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Charlene Carruthers talks Black Youth Project 100

by Angelique Smith

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"If those of us who are the most marginalized are safer and more protected, it will improve the lives of everybody."—Charlene Carruthers, national director of Black Youth Project 100

The Black Youth Project 100 ( BYP100 ), a collective of young Black activists that started in 2013 in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, has been one of the main organizations leading the recent protests around the 2014 killing of Laquan McDonald by a white police officer. Windy City Times spoke with leader Charlene Carruthers about the their mission to create justice where there is none.

Windy City Times: Tell us about BYP100.

Charlene Carruthers: We're a national organization of young Black activists between the ages of 18 and 35 who are committed to getting freedom and justice for all Black people. We do our work through a Black, queer feminist lens, which means that we work very hard to center the most marginalized of the marginalized in the Black community. We carry out our mission through transformative leadership development, public policy advocacy, direct action organizing and civic engagement.

WCT: What does BYP100 support?

CC: We lead and support a number of campaigns around police accountability, living wages, ending mass criminalization and overall economic justice. We support the things that some people may not want to support; we don't just support the so-called "perfect victim." We believe that all Black folk in this world should be able to live within their full dignity. Unfortunately, that's not the reality for far too many of us.

WCT: Did you accomplish what you'd hoped with the Black Friday protests after the Laquan McDonald video was released?

CC: We'd hoped that young Black people would have a space to express their rage—a space that would continue to hold them in support even after that one moment. That was very important to us. And to move forward a narrative that calls for the defunding of the police and the funding of an investment in Black futures. We're not okay with living in a city where 40% of the budget goes towards policing.

WCT: What are your demands of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and of the city?

CC: We believe that Rahm Emanuel needs to resign immediately. He is not fit to be in a position where his decisions impact so many people's lives. We also want [Cook County] State's Attorney Anita Alvarez to resign.

Additionally, we're calling for a participatory city-budgeting process, where people have the power to defund policing in this city and invest those dollars into the things that we need. We're calling for the city council to fully decriminalize marijuana and other petty crimes. We're also continuing our campaign calling for the firing of Officer Dante Servin [who shot unarmed Rekia Boyd] without a pension. Last, we want an independent civilian police-accountability council that has real hiring, firing, subpoena and budgeting power. We don't believe that the Police Accountability Task Force created by the mayor is sufficient by any means.

WCT: You're very vocal about Chicago's failings in terms of law enforcement accountability, calling it "a dysfunctional system where [police] have a kind of de facto impunity."

CC: We know that the Chicago Police Department has acted with impunity for decades … actually, most police departments, period. What we've seen in the Chicago Police Department specifically are gross instances of misconduct and unchecked complaints.

A very small percentage of the complaints that are submitted are actually dealt with on any level. They're usually just reported and that's it—that's all that happens. There are people who have done some really great research around that, too. We do not have an independent body to monitor, to fire the police. The police department polices itself. It makes no sense that the body that has done so much violence and terrorism in our communities—be it from the Homan Square Black site to our iteration of "stop and frisk" here in Chicago—monitors [itself]. They won't investigate themselves in a way that's actually valid or comprehensive and these issues disproportionately impact young, Black people; and in some parts of the city, young Black, queer and trans people. I think that we have to really broaden how we talk about how the police impact and engage our communities.

WCT: Why did you refuse to meet with Rahm?

CC: BYP100—along with a broad coalition of organizations including We Charge Genocide and Assata's Daughters—decided not to take a meeting with Rahm because we knew that the point of him having it was really about him and City Hall figuring out how to reduce and control anger. He wanted to have it out of fear, not out of a desire for progress. Taking the meeting would not have given us any more power [and] it would not have changed the lives of the people we care about; if anything, it would've helped the mayor. We are in the business of doing work that actually helps our communities, not to help those who actually harm and commit violence against us.

WCT: What are your thoughts on the first-degree murder indictment of Officer Jason Van Dyke [in the death of Laquan McDonald]? Do you think it was a tactic used to appease, as it's been called by some, that will end in an acquittal?

CC: I don't have very much faith in the so-called criminal-justice system. It's not where I see justice for our people. Servin was indicted, charged with manslaughter and all the charges were dismissed. Whether or not Van Dyke is charged with first-degree murder, we still have to do this work. Laquan McDonald's life was still taken, he's no longer here [and] his family still has to mourn him. Our work doesn't change regardless of whether one cop is sentenced to prison, because that doesn't change the system on its own.

WCT: Let's talk about hetero-patriarchy and misogyny within the Black liberation movement. I've read that there were issues between youth organizers and certain religious leaders in the spotlight, and that queer activists were disrespected and assaulted at the Black Friday protest.

CC: What happened was really a manifestation of decades-long behavior that de-centers and acts to erase the role of Black women, and Black queer, gender non-conforming and trans folks. It materialized on that day because social-justice movements have consistently erased the roles of Black LGBTQ folks even while we've been at the forefront of the work. We can look at Bayard Rustin, Marsha P. Johnson—these people were pivotal in the overall struggle for human rights and they are just now coming into consciousness for some folks. Johnson helped lead and kick off the American LGBT movement, period. We're in a moment where Black LGBTQ folks are refusing to remain silent and refusing to not be visible. The more visible you are, the more vulnerable you become.

WCT: Very true. Queer women of color are not only at the forefront of movements such as this one, but also Black Lives Matter, Stonewall ... the list goes on. Why do you think that is and what are your thoughts on the struggle for us to get recognized as leaders for social justice?

CC: Black women, in general, have always been at the forefront of movements: Harriet Tubman, Anna J. Cooper. … I don't know if any of them were queer, but ... [laughs]. I think it's because we stand in the tradition of Black women and Black queer folk having so much at stake, having to fight for their lives. Folks like Maria Stewart who, during the period of chattel slavery, would talk about what it meant to be enslaved as a Black woman. What we're doing is not new.

WCT: Who inspires you to do what you do?

CC: There are folks living and not living who really inspire me: Harriet Tubman, Audre Lorde, Cathy Cohen. I even look up to some of our young members, because I sit back and I imagine, "Wow, what if I was where they are when I was their age?" I was not as sharp of a thinker or organizer as some of our folks are. They're extremely inspirational and I learn a lot from them.

WCT: What can people do to be better allies?

CC: One, people—particularly those in the LGBTQ community—need to educate themselves on anti-Blackness and its role in structural oppression; anti-Blackness in patriarchy, homophobia and transphobia. Two, take a serious look at prison abolition as a goal, as a worthwhile strategy. Three, give and share resources to support our work—be it by donating time, money or space. Our strongest resource is the people.

WCT: What's next?

CC: We're going to continue to organize and escalate, particularly around the state's attorney's race, to make sure that young Black people are educated on the issues and come out to vote on March 15. We're running a civic-engagement program all through 2016. We're going to be moving an ordinance around marijuana decriminalization locally. And we'll continue to grow as an organization and build our base, so if you're Black and between the ages of 18 and 35 and you're interested in membership, hit us up.

For more information about BYP100 or to donate to the cause, visit .

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