matter leaders — college-educated, middle-class black women who felt compelled to fight against police violence directed at the black community. “Our degrees won’t save us, our middle-class status won’t save us,” she says. “Who’s being killed? Andrew Joseph in Tampa, Florida. His parents are college-educated, middle-class people. Trayvon Martin was killed in a gated community. Aiyana Jones, 7 years old, sleeping on her grandmother’s couch. I have two little girls. How can you sit back? That’s how a lot of us feel. We’re really facing wartime conditions.”

In a nation where black women are still stuck at the bottom of the power structure, Black Lives Matter is the only major national protest movement to be led by them in modern times. It has in the past two years become the most prominent left-wing movement in the country, a persistent topic on the national news and in both Democratic and Republican presidential debates. The Black Lives Matter movement also could end up having a significant impact on local, state and national elections — which might be cause for concern among politicians like, say, Mayor Eric Garcetti.

The national organization founded by three black women — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi — takes its cue from the local chapters; the L.A. chapter, in which Abdullah is a key figure, was among the first.

Although the group prides itself on its leaderlessness, Abdullah is one of five or so black women who, having helped start the L.A. chapter, now serve as its chief organizers. Nearly all are rooted in academia or performance art — or both. Their rhetoric leans toward the highbrow, their tactics toward the theatrical.

“We’re fighting against white supremacist patriarchal society,” says Shamell Bell. “That’s why you need black women to fight it.”

Bell, who’s been involved in Black Lives Matter from the beginning, is perhaps its prototypical organizer. A 31-year-old former professional dancer and former student of Abdullah’s, she’s currently a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA. In a movement that draws on each of its members’ gifts and abilities, Bell often leads street protest dances. While occupying the mayor’s front lawn, she taught a group of activists Jerkin’.

Cullors, 32, who coined the now-global hashtag #blacklivesmatter, is a performance artist who studied religion and philosophy at UCLA. When she was just 17, she joined the Bus Riders Union, a somewhat iconoclastic advocacy group in L.A. that pushes for more funding for the bus system and less funding for light rail.

A distinctly working-class nonprofit, the Bus Riders Union was Cullors’ entry into political organizing. She later started Dignity and Power Now, a coalition that fought brutality by sheriff’s deputies who work inside the county jails.

Black Lives Matter co-founder Melina Abdullah is a tenured professor and chairs the Pan-African Studies department at Cal State L.A.
Black Lives Matter co-founder Melina Abdullah is a tenured professor and chairs the Pan-African Studies department at Cal State L.A.
Photo by Shane Lopes

Cullors grew up in 1990s Pacoima, a low-income northeast San Fernando Valley neighborhood, during the height of the federal war on drugs that disproportionately imprisoned thousands of minorities. Cullors’ father and brother were in and out of prison for most of her adult life.

“That really shaped my understanding of what it meant to be black in this city,” Cullors says. “I had a lot of anger. And I was clear that I wanted to do something about it.”

In Los Angeles, Black Lives Matter has emerged as Mayor Eric Garcetti’s fiercest antagonist. Garcetti was elected without much support in the black community, which backed Wendy Greuel. But Garcetti will almost surely need the backing of black voters should he run for higher office, as is widely assumed.

“Whether he’s running for governor or U.S. senator, the political calculus that his consultants are going to use is that the black vote in Los Angeles can put him over the top,” says Dermot Givens, a political consultant. “Which is why he has to do everything he can to solve this situation.”

Garcetti, who appears galled by this vocal new opposition from the left, has dealt with Black Lives Matter rather clumsily.

After 25-year-old Ezell Ford, who’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, was shot to death in August 2014 by LAPD officers in South L.A., the group camped out on the front lawn of the mayoral mansion in Hancock Park. Garcetti made the news, along with Black Lives Matter, when he was caught on video trying to sneak away in a black Suburban SUV.

Bizarrely, when the well-to-do, Encino-raised Garcetti finally met with these black leaders in July, he at one point started speaking to them in Spanish. In the eyes of the organizers, it was as if he saw all minorities as the same and dealt with them accordingly.

“[Garcetti] does a really good job at tokenizing people,” says Black Lives Matter co-founder Cullors. “He does a really good job placating. But he doesn’t actually do the work that it takes to change the culture and change policies that are anti-black.”

