Interview: Alexis Toliver

Alexis Toliver Talks about Her Activism and Black Lives Matter as a Black Woman who is Autistic

By Leroy Moore

Alexis Toliver is a 22 year old Neurobiology Research Assistant at Harvard Medical School. I recently graduated from The Johns Hopkins University with a major in Neuroscience and minor in Music and Bioethics. She has Aspergers Syndrome and intends to focus her later research on autism. She has been an activist in many ways all of her life, but her heavy work began in BaltimoreImage of Alexis Toliver, MD. She began doing non-profit work for black folks that were homeless and later became a student organizer. She participated in several direct actions against police brutality on both a local and national level. Last spring, Alexis became an organizer for a team named Baltimore Fight back. They organized students at Johns Hopkins Medical School, Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Johns Hopkins University to fight for justice for Freddie Gray. After leaving Baltimore, she became a co-lead organizer for Black Lives Matter (BLM) Cambridge. Through that, she stood in physical solidarity and/or organized actions around national campaigns such as #YearWithoutTamir, Justice for Mike Brown, Chicago Solidarity, Solidarity with Mizzou, and many others. She has also worked on local campaigns such as community trainings in non-violent direct action and cop-watch. Alexis has also co-organized outside actions such as the students of Mass Art and the Justice for Anye campaign in Lowell, MA. She has decided to take a step back from BLM to focus strictly on organizing for Black folks with disabilities. Individuals with disabilities account for half of police shootings nationally. This is impeccably alarming and she intends to dedicate her power as a black woman with autism to combat this problem.

Leroy Moore:  You found the high alarming rate of police shooting against people with disabilities and it changed your activism.  Tell us how has it changed and what your goal is now after learning about this reality.

Alexis Toliver: When Ezell Ford was murdered, I realized that individuals like myself are highly victimized by police brutality. I knew that we experienced societal brutality, but didn’t quite understand how that came into play with police brutality. I remember sitting in my dorm, terrified by the fact that the color or my skin in combination with autism and mental illness could easily lead to my death. Yes, I am black. Yes, I am autistic. Yes, I have dealt with depression. No, the system is not justified in murdering me because of it.

I started to read more and realized that individuals with disabilities are more than 50% of the victims of police shootings. More than 30% of the victims of police shootings are black, despite the fact that we are only around 12% of the population. Keeping in mind that these are only the reported statistics, not the true statistics, black folks with disabilities are in grave danger. There are videos of us being shot in wheel chairs. Jeremy Mcdole. There are examples of us experiencing a break down and being shot. Quintonio LaGrier. There are examples of us being beaten to death.Tanisha Anderson. However, that narrative is often generalized to being yet another black victim to police brutality. The full narrative is what hit me. It is what made me commit myself to fighting for us. Why? Because the able bodied can easily spread the message that relates to them. If the messenger is black, they will likely explain the victim as black. If the messenger is a black disabled woman, I will definitely share the narrative of my fallen brother, sister, or sibling that was not only black, but lived with a disability. My goal is to give the full narrative. My goal is to stop the state violence against people like me. The black, disabled narrative is my narrative and I am ready to tell it.

Leroy Moore: You have been an activist all of your life.  Give us some background of your activism.

Alexis Toliver: I think I should break down activism before folks think I’m high and mighty. Activism is simply an act that aims towards societal improvement. An unapologetic voice that speaks out against injustice. So I, like many people of color, have spoken out against injustice since I gained the ability to do so. That is much due to my family. My great grandma and I would watch the news together. This first exposed me the injustices of imperialism and capitalism. Rather than just internalize my learning, I would speak of them at school. In a family heavy with women and the era of Destiny’s Child, I then learned to spread the message of being an independent woman because that is what I aspired to be. (However, I understand that some of cannot be fully independent and that is perfectly fine.) Once I reached middle school, the work started in the form of community service.  This continued in high school and the work became less of what my community had to offer but more bringing attention to what my community lacked. We did food drives. We did penny drives for leukemia. For projects, I would teach about Ida B. Wells and the elicit blood diamond trade as a reaction to the lack of its teachings in the classroom. When white students spoke negatively of immigration, I spoke up on behalf of my friends. Little did I know it, my friends and I were enacting the direct actions of public meetings and distribution of protest literature on campus. Upon moving to Baltimore for college, I noticed fellow black folks living on the streets and began working in homeless outreach to provide services for my sisters, brothers, and siblings in need. Then it became a fight against police brutality and white supremacy. Now, here we are; working towards liberation as activists with disabilities.  

