Caroline McKusick – Gülşen Koçuk
On March 13, 2020, in Louisville Kentucky, 26-year-old emergency medical services worker Breonna Taylor was murdered in the middle of the night by plainclothes police who broke into her home unannounced using a battering ram. The police later claimed to be looking for an alleged drug dealer who was in fact already in police custody. They opened fire on Breonna and her boyfriend Kenneth Walker when he tried to defend them, killing Breonna.
It was in May, with protests against the police murder of George Floyd erupting around the U.S., that writer Cate Young called for a #BirthdayForBreonna on June 5, which would have been Breonna’s 27th birthday. Activist Briana Urena-Ravelo organized a 24-hour vigil for the day in Breonna’s hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Briana spoke to Jinnews about why liberation for Black women is the foundation of liberation for everyone.
* Can you tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Briana Urena-Ravelo. I am a Black Dominican organizer, artist, writer, and activist based in the Midwest. I’ve been organizing for over 10 years. I did some community art and DIY stuff when I was a teenager, and then switched into the organizing that I do now in my twenties.
* Can you speak to your roots in the U.S.? Can you tell us a bit about your greater family history?
My family is first-generation Dominican-American. They came in the late 80s, so I was the first child born stateside, in New York, to a working class family. We’re mixed race Black people, though many of my family pass for non-Black people of color. That informs my politics because I was walking this world as a Black person, but I also had family that walk this world seen as non-Black Latinos. Our culture’s definitely very Black. We moved to the Midwest when I was about six, and I’ve spent most of my life here in the Midwest and Michigan.
* The fact is that we’ve been witnessing, reading about, and following Black people’s centuries-long struggle for liberation, even if we are doing so from a distance–but we want to hear it from you. Have you been forced to wage a struggle for existence and/or to get your existence to be accepted? If the answer is yes, how do you see the struggle as having started?
I started to get more involved when I was in my early twenties, reading about incarcerated people on Death Row. There was a push to get Troy Davis exonerated, and he wasn’t. He was killed by the state. So for me personally, it was just before Trayvon, in the 2010s, when I started to really pay attention to anti-Blackness, state violence, and systemic racism. But in terms of the larger world and moment we are currently in, it starts with the first person kidnapped from Africa and brought here. There’s a deeper politic that links everything back to that, at least for me and a lot of folks struggling where I’m at: we’re trying to end that world that we understand cannot be salvaged. This world is inherently white supremacist; it’s inherently going to give us anti-Black and patriarchal outcomes. There’s no way to reform it or to change it. So there was an attempt to abolish slavery, but slavery was just adapted. In histories of the Dominican Republic and Latin America, too, we see a global struggle against the settler colonial world. We’re not asking for acceptance. We’re not asking to be seen by that world. We’re asking to be free of it.
* We’ve witnessed and continued to witness a string of protests that started in the U.S. and spread around the world. What kind of threshold was crossed when, on May 25, George Floyd was killed as he said “I can’t breathe?” Was this the last straw?
I have an abolitionist politics. I have an understanding that this world and its systems need to be radically changed. I think before this, people were upset and wanted change, but maybe they weren’t quite there yet. But now in our lifetimes, people are seeing that police murder is not new, and they’re asking what’s been done before, what did and didn’t work. So I think for our generation, there’s an understanding building. But there was also COVID-19. We’re seeing high rates of infection and death among African-Americans and other communities of color in the United States, while people are out of work and not being taken care of by the government. A lot of people said, “the system’s broken,” but we don’t believe that. We believe that this is what the system was meant to do. It was never meant to help poor people. It was never meant to protect Black people. So people were already frustrated, already underemployed or unemployed, already stuck at home. And then we saw this happen. Every time there’s been another police murder, there has been organizing and uprising. But now things are coming together; people are seeing that the reforms that have been asked for are not working. And we’re frustrated, and we’re underemployed, and people are dying. So I think there’s a lot of urgency to get something new in place, to make drastic changes, and to express our upset.
* Black people’s struggle against enslavement goes back hundreds of years. How does discrimination and the struggle against it manifest in daily life? If you can give an example of this, what would you like to say about it?
For example, we have cities where the rates for Black people getting infected with COVID-19 are four times higher, or ten times higher. People might say “COVID doesn’t discriminate,” but the world is structured so that it does. Who is most likely to be an essential worker? Nannies in New York were starting a conversation about the fact that they have to keep on working because their white families wanted it, and a lot of those nannies are Afro-Caribbean, including Spanish Caribbean and Haitian women. Who’s most likely to be exposed to COVID-19 structurally, because of the type of jobs they work, because of the lack of access to information and proper PPE? Who’s most likely to be getting sick?
