Black women like Gicola Lane have been at the forefront of Southern organizing since the first movements took shape. Based in Nashville, Tennessee, and currently an electoral justice fellow with the Movement for Black Lives, Lane was first inspired to action when local police killed Jocques Clemmons after a traffic stop in her community. After an investigation by the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, the district attorney declined to pursue charges in Clemmons’ death. Lane and others looked to elected officials, hoping that the members of the Nashville Metro City Council would support the creation of a community oversight board. When the council failed to pass legislation that would establish the creation of the board, Lane gathered with others to make that demand a reality.
This interview has been edited down for brevity and clarity.
As a lead organizer in the effort to establish a community oversight board, Lane worked to get the charter referendum on the ballot in time for the November 2018 midterm elections. Although prior attempts to create a community oversight board had failed—including major opposition from the Fraternal Order of Police—Lane and her co-organizers pushed forward. The referendum was approved for the ballot in August 2018 after organizers gathered more than the 3,900 signatures required to be added to the ballot.
Watching her community support issues that were being voted against by the existing local elected officials motivated Lane into action. With a newfound understanding of local political dynamics in her arsenal, Lane decided to run for an at-large seat on the Nashville Metro Council. Although she did not win, her run solidified her presence in the world of electoral organizing as she worked alongside national organizations like Black Voters Matter.
As a community organizer, Lane has fought to help formerly incarcerated people restore their voting rights. Stepping into her role as a 2020 electoral justice fellow with the Movement for Black Lives, Lane organized one of the first two Black Caucus 2020 meetups in Nashville. The caucus spotlighted the issues Black communities felt were most important by engaging local subject matter experts, and provided space to discuss the upcoming primary elections and the presidential candidates. Other cities hosting Black Caucus 2020 events included St. Louis, Phoenix, Chicago, and Dallas.
Now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Lane’s work is in step with the growth of mutual aid organizing happening across the country.
“We are working in coalition across the state of Tennessee to take care of each other,” she said. “Everything we need is within our community. We will continue to love and support one another.”
I interviewed Lane for Prism. We talked about her entry into organizing, her run for office, and the Black women who inspire her.
How did you enter your current space in activism?
I am from Nashville, Tennessee, born and raised. My family has been in Tennessee as far as I’ve been able to find back in my genealogy, actually. I was born and raised in East Nashville, which is important because it was a Black neighborhood when I was coming up, but because of gentrification that has absolutely changed. I started organizing around predatory lending when I was 14 years old as a high school student. Because of the neighborhood that I lived in, there was just so much poverty. We had 20 predatory lenders within a mile, and so that was one of the first issues that I … actually organized around even though I did not consider myself an organizer back then.
I really came into the organizer work around police accountability because my uncle was killed by a police officer here in Nashville when I was a young kid. It was very normalized back then. He was the fifth person that year when he was killed in 2000. I left and went to Clark Atlanta [University], and when I came back, I immediately wanted to pay it forward. I was working, and I felt like, “I’m supposed to be doing more than this.” I was still volunteering at a community center when Jocques Scott Clemmons was killed by a Metro Police Officer, very similarly to how my uncle was killed. It really triggered me.
How did you transition from that experience to electoral organizing?
After Jocques was killed, we started organizing around a community oversight board because we’ve never had one. There’s nothing independent of the police looking into things themselves in Nashville. There were people pushing for this but it never came to fruition, so we made it one of our demands. The week after we met after Jocques was killed, we started trying to actually push it through our local city council. I went to the city council for the first time in my life—it was literally in the name of Jocques. And we interrupted the council meeting, and they amended the agenda for us to talk. Now [this] was my first time ever sitting through a council meeting. This is 2017. I’m listening and hearing all this [discussion about] zoning and stuff and I’m like, “Wait, that’s my mom’s house.” I started connecting the dots on how all of these issues were connected. We started a coalition that really pushed for the community oversight board. The council didn’t push it through, so we took it to a ballot referendum. By this time, I had a strong understanding of local politics. I began organizing by pulling in other families who had been impacted like mine had.
How did you get involved with Black Voters Matter?
Black Voters Matter was one of the first to invest in our work around the community oversight board referendum. They gave us some seed money to get the word out, and then I was hired as the campaign coordinator for that. We were up against the half million dollar Fraternal Order of Police’s crazy opposition campaign in the midterms in 2018.
