How Black Communities Across the Country Are Retaking Land and Demanding Reparations

A conversation with Chinyere Tutashinda of the BlackOUT Collective.

Sarah Jaffe

The Juneteenth action in Oakland, California. (Photo Credit: Zoe Samudzi)

June­teenth is not a fed­er­al hol­i­day — but it should be. It is the day that the news of eman­ci­pa­tion reached the last group of enslaved peo­ple in Galve­ston, Texas, months after the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion and even the offi­cial end of the Civ­il War. To mark the day, and its unful­filled promis­es, a group of orga­niz­ers planned a day of action: reclaim­ing vacant land — 40 acres in 40 cities, to be pre­cise. From Atlanta to Oak­land, Chica­go to New Orleans, anchored by the Black­OUT Col­lec­tive and Move­ment Gen­er­a­tion, black peo­ple claimed and held land, tak­ing space to have com­mu­ni­ty din­ners, put vacant spaces back into the com­mons and chal­lenge gen­tri­fi­ca­tion — as well as ampli­fy the demand for repa­ra­tions. Chinyere Tutashin­da of the Black­OUT Col­lec­tive told me about the plan.

"Action, in particular, is not just about the current moment, but it is rooted in history and rooted in land."

Chinyere Tutashin­da: My name is Chinyere Tutashin­da. I am the Co-Direc­tor of the Black­OUT Collective.

Sarah Jaffe: Mon­day was June­teenth. For peo­ple who don’t know what that is. Can you tell us, first of all, the his­to­ry of the day and why it is impor­tant to mark it with action?

Chinyere: June­teenth is a very inter­est­ing and sad sto­ry all wrapped in one. It actu­al­ly cel­e­brates and com­mem­o­rates the day when a group of enslaved Black folks in Texas found out about the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion and learned that slav­ery was offi­cial­ly over in their area and they could be a part of the Union army. This hap­pened months after the Procla­ma­tion was declared. That hap­pened in Feb­ru­ary, and in June they found out that they were actu­al­ly free. It cel­e­brates and com­mem­o­rates the day of free­dom. Also, the rea­son is that it wasn’t to the ben­e­fit of those who enslaved a group to actu­al­ly com­mu­ni­cate this. So, it took months and months of net­works of enslaved folks to be able to get that mes­sage to them. June­teenth is the day that com­mem­o­rates that.

Sarah: Tell us about the actions that are tak­ing place and the sig­nif­i­cance of the plan that you guys went for­ward with.

Chinyere: The Black­OUT Col­lec­tive, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Move­ment Gen­er­a­tion, began hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions. Move­ment Gen­er­a­tion approached us and said we decid­ed to real­ly struc­ture and shift some of our work to focus on Black lib­er­a­tion, and what does that look like? As a group that is pri­mar­i­ly root­ed in direct action, we real­ly want­ed to jump on the oppor­tu­ni­ty to expand our work a lit­tle bit fur­ther and play around with what these long-term and pro­tract­ed actions look like. We have a rela­tion­ship, one, with the land and then, two, real­ly think­ing about con­ver­sa­tions around Black lib­er­a­tion tied to land and to repa­ra­tions. Know­ing that if we are talk­ing about free­dom in this coun­try, then we also need to be hav­ing a real, con­crete dis­cus­sions about what’s owed to peo­ple who have a his­to­ry of enslavement.

Sarah: Talk a lit­tle bit more about the actions and the places where these are tak­ing place.

Chinyere: It is a bit of a long project, actu­al­ly. We have been work­ing with groups in about 12 cities across the coun­try to devel­op a politic around it, to real­ly think about what their rela­tion­ship to the land is, what their rela­tion­ship to the com­mu­ni­ty is, and then where it makes sense for their local spaces.

Then, we put out a call to action about a month ago invit­ing peo­ple to join us in this project. Actions are going to take place across the coun­try in a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent ways. Some peo­ple are look­ing at long-term occu­pa­tions and cre­at­ing com­mu­ni­ty spaces. Some are just day-long actions where peo­ple are hold­ing con­ver­sa­tions about repa­ra­tions, land and Black lib­er­a­tion and how all three of those are tied togeth­er. They’ll be dif­fer­ent, but the goal is to be able to take up space, build com­mu­ni­ties, and be in right rela­tion­ship with each oth­er and with the com­mu­ni­ty at large.

