Gonzaga is hosting a “Behind the Hashtag” event on Thursday, Feb. 20, where the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, Patrisse Cullors, will speak at Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center.
“Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise,” said the movement’s website, blacklivesmatter.com. “It is an affirmation of Black folks’ humanity, our contributions to this society and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”
However, the movement, which began in 2013, has been perceived by some Americans as an anti-police movement.
“[It is] a movement that most Americans have heard of but that has been poorly understood and frequently maligned,” said Brian Cooney, a professor of English and director of the Center for Public Humanities at GU, in an email.
Cooney is a co-organizer of the event, alongside Jason Gillmer and Michele Fukawa, who work in the Law Schools’ Center for Civil and Human Rights, and Chief Diversity Officer Raymond Reyes.
“Cullors is coming to talk about people being killed in America by institutions that are supposed to protect them,” Cooney said. “The structures she will discuss are not simply in law enforcement, but the nature of the law itself.”
Cooney is not the only advocate on campus who is looking forward to Cullors’ visit.
Najhan Bell, a senior at GU and president of Black Student Union, said he agrees the message of the movement should continue to be illuminated.
“Having an understanding of why this movement started would maybe give more empathy if people really know what it was about,” she said.
Cullors worked with Alicia Garza and Opa Tometi to create the BLM movement in summer 2013 as a response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the case of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s death, an African American boy who was shot and killed in 2012.
Then, in 2014, Mike Brown was shot to death by a Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson, which led to what the founders call the Black Life Matters Ride.
“There is a lot of misunderstanding about what BLM is, how it got started and what it stands for,” Bell said. “It’s been a long time since it started, and it hasn’t fizzled out. It’s not as much in the media as it used to be two or three years ago, so I think it’s good to continue that conversation, even though we’re not seeing it in the media.”
The “Behind the Hashtag” event is not the first time GU has brought in leading female advocates of color. Angela Davis, an African American political activist, philosopher and author came to campus on Oct. 25, 2017.
Kimberle Krenshaw, a major scholar in race and law, feminist legal theory and critical race theory, who coined the concept of intersectionality, came to campus for an event on Feb. 28, 2019.
“We think hearing from a younger activist, a person more of their generation and more familiar with employing modern techniques of activism might be inspiring to students,” Cooney said. “Cullors is not just presenting ideas of how the world can be different; she is also presenting new ways of organizing for those changes.”
Ultimately, Bell said she hopes attendees will leave the event with eyes opened to the reality of the movement.
“They’re celebrities in my eyes,” Bell said. “They started movements that have changed a lot of lives.
“I’m sure she might talk about how she started the movement and where she’s gone since then, so I think it will be inspiring, give the movement support and recognition, and inspire people to stand up to certain inequalities.”
Cooney said he hopes students arrive with an ability to consider perspectives that differ from theirs.
“I do not think [students] have to know anything, though I hope students are familiar with the stories of people like Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile and so many others,” Cooney said. “More importantly, perhaps, I think students should be prepared to set aside preconceived notions and listen to Cullors with an open mind as she talks about the problem of institutional racist violence.”
Cooney said about 700 people are expected to attend the event, including Spokane community members.
“This event has been designed to create greater interaction between GU students and the Spokane community, something that we really think is important,” Cooney said. “We do not simply see this as an academic exercise, we hope students will look at their immediate environment and decide to work for real change now.”
Ticket distribution has already taken place for the event, but Cooney encourages students to contact one of the organizers and see if any there are any spots available.