Opal Tometi on the Righteous Rise of Black Lives Matter

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Hey, y’all…It’s Brittany. On Tuesday, the divided Senate voted to proceed with Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial. So yes, the trial will go on despite some Republicans’s attempts to stop it. And I have to say, frankly, it has been exhausting watching GOP senators try to minimize and dodge and outright dismiss what we all saw that Trump incited the insurrection on January 6th. It happened right before our very eyes, in public, on video.

Donald Trump We’re going to walk down to the Capitol because you’ll never take back our country with weakness.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham But Republicans essentially keep telling us, “No, he didn’t do that. You didn’t hear what you thought you heard. There’s nothing to see here.” Classic, right? Y’all, Republicans are gaslighting America. And I’ve been thinking about gaslighting. It’s a term that refers to how a person who is abusive or an abusive system can deviously get their victims to doubt their reality. They distort and manipulate the truth to such an extent that it makes your head spin. And it makes you start to question, what’s real?

The majority of GOP senators want us to just move on, like gaslighters always do, but there’s no doubt that Trump did incite violence against the government of the United States, and the Constitution, and honestly the future it requires that we deal with it. I hope this impeachment trial will at least set the record straight. No matter how many lies we get told. And no matter what Trump’s Cousin Vinny-like lawyer has to say, I believe in our collective ability to hold onto the truth. And yeah, DJT, we know what you did. We are UNDISTRACTED.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham On the show today…Opal Tometi. I will be talking to the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter organization about the historic rise of this broad and vast movement, and how the pandemic contributed to last year’s uprising.

Opal Tometi There was an overwhelming sense that if black people can still be killed with impunity in this environment where so many are saying, “We’re in all this together,” and it didn’t match up. It just did not.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s coming up. But first it’s your “UNtrending News.”


Brittany Packnett Cunningham Okay. So let’s start off with something good. New York has finally repealed its walking while trans ban. The anti-loitering law that began in 1976, allowed the police to arrest anyone they suspected was engaging in sex work without having any compelling evidence. However, advocates say that it was usually used to unfairly target Black and Latinx trans women. TS Candii of the non-profit Black Trans Nation and a whole lot of others have been referring to the ban as stop and frisk for trans women.

TS Candii It’s a Stop and Frisk 2.0.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So finally, after decades of lobbying, the New York state legislature has finally repealed the ban. TS Candii says it is the beginning of a new era. So congrats to all of the activists and the organizers and the freedom fighters who fought for decades to have this archaic discriminatory law taken off the books. Next up, advocates in New York want to make it the first state to decriminalize sex work, and we are behind you.


Brittany Packnett Cunningham Now this past few weeks have seen a massive rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. At the start of the month, an 84-year-old Thai man in San Francisco was killed by a teen who slammed him to the ground and broad daylight. And last week, a 64-year-old Vietnamese woman in San Jose was attacked and robbed; and a Filipino man in the New York subway was slashed across the face. Since the start of the pandemic, there has been an increase in violence against Asians, Asian-Americans, and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. Many people blame Trump who repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the China virus or the Wu Han virus. Last month, President Biden issued a memorandum condemning the attacks, but there is still so much we can all do. Here’s what civil rights activist Amanda Nguyen had to say:

Amanda Nguyen We are in a moment of reckoning. So I urge people to wake up and choose love. Look, I know that sounds really corny, but the opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s apathy.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Wake up and choose love. I couldn’t agree more, Amanda. Look, y’all. White supremacy wants all of us, especially marginalized folks, to turn on each other, and the pandemic is making that even worse. We absolutely cannot allow our Asian-American siblings to feel unsupported. So much of the way that bias manifests against Asian-American and Pacific Islander folks is invisibility and erasure, so we need to be the antidote to that.

Amanda Nguyen There is a new Asian-American movement emerging, and we are not going to be silent anymore.