Sarah: There were a few spaces held like this last sum­mer in Chica­go and in Los Angeles.

Chinyere: There were. We helped with the free­dom actions last sum­mer that were in response to the mur­der of Alton Ster­ling. Out of that, one of the actions was Free­dom Square in Chica­go that was held by folks from Black Youth Project 100 and a bunch of oth­er dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tions that real­ly played around with What does it mean to hold space?” And they did so at a place where Black peo­ple had been tor­tured and impris­oned. So, peo­ple have been play­ing around with it. I know the Los Ange­les Black Lives Mat­ter chap­ter last sum­mer also did occu­pa­tions and held theirs real­ly long with the Free­dom Now actions.

Sarah: Tell me about the impor­tance of hold­ing the space and of talk­ing about repa­ra­tions. Dur­ing a time when Don­ald Trump is pres­i­dent, it can seem like every­thing is short-term resis­tance. Talk about doing rad­i­cal actions and mak­ing rad­i­cal demands in this moment.

Chinyere: There has been a huge upheaval in this coun­try around the results of the elec­tion and peo­ple going, What to do?” and What does it mean?” and all of this stuff. You have hun­dreds of thou­sands of new­ly acti­vat­ed peo­ple, but it is real­ly crit­i­cal that even in this moment, we con­tin­ue to remem­ber that the strug­gle is long and that it is one that requires us to not only react to things that are hap­pen­ing, com­ing down from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment or local gov­ern­ment or state gov­ern­ment. It also requires us to real­ly think about how we are in rela­tion­ships with each oth­er, with the land around us, root­ed in an under­stand­ing of the his­to­ry of oppres­sion in this coun­try. This is one of the rea­sons why this action, in par­tic­u­lar, is not just about the cur­rent moment, but it is root­ed in his­to­ry and root­ed in land.

Sarah: Tell us a lit­tle bit about the Black­OUT Col­lec­tive, where that came from and the work you have been doing over the recent years.

Chinyere: We start­ed in 2014, lit­er­al­ly in front of the Fer­gu­son Police Depart­ment, from a group of train­ers. Some train­ers from the Ruckus Soci­ety, which is a non-vio­lent direct action train­ing group, and some train­ers with the Cen­ter for Sto­ry-based Strat­e­gy. We were sit­ting there and, as we were try­ing to come togeth­er as a group of Black train­ers, real­iz­ing that we’d reached out to a lot of peo­ple we knew who had done direct actions, but there weren’t that many who iden­ti­fied them­selves as direct action train­ers as Black peo­ple. We want­ed to shift that. We want­ed that to grow. We want­ed that to change dras­ti­cal­ly. As Black peo­ple, we have been using direct action tac­tics for hun­dreds of years fight­ing for our own liberation.

So, we start­ed there and have con­tin­ued to grow. We trained, over the course of two-and-a-half years, almost a thou­sand Black peo­ple in direct action tac­tics. We are slow­ly grow­ing and build­ing our net­work through our action prac­ti­tion­ers and are going to have our first all-Black prac­ti­tion­er camp and vision­ing ses­sion this sum­mer. We have also worked real­ly close­ly with lead­er­ship posi­tions with­in the Move­ment for Black Lives. So, a lot of the nation­al calls to action, we have been sup­port­ing local­ly and nation­al­ly. That is a lit­tle bit about who we are.

Sarah: We talked about the need to keep mak­ing for­ward-look­ing demands, but what do you think has changed in terms of the Move­ment for Black Lives in a world where Trump is president?

Chinyere: There are a lot of peo­ple who are out on the streets. I think there is a lot of inter­est and a lot of peo­ple who have been new­ly politi­cized and wok­en up to the fact that now Trump is our pres­i­dent. This is not new for us, because a lot of folks, par­tic­u­lar­ly those in the South, have been liv­ing under con­di­tions very sim­i­lar to the ones that Trump is try­ing to enact nationally.