* The discrimination that Black people face goes double for Black women. And in fact, this is how things have been and continue to be for every ethnic group that is discriminated against. What are Black women struggling against in the U.S. right now?
We live in a system that some people have called “Jane Crow.” The racism or anti-Blackness that we see is actually very gendered in specific ways. One example is that of welfare systems as surveillance. Women are most likely to be the ones getting government services for their families or themselves, and they have to go through an invasive line of questioning to get them. That is used to surveil people, to incarcerate people, and to get children taken away from their families. In men’s prisons, during visitation hours, you see a lot of women coming to visit the men who are incarcerated, but women prisoners receive less visitors. Women are more likely to be supportive of their community when they face systemic violence, but there’s not much support in return. Because this isn’t visible, people think that police brutality (including brutality by deputized white citizens) mostly affects Black men. That’s the narrative. So with Breonna Taylor, people were talking about her case, but it didn’t really blow up until George Floyd was murdered. We are just trained to ignore these ways that Black women are funneled through the system in very gendered ways—ways some may claim as more silent, but are just as violent. Then there’s the unique ways that trans women experience policing. In cities like New York, if you are stopped with more than a certain amount of condoms on you, you can be charged with soliciting sex, and this law disproportionately targets black trans women and transfeminine people. These are just some ways that black women, including trans women, are specifically targeted, but it’s not talked about as much.
* We’d like to talk about Breonna. Can you speak about the significance of celebrating her birthday specifically? In a period when there is so much focus on Black people’s death, what does it mean to focus on a birthday, to celebrate a Black woman’s life?
We wanted to join in the effort to recognize Black women victims of state violence, and to give Breonna recognition here in her hometown of Grand Rapids. It was really important for Cate Young to organize this day nationally. There is so much Black death going around, and Black life and death are very political. But sometimes it gets so politicized that we get dehumanized. I wanted to recognize and honor Breonna as a real person who has people who miss her and have things to say about her, who has a family in Grand Rapids who’s mourning her. They were able to come to the vigil space and talk to us. This is not just about hating the police, like a lot of leftists talk about; it’s about saying “we care about Black communities who are targeted by the police.” Then in the practice of remembering and re-centering that person, you’re also holding a 24-hour space in public, even with police on edge everywhere in riot gear because there were uprisings in the city just the week before. We were able as a community to hold that space, to feed and talk to people, and to watch out for each other without police. For me that is abolitionist practice; that is what a community without police looks like. Without police, Breonna would be here, for one, but we’d also be able to be in public spaces with each other, to deal with conflict and harm and hurt, to process together without needing state systems. So all those powerful and necessary things happened at once: remembering Breonna for her birthday; bringing awareness to the erasure of Black women (including trans women) from the conversation on state violence; hoping for a better world free of Black death and police; and loving and caring for each other.
* Has the centuries-long struggle of Black people, including Black women, become a social movement? Can you compare the past and today in terms of this point?
My work has always relied on a Black feminist and abolitionist tradition of understanding that when Black women and when trans Black women are free, we are all free. Because of the ways this system oppresses us, when we resist, we’re resisting against patriarchy, we’re resisting against misogyny, and we’re resisting against every conceivable system. This tradition has been in place for a long time. Angela Davis and Mariame Kaba are two people who informed me in asking: How do we resist this world as Black women, as Black trans women? How do we do this together? We abolish these systems. So whether or not people realize it, they’ve definitely eaten off the plate of these women and of these movements across generations. Black trans women were the catalyst for Pride. Black women were the ones who were the vanguards of the Black Panther Party. We’ve always been there doing this work, and it’s always been a movement. The most radical stuff has always come from this tradition, and it’s been in the making for hundreds of years. And it will be there until the end, when we achieve all of our wildest dreams.
* Are you hopeful for the future?
When I am in spaces like this, I remember: “Okay, this is what I’m doing this for; this is the world I want.” I tell people I’m very pessimistic towards this world, but not because I’m pessimistic in general. It’s just that I’m not going to pretend that something that doesn’t work, works. But I have a lot of hope for what I have seen practiced and envisioned by so many people over decades. It’s not something new. So yes, I am very hopeful for the world that Black feminists and Black abolitionists have envisioned for all of us.
Photos by Kellan Whitman