To Stand for Something: Interviews with Two Activists in the Black Lives Matter Movement

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The summer of ‘20 sweltered. The uninhibited southern heat served as the stage for what has become one of the most notable series of protests in our lifetime. Like heat rises, the tension between injustice and Black livelihood rose to a point where it could no longer be simmered down— it was a time for change. Thousands across the nation bellowed to the streets, demanding not only visibility, but reform. If all forms of Black life are not valued, then no one in this country—world even—is truly free. The following interviews are in conversation with two people who refused to “simmer down”, but instead took to the streets to march towards a reality where every life is valuable.

Interviews by Drew Davis

Photos by Jon Cherry

 

Jon Cherry

Jon is a renowned photographer who has been featured in prominent magazines like Time and New York Times. I got the privilege to interview him via the networking of an Instagram associate. I was a little nervous to interview him, but he was more than accommodating. It was a lax, flavorful interview taken amid him cleaning his place. The interview focuses on his experience as a photographer during the time of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in Louisville, Kentucky in summer 2020. BLM protests this summer were a reactionary movement that retrieved its fire from the unjustified deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black lives that have been lost due to police injustice.

 

Drew Davis: Hi Jon! How are you? 

Jon Cherry: I’m good Drew, just cleaning.

Drew Davis: Ugh, I need to do that myself. I don’t want to waste your time, let’s get right into it. 

Jon Cherry: Sure. 

Drew Davis:What inspired you to protest this summer?

Jon Cherry: I was inspired by that man who was accused by that white woman for being violent [the situation of Amy Cooper walking her dog while calling the cops of Christian Cooper]. I’m tired of the reality of constantly being in danger.  Amy Cooper Charged in Racist NYC Central Park Run-in Made Two 911 Calls – Bloomberg 

Drew Davis: Why protest during a pandemic?

Jon Cherry: The timing was perfect, people had the time to focus and concentrate, everyone had time. The playing field was leveled. COVID numbers only surged after restaurants reopened. Everyone at the protests wore a mask. Distillers were donating hand sanitizers. There were no other photographers, No mainstream media. 

Drew Davis: Truly a movement for the people. 

Drew Davis: What misinformation about protests has angered/saddened/ frustrated you the most?

Jon Cherry: So, there’s basically two parts. We’re at a protest, a white guy drives up to us protestors. He rolls out a gun on this Black woman protesting, in return she pulls out her own gun back on him. 

Drew Davis: He pulled out a gun to a crowd??

Jon Cherry: Yes! Mainstream media said that the women threatened him first. She was even charged. Luckily, livestream protestors captured the entire thing to prove her defense. The white guy ended up losing his job. The Black women had her charges dropped. It really shows the role of the media in truth telling. 

Drew Davis: For sure, it really does show who the mainstream media favors.

Drew Davis: What was the demographic of the protestors?

Jon Cherry: 50/50, Black/White. 70% young, 18-34. Depending on who’s coordinating the march, we may need more white people. Organizers planning a protest where they suspect a large amount of police usually require more white protestors to provide insulation for Black protestors.  But it’s more than a Black movement, it’s an American movement. Most of the 90% of the Black organizers are women, the white people are gophers. 

Drew Davis: How do you feel about the Black Lives Matter Movement being co-opted by straight Black men?

Jon Cherry: There’s a time and place for Black men and white people. Black women time and time again pick up the pieces. 

[*Black Lives Matter was founded by three queer Black women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Their aim was to center the humanity of Black Americans between 2013 and 2014, during the injustice involving Tamir Rice. The movement, popularized through the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, aimed to include all experiences of Blackness, specifically queerness and women.] 

Drew Davis: What do you think is your job as a photographer during these times?

Jon Cherry: To create imagery that will spark action without words. I want to tell stories of people I love and respect. The duty of all Black people is to question authority. You know, an underdog story. 

Drew Davis: Can you describe the methodology behind your photos; what goes through your mind when you find a scene worth capturing?

Jon Cherry: I would describe it as a landscape photographer looking at a scene. The lighting, scene, predicting where the action is gonna happen. There’s a certain level of unpredictability that forces you to be keenly aware. I want to go where other people aren’t; trying to find an alternate shot. It depends on having trust and comfortability with shots. 

Drew Davis: How do you build rapport with the subjects you’re capturing?

