“A love note to our people.” That’s how Black Lives Matter started, explains Alicia Garza, cofounder of #BlackLivesMatter and special project director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, in this interview with GRITtv.
The hashtag that’s become a movement began as a call to action for Black people after the killing of Trayvon Martin. It exploded on social media after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Now, Garza’s watching people adapt the #BlackLivesMatter slogan into some version of “AllLivesMatter” or even “AnimalLivesMatter.”
“We were able to build connections online so that people can take action together offline.”
Explaining why that’s a problem, she says, is just one of the challenges the #BlackLivesMatter movement faces at this point.
Women are at the heart of the movement, specifically young Black women, many of them calling themselves queer. Garza talks here about what that word means to her.
It’s about “creating a movement that feel like home … creating community,” says Garza.
And, heads-up to all who want to shrink the movement’s goals: #BlackLivesMatter is seeking a whole lot more than a few police prosecutions.
Laura Flanders: Where to begin? Let’s begin where it began. You and Patrisse Marie Cullors and Opal Tometi cofounded #BlackLivesMatter. Who the heck are you, and how did you come up with [#BlackLivesMatter]?
Alicia Garza: #BlackLivesMatter really started as a love note to our people in the aftermath of the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin. I know I personally felt like I got punched in the gut. I have a 25-year-old brother who’s six feet tall and has a huge afro and [is] just the sweetest person you could ever meet. He’s growing up in a predominately White suburban community, and so was Trayvon, right? He was stalked and killed by an aspiring security guard who felt that Trayvon didn’t belong there. #BlackLivesMatter was really a response to some of the responses we were seeing, even in response to the acquittal. We were hearing things like, on the sentence side, we knew justice was never going to be served for Black people. Living Black in America we do know that it’s rare that justice is served for Black communities, but that didn’t feel like the right response.
The other thing we were hearing was, “This is a terrible tragedy, and so what we need to do is X, Y and Z.” X, Y and Z being pull up your pants. X, Y and Z being we need to vote; we need better education; we need stronger families. All of those things really blame Black communities for our own conditions. #BlackLivesMatter was an attempt for us to re-humanize us in a world that so profoundly dehumanizes us, and it was a call to action. We were able to both – because we’re all organizers and because people like Opal have incredible skills in building online platforms – we were able to use that to build connections online so that people can take action together offline.
For a lot of people, your movement and your frame of #BlackLivesMatter really hit their consciousness this summer after the police killings in Missouri. Talk a little bit about how this has grown, how your day-to-day managing and organizing is changing, and some of the things that you think you’re up against.
I think what’s important to know about #BlackLivesMatter and how it really took off is that when Mike Brown was killed in August of 2014, Patrice and Darnell Moore, who is a scholar, activist here in New York, called for a #BlackLivesMatter freedom ride. That drew more than 500 Black people from across the country who in 10 days raised the money, got on buses, vans, planes, however folks could get there, to really support the work that was happening in Ferguson, and also to bear witness to the incredible Jim Crow situation that still exists today.
“Changing Black Lives Matter to All Lives Matter is a demonstration of how we don’t actually understand structural racism in this country.”
From that ride, people got excited about and really felt passionately about bringing what they had seen and what they had learned back to their communities. What we saw were people who were inspired by the actions that people were taking on the front lines in Ferguson. The non-compromising way that folks said, “We will not compromise for our freedom. We are going to be free no matter what.” The ways in which folks there were really challenging respectability politics. Also, the ways that people were building relationships together, knowing that maybe folks hadn’t been connected before, but certainly that they knew that they were going to be connected forever because of what had happened.
One of the ways that we’ve seen it grow is that it’s moved, not just nationally, but internationally. We saw Afro-Colombian domestic workers sending pictures and photos saying #BlackLivesMatter. We saw folks from South Africa, folks from Ireland, folks from all over the world sending messages, not just of solidarity, but lifting up the conditions that Black people are facing in their countries. The growth of the project has really been a message of self-determination, of liberation and a call to re-humanize us around the world, which has been incredibly inspiring. I don’t even know what to say about that.
