After the acquittal of the murder trial of Trayvon Martin, Alicia Garza wrote a love letter to black people, ending it with Black Lives Matter. From that moment, what took off as this generation’s global social movement to what we know as #BlackLivesMatter, is more than a hashtag today. With over 40 chapters across North America and the UK, Garza shares in an exclusive interview with AshFiMon the importance of a network, those comparing BLM to the KKK and what you can do right now to get involved.
BLM started when you coined a love letter to black people during the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder trial of Trayvon Martin. Can you take me back to how it all started?
I can. First, it’s important to correct the record. So, lots of people would say you guys started a movement and I think that’s not as accurate as I would hope for. What we did was start a network that’s comprised of 40 chapters across North America and the UK. We did help to inspire people to fight back against anti-black racism and state-sanctioned violence. But, this movement is old. I think it’s important to note in every movement there is high points and points where it may seem like it’s dormant but it doesn’t mean that it’s not there. I say that because I think it’s important that everybody who is contributing to this particular moment is seen as a contributor. We get a lot of credit for starting a movement, which is great—totally an honor—but it erases some of the contributions of folks in Ferguson, for example; who catalyzed a lot of activity and action because of the courage and risks that they were willing to take. It takes out a lot of folks who we’ve worked very closely with to make this into our generation’s time to shine.
BLM did start after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder trial of Trayvon Martin. This movement is much longer than that but was cauterized by Trayvon Martin. Some people became active around Jordan Davis or Mike Brown. There was a point in 2013 where there were several high-profile murders of Black people by the police and that was the catalyst for this moment for the organization that we started.
I love to hear people’s stories, because we all have them. I love to see the lanes people have made for themselves. I love to hear the backstories. Many people always see the great accomplishments but never get to hear about how and why things start and how people have grown their projects and made a name for themselves within their respective diasporas. That’s why I love interviewing. With that, what once started as a hashtag, how did you grow the BLM organization to what it is today?
We didn’t try to set out to use a hashtag. The hashtag was a way for other people to be a part of the conversation. We thought that was important because we’ve seen a lot of people talk about Trayvon’s case online and wanted to figure out how they could connect with other people who cared about this issue. Almost immediately when we realized the love letter was resonating with more people than us, we just used the power of our network. Patrice, Opal and I are all connected through organizing networks from people who are organizing amongst various issues that impact our lives trying to bring people together to effect change.
We used the power of our relationships to get the word out. One of the things we’ve felt was important from the beginning, was that people have a space to do more than just like an article online or talk about how sad they were. That’s important but also, we actually need people doing real things in real communities. For a lot of folks, they were looking to be in a community, where that started was online but, what we were trying to do was make sure people weren’t just connected online but are connected to people they may not know in their communities to be able to effect change in real time.
There are many people who support the BLM movement as well as many who hates it. What are your thoughts on those saying the organization is racists and comparing it to KKK?
To say it plainly, it’s dumb. There’s lots of criticism to be had about BLM, let’s be clear. We’re not perfect. We’re experimenting. We’re trying new things. We don’t have all the answers. We know that. In some ways, we aren’t trying to have all the answers, we’re learning alongside everybody else. At the same time, one thing that becomes very clear from our presence is how little people understand about racism. Most of the time people think that racism is talking about race in public and that’s not what it is at all. Racism is a system of power and privilege. What we know to be real is that Black people have neither power nor privilege [laughs]. It’s basic. Black people aren’t creating laws that disenfranchise White people from making decisions over their own lives. From being able to access resources they need to survive, to be able to access education and real information about what’s happening in our communities. Black people do not have the social or political power to do so, but white folks do.
It doesn’t mean white folks are inherently terrible people, it means that white folks are complicit in a system of racism that privileges them at the expense of black people. So, no you cannot compare the BLM organization/movement to the KKK, which is a racial terror organization. They literally pick people out of any race that isn’t white, and not only act out violence against them but, exist to terrorize and inject fear into those communities, who deeply believe anyone who is not white is inferior to them. So, in fact, the KKK is a perfect example of how racism operates in our country, but we shouldn’t be mistaken that everybody who is racist is a bad person. Racism is as natural in our society as eating. That’s how deeply entrenched it is.
It’s not helpful in a lot of ways to think about racists who are mean to other people. There are a lot of things that happen that are racist by people who are good people. All of us coming up in this world, especially in the United States, were taught a certain way of how to understand what’s going on around us. A part of how we were taught to understand what’s happening around us is that people of color are folks to be feared, that women are inferior to men and all these different ways in which people get categorized, in that some people end up on top and others end up at the bottom.