 Leroy Moore: You have been involved around national campaigns such as #YearWithoutTamir, Justice for Mike Brown, Chicago Solidarity, Solidarity with Mizzou, and many others.  What have you learned from being involved in these campaigns and have these campaigns talked about intersectionality like race and sex, GBLTQ, disability and so on?

Alexis Toliver:  I’ve learned so much. Before the national campaigns, the only aspects of intersectionality that I had experience working for and with were liberation for folks that were previously incarcerated, those of us with disabilities, and the LG of LBGTQIA. This was simply from family and personal exposure. It wasn’t until I was exposed to BLM, Black Twitter, and national campaigns that I learned about the experiences of black immigrants, our trans sisters, siblings, and brothers, our non binary siblings, and so much more. As a cis-gender, heterosexual Christian woman with autism, I learned so much. I considered myself open minded before; but these friendships and experiences really made me expand my thoughts and begin to process things differently.  

National campaigns also spread black love and unity. It makes you realize that you aren’t alone. Simple conversations with a student at Mizzou made me feel a bit at peace about my experience at Johns Hopkins. Talking to Tamir Rice’s family gave me hope for my 11-year little brother. Prior to meeting Tamir’s family and seeing their strength, I had a lot of fear about my little brother growing up as a black child in this country. They shared their strength. But, that is the point of national campaigns. These campaigns are built out of solidarity, communal strength, and love.

Leroy Moore:  You also work with Cop Watch and became a co-lead organizer for Black Lives Matter, Cambridge.  Tell us what you learned in these roles and what you think was missing, if anything.

Alexis Toliver:  I collaborated with Cop Watch to do a community training on cop-watching. I love community trainings.  They bring empowerment and knowledge to the area. The police and systems of power thrive on our ignorance. Community Trainings overcome that.

I became co lead organizer of Black Lives Matter, Cambridge through a transition in leadership that left one of my close friends in a position with lots of work to do in little time. We had a meeting and decided to take on what we do best. My co-organizer, Kimika Ross, is super enthusiastic and loves leading chants and speaking to people. I make the best of having Asperger’s and took over logistics and planning for the direct actions. However, we came into a chapter that wasn’t founded on a stable ground and ended up leaving. Kimika still does work in the community and I still strategize with other amazing groups.

Leroy Moore:  Besides learning about the rate of police brutality among people with disabilities, what were the other reasons have you recently stepped back from BLM?

Alexis Toliver:  Black Lives Matter is a great organization, but it wasn’t a good fit for me. I believe my voice will be better heard elsewhere. As black activists with disabilities, we have to lead our own liberation and be our own voices.

(In any way that we can, however. As activists with disabilities, we have unique abilities. So, by voice, I don't literally mean voice. Some of us may be nonverbal. I mean it in the figurative sense.)

Leroy Moore:  What needs to happen in the disability and Black community on the issue of police brutality and how do you think NBDC’s Black Disability Studies will help?

Alexis Toliver:   I think a first step is to put our narratives in the forefront. We’ve been silenced and it’s time to get loud (in whatever capacity that each body can.) Black disability studies is an amazing first step and I believe it will be highly efficient. However, as a black community, we have stigmatized disability. Most of my family still doesn’t know that I have Asperger’s Syndrome; because the terrible reaction from the few that I informed made me decide to keep it a secret. I’ve spoken to other black folks with disabilities and they share similar experiences. For those with physical disabilities, there is a tendency to treat them as other. This is unacceptable. Our conditions should not define us; especially within our Black communities. Our first step as a community should be to take away the stigma.

This work could come in the form of community workshops, informational pamphlets, and media campaigns. In order to progress as black activists with disabilities, we have to get our communities on board to uplift us. 

Leroy Moore:  What are your plans in the future on the issue of Black disabled people and police brutality?

Alexis Toliver:  First thing is building an even larger network of black activists with disabilities. Perhaps this can occur through a subgroup of National Black Disability Coalition. We need to form a national network of folks that are committed to combating police brutalization of black disabled people. We need to get our message out and make people aware of what is happening to us.

After establishing this group, we would find ways in which each person can contribute their unique abilities. Even if its nonverbal or non-physical support, it is a great contribution. This group could train in the techniques of non violent direct action and also learn of and consider other forms of action such as armed- self defense. After, we could collectively decide which means of action is best for us. Then, we would do the work. We would act strategically as organizers to make the changes that we need to survive as black folks with disabilities.

 Leroy Moore:  Any last words? 

Alexis Toliver: Thanks for taking time to listen to me yall!  

Leroy Moore is a founding member of the National Black Disability Coalition (NBDC) and Alexis Toliver is a member of the Black Disability Studies Committee of NBDC.