“There’s been a shift in politics in the black community,” says Givens, who argues that Black Lives Matter has not so much caused this shift as it has reacted to it. “And the mayor is playing old-school politics. He’s surrounding himself with old-school black people who have no idea what’s going on.”

The origin of Black Lives Matter dates to July 13, 2013, when George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida.

That night, Cullors found herself scrolling through Facebook in a daze, collectively grieving in that way we sometimes do online. As she did so, she came upon a post by a friend of hers who lived in Oakland, Alicia Garza.

The post was an essay, a plea, a “love letter to black folks,” as Cullors calls it. It ended with the words: “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.”

The post struck a cord with Cullors, who reposted Garza’s thoughts with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter.

Her hashtag spread fast, and Cullors, Garza and a third friend based in New York, Tometi, made plans to start an organization. They knew their slogan was catching on when, in October, it popped up on an episode of Law and Order: SVU.

A few days after the Zimmerman verdict, Cullors called a meeting at her house in St. Elmo’s Village, a Los Angeles artists community in the diverse Mid-City area south of Miracle Mile. Abdullah was there, along with 30 or so of her current and former students. It was a mixed-race crowd, but early on in the evening they decided to break into groups, with black people on one side and remaining races on the other.

Povi-Tamu Bryant, like many of the key women behind Black Lives Matter in L.A., identifies as "queer."
Povi-Tamu Bryant, like many of the key women behind Black Lives Matter in L.A., identifies as "queer."
Photo by Shane Lopes

It was a sign of things to come. Black Lives Matter works with organizations of all races and ethnicities but its core activists and organizers are black.

Povi-Tamu Bryant, 30, attended the meeting at St. Elmo’s, which was more group therapy than strategy session. “Being able to be in a shared collective experiencing grief,” Bryant recalls. “That felt in, some ways, empowering.”

But something else attracted Bryant to the nascent group: its “intersectionality” — the embrace of overlapping social identities that often are marginalized. Both Cullors and Garza identify as “queer,” as does Bryant.

These elements of Black Lives Matters’ DNA — young, female, queer-friendly, artsy — have set it apart from every previous generation’s civil rights movements.

“As a person who’s queer, who likes to play with gender, there’s been movements where I don’t feel like I’m able to show up as my full self,” Bryant says. “With Black Lives Matter, I am. That’s why we’ve been able to attract women and queer folks. We’re not saying you need to leave your gender identity at the door, your college education at the door. We’re saying, bring all of you.”

The L.A. chapter of what initially went by the name “Justice for Trayvon Martin” was born that 2013 night at St. Elmo’s Village. One of its first protests took the members to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Until then, so much activism had felt like preaching to the converted. In a very deliberate and strategic way, the women and their growing coalition decided, Black Lives Matter would be about confronting power, authority and symbols of “white supremacy.”

“We’ve chosen the tactic of disruption,” Cullors says. “We’ve chosen the tactic of challenging respectability.”

No sooner did the national group start calling itself Black Lives Matter then it began hearing criticism from other left-leaning groups and artists who felt that the phrase was too narrow. But Cullors and other leaders in the group challenged that notion, arguing that the focus on black people, who by many metrics are disproportionately threatened with violence, was important.

Unlike, say, the Occupy movement, which caused a political storm but quickly faded from memory, Black Lives Matter has steadily gained momentum in the two years since its founding, in part because of its singleness of purpose.

On Aug. 11, 2014, Ezell Ford was shot by LAPD. Nationally, that news was vastly overshadowed by the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, two days earlier. But Ford’s death was an important inflection point for Black Lives Matter in Los Angeles and has driven its agenda ever since.

In June of this year, LAPD’s civilian police commission ruled that Officer Sharlton Wampler shouldn’t have stopped and detained Ford in the first place and that Wampler’s drawing of his gun and use of deadly force was against LAPD policy. A second officer was found out of policy for one action, drawing his gun.

Any consolation the commission’s ruling may have provided was shattered two days later, when LAPD Chief Charlie Beck told his officers, via a video message, “You have my support. You have the support of the mayor. You have the support of the vast majority of the people of Los Angeles. … That support is what will protect you, just like the vest that you’re wearing protects you.”

To Black Lives Matter, Beck’s message was proof that, like former L.A. police chief Daryl Gates, who infamously alienated minority groups decades ago, Beck would always back his officers — even those deemed by the police commission to have used excessive force.

