Dr. Melina Abdullah

Dr. Melina Abdullah, Ph.D. graduate from the University of Southern California in Political Science and B.A. graduate from Howard University in African American Studies, was among the original group of organizers who formed the Black Lives Matter organization. She continues to serve as a Los Angeles chapter leader and leaves an imprint wherever she goes.

This imprint was evident when she served on the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission from 2014-2018. There, she was instrumental in replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day. Dr. Abdullah still serves on a number of boards, such as the Black Community, Clergy and Labor Alliance (BCCLA), California Faculty Association-Los Angeles, Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA-CAN) and the National Association for Ethnic Studies. 

Her role as a professor has also given her a space to further conversations about race. She does so through her leadership in the fight for Ethnic Studies in the K-12 and university systems and the Taskforce for the Advancement of Ethnic Studies for the California State University system.

As an author, some of her work can be found within The Root, Los Angeles Times, Truthdig, Los Angeles Sentinel, Los Angeles Progressive, and BK Nation. Her creative talent also extends into the radio program, “Beautiful Struggle,” which she co-hosts and co-produces.

Dr. Abdullah has received many awards, which include the 2018 Community Service Award from National Council for Black Studies, 2017 Unsung Heroes Award from the Oscar Grant Foundation, 2017 Extraordinary Service Award from the African Heritage Studies Association, 2017 Justice Work Award from Beyond the Bars, 2017 Freedom Fighter Award from the NAACP, and the 2017 Activist Award presented by the National Association for Ethnic Studies, among numerous others.

She has appeared on MSNBC, CNN, TV One, ABC, PBS, Revolt TV, KTLA, KCET, BET, Free Speech TV, and Al-Jazeera, and is featured in the films “Waking the Sleeping Giant,” “13th,” “When Justice Isn’t Just,” and “Justice or Else” and in the television series “Two Sides. L.A. STYLE Magazine joins Dr. Abdullah in a round table discussion with leaders of the “Color is Beautiful Issue” Tricia Love, Christine Andreu and Marcellas Reynolds. 

Marcellas Reynolds: Tell us about your background. How did you be-come the co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter?

Dr. Abdullah: I’m originally from Oakland, California. I was born in the 70s and came of age in the 90s. I had a kind of interesting life from the hood in Oakland. My mom was an elementary school teacher. And my biological dad was a construction worker, a carpenter. They were both really deeply involved in community organizing. So, my mom is what you would call a community “Othermother,” right? She mothered all of the kids in the neighborhood. After she would come home from teach-ing … my mom would spend another couple of hours until it got dark teaching the kids in the neighborhood to read. And then my dad was a union carpenter. So, I remember him being really involved in the union.

I don’t remember the first time I went to a demonstration, because I remember being a toddler on picket lines with him.

All my life I’ve been doing this work. I was born into it. I wound up leaving Oakland and going on to Howard University and that’s largely because there was a lot happening in Oakland in the 90s, that’s the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. A lot of my friends were killed or imprisoned during that time. They fell victim to that time. One of my closest cousins was murdered the summer after my senior year … And then when Tri-nece was murdered that summer, I needed an escape. So, I moved to DC, went to Howard and that’s where I did actually become interested and committed to academic work. And it was because I majored in African American studies, which was the only class that I liked in high school. I went to Berkeley High, which was the only high school that had a Black Studies Department in the entire country at the time. So, I liked those classes. 

I majored in African American studies at Howard, and I was completely transformed. It was different being at an HBCU [Historically Black College and University]. It was the first time that I felt like everyone in the entire environment was rooting for me —— from the security guards to the secretaries, to the professors, to the deans and the counselors. Everybody wanted me to do well because they saw me as their daughter … I wound up doing real well and graduating at the top of my class and going on to grad school at USC, which is what brought me to California and always within that had been involved in kind of an activist community work. But I was never a member of anything …

And so getting to the second part of your question, Black Lives Matter, … when I first moved here, Congresswoman Maxine Waters was doing these congressional hearings on whether or not the CIA brought crack cocaine into South-Central. I had attended some of those hearings. My major in grad school was Political Science, so I was really interested in these kinds of processes. And then the police killings began to kind of be more visible here, in the mid to late nineties is the era that I’m talking about. I remember the murder of Margaret Mitchell, who was the houseless woman who had a screwdriver who was murdered by LAPD. I remember the murder of Devin Brown … and had been at protests around that and protests ending wars …

I became involved in the struggle for justice for Oscar Grant in 2009 who was killed in my hometown in Oakland, at the Bart station that I used to go to, the Fruitvale Station …

So that really resonated for me. And, by then I’m a young faculty member at Cal State LA. And began bringing my students to the protests and demonstrations and was super proud of what was happening in Oakland. But if you remember the trial was moved down to Los Angeles, because they sought a new venue. And so I was part of the organizing work around that.

I really see that as a precursor to Black Lives Matter. 

So I became familiar and now close with Oscar Grant’s family. Then in 2013, when Trayvon Martin is killed, I think like the rest of the world, it hit me differently. By then, I’m a mom. I had three kids. And if you remember what President Obama said, he said, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” And I actually had a son who, at the time of Trayvon’s murder, he had just turned three years old and he did look like Trayvon.

And it meant that Trayvon’s murder res-onated differently for me. I saw my son Amen in Trayvon’s face. There was a lot of grief and pain around the murder of this boy. We got to always call Trayvon a boy. He was a child; I think that we had seen these police murders of Black people be-fore, this was not the first Black boy to be killed. But I think that there was some hope that George Zimmerman, who was really only a police officer in his own mind [would be held accountable] …

Christine Andreu: Why do you think that LA is such an epicenter for this movement? 

“One of the most beautiful
things that I’ve witnessed is
real, true, authentic, genuine
solidarity. Solidarity means
being willing to struggle, to
see other people’s struggles
as your own struggle.”

Dr. Abdullah: Historically, Los Angeles has always been cast as this space of hope and promise and racial embrace beyond tolerance. And this has been kind of the veneer of Los Angeles … It’s because there was this promise, this hope of what Los An-geles could be. That Black people, espe-cially, but people of color more broadly could be who we are [and] have really loving communities where we can thrive. We could have good jobs. In the forties and fifties, they came here because there were good factory jobs where they could make a living and support families. But un-derneath that veneer has always been a really intense anti-blackness and racism. If you think about that promise and you think about, well, what was actually happening, why did all Black people in the forties and fifties live [in the] east of Central Avenue? It’s because there were restrictive cove-nants. So when you have older White folks saying, [for example] I remember James Han was once the mayor here in Los An-geles, a one-term mayor saying, “I grew up right in the heart of the Crenshaw dis-trict.” That was a time when Black people couldn’t live in the Crenshaw district. That doesn’t mean anything. 

There was this veneer that was contrasting with the reality of Los Angeles as to why, really, when we think about the Black Power movement, the birth of the Black Power movement was sparked in 1965 with the Watts uprising. Because there’s this promise of Los Angeles, but you have people like Mr. Frye, who himself, his mother and his brother are all brutally beaten in front of a whole neighborhood of Black people by police. And so, it’s really important to understand that these contradictions make it even more outrageous. And in places like LA where Black Lives Matter was born here, we’ve never stopped organizing here. We’d been doing the work on the ground for the last seven years. It’s natural for this to be a point of explosion, right? That’s what Langston Hughes asks. “What happens to a dream deferred?” At the end of the poem, he says, “Or does it explode?” And so, the explosion happens here because dreams have been deferred in Los Angeles. Those dreams that promise that hope of LA has never been the truth of what Black people have experienced here en masse.

Tricia Love: There’s always been a conflict between the Black and Brown community and rac-ists between the two minority groups. Do you see this as a time of healing where we can join together and unite as minorities for equal-ity across the board? Or what are your thoughts on that?

Dr. Abdullah: Well, one, I would challenge the use of the term minority. We’re not mi-norities where [there are] people of color globally. We are the majority. And so, we need to remember that because that’s a power issue … I think that there also hasn’t always been this conflict. This is a manip-ulated conflict by White supremacy. Also [we] need to think about the very long relationship of Black and Brown people’s fighting for freedom for each other.

This idea that there’s Black-Brown conflict is actually not the norm for our communi-ties. Our communities, even now, the norm is cooperation and coalition. And there are instances of conflict, but that’s not the norm. So, I’ll give you some examples and some data around that, because, by train-ing, I’m a political scientist.

There’s data on this concept of linked fate, which means that I understand that what happens to me happens to you, and what happens to you happens to me. 

The group in this country that has the highest level of linked fate are African-Americans. So, we know that what happens to anybody who is of color impacts us, and we have to be involved in that struggle. So, if you mentioned borders, if you look at who’s been doing work on borders, it’s absolutely Latinx folks but disproportionately, it has also been African-Americans disproportionately. When you look at the leadership, elected leadership, it’s been people like Karen Bass and Maxine Waters and so many others who’ve been going to the borders and demanding the release of these babies from cages.

I think it’s really important that we really spin that narrative and say, “That’s not a point of conflict. That’s a point of deep, deep solidarity.”

When we talk about Black Lives Matter, there are a few Latinx folks who have had an issue with that. In the Los Angeles organizing space, we’ve had almost none. Because when we protest every week on Wednesday, in front of Jackie Lacey’s office, you have evidence of what I was sharing with you about Black and Latino, not being [a] mutually exclusive category. So, I think about Jesse Romero’s family, both his parents come, and you can see that they are Afro Latinos, right? He identifies as Latino, but he’s also Black [and] clearly has African ancestry. I think about Eric Rivera, whose mother is Mexican, but whose father is African.

One of the most beautiful things that I’ve witnessed is real, true, authentic, genuine solidarity. Solidarity means being willing to struggle, [to] see other people’s struggles as your own struggle.

So, we always have Latinx families who join us on Wednesdays. And we always offer that space. We also have indigenous families who join us on Wednesdays because we can’t neglect the fact that indigenous folks, as a proportion of the population, are killed at rates that are almost the same as Black people. The reason we say Black Lives Matter is because at the bottom of virtually every social, economic, and political measure, stand Black people. We are killed as a proportion of the population at the highest rate. We are criminalized at the highest rate. We are at the bottom of every health measure. We are homeless at the highest rate. 

It’s important to say Black Lives Matter because we are the house on fire.

So, you put out the house that’s on fire. If you think about a house in the context of a neighborhood, that house, the house on fire also threatens the other homes in the neighborhood. And so, you want to put out the house that’s on fire. So, we say Black Lives Matter.

The families that come who are not Black, or don’t identify as Black, have not been resistant to say-ing Black Lives Matter. So, I’m going to get to the most beautiful part, as the families come up and tell theirs [story]: after they finish telling the story of their loved one, we have a practice of saying their names. So, we’ll say, “Say his name,” and then everybody in the crowd, now it’s thousands of people, we’ll chant the name, “Jesse Romero.” And we’ll do that three times. “Say his name, Jes-se Romero. Say his name, Jesse Romero. Say his name, Jesse Romero.” And then we end by say-ing, Áse which is like, “Amen.”

One of the most recent murders in Los Angeles was a brother named Daniel Hernandez, who was killed in South Central Los Angeles by an LAPD officer. Her name is Toni McBride. Daniel’s sister is one of the most powerful speakers I’ve ever heard. Daniel was just killed in April. So, this is brand new. His mother is monolingual Spanish.

Sometimes when I’m there, and she does it, it ac-tually moves me to tears because it’s such an ex-pression of solidarity. Black and Brown folks.

We are not against each other. Our kids go to the same schools. We live in the same neighborhoods. We experienced much of the same oppression. We are, if we’re smart, the strongest partners that we could have.

I think that we’re natural partners.

Read about other powerful leaders such as Bettie Spruill’s “On Raising Your Consciousness.”

“The reason we say Black Lives Matter is because at the bottom of virtually every social, economic, and political measure, stand Black people. We are killed as a proportion of the population at the highest rate. We are criminalized at the highest rate. We are at the bottom of every health measure. We are homeless at the highest rate.

It’s important to say Black Lives Matter because we are the house on fire.”

Dr. Melina Abdullah
Chair of the Department of Pan-African Studies at California State University,
Los Angeles and a Co-Founder of the Los Angeles Chapter of Black Lives Matter

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