Brittany Packnett Cunningham And finally, a brand new documentary about Britney Spears has fanned the flames of the #FreeBritney movement. Y’all, I have watched it and it is infuriating. “Framing  Britney Spears” chronicles the pop star’s tumultuous history, from her teenage debut all the way through her twenties and into the present. The 39-year-old pop star lives under the conservatorship of her father, Jamie Spears, and for 13 years nearly every single aspect of her life, including major financial, professional, and medical decisions, have been controlled by him. In recent years, it was the fans who organized an entire #FreeBritney movement and they’ve been campaigning for the singer’s autonomy.


Why is she still in this? Why is her dad making all of her decisions? What do we want? Free Britney! 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Organizer Nelini Stamp from the Working Families party, she actually weighed in on Twitter, and she said that the #FreeBritney movement is a really powerful example of civilian organizing. She pointed out that no one really cared what was going on with Britney or that she was under conservatorship until real people, not celebrities, started organizing around it. It’s easy to dismiss this as just fandom standom if you will, but from the problematic system of conservatorship to the power of organizing real people, there’s a lot for us to learn here. Britney Jean Spears deserves her self-determination, and we wish her all the best andnot butif people could put this much energy on behalf of one woman, imagine what we can do together for all women, femmes, and gender non-conforming people? #FreeBritney, #FreeAllOfUs.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Coming up…I’ll be talking to Opal Tometi about how the phrase “Black Lives Matter” went from being seen as a radical national security threat to finding its way into living rooms all across the entire world. 


Brittany Packnett Cunningham Honestly, it’s pretty incredible that the latest iteration of the movement for racial justice has been nominated for a 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. When I heard the news a couple of weeks ago, I was lit, and I was so grateful for the thousands of people that have made this movement move. The Norwegian MP who nominated it said he did so because it’s, “Bringing forward a new consciousness and awareness about racial justice.” Yes. Yes, it is.

In 2020, this movement shook the entire world. Not only did the phrase “Black Lives Matter” become a rallying cry for tens of millions of Americans, demonstrations were held in more than 60 countries across the globe. My guest today is one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter network. Opal Tometi is a civil rights activist who was named one of Time Magazine‘s Most Influential People of 2020. But she’ll be the first to tell you that this is a collective movement that goes beyond any one individual. I recently called up Opal so we could chat about just how far the fight for Black lives has come and where we got to go next.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Opal Tometi, it is so good to talk to you. Thank you for chatting with us.

Opal Tometi Thank you so much for having me. This is great.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I want to say congratulations. This Nobel Peace Prize nomination for the Black Lives Matter movement is incredible. What was your reaction when you found out?

Opal Tometi Brittany, honestly, it is incredible and it’s really a testament to the countless, gosh, millions and millions of people across the country and around the world who’ve been throwing down with BLM for years now. And it’s beautiful to see the international community really come to acknowledge what we’ve always known. This movement is about peace. This is about justice. And I think what’s also so moving about this recognition is the fact that it’s not actually to an individual. It’s about the collective movement because there’ve been so many people who’ve shown up, who’ve taken ownership of what Black Lives Matter means, and so there’s something really amazing about that. 

But I think one thing that people don’t know is that there have been 916 people who’ve received the Nobel Prize and only 16 have been Black people. Only 16. So from the continent to the Caribbean to the Americas and beyond, only 16 of us. And so, I think there’s also something very important and historic about this moment and about the fact that this current day, no Black liberation movement is being recognized in this way.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I hear that. Amen to that. So, I actually want to go back a little bit. As you’ve already intimated, obviously this is a movement of a massive cast of characters and organizations who really created this thing, but you co-founded the Black Lives Matter organization back in 2013, along with Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors, right after Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida. What was the goal when you first started out?

Opal Tometi Yeah. Brilliant. I’m glad you take us back to that moment because I think with all of the excitement and all of the various things that are happening in this moment, we lose the origin story sometimes. And back in 2013, the goal and really the impetus I should say of creating Black Lives Matter was to bring together our movement and our people and remind us that we could do something about anti-Black racism. We could do something about police brutality, about these various types of extrajudicial killings. And specifically at that time, we were all moved by the very, very tragic murder of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman in Florida. 