Neither Wampler nor his partner, who was found by the police commission to have acted within LAPD policy, has been charged with a crime by L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey. Nor have they been disciplined in any way.

“They haven’t been disciplined yet,” says LAPD spokesman Commander Andrew Smith. “I certainly understand how people could feel frustrated about that.”

Currently, Black Lives Matter Los Angeles has five demands, the first of which is the firing of Beck, a former chief of detectives who prides himself on his street knowledge and relationships with de facto community leaders in the poorest parts of L.A.

The group’s other demands are that Los Angeles city leaders develop a policy of monetary reparations for victims of police violence akin to Chicago’s; that the police commission meetings be made more open and transparent; that the mayor appoint activists from the black community to key city commissions; and that the mayor set up regular town hall meetings that follow a format approved by Black Lives Matter.

Nana Gyamfi, an early member of Black Lives Matter who acts as the group’s lawyer, says: “I’ve been practicing law for over 20 years. It is clear that the LAPD, at minimum, has feelings of contempt and disrespect toward the black community. And over the years that has not improved.”

LAPD says its officers have shot 34 people so far this year, killing 18 of them. The U.K. newspaper The Guardian puts the number of deaths at 19. The next-highest number of fatal shootings by police officers in a U.S. city this year was in Houston, where 14 people were slain.

Shamell Bell, a former professional dancer and now a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA, often leads Black Lives Matter protests using dance.
Shamell Bell, a former professional dancer and now a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA, often leads Black Lives Matter protests using dance.
Photo by Shane Lopes

For some, those numbers have lent credence to Abdullah’s claim that LAPD, which is fond of touting its solid new relations with minorities and even former gang leaders, is “the most murderous police force in the country.”

According to The Guardian, four of the 19 killed here were African-American — roughly 20 percent, yet blacks make up less than 10 percent of L.A.’s population.

“The question is not how do we make police better,” Cullors says. “The question is, why has policing been shaped to be really the centerpiece of anti-black racism?”

After a bit of foot-dragging, Garcetti did meet with Black Lives Matter organizers, including Abdullah, in July. At that time, she says, the mayor agreed to participate in a town hall in South L.A., with the format to be worked out between the mayor and the group.

Garcetti’s office won’t comment on what unfolded in the July meeting or after. But Abdullah says the mayor ignored his agreement and, without their involvement, instead set up a forum in October with other black community leaders, including Pastor Kelvin Sauls of Holman United Methodist Church.

“He sought to circumvent Black Lives Matter and go to community folks that he felt more comfortable with,” says Abdullah, who didn’t hear about the Oct. 19 forum until a Los Angeles Times reporter asked her about it.

It would prove to be a major miscalculation by a mayor who seemed not to grasp the group’s growing influence.

That Monday night at Holman Church, the mayor sat on a stage with a number of hand-picked panelists. They included Matt Johnson, a Sherman Oaks entertainment lawyer who is Garcetti’s newly appointed black police commissioner, and the CEO of the Metro transit authority, Phil Washington, who is also black.

The packed audience included Abdullah and her fellow organizers, still fuming from the mayor’s slight.

They wanted a community meeting the mayor would attend. Instead they got a meeting run by City Hall. Community members had to fill out comment cards before being allowed to ask questions., and when a person’s turn came to ask something, mayoral staffers held the microphone out in front of them as they spoke.

“It was a very paternalistic approach,” Abdullah says. “The mayor had violated all the things he previously agreed to,” including his deal to meet under their terms. “We were upset.”

So each time Garcetti began to speak, Abdullah and her compatriots stood up and turned their backs on him. She says 100 people joined her; the L.A. Times reported 50; others say it was closer to 20. Some of these protesters began shouting to other audience members, imploring them to turn their backs on Garcetti as well.

About 45 minutes into the program, a longtime transit activist named Damien Goodmon, who’d been invited to speak, handed a microphone to Abdullah.

Things got out of hand when Sauls physically tried to get the mic back after Abdullah castigated the mayor and police commissioner Matt Johnson. She quoted a speech from Malcolm X in which he compared “field negroes” to “house negroes,” and compared the protesters to the former, Johnson to the latter.

Sauls, the pastor, took exception to her term and, according to multiple witnesses, reached out to grab Abdullah’s microphone. She whirled away and Sauls, rather comically, gave chase. 

