Facing Race Spotlight: Organizer Alicia Garza on Why Black Lives Matter

By Jamilah King Oct 09, 2014

Alicia Garza calls Oakland home but is one of the many black organizers who’ve flocked to Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown. For Garza, who serves as special projects director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, her presence in Ferguson gave her the opportunity to support local activists as they worked to build sustainable leadership. It was also a chance to put into action a saying that’s become somewhat of a movement slogan in recent months: "Black Lives Matter."

The phrase, which began as a hashtag and grew into a national organizing project, started on Facebook. Garza was incensed in July of 2013 when George Zimmerman was acquitted of Trayvon Martin’s murder and she started adding the hashtag #blacklivesmatter to her Facebook posts. Within days, she’d teamed up with other organizers, including Patrisse Cullors, executive director of the Coalition to End Police Violence in L.A. Jails, and Opal Tometi, who runs the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. They were determined to take their message offline and into the streets. On July 18, 2013, Cullors posted the following message describing the early stages of the project:

#blacklivesmatter is a movement attempting to visiblize what it means to be black in this country. Provide hope and inspiration for collective action to build collective power to achieve collective transformation. rooted in grief and rage but pointed towards vision and dreams. 

Since there has been more police and extrajudicial violence against black people–and more collective action to address it. By this summer, there had been enough dialogue and infrastructure-building to take the call for justice to Ferguson. In late August, hundreds of black organizers and activists from different fields traveled to the small city just outside of St. Louis as part of the Black Lives Matter Bus Tour. (Akiba Solomon, Colorlines’ editorial director, attended and wrote about it.) 

On November 15, in Dallas, you can catch Alicia Garza at Facing Race, the biennial conference held by Colorlines’ publisher, Race Forward. In this interview with Colorlines, Garza talks about why she think it’s crucial to centralize black people in her work.

Tell me about #blacklivesmatter. You’re often credited with having started the hashtag, correct?

That’s true.

What prompted you start it and how has it grown?

What prompted me to have launched that project was really…we launched it right after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin– 

–When you say "we," who are you talking about?

Myself, working with Patrisse Cullers who’s an organizer in Los Angeles and executive director of the Coalition to End Violence in L.A. County Jails. They’ve built an incredible network called Dignity and Power Now. And then the other person [who] really helped to build the project was Opal Tometi, the executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. So essentially, the hashtag was the result of both the anger and the frustration that not just black folks, but largely black people, were feeling around yet another person being acquitted of the murder of another person in our family.

#Blacklivesmatter was also inspired by the need to keep working for transformation. A lot of what we were seeing on Facebook and in our conversations was, "I knew they would never convict [Zimmerman]. He would never go to jail." For us, it wasn’t actually about using the criminal justice system to solve our issues. For us, it’s really about asking, "Do black lives matter in our society?" and what do we need to do to make that happen. We know that someone going to jail is not going to make black lives matter. What’s going to make those lives matter is working hard for an end to state violence in black communities, knowing that that’s going to benefit all communities.

Why did you decide to take it offline?

It started off as a hashtag that really picked up, and the three of us are organizers, fundamentally. We believe in the power of social media, but we also believe in connections between people that are face-to-face and in real time. It’s important to take that hashtag off of social media and into the streets and transform that into organizing. What that looks like is us being able to name the impact that state violence has on our communities and broaden the conversation from "jail or not jail" to exploring the impact of state neglect on black communities. For example, the fact that we have half-a-million black immigrants living in this country, living in the shadows, who are undocumented, is a product of state violence. The fact that black queer and trans folks, folks along the gender spectrum, are being targeted for various forms of harassment, violence, and in some cases, elimination, is state violence. 

What that’s meant in terms of taking [#blacklivesmatter] from social media and into the streets was hosting national conversations around police and vigilante violence. We held a national dialogue around Ted Wafer, who was convicted of killing Renisha McBride. And we asked our folks to engage in a dialogue about what justice looks like in that situation. Does Ted Wafer going to a jail that is probably going to transform him in ways that are not human restore our communities when someone is taken by state or vigilante violence?

How did the bus tour happen?

We built connections between different people in different places. There’s lots of black folks out there who do care and who do want to be involved. It’s necessary to build real-time and tangible bonds between us. The fruit of that was the culmination of the Black Lives Matter ride to St. Louis to support our family here in Ferguson. What we were able to do, through the leadership of Patrisse, Darnell Moore, who’s out of New York, and a whole team of other people, was organize in a [really] short time 600 black folks from all over the country who wanted to lend their skills, services and their love to black folks here in St. Louis.

We organized that in about 10 days. Patrisse took on a lot of leadership in terms of making sure that people had a way to get here and making sure that we were responding to the calls that were coming from Ferguson for medics, attorneys, healers, organizers and journalists. We were lucky enough to be able to come here once all the [national] media had left and be here with folks who were grappling with some big questions about what it means to build a sustainable organization and movement. We were able to do that with a crew of primarily black queer, trans and gender non-conforming folks, which was really, really powerful.

We’re really excited to keep building, so part of what came out of that ride was making sure that we stay connected. One of the things that we’re up to next is organizing a National Week of Resistance against state violence to coincide with the National Day Against Police Brutality on October 22.

There have been conversations that have been difficult but productive around other groups and communities adopting the language of "Black lives matter."Why is it important to centralize black people in your work? 

It is really important that if we’re going to achieve transformation in this country that we pay a lot of attention to the conditions of black people. Black folks here and across the world [are] canaries in the coal mine. Our conditions really speak to what the future can look like if we allow politics to continue as usual. It’s also important to acknowledge that when we say "Black Lives Matter," we’re not saying that all life doesn’t matter. We’re not saying that the lives of other communities of color and immigrants are unimportant. We’re not interested in a narrow nationalist politic, and we’re certainly not interested in an oppression Olympics.

We know that our struggles are intricately connected and we need each other to get free. The argument that we’re making, however, is that black lives are central to everybody’s freedom. Fighting for black liberation is also fighting for your liberation. One’s not better than the other. But black lives are critical, so we need to pay attention to that, stand in solidarity with that and not change the conversation. One of the things that can happen when we lump all people together is that we really lose the complexity of the experiences that we have in this country. If we lose that complexity, we lose out on building sharp strategies that can include everybody.


Bonus: Read Garza’s "Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement" at The Feminist Wire.