I have two younger brothers and the youngest of mine was 14 at the time, and so I was specifically thinking about him when I reached out to Alicia and said, “Hey, I saw your love note on Facebook,” that really said something so simple, but so profound. Black people. I love us. Our lives matter. And Patrisse, who I didn’t actually know at the time, put a hashtag on that on Facebook, which is what people usually did on Facebook at that time, but she did that and I called Alicia the next day and said, “I’m not sure what this is, but I want to get in on it and I want to build it out for real. For real.” And we bought the domain name. I started our social media platforms and sent some massive email out to all the Black organizers I knew across the country. And just said, “Y’all, let’s use this. Let this be an umbrella for us to begin to articulate our demands.” I think what’s important for folks to also know, and I like to remind myself of this, is that from day one, we were always inclusive.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah.

Opal Tometi We always had a worldview that was really expansive, and quite literally, I remember staying up late when I was building on the side and using Tumblr and saying, “Black trans lives. Black undocumented. Black disabled.”

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah. Black immigrants. Black disabled lives. Black queer lives. That’s exactly what I want to ask you, because you’ve made it really clear from the very beginning that the organization, and I think that the movement has made this clear broadly, that all Black people are not a monolith, but this is for all Black people.

Opal Tometi That’s right. That is 100% right. We’re not a monolith, but we must address the issues of anti-Black racism if we are going to have a society that works, that allows us to live the expansive beautiful possibilities that we are actually endowed with as human beings.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah. And then you and I actually met in 2014 during the Ferguson uprising, which I was a part of, alongside thousands of other brave and courageous people. The Ferguson uprising is, of course, in response to the murder of Michael Brown Jr. by a Ferguson police officer. You’ve said that it was in Ferguson that you all really started to talk about making the organization a global network. How did your goals shift as an organization when you really started to think about the global piece of it all?

Opal Tometi Yeah. BLM really took shape in Ferguson. There was something so beautiful and so profound about the ways in which Black people were mobilized to join the Ferguson uprising, the courageous people of Ferguson, and show up alongside folks and say, “We’ve seen you. We’re quite literally looking on our timelines and seeing the tear gas. We’re seeing all of that. Brittany, you know…You were on the ground. You experienced all that. And we were seeing that from a distance, and essentially said, “We can’t let folks suffer like that.” And I think this is an important moment, because, oftentimes, folks think about BLM as just being online or they dismiss that as, “It’s just a digital thing, and it’s so trivial, and who cares?” They were dismissing us.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Mm-hmm

Opal Tometi But the physicality, the embodiment of our values in the way that we showed up for our siblings in Ferguson, I think, just changed the game. And that was actually what made BLM go quote unquote viral. And the press gets it and all of those sorts of things, and it goes across the world.

And I just feel like that’s important, that folks recognized that it’s not just the awareness-raising that mattered in that moment, but there was something about the actual taking action together, showing up for one another, and not only is this happening here, but we know that Ferguson is everywhere. So we’re going to go back home and we’re also standing up for racial justice and for our rights.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah. After Ferguson, #Ferguson, #BlackLivesMatter really starts to pick up online. Then you got Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate name-dropping the movement, meeting with the movement, all the way to storylines about the movement appearing all over television, including in “Law & Order,” which, talk about irony…But really this has really entered the average living room.

Opal Tometi Yes. It really has. It’s ubiquitous. And it’s great, because what has also been ubiquitous has been white supremacy, has been anti-Blackness being the status quo, and so I’m like, “Yes. Black lives matter.”

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And I think this summer, this idea that Ferguson is everywhere and Black Lives Matter everywhere really took such incredible hold: the killings of George Floyd; and Breonna Taylor; the killing of Tony McDade, a Black trans man, in Florida…This movement suddenly starts to see brand new members. Brand new people joining up, tens of millions of Americans, millions of people across the globe. How would you say that what we saw in 2020 differed from what had come before?

Opal Tometi What I think happened in the seven years since BLM’s founding was that, yes, we were having these uprisings that were building and there’s some momentum, but in 2020, given the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the nature of which it’s both a health crisis, it’s an economic crisis, people are stuck in their homes, being told they’re losing their jobs, and they’re already living hand to mouth in many ways, and, really, what safetynet was there, it was being further pulled away.