Jon Cherry: I put the camera down, it really relies on hanging out with people. They see me out there with them, crying after being hit with tear gas. We go through the same thing; they understand that I’m trying to tell our story. 

Drew Davis: Do you ever become desensitized? 

Jon Cherry: Yes, I still care, but situations play out the same. There was a situation where two flashbangs shot over my head, while police fired a round into the ground in front of me. I didn’t even flinch, looking back at the footage I didn’t even have a reaction. 

Drew Davis: What do you want people to see through your photos?  

Jon Cherry: I want people to be touched, to see them from a different perspective. If they feel something; it wants it to change their minds and turn their heads. 

Drew Davis: How has protesting impacted your life?

Jon Cherry: It taught me more about my purpose. I cruise through white spaces easily. A friend of mine told me, “if we weren’t special, these white folks wouldn’t pay us any time.”  Getting down and reconnecting has made me recognize my privilege in so many spaces [as a straight Black man]. I want to amplify other people’s voices who don’t have my privilege through my platform. 

Drew Davis: Louisville was the epicenter of the BLM protests this summer. How has the city changed, if at all?

Jon Cherry: It has changed. There’s a level of mutual aid that has never been seen. Working in pockets has helped different people, [like] homelessness and addiction Attacking roots versus symptoms. Organizations helping Black people face issues is a human rights issue. 

Drew Davis: Exactly.

Jon Cherry: People don’t realize, if the people at the bottom are being mistreated, everyone else is being exploited as well. 

Drew Davis: Well said. 

Brianca Beckford

It’s a rainy afternoon here in South Carolina. I have asked a very close friend of mine, Brianca, a sophomore in college, if she would be open to being interviewed about her time protesting at South Carolina’s State House. Thankfully, she agreed. A straight shooter through and through, I know she’ll give me an honest account of her experience. Candid, insightful, and relatable: my interview with Brianca Beckford. 

 

Drew Davis: What inspired you to protest this summer?

Brianca Beckford: Angry about the mistreatment of Black people. Every facet of our daily life experiences injustice, to be able to release that anger during protests and being in an environment where people feel the same way was cathartic. 

Drew Davis: Were your parents supportive?

Brianca Beckford: No, not at all. My Dad is very conservative. He thinks [American] Black people are lazy, he’s an immigrant from Jamaica. He has a bootstrap mentality where if you work hard you can pull yourself out of any situation. He didn’t think it was my problem, this type of oppression only applies to poor Black people. 

Drew Davis: But it’s not though. 

Brianca Beckford: No, it is a global problem. 

Drew Davis: What about your Mom? 

Brianca Beckford: My Mom was worried about me being in danger. She has plans – financial plans – for me, she thought the “riots” were going to fuck it up for me. The resistance from my parents fueled me to care more. 

Drew Davis: Did you go to the protests with anyone?

Brianca Beckford: I went with my friend and her family. We weren’t scared of protesting; we were scared of catching COVID! 

(Laughs)

Brianca Beckford: My friend’s family wouldn’t let us get super close to the crowd due to the pandemic.  I was there, but not really there. 

Drew Davis: Did you feel any pressure to march (from peers and corporations alike) since the BLM movement was such a hot button topic at the time?

Brianca Beckford: No, if I didn’t want to, I wouldn’t have protested.

Drew Davis: Enough said. 

Drew Davis: What was it like to be a Black woman protesting? What was the demographic of protestors?

Brianca Beckford: 50/50, Black/white. I remember saying, “there are a lot of white people there.” 

Drew Davis: I was not expecting to hear that. What about the demographic for Black people?

Brianca Beckford: There were a lot more Black women there, it felt like we were leading the protests.

Drew Davis: As usual.

Brianca Beckford: Right! It was interesting for Black women to be leading yet another revolution. I have no feelings towards being a Black woman protesting.

Drew Davis: Do you have any other significant feelings?

Brianca Beckford: I experienced so many feelings throughout the day: I was sad/somber during the minutes of silence. 

Drew Davis: For how long?

Brianca Beckford: About 7 or 9 minutes of silence, for George Floyd. I cried, partly from recognizing that my parents don’t see this as a problem.

Drew Davis: Yea…the total disconnect from the diaspora.

Brianca Beckford: Yes, but I also felt empowered. Recognizing that being in a state like South Carolina – a state with many racist people – has thousands of people coming together for a common purpose. I don’t know, I assumed that many people weren’t going to show up. I was also hopeful, especially after the protest. However, …

Drew Davis: However?

