Not Your Grandfather’s Black Freedom Movement: An Interview with BYP100’s Charlene Carruthers

The 30-year-old radical black queer feminist who’s Rahm Emanuel’s worst nightmare

Salim Muwakkil February 8, 2016

Charlene Carruthers, 30, has helped bring youth front and center in Chicago's anti-police-violence movement. (Sarah Jane Rhee)

There is lit­tle doubt that the Black Lives Mat­ter era of protests will be brand­ed as a mil­len­ni­al moment. But Black women are so promi­nent in the movement’s lead­er­ship, the era might also be char­ac­ter­ized as a matri­ar­chal moment. For exam­ple, in the out­rage fol­low­ing the release of the Laquan McDon­ald video depict­ing a 17-year old being shot by a Chica­go cop 16 times, four of the most promi­nent groups that spoke out—Black Lives Mat­ter, Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), We Charge Geno­cide and Fear­less Lead­ing by the Youth (FLY)— were led by Black women.

We do not believe that [Rahm Emanuel and Anita Alvarez] have the capacity to be in positions where they have decision-making power over so many lives. They’ve demonstrated over and over again that they are not effective at making good decisions when it comes to our lives.

This gen­der align­ment marks a stark devi­a­tion from a deep tra­di­tion of patri­ar­chal lead­er­ship. This is not your grandfather’s black free­dom movement.

Char­lene Car­ruthers, the 30-year-old nation­al direc­tor of BYP100, makes clear that this female ascen­dan­cy, as it were, has schol­ar­ly roots in the ster­ling work of fem­i­nist pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als such as Cathy Cohen of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and Bar­bara Rans­by of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go. BYP100, for exam­ple, is an off­shoot of the Black Youth Project, a ven­ture launched by Cohen in 2004. A well-known the­o­rist of Black queer fem­i­nism, Cohen’s views have strong­ly shaped the agen­da of BYP100.

In These Times sat down with Car­ruthers to talk about the role of BYP100 in Chicago’s anti−police-violence move­ment and why the group thinks it’s cru­cial to ful­ly incor­po­rate” a Black queer fem­i­nist perspective.

How did BYP100 begin? 

In 2012, a group of young Black peo­ple who were part of an advi­so­ry coun­cil for the Black Youth Project said to Cathy Cohen, We want to have a nation­al con­ven­ing with oth­er Black activists from across the coun­try.” And so Cohen secured the resources, and 100 young Black folk were invit­ed to attend a con­ven­ing called the Beyond Novem­ber Move­ment” in 2013. What we intend­ed was to dis­cuss move­ment-build­ing for Black lib­er­a­tion beyond elec­toral pol­i­tics, in the after­math of the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma. That Sat­ur­day night, the George Zim­mer­man ver­dict was announced. We gath­ered in the cir­cle and lis­tened. There were all kinds of reac­tions to the not guilty” ver­dict: Some peo­ple cried, some peo­ple screamed, some peo­ple left the room. And we stood in a cir­cle pro­cess­ing that moment.

But you had gath­ered for some­thing com­plete­ly different. 

Right. And I ful­ly believe if we were not gath­ered that par­tic­u­lar week­end, on that par­tic­u­lar night, BYP100 wouldn’t exist. There were many things that hap­pened imme­di­ate­ly, but we all com­mit­ted to going to the 50th anniver­sary of the March on Wash­ing­ton, in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. It was there that we actu­al­ly draft­ed a mis­sion and core val­ue state­ment and began to think of our­selves as an organization.

So the Zim­mer­man ver­dict is what shaped BYP100’s focus on insti­tu­tion­al vio­lence and mass crim­i­nal­iza­tion of Black youth? 

Folks who attend­ed that ini­tial con­ven­ing come from var­i­ous parts of move­ments: There were artists, elect­ed offi­cials, folks who did LGBTQ rights orga­niz­ing, gen­der jus­tice orga­niz­ers, folks from labor unions — all kinds of folks were in that room. It was out of that moment that we decid­ed to focus on mass crim­i­nal­iza­tion and, real­ly at the core of it, look­ing at anti-Black­ness and its role in the oppres­sion of Black folks, par­tic­u­lar­ly in this coun­try, but also worldwide.

You said anti-Black­ness.” Was that an attempt to be more spe­cif­ic than the gen­er­al term white supremacy”?

We weren’t doing that lev­el of analy­sis col­lec­tive­ly at that par­tic­u­lar moment. But we named anti-Black­ness, white suprema­cy, patri­archy, homo­pho­bia, trans­pho­bia as the things that we need­ed to fight against, and rec­og­nized that many of those things con­tributed to the killing of Trayvon Martin.

You men­tion homo­pho­bia; that’s a new dimen­sion to the Black free­dom strug­gle. Was there any resistance?

