LOS ANGELES— Black and brown unity hasn't always been an easy thing. But as Donald Trump comes to power with his brand of aggressive bigotry and racism, it could be a catalyst for different oppressed groups to find common ground in Trump's America.
“Since Trump has been elected there have been more hate crimes than ever before,” charged Black Lives Matter member Jasmine Abdullah. “They have already declared war on black and brown people, so we have to organize, disrupt, and dismantle. We have to connect our struggles because they are so similar.”
It's a sentiment that's shared among a growing number of Latinx allies.
“Black and brown people often see each other as competition, but we are fighting for the crumbs that white supremacy leaves us with,” says Chicanx activist Alfredo Gama. “We need to be aware that there are forces out there that are trying to divide our communities.”
Gama belongs to a recently formed group called Papalotl Brown Berets, an offshoot of the L.A. Brown Berets that is trying to reinvent Latinx activism by breaking with patriarchal and misogynistic leadership practices and providing a platform for voices that have historically been ignored by similar movements.
“Papalotl means butterfly in Nahuatl, and we wanted to be more intersectional with queer, trans, and undocumented identities, because the traditional image of the Brown Berets is a Chicano man,” Gama says.
The group is also part of a new effort to break down barriers that have existed between black, brown and indigenous activist movements. And it's a mission that has taken on new urgency as Trump rises to power with a government of mostly rich white men.
“Building black and brown relationships right now is about building communication between us,” says Amber Wilson, the daughter of an African-American father and Mexican mother. “We have a lot of preconceived notions about one another, and with Trump coming into office we need to be more strategic and work on building stronger relationships because we can be a force if we are united.”
The alliance is natural because the problems black and brown communities have faced in economically deprived neighborhoods in L.A. have been overlapping for many years.
Gama says when his family immigrated to South Los Angeles from Mexico 13 years ago, they struggled to find affordable housing.
“I grew up very poor and undocumented,” Gama, 20, told me in the backyard of his parent’s home in South L.A., where we were frequently interrupted by the sound of low-flying jetliners arriving at LAX. “We moved around every month trying to find the cheapest rent and I observed what was going on and saw that we always ended up living by poor black and brown people.”
The constant struggle for affordable housing led to a simple realization: Countless black and brown families throughout South L.A. were doing a similar shuffle.
For Gama, it became a catalyst to join the Brown Berets in 2014, a social justice grassroots organization that was founded during the late 1960s Chicana/o Movement that fought police brutality, equal access to healthcare, and educational equality.
“I joined because of the struggles of my people,” Gama says. “My people were brown, undocumented, and black, and I wanted to mobilize the grassroots and radically start looking at problems at their roots.”
The organization provided Gama with a support system to combat the systematic oppression that he and other Chicanas and Chicanos face throughout Los Angeles. But as time passed, he and other young Brown Berets began to grow disenchanted with the movement's leadership and splintered into the Papalotl Brown Berets, which believes the struggle for Chicanx freedom is deeply rooted in an interconnected black and brown liberation movement.
But it doesn't stop there. These young activists think the struggle for liberation extends beyond the boundaries of their immediate communities.
Gama recently teamed up with Black Lives Matter activist Audrey Edwards to drive out to the Standing Rock reservation to join the demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). While camping near the reservation, however, they quickly noticed that the demonstrations against the so-called “black snake” pipeline were often centered on white activists who marginalized black and brown allies throughout the camps.
Media is part of the problem too, according to Edwards. She says there were clear differences between the media coverage of Standing Rock and the continued portrayal of Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
“The media would stress the fact that they are protectors and not protesters,” she explained. “As Black Lives Matter members, we’re often called protesters and they call us violent and they reiterate that over and over. But we’re also protectors. We are protectors of our lives.”
Gama says the attention given to DAPL was an important step for the recognition of indigenous sovereignty, but wonders why equal media coverage isn't given to similar concerns for water access in communities of color throughout the U.S.
“Black people have been fighting for clean water for a while. But when we talk about water is life why aren’t we talking about what’s going on in Flint, Michigan? Why aren’t we talking about the water conditions in Watts and Compton? They need clean water, too.”
While the future of communities of color remain uncertain in the era of Trump, young brown and black activists like Gama want people to know that our current oppressive system provides ample opportunity for everyone to play an important role in the struggle for liberation.
“We have to be everywhere,” he said, “there’s no one way to get free. If there were, we would already be free by now.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández is a Los Angeles-based writer, photographer, and researcher.