Interview with Rahiel Tesfamariam, Social Activist and Director of “Urban Cusp”

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By Maria Torrellas / The Dawn News / May 2016.

Interview by Maria Torrellas reporting from Zambia, in the framework of the Pan Africanism Today Conference. She met with Rahiel Tesfamariam, social activist, social theologian, writer, speaker and director of the progressive digital magazine Urban Cusp, based in New York. The magazine deals with African American urban culture, spirituality, social changes and has a strong commitment to solidarity.

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What do you think of this Pan African Today Conference here in Zambia, Africa?

This Pan African Conference was a powerful and transformative experience for me in a very short amount of time because so much of what I do is focus on the U.S. and issues of justice and racial justice, or class and gender justice, in the U.S., but attending this conference reminded me the importance of putting the work that I do in a global context to really unify the movement of the U.S. with struggles all over, in Africa, in Latin America, in different parts of the world, to be really unified with our brothers and sisters worldwide, who are fighting for equal opportunities, economic justice, housing and education, fair wages, and basic human rights.  

What is the main focus of your work?

A lot of my background is in Media and I’ve done a lot of work in Media but I connect Media to urban issues, urban issues like people having adequate education and opportunities, health care and housing opportunities in urban communities that are often forgotten about or disenfranchised because mostly people of colour live in those communities. So, what I try to do is intercept my passion for media with my passion for urban community but also for youth advocacy. I’m very passionate about youth having their voices heard, about the justice system and how it affects young people of colour in the United States. But also taking that and making it relevant for this generation in a way that this generation is passionate about popular struggle and that’s why I created my online magazine “Urban Cusp”, that’s also why I speak around the country in Universities and I write for various media outlets because I think is very important for young people to see someone who is close in age to them, accepting the fact that we may limited in what we can do, because we are young but we are also deeply powerful and so to recognize their power and to actualize their power.

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-What do you think about the movement called Black Lives Matter? Where do you think this movement is going? Do you think it will became a movement to change society?

To understand the movement in the United States you can look back to the Civil Rights Movement: as told by history, it appears to be one unified movement led by very small hands full of people and most of those individuals were charismatic leaders like Martin Luther King. But that wasn’t really the reality, there were a lot of people doing a lot of different things all over the country, people were organizing locally, at churches, they were organizing freedom rights, you had the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), you also had this other christian leadership conference, and then it evolved into the Black Panther Party. So even today what it’s called the Black Lives Matter movement by the media is really a national group of organizations that may not even know each other nor work together but they are united against this common enemy which is State violence, and so there isn’t one umbrella organization, there isn’t one umbrella leader, there is not a centralized leadership, it’s in many ways the way that the media has tried to tell our story but what we know is that we have always been doing this work, we have always been fighting against racists State violence, but now we have this hidden cases in which we had no indictments in what is essentially the murder of young people of colour and so it has brought international attention to this problem in the United States. I think in the future we need to find the balance between movement building and institution building, how are we going to sustain the work that we are doing so that even if people are not marching in the streets the work is still being done behind the scenes, what it’s the ideological, political ideology, that we are shaping right now, we have to be able to shape a political ideology so that young people understand why we fight, so that we don’t fight for fighting sake, but there is an ideology behind why we fight, and I also think we need to connect the protests on the street, the organization that we are building, with economic resistance, because we can not continue to be consumers of American culture and American mass production, just to consume everything that America gives us and then simultaneously know that we are victims of American imperialism. So, how do we live out our resistance, not only by protesting, but by resisting though our economic habits, we have to change the way in which we reward the system, and essentially, in which we are almost funding the system to continue hurting us.

What about black women, what is her role and her suffering? Which are the fights that black women are facing?

There has always been the same, black women are the burden bearers of the race, which means that every aspect of heaviness, of weight, black women carry them on their backs. And that is said because when you think about the millions of African American people in prison, what we called The New Jim Crow, mass incarceration largely driven by the Clinton administration, when you look at the war on drugs, black women are the ones that are suffering with that pain every single day, because many husbands, boyfriends and fathers are dying in prisons all over America, and it is the mother that must raise the sons and daughters, it must be both mother and father, and they do that in a society that does not value their humanity, so they are in no way truly rewarded. Often times they are pay less to do the same kind of work, they turn on the television and they don’t see themselves represented. It is not only just white people, but it’s white men, white women, it’s anything and everything but the black woman.

Because, if black representation is there, it’s always going to be black men. And we also face the struggle of fighting for black men, in the streets there are women in Ferguson who took rubber bullets from the police in this fight against violence, these same women don’t feel like black men have been fighting for them. When we experience cases as the ones of Sandra Bland or Renisha McBride, who were killed at the hands of the State, we have to call on our brothers to fight for us in the same way that we fight for them, that’s absolutely unfortunate that we are out here putting our bodies and our voices and our livelihood on the line, but we are not getting the same in return all the time.

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So, long before this Conference of Pan Africanism Today, I have taken trips all over the world, most recently to Paris, France, and I took a delegation of Ferguson activists to Paris and the reason that we did it is we wanted to connect the struggles in the US faced by black Americans with the struggles with our brothers and sisters worldwide, including muslim brothers and sisters in Paris who face racial profiling and who have experienced violence in their own way. One of the things they said to us is “we know the names of your disease, we know the names of the victims of State violence, we know Trayvon Martin, we know Mike Brown, we need to know our people names, we need you to share their stories”. I’ll never forget them telling me that and what they said to me probably is an extension of what everyone here in Africa would say, or everyone in South America, they will probably say “we know your stories, we know your struggles”, because that is American imperialism, that America matters so much that everyone knows what’s happening in America, but our duty, as revolutionaries, as freedom fighters, is that we must put the same care and attention and focus outside of America and think about the struggles that are common, what’s happening in places like Zambia, or South Africa, that are common to what we experience in Ferguson or in Baltimore but also find out how we are different, how are they experiencing things that we can imagine, because of the privileges that we experience in the U.S., we must know our communality, we must know our differences, we must ensure that our comrades in the U.S. are looking through a global Pan African lence that they can be limited to America, because if they are, the revolution that we they are fighting for, and trying to usher in is too limited, and we don’t what a limited revolution, we want a revolution that free us all.

 

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