It also gets to that point that I alluded to in the introduction, which is in their efforts to show their solidarity and their connection with you, to put the most positive spin on most of it, we’ve also seen this kind of [generalizing] of the slogan to All Lives Matter, or, I don’t know, My Life Matters. You’ve written very powerfully about how shedding differences is not helpful.
Can you talk about that?
Absolutely. First, I’ll say that changing Black Lives Matter to All Lives Matter is not an act of solidarity. What it is is a demonstration of how we don’t actually understand structural racism in this country. When we say All Lives Matter, that’s a given. Of course, we’re all human beings – we all bleed red – but the fact of the matter is some human lives are valued more than others, and that’s a problem. The other thing that we’ve seen is replacing Black with other things. I saw Animal Lives Matter one time and I just threw up a little bit in my mouth, actually. In this country, we commodify things, and we commodify movements. We see people like Ford doing commercials that say the American Revolution, right?
What I think is important here is that we’ve been pushing people to really talk about what does structural racism look like in this country. It’s not about people being mean to each other.
That’s just the smallest bit. It’s about interpersonal dynamics that are backed by systemic power. When we look at that, we see that Black people are on the losing end of every disparity that you can possibly think of. Not only is it not appropriate to not be paying attention to Black lives in this country, but it’s certainly not appropriate to just erase Black from the conversation.
Not only are Black lives on the receiving end, as you put it, but Black lives and stolen labor was at the heart of the way we created our society.
That’s an important piece of it, too. You said, “When Black people are free, everybody’s free.” For people that scratch their heads at that, can you explain?
Sure. The way that race works in this country is really on a Black to White spectrum. The closer you are to Black, the worse off you are. When we talk about Black liberation being intrinsic to everybody’s liberation, we’re really talking how systems in this country have been not only built off the backs of Black people and exploited labor, but certainly have been crafted to exclude and exploit Black people. If we’re able to dismantle those systems, everybody has a better chance of living a better life. For example, we have domestic workers in this country who still are not covered under federal labor protections because of a compromise between Southern lawmakers and White-controlled and dominated labor unions. If we were able to, and that’s a structural issue …
Right. Dating back to the ’30s, never been changed.
Absolutely, never been changed, even today. If domestic workers and farm workers had federal labor protections that means that all workers in this country benefit because what it means is that there’s not a separate and unequal system that you can be kicked in between. If there’s a group of workers that don’t have rights, [then] that means that your rights are being threatened because there’s going to be an excuse at some point to take your rights away from you. We’re seeing that now with the state of labor unions and the fight that people are waging even to form labor unions.
Nobody knows that more than domestic workers. How does your work with the domestic workers relate to #BlackLivesMatter? You’ve touched on it right there, but in terms of structure, are you straddling, or is it all one, or how do these two movements connect?
Everybody asks me that question.
Yeah, they do. Is it Tuesdays and Wednesdays, or Thursdays and Fridays?
It’s really all the same work.
Domestic workers, in particular the work I do with Black domestic workers, are mothers who are trying to protect their families from state violence. The way that we talk about state violence with #BlackLivesMatter is that state violence equals structural racism. Not only have domestic workers, who are largely Black, been excluded from federal labor protections and now are largely immigrant, but they are mothers who are living in communities that are being terrorized by unaccountable police departments. They are mothers who are living in communities where the schools are failing, where there’s a lack of investment, where wages are falling, where there’s high unemployment.
These are also folks who are caring for other people’s families, and not having the space or the time or the resources to care for their own. That has impacts on whether or not their family’s able to survive. It really is a one-in-the-same. The other thing I think is important about the connection between the two is that it is all about empowering women, women of color, immigrant women [and] low-income women. It’s about bringing the margins back to the center to really shape our vision for a new economy, a new democracy and a new society.
I’m with you right there. Women at the center. Young, African-American, many of them queer women, are at the center of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, not that you would know that from the media coverage. Why? Why is it so hard for journalists to tell a story with leaders like yourself getting the recognition they deserve? Maybe I shouldn’t ask you that question, but ask someone else.
Some of it is habit and practice. Some of it’s intentional, at times. I do think that part of it is that the way that we understand how movements happen in this country is behind one charismatic leader.