What I would say to people who spread this myth that BLM is racist is to start to understand what race is. There are lots of research and scholarship out there on this subject. You could read “The possessive investment in whiteness” by George Lipsitz who’s done a lot of work around racial stratification and hierarchies. Another person, Peggy McIntosh wrote a book called “unpacking the invisible knapsack”. That too is about the very subtle ways in which race shapes everybody’s daily life. There’s a lot of research out there for people who want to learn. Most of the time when I hear things like that, it comes from people who, I think, are willfully trying to change the conversation. That doesn’t help any of us and in fact, it prevents us from getting closer to where we want to be.
I’ve read online that people feel BLM is just about police brutality against Blacks and wonder where are they and what are they saying when it’s Black on Black crime. In that case, what do we do about our own?
I think there are a few things. First, to understand that both things can exist at the same time. I don’t feel like the way we look at the harm that happens in our community is in any way distracting from harm that is being instructed in our community. To be honest with you, my perspective is that harm that has been inflicted in our communities is a result of the harm that has been inflicted on our communities. When people say things that ‘you only care what happens when police kill black people but you don’t care about when black people kill black people;’ I find that to be so not true. People who say that are generally folks who aren’t involved in solutions to deal with those challenges in our community.
Change is not a spectator sport, you don’t get to sit separately from the changes we’re trying to make in our communities and tell other people what they need to be doing to enact change if we aren’t going to do it ourselves. The reality is there is a ton of work to be done on all levels. We all don’t need to be working on the same thing all the time, we need a lot of people to be working on all the things that are happening in our communities. It’s ok for us to have lanes and roles. Personally, if we can address the fact that our communities don’t have the things that we need to survive, then we can address what happens when people don’t have things that they need. They put their aggression towards each other and that is something very much by design. It’s a normal thing that happens. There are tons of studies on this where you have dynamics in close communities and if you deprive people of what they need, they will turn on each other.
Some people protest because they want to be heard. Presently, do you think protests are still effective in this digital age?
Of course, I do. A lot of the ways in how we feel like change happens is really distorted. An effective protest is never separate from organized work that is happening in these communities to build the power to disenfranchise people. A protest is a tactic that should be used in combination with other tactics. Protests in and of itself, by itself, doesn’t affect the changes that you want to see. It should be in relationship to other work that is happening in the community. Protests is a pressure tactic. It’s intended to turn up the heat on people who can make decisions over your life. Protests largely are intended to try to stop bad things from happening immediately and intended to raise the visibility of what’s happening to our people. That can’t happen in a vacuum. Often, the ways people understand protests is really divorced from what I would say is a larger strategy for change. All protests are effective when it’s used strategically in conjunction with other tools that work to build power for impacted communities.
People are outraged, angry and a host of other emotions. How and what can people do to keep that same energy that they use online, offline?
The best thing to do is to make sure that you get involved in an organization in your community that is involved in ongoing work to change conditions that are happening. It is easy to get fatigued because there’s so much to do because every day it feels like something else is happening. Just this morning when I woke up I read a story about a 15-year-old boy in Dallas County, Texas who was murdered by the police there. They were saying that this 15-year-old kid who was on the honor roll was not involved in the situation they were pursuing. But if I was to make a prediction, it would be they will try to create a story about how this child was aggressive towards them and they feared for their life. It’s like an old combination that we keep seeing over and over. The only way to intervene in it is to intervene.
The big thing to me is to get involved in an organization, to resist the pull to be numb; it’s okay to feel overwhelmed, it’s okay to feel angry and anytime we try to shut that down it makes us more apathetic. Lastly, find your lane. Not everybody is an organizer, not everybody thinks protests are the thing for them but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a contribution or make a difference. If your thing is blogging, podcasting, working with kids or elderly, whatever it is, do it and do it with your full focus.
What do you say to those who are trying to evoke change by becoming their own boss, buying black, or actively engaged in their respective communities, etc.—who feel this isn’t enough and they’re not getting anywhere?
It’s an interesting question because I think a lot of the things that you named aren’t sufficient for change. Starting your own business and buying things from other black people doesn’t change the conditions in which we live. Part of why I think it’s important for people to take collective action together is so we can move away from this idea that as long as I’m doing something then, somehow, it’s going to change things. That’s not how change happens. Change happens when people come together collectively, to adjust the conditions that they’re facing and come up with strategies as groups of people to implement in their local area.
What I would say to people who feel like what they’re doing is not enough, is to join up with other people that are doing the same thing so they would have more of an impact.
Elections are over, but some commonalities whenever voting comes around…you hear people saying they aren’t voting. Their vote doesn’t count. It’s all rigged anyway. The system already knows who is going to win, etc. How important do you think it is to vote, locally and/or nationally?
It’s important and your vote does matter especially at the local level. It’s important for you to be active in that way because when we vote we’re not just choosing the president, we’re choosing district attorneys who make decisions about if black people are disproportionately put into prisons and jails. We’re voting for city council people who are making decisions about how resources are distributed in our communities. They definitely do matter. The fewer people participate, the more space we leave open for our communities to be attacked. This recent election was a good example of the consequences of what happens when people do not get involved.
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