Ashley Yates, a prominent organizer of the Black Lives Matter movement, spoke to Bowdoin students, over dinner and in a public talk, about her role as an organizer and the importance of imagining inclusive communities.
Her visit was part of Bowdoin’s Black History Month, and was organized by Ashley Bomboka ’16. Yates was listed in 2015 as ROOT’s Top 100 influencers, and descried by CNN as “disrupter of the status quo.” She has traveled to the United Nations in Switzerland and the Oval Office for a historic private meeting with President Obama. Most recently, she was invited to Emergencias, the first conference to tackle the issues of governmental violence against black people, hosted in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
In her talk at Bowdoin, Yates described how she first entered into the Black Lives Matter movement, shortly after Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. As a graduate from University of Missouri in Columbia, which is close to Ferguson, she was connected to the community and saw the people’s response. “My Facebook feed was filled with images of not only a dead black child on the streets but also people in the community being tear-gassed, facing heavy oppression. I knew I had to go down and see what happened with my community,” she said. She added that she did not go with the intension of building a movement, but this is what happened nonetheless.
The resistance lasted for 180 days. On the night of Darren Wilson’s non-indictment, Yates described a “staging of an uprising.” She said, “We took the system and really chose to make an active stance. We were reclaiming the street, which is how the chant, ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ began. We were demonstrating our right to take up space in our community.”
Yates also touched on history in her talk. She brought up Claudette Colvin, who was born in Montgomery, Ala., in 1939. Several months before Rosa Parks was arrested for the same act, Colvin was arrested when she was 15 for not giving up her bus seat to a white passenger. Colvin’s arrest helped spark the Women’s Political Council plan for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Yates noted how Colvin and the Women’s Political Council created a movement of solidarity. “The power in that narrative…is about the building of community,” she said.
Yates emphasized both the continuities between the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the Black Lives Matter movement — as well as the distinctions. She argued that Black Lives Matter is an expansion of the black narrative. Part of Black Lives Matter, Yates said, is to remember those marginalized by history, those who have been forgotten for their role during the first movement, and to try to include those who continue to be left out today.”Black women are marginalized outside our community but also inside our community,” she noted.
Yates argued that Black Lives Matters dares to imagine alternative worlds. She introduced the concept of “visionary disruption,” which is direct vigorous action that rebels actively against the state. “Visionary disruption is about community building,” said Yates. “It is about community building, about imaging safe spaces that look like what we want to see in the world.” She described how for a month during the resistance, Ferguson seemed to be devoid of police, and public schools were empty of students. During that period, Black Lives Matters set up its own cop watch and its own school system, she said.
Yates asked Bowdoin students to imagine alternative worlds, ones that would “show what it means to show up for black lives.” She concluded with a quote from author Toni Morrison: “The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” Yates said she believes that Black Lives Matter offers an alternative world, one where people refuse to be distracted.