Saturday, February 5, 2022

Q&A with Veronica Chambers, Author of Call and Response: The Story of Black Lives Matter


Hi, I’m Veronica Chambers and I’m the author, along with Jennifer Harlan, of Call and Response: The Story of Black Lives Matter. The book features more than 100 archival and contemporary news photographs and it talks about why people protest and why it matters. The first half of the book is a primer on racial justice movements — how did we, as a country, get to the summer of 2020 when 15 to 26 million people took to the streets. The Black Lives Matter protests that summer are believed to be the largest protest movement in our country’s history.

The second half of the book looks at how people protest — from athletes to artists to musicians — and how young people protest across a range of issues.

- How does the Black Lives Matter movement draw from other campaigns for social change?

In our book, we have two timelines. We have a timeline of Black Lives Matter, and a timeline of the modern Civil Rights movement and the Black Power movement. I think that it's important to include both of those movements, because in schools in the U.S. people often teach civil rights – they teach Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington – but they don't always teach Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party, and the more radical parts of the movements of the 1950s and '60s.

One of the things that I think the Black Lives Matter movement has done so successfully is to integrate this radical notion, advocated by the Panthers, that you don’t have to be an example of “black excellence” to deserve justice and equity. We don’t earn our humanity by being achievers, by getting good grades and attending prestigious schools. We earn our humanity by being human.

- What did you learn about protest in writing the book that you didn’t know before?

We have a section in the book called “The Anatomy of a Protest.” That chapter actually started as an Instagram story by a Times reporting fellow named Juliana Kim.

I saw it and thought it was so great, because a lot of times when people look at protests they think, “It’s just throngs of people in the street.”

But what Juliana did was break down the roles of people in the protests. So there's the marshal who leads a protest, who calls out the calls that the crowd responds to — for example: “Whose streets? Our streets!” The marshal is there to lead and to be visibly in the front.

Then you have the legal observers, people who are lawyers and paralegals who are there in case people get arrested to take notes, to call lawyers and to help protect the rights of the protesters.

You have street medics who are there in case somebody gets hurt, so if someone falls or gets trampled or breaks a leg or anything they get medical care as quickly as possible. You have people who are there to give supplies – face masks and water and food.

We learned that many cyclists who join protests are actually trained in mediating situations with motorists who don't want to be cooperative with the protest. They also go ahead and help scout new routes when the protest gets off track.

I love that section because I think protests, like everything you want to understand, really benefits from a closer gaze.

What we really tried to do in the book is say, “OK, any protest – it could be climate protests, it could be protests against gun violence, it could be racial justice protests, it could be for disability rights, it could be for gender and sexuality rights – they all have a common theme in that they are way more organized than we think they are. And they are for the most part peaceful and this is why they are effective all around the world.

- In what ways are young people uniquely suited to change the world?

One of my favorite pieces that I wrote for The New York Times last year was based on an interview I did with Paola Velez about Bakers Against Racism. It’s this amazing movement in which thousands of bakers, in at least 41 states and on five continents around the world, have raised millions of dollars for social justice organizations.

She talked about how the very act of baking is an exercise in mindfulness that lends itself to the thought-provoking work of social justice. “It takes a little bit of patience and it takes a little bit of grace,” she said. “So I always say, you can bake the world a better place, because in those times of reflection, you are really staying still and thinking about how to be someone that gives.” Even non-professional bakers, including children, are welcome to join the effort, she said, and they might benefit from some meditative time with the oven.

I love this because I think it’s important to let young people know that, when it comes to lifting their voices about the issues they care about, protest can take many different forms. Paola and her crew bake as a form of protest because that’s what they love to do. Murals and art work have always been integral to protest and are so important. There are protest songs, everything from "Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday to "Alright" by Kendrick Lamar. There are protest bike rides and skateboarding events and surfing paddle outs. Whatever you're into, whatever tools you have in your tool box, you can use that to make a difference.

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Keep up with Veronica Chambers at her author site and grab a copy of Call and Response from your favorite bookstore. 

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