Burning the cape

Tired of being failed by those they fight for, Black women are pledging to ‘burn the cape’.

BLP protest AP photo
A woman is seen wearing a face mask reading 'black lives matter' during a protest over the death of George Floyd near the White House in Washington, June 7, 2020 [AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo]

In the past few weeks, several Black women came forward on Twitter about the harassment they experienced at Black Lives Matter protests at the hands of Black men. As they put their bodies on the line for the fight against police brutality, Black women are reminded of the ways in which their safety is jeopardised within their own communities. Resulting in them pledging to “burn the capes” they have tirelessly put on to speak out against injustice.

These feelings were heightened by the news of 19-year-old Black Lives Matter protester Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau’s kidnapping, rape and murder. Salau’s death prompted larger conversations about Black women’s heroism in showing up for the Black collective yet consistently being failed by those they fight for, begging the question: “Who is going to save the hero?”

Although not at the forefront of protests, the sentiment of “burning the cape” deeply resonated with me. As a Black Muslim woman, my intersecting identities mean I am cognisant of how anti-racist activism and its earnings alone do not grant me my freedom. Highlighting the issues facing marginalised Black lives is often seen as “divisive” to Black solidarity and cause for the delegitimisation of the movement. However, in order to progress in a movement that represents an all-embracing Black liberation, the gender struggles existing at the heart of Black solidarity are in need of interrogation and call for intra-movement critique.

‘Say Her Name’

Tik Tok’s popular Wipe it Down challenge has been used to send a poignant message in response to George Floyd’s death. In these short videos, male members of Black families are being “wiped away” to represent the threat to their lives. Black women (and in some cases their children) are left behind and seen wearing shirts that read: “Stop killing us.” 

These videos represent one of the many ways in which Black women are actively protesting against the racially charged brutality the police overtly and systematically inflict on Black men. But they also demonstrate how Black women are often being reduced to secondary actors in this fight, who are only affected by police brutality through their partners, fathers and sons.

However, Black women too are dying at the hands of the police and Black women too are not seeing any justice or recourse for their murders.

This is evinced in the belated outcry surrounding Breonna Taylor’s death, who was shot eight times by police officers in her own home in Louisville, Kentucky on March 13. Her death triggered the resurfacing of the hashtag #SayHerName, which was created in 2015 to shed much-needed light on how Black women’s lives are being lost to police brutality. 

The erasure that necessitated the formation of the Say Her Name campaign within the Black Lives Matter movement (which was, ironically, spearheaded by Black women) represents another moment in which Black women are required to mobilise independently to remind the collective of the threat on their lives. 

The disparity in the outrage surrounding the deaths of Floyd and Taylor has been attributed to the fact that one murder was filmed while the other was not. Though the brutal visual accompanying Floyd’s death served to awaken the masses to the unruly ways in which police brutality is performed; the silence around Black women’s deaths cannot be justified. 

As a movement founded by Black women, Black Lives Matter began by mobilising against the threat the police poses on Black men, yet reciprocity has proven limited as seen in the responses surrounding the murders of Black women by the same perpetrator. 

Although a new law banning no-knock warrants has been passed in Breonna’s name in Louisville Kentucky, justice for her murder has not been served, as the police officers responsible for her death are still walking free. Despite this, her name is no longer trending on social media. The lack of accountability surrounding Breonna’s case reveals how in death and in life Black women have to labour in legitimising their presence in a patriarchal world. 

‘I can’t tell if I’m breaking bread or being poisoned’

In the fight to achieve justice, there is power in numbers and unity. However, for women, the fight for racial justice at the front line of protests is also a fight for survival from the plague of patriarchy.

Iyanna Dior, a Black trans woman, was brutally attacked at a Minneapolis protest by a crowd of Black cishet men. This was yet another painful reminder that marginalised bodies are subjected to violence even by fellow protesters in spaces designed for liberation. 

The Black Lives Matter protests are places that symbolise the fight for freedom. But who exactly gets to exist freely within them? And who are we freeing?

Bringing the issues of harassment by Black men to the forefront, at a time where action is contingent on collective unity, confuses the narrative. As a result, the issue of gendered bodily violence in protesting is silenced, as if it does not affect the collective. 

The concerns of Black marginalised people within the movement are sidelined with an insistence that anti-Blackness alone constitutes a more serious threat and therefore takes precedence. 

The exhausted rhetoric of you are “Black first” before other aspects of identity is weaponised to negate the fact that white supremacy threatens the lives of Black women and LGBTQ Black people in a gendered way. That is to say that their gender identities mean they experience a specific brand of anti-blackness compounded by patriarchy and queer/transphobia. 

Ignoring the ways in which women and other marginalised groups experience movement-building sends the message that Black solidarity is conditional. These experiences make it clear that the power to define Black issues is afforded to certain bodies and a reminder that patriarchy’s violence is rife even when we’re on the same side. 

Reimagining Black solidarity

Highlighting issues within Black solidarity is not about shifting the focus from racism, but rather a critical understanding of the layers and complicated ways in which Black lives – in their diversity – experience oppression.

That is to say, Black marginalised experiences are integral to conversations about how gender and sexuality influence mobilisation for racial justice and demands for robust Black liberation. It is imperative that we do not loosen the grip on how gender shapes racism because within this understanding lie solutions for our freedom. 

At a time where radical speak of abolition is entering mainstream consciousness, we must recognise that Black lives matter intersectionally and actors within the movement must be deliberate about not erasing the lives and experiences of all Black people in the way we frame and do our activism. 

For those who have just come into their Black awakening, “wokeness” must be rooted in understanding that revolutionary behaviour is abandoning complicity of oppression in its various forms. In simpler terms, it is not just about race.

It has been painfully clear time and time again that there is no safety for Black people from white supremacy so our only hope is to protect ourselves in the fight towards Black liberation. Nothing said here has not been said before, but the continuing violence, silencing and erasure of particular Black bodies necessitates continuous intervention. 

If 2020 has made anything clear, it is that silence is not an option and a return to normalcy is not either. We do not intend to go back to normal because normal was killing us. 

In fighting systems designed against us we must check our selective pro-Blackness and understand that we have no revolution if it does not centralise and amplify the voices and stories of all Black life. This calls for an intimate understanding of how Black oppression is binded together and therefore so is our liberation. No one is free until we are all free.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.