Mandisa Thomas, a native of New York City, is the founder and President of Black Nonbelievers, Inc. Although never formally indoctrinated into belief, Mandisa was heavily exposed to Christianity, Black Nationalism, and Islam. As a child she loved reading, and enjoyed various tales of Gods from different cultures, including Greek and Ghanaian. “Through reading these stories and being taught about other cultures at an early age, I quickly noticed that there were similarities and differences between those deities and the God of the Christian Bible. I couldn’t help but wonder what made this God so special that he warrants such prevalence today,” she recalls.
Here we talk about social movements and rhetoric.
*This was conducted June 1, 2020.*
Scott Jacobsen: So since we last talked, so it’s June 1st now, I think making an explicit timestamp is important. There are issues to do with what to do. Obviously, most of the media is focusing on individual stark events along with the protests, some minor riots. But there’s also, it’s happening throughout the country. This is expanding around the world based around at least one branch of it, a movement founded by three queer women. The United States for Black Lives Matter, there has been some in Toronto and in Vancouver as well. And so other than responses, people obviously are looking for solutions. And so let’s talk about the legitimate rage today and constructive pragmatic solutions to a lot of the issues that this is just a flashpoint of things that have been going on for an extremely long time in the United States. What are your thoughts when it comes to constructive pragmatic solutions here?
Mandisa Thomas: Yes, so as we know, there has been another string of murders of black people at the hands of law enforcement. And in one case, former law enforcement. Sadly, the black community has endured this level of terrorism for years, and we are really getting tired of hearing the same rhetorical calls for justice. Along with the justifications for the actions on behalf of the police officer(s), which usually results in them being found not guilty due to their positions of authority.
So now, there are rising levels of resistance. And the latest incident, which involved the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN, really sparked off unprecedented levels of global protests. While civil unrest is not uncommon throughout history, this is now a opportune time to make some serious institutional changes. For example, there needs to be an overhaul of law enforcement, especially their training tactics for hostile situations. Because deadly force isn’t always necessary, like in the case of Floyd, who died as a result of an alleged counterfeit $20 bill, and definitely Breonna Taylor, who was killed by law enforcement in Louisville, KY, as a result of a no-knock warrant. And in THAT case, the police had incorrect details about who they were supposed to be apprehending.
So there is much that many state, local and federal law enforcement agencies need to change. But as far as what the people can do, one important thing is expressing outrage as much as possible. This doesn’t affect just black folks, it also affects our entire country and communities. And it’s important to talk to to your local officials, and also contribute by either volunteering and/or donating to organizations that focus on, and are run by people of color. Whether their work ranges from direct action like protesting, to providing various support services, contribute substantively instead of just trying to get educated on these matters.
Jacobsen: And in Atlanta, we have T.I. using his fame for good, while also informing us Atlanta is Wakanda. What is being done at ground zero at home for you?
Thomas: I didn’t have the opportunity to go to the protests in downtown Atlanta. But there are so many organizers who are doing wonderful work, and organizing peaceful protests. Unfortunately, the first night there was severe violence and destruction of property, including some black businesses. I know that Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms, a black woman, spoke out against that part (i.e., the destruction of property and damage of property), as well as some other noted celebrities like T.I, like you mentioned, But I think one of the worst things that people can do is JUST tell people to calm down and act like they don’t have the right to be angry.
And it’s interesting; that kind of statement implies that a utopian black society is far more advanced than any other. Which isn’t out of the realm of possibility, but it also a loaded premise. This shows that we as Black people don’t agree on everything. And honestly, there’s nothing wrong with calls for calm in a very tense situations. However, painting the protesters as the ONLY aggressors in unfair. But I know that there have been individuals and organizations who have supported the protesters with bail, and providing supplies during the protests as well. Both in Atlanta, and around the country.
I prefer foundationally supporting the activists that are directly doing the protest work. Indeed, I have attended protests in my life, and I think they are important. But right now, Atlanta is in a similar situation like many other cities. City officials are trying to process and deal with this as much as possible – hopefully, while understanding that the people absolutely have justified anger, especially within the black community.
Jacobsen: Is it a fundamental attitude of arrogance on the part of some American citizens to dismiss the rage felt by other Americans across the board?
Thomas: Absolutely. And it is not only arrogant, it is inhumane to be dismissive of the plight of those who have been affected by police brutality. Those who have witnessed the over-policing of their neighborhoods, and the blatant disregard for the people. There are a lot of people who think that if it doesn’t happen in their area, then it doesn’t affect them. And unfortunately, it tends to be a lot of white people who are guilty of this, and we just have to be honest about that. And it also adds to why these things don’t seem to go away.
And just as there are reactions to those protesting the actions of law enforcement, we also witness the reactions of the citizens who side with them. Even in cases where they were excessive, which is absolutely mind-boggling to me, because there should be no unnecessary loss of life especially at their hands. Because they should be properly trained to deescalate these situations. And I do understand that many police officers are affected by the job, and that they deal with a lot of violence on many levels. That being said, there also needs to be better mental health support for law enforcement. Because if they are expected to do this job day in and day out with little to no preparation, and excessive force actions are just swept under the rug, then nothing changes. And these incidents will continue to take place.
Jacobsen: President Trump, as of yesterday at some of the heights of protest at the White House, went into the White House bunker. First, I didn’t know the White House had a bunker. Second, it is indicative as to a stance of fear of general public protest on the part of those in leadership. It appears to show an acknowledgement of doing wrong and then just hiding from the consequences. Is this fundamentally the problem since November 2016 with this current administration, with the creation of problems and then the deflection of blame and then hiding from any kind of responsibility for any problems that are caused?
Thomas: We are seeing an egregious case of a person in office who avoids responsibility and accountability as much as they possibly can. And this, unfortunately, has trickled down to the attitudes of administrators on the local levels. And years of mistreatment have left people feeling let down, and fed up.
And so, to this horrendous behavior we have witnessed, it’s important for us to take notes and action. And hopefully, we’re able to track not just this incident, but also how this president and this current administration has mistreated others, especially during the pandemic. This is not only important for the American people, but also the world.
Jacobsen: Mandisa, as always, thank you so much.
Thomas: Thank you.
*Associates and resources listing last updated May 31, 2020.*
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
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Image Credit: Mandisa Thomas.