Dkéama Alexis: Oral Histories of Surveillance
When people were saying around, defunding the police, and that being couched within the overall vision of abolition, but just thinking about how so many resources are being put into death dealing institutions when, just like looking at the pandemic alone, alone, so many people are suffering, and don’t have like access to the things that they need. So what I hope for in terms of the movement or the work, especially around surveillance, is for there to be more of an emphasis of educating around police abolition, around the history of the Black radical tradition, I’d love for there to be more supportive ecosystems for multiply marginalized Black people, both who are not organized in the slightest, and those who are also trying to lead the work. —Dkéama Alexis
Our Data Bodies (ODB) is excited to present a series of oral histories from organizers, writers, and cultural workers whose work has been steeped in resisting discriminatory surveillance technology and racialized surveillance capitalism, and has illuminated strategies for abolition and abolitionist reform. This oral history features Dkéama Alexis, organizer and activist with the Black Queer Intersectional Collective (BQIC) based in Columbus, Ohio. The transcript, which has been slightly edited for clarity, follows below.
Kim M Reynolds: Can you introduce yourself, your work, how long you’ve been in this line of work, and how you walk through the world?
Dkéama Alexis: My name is to Dkéama Alexis, and I use he/she/and they pronouns, and I prefer for people to switch it up, but if you forget, then using they/them is fine. Okay. So I have been within the grassroots organizing space for approximately, I guess a little bit over four years now. I’m coming up on four years, it’s kind of hard to tell because Ariana Steele, who’s the co-founder of BQIC, we kind of started talking about creating a space like this in November of 2016, but BQIC was officially started in March of 2017. Most of my experience has been here in Ohio, within this field, I didn’t really have much organizing experience prior to this, so I definitely learned a lot. And the group is called Black Queer & Intersectional Collective (BQIC). We are a grassroots collective led by Black LGBTQI plus people working towards the liberation of all Black LGBTQI plus people. And we do that through community organizing, direct action, education and creating spaces where our voices can be heard. And we’re very explicit within our abolitionist lens, as well as maintaining it with intersectionality within the framework that we do our work through.
Kim M Reynolds: What underpins the work of BQIC? What are some of the important interventions that you see necessary as time goes on, particularly around surveillance, and data discrimination?
Dkéama Alexis: So the primary thing underpinning our work is the prioritization of multiply marginalized Black people and centering that, at all costs, and in all the things that we do. When we will be created the collective and just continuing to see a lot of like anti Blackness, homophobia, transphobia in the organizing community since that official foundation, it’s really important for people who were experiencing not just anti Blackness, but also misogyny and also transphobia to have that space because it’s the multiplicative effect of all these different oppressions that have to be dismantled and contended with when we’re trying to build a new world together. Like we can’t just tear down anti-Blackness and have that serve the Black cis men and boys who were taking up a lot of the focus and the organizing here in the city. Without contending, you can’t just focus on one like there has to be a multifaceted approach. I mean just thinking about the effects of racial capitalism. Who was the most disposable and also who provides the most labor and in this society? And it’s Black people who also experienced like multiple marginalizations. Like Black women, Black trans folks, Black disabled people, and so it’s really important for us in our work to center those people because that’s what’s going to comprise a real revolution. Because you’re going to get at the fabric of what creates our country, and it’s all of those oppressions at once.
So yeah, just… I think we try to honor the legacy of Black feminisms, and I think there are multiple Black feminisms, trying to honor the legacy of all of our foremothers and, you know, making sure that like those lessons inform the ways we move ahead. Also, considering the history of policing in our country, I think informs our explicit abolitionist lens. We see policing as the system that cannot be remedied has to be completely abolished. And also considering abolition of a dual process. So I don’t know if you’ve ever read Angela Davis’s Abolition Democracy, but that piece really has informed my personal politic in recent years. And that’s kind of what I try to bring to BQIC, especially when talking to newer members about abolition, because she talks back in the day, when chattel slavery was still practice within our country, how abolition at that time, was simply a negative process, where they were only talking about removing this institution, but because there was not as heavy a focus on building something that was far more life giving in its place and deterring positive process back out of left kind of left space for slavery to just be transformed into something almost identical, but just in a different skin.
And so I try to conceive of abolition as a positive process, both in BQIC with but also in my own personal practice, where it’s like: what is it that like Black, queer and trans folks need more than anything and what does it look like to provide that while we’re also contending with this machine that like, seeks to swallow us day in and day out? And that looks like you know, incorporating more mutual aid, incorporating more periods of rest in the organizing space, that looks like creating the emergency fund for us last year, where we’re just able to redistribute money back to our people, no questions asked, because our people deserve comfort and safety without having conditions attached.
I think like all of these things really came to a head both, you know, thinking about the uprisings and the pandemic this year, kind of all happening at once, because our people were getting hit really hard. Again, in racial capitalism, whose most disposable: Black queer and trans people, Black women, disabled folks, Black working class people. And so it was just really important for us to figure out how we could be present for folks while also, you know, being radical and trying to show up on the front lines while things were popping off here in Columbus.
And then also to veer towards talking about surveillance, how do we keep ourselves safe, not just from the heightened police presence, the National Guard, and the troops coming into the city, but there’s also this very real threat of infiltration, and trying to monitor new people that are coming into the organizing community in general, who’s getting more photo ops? Who’s showing up with police officers to different protests? How can we assess like, “Okay, this group has all of the sudden been disbanded, but we don’t know all the people who work within that space, so how do we track and make sure that we’re keeping our people safe?” How do we have more secure conversations about data and digital security, because there was a lot of conflict around people posting stuff online and just showing people’s faces or you know, other identifiable things about them, that would then put them in trouble later on, because the cops use social media to like track protests in the movement on the ground.
And then also, there was a feeling around, with COVID restrictions and just like the idea of mobility being, necessarily, being reduced, because that helps lower the spread of the pandemic. But at the same time, if we have curfews enacted, and say, like Black women or trans people are working odd hours or have to be out, there’s no way for people to negotiate that or if you’re houseless in a city that’s rapidly gentrifying. What kind of interventions are people going to have with the police? And how do we show up for folks within that?
…There’s a lot that has come up in the last years including being hyper visible. For example, BQIC for the past few years has been one of the major Black and queer led organizations, I’m not saying that because representation does not mean anything about your politics, like I’ve seen plenty of new Black groups come up since then that have terrible politics, okay, but we are one of the main ones that is also very directly challenging like police the police state. My comrade who’s in BQIC has had their like car broken into and has a cop lives nearby them like in their apartment complex and so there’s just like a general feeling like we’re being watched in our homes, or that police officers are messing with our property. We are also feeling like our phones have been tapped, like I’ve felt like my phone has been tapped since the Black Pride Four stuff popped off and then all of a sudden, little ol BQIC is like, you know, trying to contend with national attention. People started hitting us up and telling us like the FBI is looking at us.
Kim M Reynolds: That’s deep.
Dkéama Alexis: Like people have hit us up trying to like tip us off. Yeah. So there’s like, there’s been a lot to try to—
Kim M Reynolds: —contend with.
Dkéama Alexis: Yeah, that’s exactly it, contend with, in this space. The landscape from my observations, I don’t want to, you know, say my perspective is the only one, but from my observation, Ohio in general, like, in at least in the main cities, and I’m including Dayton and Toledo, and places like that, it’s just really kind of like lacking that presence. And because I think BQIC has kind of not just been at the forefront in Columbus, but also kind of within the general Ohio landscape, there’s a lot of attention, and just also at that same time, like a lot of pressure. So in terms of what we’re working towards, you know, we have a platform where we’re hoping to abolish Columbus police and reduce the scope of their involvement in people’s lives. And also, you know trying that into the eventual and also ongoing process, or the goal or objective of decolonization and what does it look like to build more communalism, and stronger communities? How do we remove symbols of colonialism in the city, including the name (of the city), you know, things like that? How do we shift the narrative around policing, not just with the police, but also within people’s personal attitudes towards others and organizational practices? For example, like, I can’t even count how many times we’ve had the cops called on us when we’re trying to like, give out free food at the library. So, um, yeah, that was a lot.
Kim M Reynolds: In terms of BQIC, are there any campaigns that have been aimed at resisting surveillance, and I think, even here, you can speak a bit more about what has been levied against you?
Dkéama Alexis: Oh, man, that happened [FBI surveillance] around the time of the Black Pride Four so my memory is a little bit shaky. But it was somebody who was working within one of the local LGBTQ nonprofits who had emailed us, and then followed up on signal to let us know that FBI officers were monitoring the work that BQIC was doing, and at that time, because I was also newer to organizing in general, it was concerning to me, but I think I hadn’t really sat with the magnitude of what that meant. And I was also a bit confused on like, how do you know this, but we don’t? And not too long after that I had come home, and because I was living with Arianna at the time—Arianna was a co-founder [of BQIC]—and seemed like a business card of an FBI agent was taped to our door and I was like, okay, so this seems to like, have a bit more legitimacy to it than I thought. And I honestly don’t even remember if we called because we were just under a lot of stress at that time.
At that time, we were also in conversation with an organizer who had done a lot of work out in the Bay, and was from Ohio, originally and they were kind of the first person who talked to us about the need to think through the possibility of state repression. And not just in the way that the Black Pride Four had experienced it and the other protesters that experienced it on the front lines, like that’s very directly state repression, because the police officers knew who were prominent organizers and went straight for them to take them down.
But then thinking about state repression in terms of surveillance, in terms of digital security being breached, in terms of trying to keep each other safe. And so at that time, we didn’t have an official campaign, but we were trying to do more education, around what state repression was, and how we could resist it. Like the histories of resisting state repression throughout our country, we were trying to organize a teach-in on that at one point. And then it just looked like a lot of more internal conversations because we were so hyper visible at that time, I think we didn’t necessarily feel equipped or ready to have more public conversations around that kind of surveillance from the state.
So we’re trying to do a lot more like internal education with BQIC members around, like, for example, signal etiquette, and signal thread maintenance, how do you dress and show up to protests, what do and do you not share online, things of that nature. And those conversations have become, I think, this year considering all the uprisings that have happened around the country, became more prominent because, you know, there were people were showing up on the front lines and so we had to think about not just the digital surveillance or like feeling surveilled by police officers on the ground, but we also want us to think about what kind of physical safety could we provide our members. So investing in things like gas masks and doorstoppers, other safety things that we could get into the hands of our people so that they could feel more equipped in case they were ever you know, followed by a fascist, probably because they’ve been popping up in Ohio, especially after the recent election.
So there’s that, and like I was mentioning earlier, we were contending with infiltration threats happening this summer from people who were very likely working with the police. There’s a group called Black Freedom here and they popped up in the time where it was common in many different cities that like these seemingly radical Black people popping up and just like taking pictures with cops and really calling the radical axis drive like abolition and revolution, focusing instead on like, reform and sympathy.
So Black freedom splintered off into few offshoot groups. And then I don’t know if they’ve disappeared. I can’t really get a good sense of it. But it was very suspicious how they came to be and how they kind of monopolized the visual representation of Columbus organizing when they literally had been established overnight.
Kim M Reynolds: What did the most recent uprisings kind of give you in terms of like, an insight around surveillance and hyper visibility? Because it sounds like it has been like a more significant kind of learning curve, not to suggest that it only cropped out of that moment, but every time these kinds of mass movements happen, there’s a huge backlash and a huge technological backlash that tries to curb the system each and every time. So I want to ask what have the most recent uprisings kind of taught you in that regard?
Okay, so, because these two things are happening at once, the uprisings and the pandemic, there’s been a heavy reliance on the internet, on technology, in order to stay connected because we’re trying to communicate across distance and also keep each other like safe from this very fatal dizease. But with that, police officers who are very organized in their own right, have the resources to tap in, surveil movements and the people who are involved with them. And so with that, its really altered perception of the safety of these resources that we are currently so reliant on, and what it’s taught me is that I think that Black folks, especially those who have been on the front lines, pushing more “left” or revolutionary ideas, have to get proactive around resources, like amassing resources for lots of different things: like safety materials, like untrackable devices, you know, things of that nature. But then we also need to get better at figuring out how do we organize in person, or in a way that, like, doesn’t rely so heavily on the Internet and on technology?
Because at this point, for me, personally—I know that this sentiment is shared by lots of Black folks that I’m around and have been organizing with—it just feels too risky to be, present online. Because cops, police officers, and people connected to them, are monitoring that activity. And so, you know, like, what does it look like to learn from Black folks organizing in the 60s and 70s who didn’t have so much access to technology? Like what lessons can we learn from like that kind of on the ground organizing and connecting with people? And back to the point around resources is, yeah, just the need to have funds set up, ready to go for people, whether that’s like an emergency fund or mutual aid fund, a bail fund. Luckily, like our emergency fund, as well as the Central Ohio Freedom Fund, those have been in existence prior to the pandemic and prior to the uprisings. So seeing the need for that, and the need to keep people safe from like the literal jaws of jails and prisons, but also like, how are we just keeping people safe and secure in their day to day lives? All of those things are all happening in tandem. And yeah, just the need to have resources ready to go for those who are most victimized by surveillance and the police state, like that’s just probably been two of the big things or like the major insights that I’ve come up with.
Kim M Reynolds: My last question is where do you hope to see the work go specific to Ohio?
Dkéama Alexis: So one thing I didn’t mention earlier is that in terms of surveillance, one of the things that’s come up for me is things like ShotSpotter, where they’re putting that in neighbourhoods.
Kim M Reynolds: It’s being used here in South Africa too.
Dkéama Alexis: Yeah, that’s wild. Yeah, it’s been popping up across Ohio. And I know Columbus has had that… has that invested in different neighborhoods. And you know, for me, I think it kind of just comes back to the need for an abolitionist message or an anti police and anti prisons, message, to grow stronger throughout Ohio. Because, when people were saying around, defunding the police, and that being couched within the overall vision of abolition, but just thinking about how so many resources are being put into death dealing institutions when, just like looking at the pandemic alone, alone, so many people are suffering, and don’t have like access to the things that they need.
So what I hope for in terms of the movement or the work, especially around surveillance, is for there to be more of an emphasis of educating around police abolition, around the history of the Black radical tradition, I’d love for there to be more supportive ecosystems for multiply marginalized Black people, both who are not organized in the slightest, and those who are also trying to lead the work. The white supremacy and the homophobia and transphobia that led us to create BQIC in the first place, did not disappear once we suddenly came into existence. lt’s really, really difficult to, like, not just to be Black, queer and trans and leading an organization, but then also to be Black, queer and trans and like holding the specific views that we have and being uncompromising with that. It’s difficult to build collective support and also feel as though when you are victimized by state repression or victimized by surveillance, that people will show up and have your back.
So what I would like for the the work is for people who hold some form of power. And I’m not even talking about white people because white people are not my audience. I’m talking about within Black communities and within like organizing communities, with people who should know better around how to move, I would just like for there to be more of a culture of collective care and community care because like the adage goes, “strong communities make police obsolete.” And so, what is a strong community without real accountability around the power you hold over others and the ways in which you can harm others in community. Because if we don’t have at the very least a strong organizing community or one that can deal with conflict and things of that nature, then what hope do we have of contending with actual prisons and actual borders and the violence that they maintain and are supported by?
I am looking forward to seeing where BQIC goes and how people can expand. For example, I know that the collective is looking to, as part of the 12 To Abolish 12, which was released on our platform earlier this year, to do some de-crim work around sex work here in the city and working with sex workers who are surveyed in their own right, alone, and then thinking about like, with officers like Andrew Mitchell and all the dirt that he did prior to Donna Dalton being murdered by him. 12 To Abolish 12 covers a lot and I think it’s abolition—a longterm objective vision. I think one of the major parts with it is like defunding and demilitarizing, the police.
While we don’t have more specific plans around the later, I think, you know, starting with the defunding, which has been the more popular tactic that we’ve heard about this year, I think that there could be some traction around taking some resources out of the police state’s hands here in Central Ohio. That includes their ability to patrol our neighborhoods, that includes the technology they have access to that is weaponized against us, both in our day to day lives and also on the front lines. I think that that tactic could get a lot of traction, especially once there is a more unified popular education around why communities deserve to be invested in before the people who tear us apart, you know, Casey Goodson was just murdered like days ago, Ty’re King’s birthday was earlier on this week, he would have been I think 18 or 19 if not a little bit younger than that. You know, Jamita Malone is the mother of Julius Tate Jr., and it’s been two years since his murder.
So there are these stories that are so present here in Columbus. So when we are trying to figure out a way forward, it looks like supporting these families who have been so intimately touched by police violence, and also thinking through the ways that we can actually preempt these things from happening again. And from BQIC’s perspective, it’s not civilian review boards, it’s not like body cams on cops, it’s removing their power and how do we do that? One of the ways is by taking away their money and hitting their bottom line. And yeah, literally chipping away at the power they have to watch our movements and you know, intervene in them.
So overall, I’m just looking forward to the popular education and the growth of a care culture being led by those who have already been doing that- visionary work, and that’s like Black queer and trans folks.