WENATCHEE – Under a blazing sun Thursday, a man wearing a black baseball cap and a black long-sleeved shirt reading “unarmed civilian” led a crowd in a chant.
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
Frank Roberts acknowledged that he might not look like the stereotypical professor, though he teaches a course on the Black Lives Matter movement at New York University.
He spoke during YWCA North Central Washington’s Stand Against Racism Day at Wenatchee Valley College. The student senate sponsored his appearance.
Roberts founded the Black Lives Matter Syllabus, which provides resources for teaching the movement in the classroom and community. He is a Ford Foundation Fellow and served as special assistant to civil-rights attorney Johnnie Cochran. In 2004, he co-founded the National Black Justice Coalition.
“If all lives matter, then it really shouldn’t be a problem focusing on black lives for a second, should it?” Roberts said at Thursday’s event. “Let’s be really clear: Only in a racist country would a simple phrase like ‘black lives matter’ be considered controversial.”
Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi started the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted of charges in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida.
Roberts called for prison and law enforcement reform. He asked audience members to imagine they ran a hospital with 100 surgeons and five were operating on people while impaired.
“I can almost guarantee you that hospital would be shut down,” he said. “No one would say, ‘Well, what about the 95 world-class surgeons?’ They would say, ‘Actually, the unethical behavior of the few compromises the integrity of the entire institution.’”
He also railed against President Donald Trump, calling him racist, anti-immigrant and anti-gay.
“Does that mean that everybody who voted for Trump was racist? Absolutely not,” he said. “But it means that everybody who voted for him voted for someone who was known to be racist.”
During a question-and-answer session that followed Roberts’ address, Leavenworth resident Zeke Reister said that as a white man, he sometimes feels uncomfortable discussing race-related issues, especially with black residents.
Roberts responded that white people should first talk about racism among themselves.
Afterward, Reister said Roberts’ address encouraged him to speak up when negative remarks are made about other races.
“He makes us uncomfortable for a good reason,” Reister said. “I thought he spoke the truth. Not anarchy, but just the truth. There are some … white men who get it, but not very many of us. You have to be a little bit vulnerable to go there, and we’re not willing to do that.”
Wenatchee resident Libby Eifert also attended the event.
“I thought it was something we needed to hear, and I’m glad that I came,” she said. “We have our preconceived notions on what Black Lives Matter is, and it was just really good to come and listen to somebody that’s in that organization.”
East Wenatchee resident Miriam Thomas, a student at the college, said Roberts’ speech gave her a better understanding of the movement and will help her explain it to others.
“It was so inspiring and amazing,” she said. “It’s really cool to actually meet somebody who’s in Black Lives Matter. You hear about it, but Wenatchee’s such a small town that you don’t get to see that. It’s just so cool.”
Reach Bridget Mire at 509-665-1179 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Bridget on Twitter at @bridget_mire.