Brianca Beckford: Those numbers don’t really mean anything if people aren’t actively creating a revolution.

Drew Davis: I remember that too unfortunately, the complacency and performative activism. 

Brianca Beckford: To these people, the survival of their normal lives is way more important than the way we value human beings. Like that hashtag thing on Instagram [Black square day on Instagram].

Drew Davis: Exactly. It oversaturated the hashtag with empty, black squares rather than continue the flow of spreading activist info. For a lot of people, it was a convenient way to show surface level concern for the Black plight without doing anything. 

[*Known as #BlackoutTuesday, June 2 was a day meant to draw attention away from the monotonous culture of everyday consumerism from large corporations, to bring attention to the Black American plight. In an effort of solidarity, people everywhere posted a black square with the hashtag #BlackoutTuesday. However, it was reductive to the momentum of the summer protests; the black squares littering everyone’s feed made vital information about resources less accessible.]

Brianca Beckford: Yes, and it was especially weird to see people posting that when I’ve visibly seen them enable or participate in racism.

Drew Davis: That part.

Drew Davis: BLM was started by a Black queer woman but has been co-opted by cishet Black men. Has this transition affected your feelings towards the movement?

Brianca Beckford: It hasn’t affected my feelings towards the movement, but Black men.  The dynamic of Black women literally doing everything for Black men is OLD. Black women are the backbone of Black life: we defend Black men in times of injustice, lift them up when they feel down…bear their children. Since slavery, we have done our best to remind them that they are still men– valued men. And for what? Only to be diminished; called on when they need something. 

Drew Davis: And tired. It has been this way since slavery… sometimes we all get so wrapped up in our own narrative that we don’t stop to think about how our narratives are linked. 

Brianca Beckford: Very tired. Black men feel like they’re threatened by Black women, but they shouldn’t be. Black men are threatened by the power of Black women: we’re dynamic, multifaceted, and do so many things- single handedly.

Drew Davis: Cosign. We as Black men are groomed to be leaders that rely on the emotional wellbeing of our female counterparts.

Brianca Beckford: Yes.

Drew Davis: What does Black solidarity mean to you, and how has the movement affected life on campus, if at all? 

Brianca Beckford: To me, Black solidarity means segregation [from white people]. 

Drew Davis: So, we should have our own entities- culture, art, finances- outside of Whiteness?

Brianca Beckford: Yes. We need our own identity and businesses outside of white people. 

Drew Davis: Has Black life been affected on campus?

Brianca Beckford: *laughs* Exactly. Promoting unity in exchange for our [marginalized people’s] rights.

Drew Davis: Has the Black Lives Matter movement had any presence on campus?

Brianca Beckford: BLM has not done anything on campus. It is up to us Black students. [Black] students have to have a certain aesthetic to be recognized on campus.

Drew Davis: Whew – I understand more than you’d ever know. We have to be extremely palatable to even get a slither of recognition or they’d [the Furman community] write us off as bitter or angry. Both can be true – which is fine, but why must I be written off when those are natural emotions one goes through in instances of ostracization?

Brianca Beckford: Our experiences on campus are only acknowledged if we’re campus famous. They always pick the same people to tell the same stories. 

Drew Davis: Yea, they’re always safe, they never force students to grapple with their uncomfortableness towards race.

Brianca Beckford: Agree. That type of relationship [ignoring race] towards the majority community helps reinforce tokenism. It feels like all the popular Black students are competing for white people’s attention-

Drew Davis: – and validation.

Brianca Beckford: It really limits the conversation on campus when they only amplify palatable voices.

Drew Davis: Feelings of being ignored and a lack of infrastructural support are global themes that permeate throughout Shuddhashar. In the purest sense, everyone can relate to feelings of shrinkage: to be condensed, written off into an infantile state because your talents have been limited by forces larger than any amount of strength we manage to muster. The shrinkage makes life feel like a losing game, the stifling of our spirit trickles into our psyche, work, and social network. Yet still, as Jon and Brianca have brilliantly exemplified, we continue to try; humanity at its brightest is about clawing towards a future that is more righteous, more beautiful. These interviews were about exploring this side of the human condition, to make us reckon with all the ways we consciously (or subconsciously) shrink the ones around us.

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