Some of the witnesses say they heard her cry out, “Don’t touch me!” That prompted General Jeff, a well-known Skid Row activist, to rush the stage and block Sauls from reaching Abdullah. Other audience members then rushed the stage to protect Sauls from General Jeff. To some, it appeared that a full-blown melee had broken out in the house of God.

At this point Garcetti, all but an afterthought at a meeting he must have imagined would be far tidier and polite, announced that it was time for him to go, and exited stage right.

Of course, that retreat simply focused attention back on the mayor. A crowd followed Garcetti outside to his car, chanting, “Black lives — they matter here!” The mayor, smiling nervously, began to mouth the chant himself — “Black lives, they matter here.” In a rarity for a town hall meet-up in L.A., a police helicopter was summoned and hovered overhead, flooding the crowd with an almost heavenly spotlight.

Holman Church Pastor Sauls, with mic, grins at Jasmine Richards of Black Lives Matter Pasadena as Melinda Abdullah leans in with her notepad and Mayor Eric Garcetti looks away in the background.
Holman Church Pastor Sauls, with mic, grins at Jasmine Richards of Black Lives Matter Pasadena as Melinda Abdullah leans in with her notepad and Mayor Eric Garcetti looks away in the background.
Donna Dymally

Garcetti declined to be interviewed for this article. A spokesman explained: “You can understand, we don’t want to get into a he-said-she-said.”

A week after the confrontation, a group of older, faith-based activists — familiar faces such as Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray and author Earl Ofari Hutchinson — were condemning Black Lives Matter and demanding they apologize to the pastor, Sauls, for what they said were threats “with violence in his own sanctuary.”

“What they did in that place of worship and what took place between them and the pastor was out of line,” says Rev. K.W. Tulloss, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Action Network, Al Sharpton’s civil rights organization.

Tulloss supports many of Black Lives Matters’ goals and demands. He doesn’t quite think Chief Beck should be fired but agrees that he’s “doing a piss-poor job.” And he calls Abdullah “one of the most brilliant leaders of our generation,” though he adds: “I just think that she’s a young leader that sometimes needs guidance.”

“It’s easy to say, ‘The black community is divided,’” Cullors says. “Well, the black community is not a monolith. So of course it’s going to be divided.”

That divide feels like a familiar one: respectability versus disruption, working from the outside versus working from the inside. Who gets more done, the agitators making a fuss or the politicians quietly working behind closed doors?

Progress, of course, often demands both.

Even though Tulloss is younger than Abdullah and only slightly older than Cullors and Bryant, the entities to which he is tied — black churches and the National Action Network founded by Sharpton in the early 1990s — don’t particularly resonate with younger people.

“If you go into church in Los Angeles on a Sunday, the majority of the membership is 50 [years old] and up,” Cullors says. “Younger black people are feeling less and less interested in the ideology of this church.”

Patrisse Cullors coined the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.
Patrisse Cullors coined the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.

Just as importantly, she notes, “Many of the black people leading this movement are queer and trans, and have been kicked out by their churches.”

That indifference to the churches, which have long set the tone for L.A.’s so-called black old guard, complete with thundering sermons about who to vote for at election time, is one of Black Lives Matters’ more striking departures from past civil rights movements.

That may help explain why none of L.A.’s black elected officials have endorsed Black Lives Matter or its demands. Not L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas; L.A. City Council members Herb Wesson, Curren Price or Marqueece Harris-Dawson; congresswomen Maxine Waters or Karen Bass; state senators Holly Mitchell or Isadore Hall III; or state assembly members Autumn Burke, Reggie Jones-Sawyer or Sebastian Ridley-Thomas.

They’ve been silent,” says political consultant Dermot Givens. “They will say they’re doing stuff behind the scenes, working within the system. But the people don’t see it.”

Ever since the 1973 election of Tom Bradley, black residents of Los Angeles have voted in disproportionately high numbers compared with white, Latino or Asian voters. But that may soon change. There’s a growing sense among young black people that elections aren’t a significant engine of progress. The president of the United States, after all, is black, and black people are still disproportionately affected by poverty and violence.

“Black people are not bought into the system anymore, because the system constantly betrays us,” Abdullah says. “The system is set up to keep us oppressed. That’s what we’re realizing.”

Abdullah may have a three-bedroom house and a Volvo, but she’s still a black woman. She’s still at the bottom of the traditional American power structure. No wonder she’s chosen to fight the system from the outside. She was there the whole time.

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