Well, Cathy [Cohen] is known for her schol­ar­ship in both queer stud­ies and Black fem­i­nism. And so at any con­ven­ing that she was involved in, peo­ple came with that consciousness.

So Cathy’s ide­o­log­i­cal per­spec­tive is real­ly BYP100’s guid­ing light. 

I would say that it guides what we do in sig­nif­i­cant ways. Cathy, and oth­er Black women and fem­i­nists, too, like Bar­bara Rans­by, Bar­bara Smith, the late poet Audre Lorde, the late Ella Baker.

How are old­er, more estab­lished groups respond­ing to your efforts?

There have been mixed respons­es. Our mem­ber­ship is 18 to 35, but our orga­niz­ing work has always been inter­gen­er­a­tional. We are under no per­cep­tion that we can do this alone. We do believe young people’s lead­er­ship should be val­ued — and in many ways, pri­or­i­tized — in move­ment build­ing and orga­niz­ing, in order to ensure that it per­sists. I’ve also found that many of the dis­agree­ments are along the lines of ide­ol­o­gy and not nec­es­sar­i­ly age.

How did BYP100 get so deeply involved in this cur­rent strug­gle against the Chica­go Police Depart­ment in response to cas­es like the killings of Rekia Boyd and Laquan McDonald?

The analy­sis that we have — our world­view, as a col­lec­tive — and folks’ under­stand­ing of what’s at stake this par­tic­u­lar moment: not just the lives of some hypo­thet­i­cal per­son, but our lives. The strug­gle against CPD is one aspect of the long-term strug­gle of abol­ish­ing anti-Black­ness. Tak­ing up the strug­gle for the sake of account­abil­i­ty in the killing of Black peo­ple like Laquan and Rekia is essential.

Do you have par­tic­u­lar goals? For exam­ple, do you want the res­ig­na­tion of Chica­go May­or Rahm Emanuel or Cook Coun­ty State’s Attor­ney Ani­ta Alvarez, who are accused of sup­press­ing the Laquan McDon­ald video?

We’re call­ing for the res­ig­na­tion of both. We do not believe that they have the capac­i­ty to be in posi­tions where they have deci­sion-mak­ing pow­er over so many lives. They’ve demon­strat­ed over and over again that they are not effec­tive at mak­ing good deci­sions when it comes to our lives. We also want the Chica­go Police Depart­ment, which receives near­ly 40 per­cent of the city’s bud­get for pub­lic ser­vices, to be defund­ed, and for those dol­lars to be invest­ed in qual­i­ty pub­lic schools, afford­able hous­ing and job cre­ation. And we see that hap­pen­ing through a par­tic­i­pa­to­ry bud­get­ing process.

What about elec­toral politics?

Elec­toral and civic par­tic­i­pa­tion is the third rung of our over­all the­o­ry of social change — part of the set of tools we have to cre­ate trans­for­ma­tive change. The oth­er two rungs are direct action orga­niz­ing and pub­lic pol­i­cy advocacy.

Many of us old­er activists have been wait­ing a long time for some­thing like this. What fired up your pas­sion for this kind of engagement?

I grew up on the South Side of Chica­go. My fam­i­ly could be best described as work­ing-class. Some of my ear­li­est expe­ri­ences with pow­er and begin­ning to under­stand the kind of world we live in were at the wel­fare office with my moth­er, or hear­ing my father tell sto­ries about peo­ple he’d trained receiv­ing pro­mo­tions over him. I first got involved in activism in a real way when I went to col­lege at Illi­nois Wes­leyan Uni­ver­si­ty. At the end of my very first year I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to go study pol­i­tics in South Africa. We were there 10 years after the end of apartheid. Going to South Africa was per­haps the clos­est I could get to what it could look like if I was around in Amer­i­ca in 1978. I was 18 and com­ing from a city that is still very seg­re­gat­ed. That trip expand­ed my con­scious­ness around what it meant to be Black on a glob­al lev­el or out­side of Chica­go, real­ly, and got me inter­est­ed in pol­i­tics. I didn’t decide to be an orga­niz­er until after I fin­ished grad­u­ate school, in 2008.

What’s next for BYP100?

BYP100 is com­mit­ted to train­ing this gen­er­a­tion and future gen­er­a­tions of young Black activists to orga­nize and mobi­lize in order to cre­ate trans­for­ma­tive change for all Black peo­ple. We do this work through what we call a Black queer fem­i­nist lens” because we believe that in order to achieve lib­er­a­tion for all Black folks we have to be rad­i­cal­ly inclu­sive — not just in our analy­sis, but also in our prac­tice, in how we go about lead­er­ship. We believe that a Black Free­dom Move­ment in our life­time is possible.

Sal­im Muwakkil is a senior edi­tor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Sal­im Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s his­toric black radio sta­tion, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Pho­tographs from the Harold Wash­ing­ton Years.
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