Day 6·Q&A

This team of Black archivists is dedicated to documenting the Black Lives Matter movement

Stacie Williams, Blackivists member and the director for the Center of Digital Scholarship at The University of Chicago, says that social media shouldn't be the only record of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Blackivists work to preserve the documents and oral histories of Black social movements

Protesters gather at a memorial for George Floyd where he died outside Cup Foods on East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue on June 1, 2020, in Minneapolis. (John Minchillo/The Associated Press)

How will the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement be remembered by future generations? That's what some archivists are working to cement — and Chicago-based collective The Blackivists is among them. 

For months, videos of tear gas, police in riot gear dispersing crowds and impassioned cries calling for an end to police brutality and racial injustice have circulated across social media. The protests first engulfed the United States, Canada and the world, after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in May. 

The Blackivists, formed in 2018, is a group of six Black archivists dedicated to the preservation of Black heritage. Currently, they're arming budding archivists on the ground with the tools to document the Black Lives Matter protests responsibly. 

Stacie Williams, Blackivists member and the director for the Center of Digital Scholarship at The University of Chicago, says that social media shouldn't be the only record of this movement.

She spoke to Day 6 host Brent Bambury about why documenting the ongoing protests for archives is dangerous, yet necessary work.

Here is part of their conversation. 

The Black Lives Matter protests are historic because of their resonance around the world. Tell us why it's so important to catalog this moment.

One of the things that I think has been very instructive for me as an archivist is seeing the evidence of past resistance and past uprisings within the archives.

As someone who has worked in university archives, student activists have come to the archives on occasion and said, "We heard about a sit-in that happened here in the '60s or in the '70s. And we want to know what happened and how they did it."

A group of mothers protest against racial inequality and police violence in Portland in July. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)

And having students base their organizing work iteratively on the work that is evidenced within the archives — I think just having seen that up close is why I think it's so important. It's that history never has happened in a vacuum.

These events have always built on each other, over time. And because the systemic conditions haven't changed, we find ourselves still in this moment.

We're living in an age of digital information. We're bombarded by stuff all the time. And so much of what we've seen of these protests is being documented in real time on social media. Why isn't that enough? Why isn't that its own archive?

An archive is actually a space where, in theory, we are processing information; we're arranging and describing it according to a certain set of standards. And we're making it discoverable in specific types of ways and we're stewarding it for what we often think is a very long future. 

Twitter was not designed for that. None of our social media platforms were designed for that. So it just means that everything on social media is ephemeral. It's here today, gone tomorrow.

Let's talk about what's happening on the ground level to collect and preserve as much information and experiences possible. You refer to that work as "memory work."

We use the term "memory work" to be inclusive of the people who have always been the keepers of the stories, the keepers of the memory, the documents, the oral histories and their families, communities or organizations.

We recognize that everyone who comes to this work doesn't necessarily have a library science degree or has gone through a program. We recognize that that's not a thing that should stop people from being able to engage in this work. And we want to respect and include the people who've been doing it far longer than we have.

Who are the people doing the memory work? What are they taking on?

What we've been seeing in many instances are the activists themselves. They are documenting the movement as they are on the ground. They're documenting protests, but doing so and insisting that others do so, with a lot of attention and care and privacy for others.

I think that the folks doing that level of documentation, where they are an active resistance against police forces wherever they happen to be at, are doing such important work.

How do you turn the experience into a material, into a document or into something that can be archived, something that can be accessed in the future?

The Blackivists are not a collecting organization. So we advise people. We provide an intellectual resource, so we can help people plan what to do with their collections with their own resources. 

Police walk around at the site of the covered Christopher Columbus statue after protesters attempted to topple the statue located in Roosevelt and Columbus Dr. in Chicago on July 17, 2020. (Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times/The Associated Press)

These collections then are turned into various resources that can be accessed in the future. One of those resources is something called a mapping project. Tell us how a mapping project can work in the Black Lives Matter collections.

One of the best examples I saw of a mapping project that's relevant to a historical uprising was a project some researchers had done at UCLA of documenting the Arab Spring uprisings. And what I learned from that project was that they paid a lot of attention to privacy and anonymizing in some ways, because the folks who are doing this type of work on the ground, they are at great risk. 

We know that law enforcement goes through the tweets just like everyone else, but they're looking to identify organizer leaders, activist leaders, for repercussion, or in some cases, extrajudicial detainment.

So the Arab Spring mapping project provided me with some really instructive ways to think about how we could deal with privacy questions on social media. 

They scrubbed avatars; they scrubbed the geolocation information if it had been listed on a tweet. Anywhere that they could, they scrubbed and anonymized so that those organizers were not at risk of reprisal.

Federal officers arrest a protester after she crossed a fence line set up around the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse on July 23, 2020 in Portland. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

When you look back at the civil rights movement of the 1960s, do you think that it was poorly documented? Do you think that there were issues there?

Certainly, there are arguments to be made that there are records we do not have enough of because collection development policies in archives had white supremacy issues just like everywhere else. So those histories weren't being collected or they weren't being collected in large measure.

But certainly, the voices that we might have been missing were those of working class protesters, because archives have always favoured people with money. And that's in archives that serve predominantly white users or in predominantly white institutions — and in, say, minority serving institutions or historically Black colleges and universities.

But with the Black Lives Matter movement and with digital technology that is somewhat democratizing, we've seen that it's been effective in exposing police brutality.

Do you think that this movement will be more effective in taking on the institutional erasure of black history that you just described?

As a black woman, I want for the answer to be yes. I want this to be the movement that is the most effective that we've ever seen in our lifetimes — and in taking on systemic racism and being able to identify and amplify narratives to make a more complete part of our history, not just through the lens of trauma or through the lens of our luminaries, but through the people who actively make up the fabric of this country every day.

Written and produced by Samraweet Yohannes. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now