Interview: Patrisse Cullors & Rodney Diverlus of BLACK LIVES MATTER: IN CONVERSATION in Melbourne

By: Nov. 01, 2017

In February 2012, an unarmed African-American high-school student, Trayvon Martin, was shot dead in Sanford, Florida. His death was a flashpoint in American race relations, sparking protests across the United States and the beginning of a totally new kind of civil-rights movement: #blacklivesmatter.

The movement - founded by Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza - fights for justice and dignity for black people. Diffuse, inclusive and multifaceted, #blacklivesmatter has built momentum online and, crucially, on the ground. Its activists have enjoyed wins in court rooms, in the media, on the streets and in Barack Obama's White House. The message has resonated across the globe, with large turnouts for rallies not just across the US but also in Brazil, Australia, South Africa and other countries.

In Australia to collect the Sydney Peace Prize, two of Black Lives Matter's founders and leaders - Patrisse Cullors, and Toronto BLM Chapter co-founder Rodney Diverlus - will talk with Jack Latimore about the achievements and broader goals of #blacklivesmatter ... and how we can translate the lessons of the movement to face and fight entrenched inequality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia.

BWW got to talk with Cullors and Diverlus about their time in Australia and what part the arts has to play in an important dialogue.

Welcome to Australia Patrisse & Rodney! You've spent a lot of your time here so far meeting and talking to indigenous Australians. How has that experience been?

PC: It's been really powerful. We got to go to Mildura first and the experience there really shaped how I would understand the rest of the intensity of the issue here. Given that they have some of the highest incarceration and family violence rates, getting to speak with the elders and some of the young people about how they've been combatting that and really pushing local government to show up for them. It was just extremely inspiring.

What role do you think the arts has to play in the #BlackLivesMatter conversation, both here in Australia and globally?

PC: One thing I think is important to address is that our movement in the US, Canada, and the UK really comes in a moment where our local governments are not listening to us. It comes at a moment when we have to cause a huge disruption to get our voices heard. I think it's important for people here to understand that we aren't here to tell people what to do but let them know that we've been able to create a new conversation in our own countries.

RD: The arts are central to the resistance movement. I'm a working professional artist. I'm a dancer and choreographer from Toronto and the people that I fight and work with are also artists so we recognise the intersection between art and activism. For us, art is about feeling and about providing a way to communicate our issues and concerns in ways that traditional communication can't. Art is an entry way to understand our issues and as artists we have an obligation to make sure our work is responding to these current climates.

Do you think we are on the right track to seeing diversity on our stages and screens or are we still keeping characters and stories separate from our mainstream productions?

PC: Let's complicate this a little bit because I think representation doesn't always mean that we're building power. Although representation is very important and necessary, it isn't always the means to the end that we think it's going to be. With that said, from NITV to meeting different indigenous journalists here in Australia, I feel really excited about the reclaiming of people's heritages, for speaking out, and for self determing how their messages are told. I think what we want to be careful of is that we in the US, we have a lot of Black people who are representing. A lot of firsts for doctors and lawyers and sports people, but this hasn't meant that it has changed the material conditions for Black people on a daily basis. There is still so much work to be done.

RD: I think we have such a long way to go to make sure that our arts scenes are reflective of the communities that we live in. Here and in Canada and the US, one of the things that we always talk about is that you see white faces everywhere - on our televisions, on our stages. In addition to representation, we need to be creating spaces for people to be meaningfully involved and meaningfully engaged. For us locally, what we are doing is creating a space for people to self determine how they want to be represented. We actually give the platforms for people from the margins to be creating their own content and to see themselves as cultural producers. Our role is to help them facilitate that. So many times in the arts, I see people wanting to be more diverse and more reflective but that is still done in the same framework that has been set up for us. It's still done in a way that's not curated by us, in a way that doesn't fully respect our autonomy to create our own work and produce our own content. I think there's a long way for us to move forward as an artistic community but of all the communities, we're the most primed to be doing this work. Artists have a level of compassion and understanding of humanity that informs our work, and if you add to that a critical race perspective, then the work will transcend many barriers and realities.

It's so inspiring and impressive that you have successfully created dialogue around a topic that's been so widely and wrongly ignored. We've ashamedly not had the conversation here in Australia and it's so overdue. What message do you have for the people of Australia?

PC: I'm careful about saying what you should be doing but what I'm much more interested in is in exchanging on what we have done. This is a moment where we get to exchange what we've done as a culture and as a community. Folks have already done amazing work, right now the community has to show up for those folks.

RD: One of the things that I've been amazed by here is hearing from elders and community members about the literal centuries of resistance that have been existed here. Wherever we see anti-Black racism, we see Black folks resisting that and Australia has a deep history of resistance at community, state, and federal levels. What we also see though is a lack of accountability and action from government officials. The officials are outright rejecting the work that people are doing in communities. As we come to these different countries and people come and celebrate our work, we are very humbled by that and say thank you but we hope that when we leave, white Australians will realise the incredible amount of resources in this country and it's time for us to look inward. It's time for us to listen to the people that have been fighting and resisting for decades and decades, and to actually let Black folks self determine their own resistance and movement. It's time for us to stop talking and doing action. People have made it easy for us - they've done the research, they've looked up statistics, and given recommendations. All we have to do now is take action.


Presented in partnership with the Sydney Peace Foundation, you can see Patrisse Cullors and Rodney Diverlus in conversation with Jack Latimore at the Plenary 1 (MCEC) in Melbourne on Saturday 4 November 2017, 8.00pm-9.00pm.


Patrisse Cullors is an artist, organiser, freedom fighter, Fulbright scholar, public speaker, and NAACP History Maker from Los Angeles, California.

Rodney Diverlus is an organiser, dancer, and choreographer/curator. Born in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, Rodney first moved to the United States as a refugee, but ended his migration journey in Toronto, Canada. There his work is anchored an artivist framework of transformative art and community organising practice. In 2014, Rodney co-founded Black Lives Matter - Toronto, the first international iteration of the Black Lives Matter Global Network. As a lead chapter organiser, Rodney's works clusters on campaign development, communications and media relations, action coordination, and internal chapter management. BLMTO is a force in shifting public policy, implementing legislative changes, and challenging the cultural myth of Canadian benevolence as means of masking systemic anti-Black racism.

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