It’s really hard for people to wrap their heads around a movement that is full of leaders. That’s how our homes work; that’s how our communities work; that’s how our workplaces work, whether or not we want to talk about it. We’re just trying to reflect our own realities. We’re trying to create more pathways for more people to participate and engage. If we want a full democracy in this country, we can’t just have people following one person. Everyone has to feel like they have a stake in shaping the kind of world that we live in. Otherwise, we get into a situation like the one that we’re living in now, where nobody’s happy with the leadership that we’re getting. Honestly, people don’t know what are the pathways to participate, besides casting your vote, which in and of itself is a very flawed system, as we know.
What does the word “queer” mean to you?
Queer to me is an umbrella term that incorporates folks who are outside of the heterosexual norm, and what we call heteronormativity, which is a big word for relationships; marriage is just between a man and a woman. It’s the patriarchal family, as we understand it. What’s important to us in #BlackLivesMatter is that we are elevating and cultivating the leadership of folks who have not been included in the conversation. That includes Black trans women. That includes Black immigrant women, Black disabled folks, Black incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. To us, we’re really trying to queer our movement.
We know even in our tradition and our legacy of Black liberation that queer and trans folks have been in the leadership, however, have had to cut pieces of themselves off because it wasn’t acceptable – Bayard Rustin being an incredible example of that; Audre Lorde being an incredible example of that. We want to create a different kind of movement culture. We think it’s important; we think we need it and we don’t think we can survive without it.
I hear that and I think, “Fantastic. The more, the better. The more space for us to be human, the better.”
Other people hear it and they say, “Ooh, that sounds scary,” right? We’ve seen that reaction in social media. How do we get beyond that? How do you work with people to get beyond their fears and instead embrace what our world might be like if everybody got to be their whole selves?
Honestly, the first thing that we do is we start with the people who are already ready and have been waiting for a long time for a movement like this to emerge. Then what we do is we create spaces that feel like home. We create community through our movement work. Then, ultimately, it’s not something that you can even deny. It’s something that feels so good you want to be a part of it because when you look around you it’s so reflective of what our communities look like. We can’t avoid that. We encourage people to lean in, lean into what’s uncomfortable about this for you, but also do the work. What is making you so uncomfortable about standing side-by-side with somebody who’s queer or trans? You’re doing it every day in your life. Do you run away from the people in your workplace or in your community who are different than you? I think one of the things that’s important to talk about is this notion of solidarity.
Often times the way that I’ve heard about it, at least, is about trying to homogenize people. “We’re all the same. We’ve got the same fight.” The reality is we’re not, and that’s what makes us so beautiful is that we’re complex beings. If we can celebrate those differences and learn from them, we can actually build better strategy together.
We’ve had a conversation here where we haven’t mentioned police prosecutions even once. It would be great to get some prosecutions when police commit crimes that other people would be prosecuted for.
It’s not all that your movement’s about, and I guess that’s why I’m bringing it up at the end of our conversation. The demands, in so far as there are demands of #BlackLivesMatter, how would you characterize them?
I’m so glad you asked that question. People are always like, “What are the demands?” Let me tell you, they’re nothing different than what Black people have been fighting for the last 500 years. We want housing that’s quality and affordable. We want free education. We want communities where people can live in dignity. We want to be able to live with our families without fear of being murdered by the people who are supposed to be protecting us. We want full and fair employment for everyone. We want all the things that we have been fighting for since our people were brought here as slaves from Africa. This is not a new set of demands, but it’s certainly a new political moment where we have the opportunity to join movements together across these issue silos, which are not ways that people live their lives, and really try to advance a new program for liberation in this country. We’re just getting started.
Your relationship to party politics, electoral politics, Hillary Clinton?
I think what’s important is to hear from them what is their relationship to social movements that are happening in this country. Again, I’m curious and I keep waiting to hear from folks, beyond the slogan that they believe that Black lives matter. What are you actually going to do to ensure that Black lives matter? That’s the real conversation we want to have.
My mother. My mother is my entire inspiration. She’s just an amazing woman who fought like hell to make sure that I had everything that I needed, and that I always believed that anything was possible. She’s a woman who has encouraged me to take risks and to be my weird self, and because of that I’m so, so grateful. I’m just inspired by her tenacity and her determination, and I’m inspired by the way that she supports me no matter what, and I love her to death.
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