Sunday, September 13, 2015
The Sister who first said #BlackLivesMatter
Alicia Garza talks to USA TODAY about how she came to create the Black Lives Matter slogan a year before reaction to the Michael Brown shooting caused #blacklivesmatter to spike. Chris Wiggins for USA TODAY
Jessica Guynn, USA TODAY 4:16 p.m. EST March 4, 2015
SAN FRANCISCO — Alicia Garza was watching television news in an Oakland, Calif., bar with friends when neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African-American.
"It was as if we had all been punched in the gut," she recalled.
She pulled out her phone to check Facebook.
"What I saw was really disappointing," Garza said.
Many of the responses "were blaming black people for our own conditions," she said. "It wasn't Trayvon Martin's fault that (Zimmerman) stopped him and murdered him. ... It really has to do with a society that has a really sick disease and that disease is racism."
Martin could just as easily have been her brother, a gentle, 6-foot, 25-year-old with a big Afro "who could never hurt a fly," Garza said.
"I felt not only enraged but a deep sense of grief that I can't protect him. I can't protect him against this cancer," she said.
So she composed a love note to black people on Facebook, urging them to come together to ensure "that black lives matter."
Her friend, Patrisse Cullors, a community organizer from Los Angeles, spotted the Facebook post and put a hashtag in front of those three words. #BlackLivesMatter was born.
The hashtag spread so quickly on social media because it distilled the complexities of police brutality, racial inequality and social justice "into a simple, easy to remember slogan that fits in a Tweet or on a T-shirt," said Travis Gosa, social science professor in Africana studies at Cornell University and editor of the upcoming book Remixing Change: Hip Hop and Obama.
The hashtag leaped from social media to the streets, mobilizing a new wave of civil rights protests in the U.S. with the killings of Martin, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
In marches, sit-ins and rallies across the country, protesters have shouted the slogan, plastered it on posters and printed it on T-shirts. It was even featured on an episode of Law & Order: SVU.
James Taylor, professor of politics at University of San Francisco and author of Black Nationalism in the United States, says "Black Lives Matter" may be the most potent slogan since "Black Power," which Stokely Carmichael introduced to a crowd of civil rights demonstrators nearly 50 years ago.
Like the "Black Power" movement before it, Black Lives Matter is a broad umbrella for social justice campaigns to eradicate poverty and unemployment, overhaul the public education and health care systems, reduce the prison population and end racial profiling.
"What it has done so well is it has reasserted the importance of recognizing African-American lives as part of the common good of America," Taylor said.
MOVEMENT 'SPREAD ACROSS THE WORLD"
Garza, 34, says what began as an online plea for humanity "is now continuing as a movement that has spread across the world."
That was by design.
Garza teamed up with two friends to create the online platform Black Lives Matter.
"We are all three of us organizers," Garza said.
Garza is special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which fights for labor protections for nannies, housekeepers, caregivers and other domestic workers. Cullors is executive director of the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails. And immigrant rights activist Opal Tometi runs the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
"We understand organizing not to happen online but to be built through face-to-face connections and relationships where we build the trust necessary to move as a collective and exercise our collective power in order to win changes in our lives," Garza said.
Black Lives Matters tapped Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr to connect people fighting for social justice "so they can connect offline and actually do something in their communities," Garza said.
For example, the group organized a freedom ride for hundreds of people to Ferguson, Mo., after Brown was killed by a white police officer there.
"Opal called and said, 'What you are saying is powerful and needs a platform,'" Garza said. "She has a lot of tech skills and she said, 'Let's build this out. Let's build a platform where we can share our stories, where we can connect with one another, where we can strategize and collaborate and conspire together about how we are going to bring about freedom for all of us once and for all.' "
HARNESSING TECH TO SPREAD THE MESSAGE
Like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movement, Black Lives Matter harnessed 21st-century technology and tapped the Silicon Valley philosophy "that anything in society can be disrupted with a simple idea," Gosa said.
"Black Lives Matter quickly moved from social media to the streets due to the low barrier to entry for the movement," he said. "Anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account, a smartphone and a basic belief in social justice could and did join the movement."
And that holds strong appeal for today's youth, Gosa said.
"Unlike the Civil Rights movement's emphasis on the politics of respectability, Black Lives Matter has a populist, come-as-you are vibe that doesn't police people's sexuality, religion, age, race, dress and speech," he said.
"Black Lives Matter is unapologetically queer, black, multiracial, feminist, digital, atheist or at least non-denominational, and young," he said. "The optics of protesters dressed in everyday clothes, sagging pants and T-shirts, nurse scrubs and work boots reinforce the idea that anyone can and should be part of the people's movement."
Garza says Black Lives Matter owes a great deal to the civil rights movement of her parents' era and stands "on the shoulders of giants."
But it's also emerging from their shadows.
"We want to make sure there is the broadest participation possible in this new iteration of a black freedom movement," she said. "We can't afford to just follow one voice. We have so many different experiences that are rich and complex. We need to bring all of those experiences to the table in order to achieve the solutions we desire."