And what I think was unique about last year was that there was an overwhelming sense that if Black people can still be killed with impunity in this environment, in an environment where so many are saying, “We’re in all of this together, and we care about each other, and we have to pull ourselves together,” all of this rhetoric, but it didn’t match up. It just did not. And the contradictions, the hypocrisy, was just so clear. And I think our allies, people who normally, maybe from a distance, said, “That’s wrong. That’s bad,” they finally said, “You know what? Enough is enough my apathy or my sitting on the sidelines isn’t going to cut it. And I’m going to show up.”

Brittany Packnett Cunningham It is wild. If we get real about it, it is wild to think back to just a few years ago, when we were being called “Black identity extremists,” when we were being called “thugs” and “terrorists” by folks just sitting in their living rooms, even this very phrase, Black Lives Matter, was viewed very differently. It was treated like a national security threat or ignored altogether. What has it been like for you to observe this shift?

Opal Tometi It always felt like gaslighting. Because I knew, and everybody really knew, what we were talking about. We know what it means to say Black Lives Matter. We know. We’ve seen the stories. We’ve seen people gunned down. And so for people to say that you are meaning that Black people are superior, or just some other wild notions, was really disingenuous and really distracting. And so, for us to fast forward to 2020, really the year or big name of 2020, so it’s kind of fitting, right? We see things with clarity now that, “No. We know exactly what they meant.”

And as a leader, I’ve got to say, you can get rather cynical or you might want to be pissy about it and all of that, but I’m just glad. I’m like, “Welcome. Welcome to the club. Let’s get moving.”

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Right. We’re glad you’re here.

Opal Tometi Here’s the manual. Let’s keep it pushing. We’re not going to slow down.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Let’s get to work.

Opal Tometi We’re not going to slow down for you, but catch up.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah. Speaking of catching up, we know that in a lot of more mainstream spaces, the idea of defunding the police is seen as incredibly radical. Do you think that one day defunding police will become as mainstream as Black Lives Matter has?

Opal Tometi Well, I sure hope so on that latter part. Defund the police, this kind of language, and this umbrella framework for us  is actually really important, because it’s a framework that invites us to look at the various possibilities for keeping our community safe, and for resourcing those other solutions that are out there.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Right.

Opal Tometi And it’s important for us to make sure that our budgets align with our values and that our budgets allow for everyone to thrive, and clearly we’re not seeing that as it stands now. And so what we’re saying is that after all of these years of high incidents of police brutality, of extrajudicial killings, all of the lawsuits, and the payouts, and just the crisis of policing in this nation, why don’t we take an honest assessment of it, and why don’t we begin to reallocate those resources towards other solutions, especially those solutions that are designed and thought through by the people who’ve been adversely impacted. And we know that it doesn’t look like having more and more police patrolling our neighborhoods. It looks like education, it looks like the mental health services being robust, and so on. And so this is really an invitation to looking at safety beyond just policing and not continue to invest in ideas that clearly are not working, clearly are lethal, clearly don’t respect the sanctity of Black lives.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So let’s talk about the sanctity of Black lives across the globe. This movement, I won’t even say has spread across the world, I’ll say has connected with other racial justice movements across the world. So what parts of the world are you paying most attention to right now?

Opal Tometi Yeah. I’m glad you said it like that, because you’re absolutely right. There are movements that are already going and that have been well underway and that had been inviting us more and more to connect and vice versa. And so I’m looking at the movement in Brazil. The Afro-Brazilian community are actually the majority in Brazil, but they’ve been suffering and catching hell, and hyper-policing is an issue there as well. The statistics are even worse than what’s happening in the United States because of the academic disenfranchisement that they’ve experienced over the years. Just the systemic oppression that’s happening there, it’s been very hard for them to get the type of shift in power that they deserve. They also have a president, Bolsonaro, who was so similar to Trump and really took so many of his cues from Trump and vice versa. So I’m looking at our people over there, and they’re righteous, incredible organizing that they’re engaged with across the country, and I’m so inspired by them.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And we should say that your connection, your personal connection, to just how global justice movement this is, it comes from the very beginning. You are the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. You’ve talked before about growing up in a predominantly white suburb of Phoenix, Arizona. Is part of this global connection what first inspired you to become politically engaged?

