by Tia Oso
Identities.mic, July 21, 2015
I am Tia Oso, the black woman who took to the stage and demanded a microphone on July 18 at the Netroots Nation Presidential Town Hall in Phoenix, Arizona. I did this to focus the attention of the nation’s largest gathering of progressive leaders and presidential hopefuls on the death of Sandra Bland and other black women killed while in police custody, because the most important and urgent issue of our day is structural violence and systemic racism that is oppressing and killing black women, men and children. This is an emergency.
Sandra Bland and I had a lot in common. We were both black women, active in our communities and the Movement for Black Lives. We both pledged sororities: I’m a Delta, Bland was a member of Sigma Gamma Rho. I have also been harshly confronted by police during “routine” traffic stops and feared for my safety and my life. Reading about Bland, about her life and brutal killing, the accusation of suicide, I felt devastated and enraged. As a human being and a person committed to the cause of justice, I was overwhelmed with grief for Bland, her family and the countless lives taken in what amounts to a genocide of black people who are first criminalized, then brutalized by the United States’ justice system.
I was also determined that Bland’s death and name would not be ignored nor dismissed. Though the Movement for Black Lives, initiated by young people in impoverished communities across the country, has galvanized a new generation into the grassroots movement to resist police violence, black women are not always the face put forward to rally around. Organizing is often led by women, but our experiences are often minimized. I recognized the opportunity that I had to change this narrative. I, along with the 50 other black organizers attending Netroots Nation 2015, decided we would use the platform of the Presidential Town Hall to demand that former Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) #SayHerName and address the crisis of structural racism and their plans to make sure that black lives matter should they be elected president.
I felt I was the right person to open the action and shift the focus of the program, especially in the context of the conference theme of “Immigration.” I am a native to Arizona, the child of a Nigerian immigrant father and African-American mother, whose parents were migrant farm workers, aka “Okies.” I also served for three years as the Arizona organizer (and continue to work as the National Organizer) with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, the premier racial justice and migrant rights organization in the U.S. As I shared in my remarks on Saturday, racial justice intersects with all progressive issues, especially immigration. Black immigrants experience a double oppression, as they must contend with both the reality of racial discrimination in America as well as its complicated and punitive immigration system.
Feeling dissatisfied with Netroots’ framing of black issues and the narrow focus of its immigration-themed activities, I worked with Phoenix-based organizers to create #BlackRoots, a space to focus on black perspectives and connect national organizers with local black community members.
Saturday’s action was powerful. Black organizers claimed our rightful place at the front of the progressive movement. Allies from Latino, Asian, LGBT and other communities stood in solidarity with us as we called the names of black women killed in police custody, expressed our heartbreaking requests to the community should we ourselves die in police custody and looked on as respected and revered progressive leaders were woefully unable to answer our reasonable question as to how they will lead America to a brighter future.
We wanted them to first address the root of this tragic situation and the precious lives lost to senseless state violence. Our courageous and bold efforts are being applauded for changing the conversation and creating a space for a more honest and direct discourse. My action, along with those of my sisters and brothers in the Movement for Black Lives, was not done to call attention to myself, but to all black people fighting to live free.
The strength, strategies and success of African-Americans leading the civil rights movement laid the foundation for all progressive movements today. Black leadership must be foregrounded and central to progressive strategies if we are to achieve a multi-racial democracy with social and economic justice for all people. Though some don’t agree with how we went about bringing the issue to the forefront, by thrusting ourselves into the national spotlight, we shed new light and gave greater importance to this urgent issue. We hope our choice will inspire new and bold action toward dismantling systemic racism.