This article is part of the Mercury's 2020 all-digital Queer Week coverage.
If you’ve participated in any of the Portland protests against police brutality in the last two weeks, there’s a decent chance you’ve heard Lilith Sinclair’s voice through a megaphone.
Sinclair, a Black and indigenous nonbinary person, is a Portland activist and organizer whose past work includes organizing Occupy ICE in 2018, working with indigenous communities in Texas, and aiding asylum seekers at the United States-Mexico border. Now, they’re organizing rallies and marches over the Burnside Bridge as part of a wave of protests against the police killings of Black people across the country. They’ve also met with Mayor Ted Wheeler and other Portland City Council members to talk about protesters’ demands—and have been steadfast in advocating for police abolitionist ideals, both in those meetings and in their active Twitter presence.
I recently spoke with Sinclair about their experience as an organizer, how being queer and nonbinary informs their activism, and what Pride means to them.
MERCURY: What was your introduction to being an organizer and an activist?
SINCLAIR: A few years ago, I was doing a lot of reflecting after Occupy ICE. I realized that despite having been an organizer for years—even as a young college student I was spending some of my student loan money making sure houseless folks downtown were getting fed. Now that I’m older and I’ve been engaged in activism and organizing, I realize, "Oh, that’s mutual aid. Oh, that’s redistribution of wealth."
I’ve been doing things like that my whole life. It’s one of the reasons I say Black and brown folks know particularly what we need, because we’ve been oppressed for so long, our whole lives, and we’ve been figuring out how to survive despite all that oppression. And the way that survival happens is always through community care, and making sure we understand that we’re the ones who take care of us, and we can’t rely on the state.
Now I have that language—I didn’t have it growing up. But the motivation was always the same.
I covered the march over the Burnside Bridge you organized on Sunday, May 31. I noticed that you were giving out very specific advice over the megaphone—what to do if you wear contact lenses and get pepper sprayed or tear gassed, for example—that I don’t always hear from organizers at protests. When and how did you learn to do that?
My motivation for organizing has always been about caring for people.
This has to do with the way we socialize people who are raised as young Black girls. Now, being an adult and coming out as nonbinary, [I see that] something is missing from the conversation in the way that we talk about what traditionally women’s labor is.
A lot of this ties back into the exact same racist, slavery-age, white supremacist painting of Black women and femmes as the mammy type. The history of forcing emotional labor onto Black women and femmes is one of the reasons that I so naturally feel this role as a caregiver. I’ve worked as a nanny and a daycare provider. I’ve helped raised my young Black brothers. For me it’s always been about pouring love into the community, and the older I get, the more I see a need to stand up in the way I am attempting to educate people about how to stay safe. For me, radical love is making sure your brothers and sisters are protected in a state that will never take care of them.
You came out as nonbinary earlier this year. How does that identity inform and shape your work as an activist?
My coming-out process has been repetitive and varied. For me, growing up in a Black, Southern Baptist household, homosexuality is not something that is tolerated, and there’s not a lot of space made for it.
We’ve been working to heal these intergenerational wounds of colonization and genocide for generations. But there’s still a lot of work to undo the harm of colonized thought that has been pushed onto Black and indigenous communities. That’s in regards to Christianity, and in regards to all of these different types of oppressive systems that have introduced and enforced the gender binary on communities that did not ascribe to that way of thinking, including indigenous communities both Native American and across Africa.
So it’s about unlearning the harm through colonization that I’ve been introduced to, but also about making space for our elders who have been fighting the fight for a long time, to try to teach them to see past the colonization path as well. My gender journey took being surrounded by a lot of other Black trans and nonbinary revolutionaries who really helped me unlearn cultural expectations, and the forced performed femininity that’s expected in sex work.
Watching you at protests, talking to Wheeler, and on Twitter, it always seems like you speak from a place of great power and confidence. Where do you think that power comes from?
For me, it’s about community. When I first started this journey into being an organizer… I tried very hard to work with the recognition that I’m not the first person to fight this. We have a long, long history of fighting against oppressive systems. We’ve seen what’s worked and what’s brought us incremental changes.
Over the last year, I spent four months with the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe of Texas, who are an unrecognized tribe, but are a part of the original people of Texas. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to not only recognize my privilege, but also weaponize it on behalf of people who don’t have the same privileges as me. So my confidence comes in knowing that I am acting on abolitionist praxis and demands that end in the recognition that no human being is disposable.
I work on abolitionist principles because I know the United States was founded on genocide. I know that there is clearly no respect for the sanctity of human life. It’s apparent, from the ways that the US has continued to expand into a quote-unquote global leader. We have to recognize that this is not leadership—it’s imperialism and neocolonialism dressed up in a way to make people forget the genocide.
Those are all the questions I have for you—but before we go, is there anything else you want to add about Pride month?
It’s important to remember that as we celebrate Pride month, we aren’t celebrating corporatized marches. We’re celebrating the history of a Black, trans, sex-working woman who threw a brick at the police because of the brutality that our people have been experiencing for centuries.
I think it’s apt that we are looking at a global uprising against oppressive structures during the month where we celebrate the anniversary of another uprising—another movement to not just ask for but to demand our rights.