Opal Tometi Yes. Absolutely. Being the daughter of Nigerian immigrants has completely informed my work, the scope of my work, and just my passion and pride, and us. So much of how I orient to Black social movement building is in a way that transcends the U.S. borders. I’m concerned about our people in Nigeria. I’m concerned about our folks in South Africa, in France, and wherever we are. And so, yeah, it’s absolutely informed me and I was just incredibly deeply moved by the uprising, largely in Lagos, but it really was across Nigeria, the #EndSARS mobilization that garnered global attention, and that, to me, was just a reminder of how profound the work is, and how there’s a need for justice in so many contexts, and the fact that our struggles are so righteous, and so needed, and that we shouldn’t shy away from demanding the justice that we deserve.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham There’s so much incredible leadership of women, Black women, across this movement space. And I know you’ve said that people are sometimes surprised to learn how many of the organizations were started by Black women, how much is being run by Black women. How do you respond to people’s surprise?

Opal Tometi Oh my goodness. You are so right to name that. The way that I respond to people’s surprise is by just reminding them about who it is that Black people really are and how do Black people come into being. It’s Black women, right? Who do you think cares the most about what’s going on with our people, with our siblings?

So it’s just surprising to me. I always say that it’s surprising and at the same time, I’m just glad that we could have used these platforms in a way where we’re saying, “We’re going to speak for ourselves.”

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah.

Opal Tometi And I think we’re living in a time where we’re saying, “Enough is enough. We’re going to be truth-tellers and tell it all, because we can’t live like this any longer. We don’t deserve this.”

Brittany Packnett Cunningham We do not deserve this. And in that spirit of determination, what do you think has to come next for our collective movement?

Opal Tometi What I believe that has to come next is, I hope and desire for folks to invest in us. And we have to begin to connect the dots even more around what is happening stateside, to what is happening with our siblings in different parts of the globe, because our destinies are intertwined.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s right.

Opal Tometi What happens here does matter in other locations. We can’t dismiss that, the significance of our connection, and the significance of our nation’s influence on other countries and communities.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Amen, amen, and amen. Opal, it’s always so good to talk to you, sis. Thank you for joining us.

Opal Tometi Likewise. So great to talk with you, Brittany.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Opal Tometi is a co-founder of the BLM network and a founder of the advocacy hub Diaspora Rising.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham You know, six years ago when we were in the streets of Ferguson, folks got on TV, and Twitter, and in our personal email boxes to call us everything but a child of God. Trigger warning: but I was “nigger” this and “Black bitch” that, and, according to all the people who hated us, we were jobless, lawless, ignorant thugs. But now, a vast movement for racial liberation that spans organizations, people, and countries is so mainstream, it’s getting nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. And I’m with Opal. Welcome, y’all. It’s about time everyone caught up.

But just as the nomination suggests, this has always been about peace. False narratives that we were seeking some kind of world domination, that gaslights so many people into believing otherwise. But if peace, as Dr. King said, is not merely the absence of tension, but the presence of justice, then that is precisely what we’ve been fighting for. I always call this freedom struggle of ours the movement, because it’s always been in motion. We’ve been continually fighting for racial justice for generations. These uprisings are just the latest manifestation of our collective human rights struggle. So it’s important that we connect the dots with history and with each other around the globe, so we become even stronger as the movement marches on.

So that’s it for today, but never, ever for tomorrow. 


UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

Our lead producer is Rachel Matlow. 

Our associate producer is Taylor Hosking. 

Thanks as always to Treasure Brooks, Grace Chen, and Hannis Brown. 

Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky.

You can follow me @mspacknett on all social media and our team at The Meteor. 

Subscribe to UNDISTRACTED and rate and review us, y’all, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you check out your favorite podcasts. Thanks for listening. Thanks for being. Thanks for doing. I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. 

Let’s go get free.