After that, I started helping people get their voter rights restored, really learning about some of these laws that are impacting us. I actually ran for city council at large. I didn’t win last year in 2019, but I started tying all of those local issues to voting and helping folks. Just being able to talk to my people in a real way—I think that it helped that I’m from here. I went to the schools in the city I live in. People have found me to be a trusted voice.
What made you decide to run for office? Going to the council meeting?
Yes. And when I was so mad that they didn’t pass the community oversight board. There were Black council members who abstained from voting on the community oversight board. And I was like, “How is this even possible?” We started talking about running people in other counties in Tennessee. That’s really where it came from—watching elected officials for months and seeing them not step up as leaders, and not supporting what our community overwhelmingly said that they wanted. When you look at the breakdown across all the districts, [the community oversight board] won. All of our neighborhoods overwhelmingly voted for it, but the people who represented our neighborhoods didn’t even support it.
What has it meant for your local organizing work to be in partnership with a national organization like Black Voters Matter?
I think it was huge. I think it was one of the really great components of the work that we were doing for the community oversight board. I think it also broadened our lens for statewide work since I was the Tennessee coordinator for Black Voters Matter as well. The relationships that I was able to build from the connections with Black Voters Matter are still standing now. We’re still meeting and we’re still strategizing. [We’ve been able to be] in these conversations about police accountability, but also economic justice and the patterns that we’re seeing. That’s been one of the largest takeaways from being able to have this national organization supporting the work: being able to have those conversations, and literally looking at a map of Tennessee and figuring out what needs to be done.
When you think about what inspires you to do your work, are there any particular people or movements that have inspired you?
Absolutely. Ella Baker, of course, and SNCC were heavy in Nashville. Fisk University is right here. Being able to tap into the elders who were trained by Ella Baker, and talking to them about some of those strategies that they use [was especially inspiring]. And, when I did not win my city council race, I thought of Fannie Lou Hamer. I thought about how she courageously ran [for United States Senate and Mississippi State Senate], and didn’t win, but kept doing the work. Those are two Black women who have really inspired me and [who] I feel connected with. I think political education is key. To be able to go back and look at the work that they did and see how central political education was to everything they did—it made me think about how we need to alter some of the things that we’re doing.
Given how deeply invested you are in intensive justice and equity work, how do you balance caring for yourself with actually doing the work of caring for our folks?
That’s a great question, and it’s something that I struggle with sometimes; I think we all do. It’s something that I’m being more intentional about—being mindful of [things like] how much water I’m drinking, and when I’m on the road, especially in the South, trying not to eat all the barbecue and all those good things. Then just carving out time for myself.
Tell me about the Black Caucus you organized as a Movement For Black Lives electoral justice fellow.
The Black Caucus project itself focuses on policy in a way that I have never seen [or] experienced. We framed [the caucus] around the issues and about the [presidential] candidate’s plans. [Then participants] proposed plans on criminal justice, health care, the economy, and labor. We were able to get deeply into those specifics and people really, really appreciated that. This was four hours on a Saturday and there were 100 people there throughout the day, and most people stayed. I honestly was shocked at how many people stayed that long. We were intentional about the space; all the fellows talked about our setups and the things that we wanted to bring into the space. We were intentional about everything from food to music to the art and culture that we brought into the space, just by knowing our people and knowing what feeds our soul. I think there’s not many political spaces offering that. It was really amazing. I had local organizers who work on specific issues facilitating [discussion of] those issues. Our health care facilitator, for instance, her name is Brianna Paris. She’s a Black woman who works with Healthy and Free Tennessee. She knows health care inside and out—specifically black maternal health—so she was able to speak to specific issues that people had with insurance and thinking collectively about “our needs” versus “just my insurance plan.” That’s what a lot of the conversations and breakout groups looked like, and it was really exciting to see.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve had to deal with since you’ve been organizing?
I think the biggest challenge is definitely the establishment co-opting language and the work, and having to strategize on how to deal with it. We see and feel the shift that’s happening, and they steal our language and build fake movements. They try to make it appear as though they’re for these issues but [they] are doing things to hinder us.
What else would you like people to know about your work that we haven’t already discussed?
I would just want people to know that this was birthed from my experiences and the people around me. That’s what informs my work. I try to keep that central to everything that I do. It’s not about me as an individual, it’s about the collective. [You] asked me about other women who have done this work before me, and that’s what Ella Baker teaches. Keeping that central to everything is key to this work, and that’s what I always try to uplift.