Peo­ple have been real­ly focus­ing on strength­en­ing their orga­niz­ing, strength­en­ing their base build­ing and try­ing to build and do strat­e­gy in dif­fer­ent ways. Peo­ple are notic­ing there are less peo­ple on the streets, but they are not nec­es­sar­i­ly less peo­ple in our orga­ni­za­tions or less peo­ple doing local work. As peo­ple are build­ing and are slow­ly grow­ing, the work that you will see come into fruition in the next year or so.

Sarah: It is inter­est­ing to me that the first round of these glob­al upris­ings was real­ly out­side of orga­ni­za­tions. With the Move­ment for Black Lives, we have real­ly seen the growth of these orga­ni­za­tions that have been around now for sev­er­al years. I won­der if you could talk about the chal­lenges and the suc­cess­es of build­ing these orga­ni­za­tions that have lasted.

Chinyere: I think it is both/​and. I would say that there are a lot of new orga­ni­za­tions that sprung up in the last cou­ple of years, and then there are a lot of baby orga­ni­za­tions that start­ed a few years before, say 2014, and were in their grow­ing phas­es and since then have real­ly blos­somed and have been nour­ished in their orga­niz­ing the last few years. But, it is a strug­gle. There is a strug­gle in teach­ing peo­ple who are new­ly politi­cized — and even for those who have been orga­niz­ing for a real­ly long time.

There is a lot of excite­ment in real­ly think­ing about new ways to orga­nize our­selves, new ways to con­tin­ue to absorb the new peo­ple who are inter­est­ed and excit­ed and want to be involved. I think that is hap­pen­ing. There has been a lot of action on the street. There is also a lot of action that is hap­pen­ing in build­ings and in class­rooms and in meet­ings as peo­ple are real­ly grow­ing through orga­niz­ing strate­gies and new ways to be in com­mu­ni­ty with one another.

Sarah: You made a point about peo­ple hav­ing been liv­ing under gov­ern­ments like Trump and that, par­tic­u­lar­ly for Black peo­ple, Trump may have not have been as much of a sur­prise as he was for some oth­er folks in this coun­try. I’m think­ing about this in con­nec­tion with the fact that we are often dis­con­nect­ed from our his­to­ry in this coun­try, which is why I want­ed to start out by ask­ing you to tell peo­ple what June­teenth is. I would love for you to talk about the impor­tance of know­ing the his­to­ry of strug­gle in this coun­try, which isn’t taught to us in school, and why that is impor­tant to under­stand the pol­i­tics we are deal­ing with today.

Chinyere: I think that it is impor­tant. One, if we don’t know his­to­ry, we will very often think that what is hap­pen­ing now just all of a sud­den hap­pened. We also, espe­cial­ly as oppressed peo­ple, will take in the sto­ry that we are con­tin­u­ous­ly told around indi­vid­u­al­ism, around mer­i­toc­ra­cy, and believe that you are where you are or your peo­ple are because of some­thing that you per­son­al­ly did right or that you didn’t do wrong and not under­stand­ing that there are sys­tems at play, that there is a long his­to­ry of oppres­sion in this coun­try, that things are set up inten­tion­al­ly to work a cer­tain way.

So, unless we real­ly study and take time to study his­to­ry, then it is very easy to become divorced from that and it is very easy to indi­vid­u­al­ize it and to take that in.

Sarah: How can peo­ple keep up with you and the Black­OUT Col­lec­tive and find out more infor­ma­tion on the June­teenth actions?

Chinyere: There are a cou­ple of ways. We have our web­site, Black​OUT​Col​lec​tive​.org. We also are on social media. So, Twit­ter @blackoutcollect, on Face­book the Black­OUT Col­lec­tive. If you are inter­est­ed in learn­ing more about the Black Land and Lib­er­a­tion Ini­tia­tive, they can fol­low us at black​lan​dan​dlib​er​a​tion​.org/, as well as on social media.

Inter­views for Resis­tance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assis­tance from Lau­ra Feuille­bois and sup­port from the Nation Insti­tute. It is also avail­able as a pod­cast on iTunes. Not to be reprint­ed with­out permission.

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue