Civil rights group refocuses mission one year after Floyd's death

·8 min read

May 23—It's been nearly one year since the local BLM:HAAIR group created their first stir in the community, as they gathered on the corner of the Walker County Courthouse lawn in downtown Huntsville, with fists held high, chanting the now iconic words, "I can't breathe."

Prominent figures of the movement Jules and Mustapha Williams, weren't quite sure what they were in for, but were certain of what they stood for, as they vowed to maintain their presence there every week until racism had been eradicated from Huntsville.

"It was a whirlwind of a year," Mustapha said. "We received a lot of support and we also received a lot of bad from being on the corner."

Like most movements, many waited for the group and the brothers to tire out and resign their ground on the courthouse lawn. Whether it be discouragement to the point of nihilism or the diminished hype from opportunists chasing the temporary clout of a hashtag, the group has dwindled from a gathering of hundreds, to a core group each week. However, their impact and efforts should never be underestimated as meager.

With the brothers as the only Black males left on the frontlines, fighting for the cause, they have kept their promise, dutifully holding their ground, though the end goal for them has certainly changed.

Now, reflecting back on their dreams of eradication, they laugh in unison at their naivety after having undergone a challenging year and the realization that the possibility of Walker County being a utopia free of prejudice may never happen in this lifetime.

"It seems really crazy to me because we were so wild back then, we were like, 'we're going to fight for change,' and then we saw what actually went on in Huntsville and we were like, 'wait, this is going to be a little bit difficult,'" Mustapha said.

BLM:HAAIR was formed as its own grassroots group, unrelated to the national organization, in quick response to the murder of George Floyd one year ago. Their weekly gatherings that initially served as a call for justice, have grown into a stance for representation in the community, while serving as a beacon of hope for the marginalized populations in Walker County and keeping a watchful eye on local law enforcement. However, roots run deep in South Texas, and change, whether for better or worse, is never accepted easily.

"We were able to observe the community over the past year to see how they actually think and operate and we've seen that there are a lot of people who are filled with hate out here and they don't want to see things change," Mustapha said. "You say, Black Lives Matter, and that's the minute when people start hating you."

The duo says that racism and prejudice is very much alive and thriving in Huntsville, from the antagonistic behaviors threatening even BLM:HAAIR's youngest members at just six-years-old, to the battle in Commissioner's Court over the removal of the Confederate monument at the Walker County Courthouse.

"I don't like it when people say you wanted to just go to Black Lives Matter protests because you wanted to look good, this looks good to no one, they want to kill us for doing this," Jules said. "This is not about being heroic, this is about doing what we are all supposed to do."

However, the hatred, threats and disappointing losses have never discouraged the group's members, if anything, it's fueled their efforts and forced the group to reanalyze how they will go on to more effectively fight prejudice in Huntsville.

"In the beginning, the mission for me was having conversations with people, educating them, but being in Huntsville, you grow through what you go through," BLM:HAAIR president Nia Williams said. "What we've gone through in this past year really exposed a lot of things about just how deep racism and this supremacy runs in Huntsville, and how it's impossible to change people's minds and educate them if they do not want to change. I think that's a big thing we've had to learn, is that people are just stuck and they want to stay stuck. You can't talk to a brick wall, you can't uproot something that runs so deep unless people themselves are willing to listen, do the work and just change. A lot of people are not at that point, so instead of focusing on that which is unfortunately an unwinnable battle, you move on elsewhere and you go where you can help, you educate who you can."

"This kind of work is long winded, it's slow moving, but it's necessary and I do see big changes that would be significant to me. I see that in the way that we've been able to improve individual lives in the queer, Black and brown communities," BLM:HAAIR vice president Eli Bivens said.

"Just standing on the corner twice a week, being a presence in the community, especially in the Black community, it makes people feel safe and like they have somebody to look to," Jules said. "The community of Huntsville knows that there is a Black Lives Matter group here, so when issues arise in the community, they can bring it to us."

The trust that BLM:HAAIR has formed with the minority communities is most recently evident in the case of Larry Davis, a black man in Huntsville caught on video by a bystander appearing to be a victim of alleged police brutality. Through community funding and advocacy, they have been able to cover his bond and helped him receive medical care, while assisting him in coming forward to tell his story.

"People feel like they don't have a voice, people who are not the 'majority,' we feel that we can't say anything, that we just have to go along for the ride and you don't have to. You do not have to water down your existence to sooth other people's jacked-up views and mindsets," Nia said. "This is a group where I feel like we've been able to help and provide a space for people to feel like they can speak out, they can speak up and they can feel really and truly visible."

"Lonely", "isolating" and "depressing" are the three most commonly used words among a series of interviews to describe living as a young queer individual or person of color in Huntsville.

"It's evident in the way we showed up to the commissioner's court. We were not really wanted there, the commissioners spent as little time as possible addressing our concerns and then belittled and dismissed them," Bivens said. "It's certainly not an inviting environment ... If they want people to stay, there definitely needs to be some more inclusive proactive choices being made that would appeal to young people staying and living here, because most people want to get out as soon as they can and I don't blame them, it's not an easy place to live."

"I feel like as far as changing the way that Huntsville is for the better, it would have to come from the inside, basically local government, city council, they would have to change and shake up the power structure of how Walker County is and that will be very hard because they're so accustomed to one thing," Mustapha said.

Now, they're focusing on voter registration and pushing the Black population to the polls, as well as urging them to run for positions in the commissioner's court, city council, school board, and any place that they can influence the change that they want to see.

The group is also working towards building community funds as a resource for Huntsville, so that they can continue supporting cases like Larry Davis, as well as feeding and clothing the underserved and donating toys to families during Christmas.

"I think there's this misconception that it seems and appears that there's this group that came out of nowhere, that's not it. We're friends, we're neighbors, we're people that actually have ancestors buried in Walker County," BLM:HAAIR parliamentarian Crystal Brown said.

"It's nice to see the younger generations like children that are in their parents' cars, they drive by and they say, "Black Lives Matter" too, so they can see in their city that there's a presence of Black Lives Matter here. That means that they are going to be us when they get older and that will keep the cycle going of positivity and fighting against discrimination and inequality in the world and Huntsville," Mustapha said.

Just as Huntsville's Hey You! group inspired decades ago in the Civil Rights era, as long as discrimination and inequality exists, there will always be a group fighting against it, because, as Jules says in reference to famed American Civil Rights activist Medgar Everes — "you can kill people, but you can't kill ideas."

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