Black Lives Matter Leader Says Even Great People Can Be Part of the Problem
The following is a condensed and edited interview with Alicia Garza, co-founder, Black Lives Matter.
People often trace Black Lives Matter to three years ago. The night George Zimmerman was acquitted after killing Trayvon Martin, you went on Facebook and wrote …
A rant is what I called it, but it ended up being a love letter to black people. There was so much being said either about “we already knew that was going to happen,” or about what black folks need to do to prevent ourselves from being murdered—“just vote,” “just get a better education. …” None of that deals with how vigilantes are grown and supported by laws, or how to eradicate systemic racism.
So I wrote a love letter, ending with, “Black people, I love you. I love us. We matter. Our lives matter.” Patrisse Cullors put a hashtag in front of it. And we started talking about building and organizing to really be a magnet for people who wanted to figure out how to fight back. And our sister Opal Tometi helped us build the platforms online to connect people. All three of us were organizers. So part of what we asked our network to do was to use “Black Lives Matter” in their work if it was helpful. Folks did.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about Black Lives Matter?
That we only care about black people. We are clear that all lives matter, but we live in a world where that’s not actually happening in practice. So if we want to get to the place where all lives matter, then we have to make sure that black lives matter, too.
In conversations about racism in American culture or politics, the focus is often on racism as a personal defect or an attitude. Does that make it harder to take on systemic racism?
It’s terrible. The way that people understand racism in this country is about interpersonal dynamics, like racism is people being mean to each other. That sucks, but if that’s all it was, let’s just sing Kumbaya together.
But racism is a set of interlocking dynamics: One in three black men can expect to spend some time incarcerated; women are the fastest-growing population in prisons and jails—and 30 percent are black; black folks are on the low-earning end of the economy. Lots of people who are great people are implementing and protecting systems, practices, structures that fundamentally exclude, disenfranchise, marginalize black people.
How much concrete progress has happened over the past three years?
The combination of really sharp agitation on social media and really brilliant, creative, and impactful actions in the streets has made it so that this is at the forefront of almost every conversation. In one year, there were 40 laws passed around criminal justice reform around the country. Some were good; some of them were actually pretty crappy, but it signals that even legislators are understanding that this is the moment that they’re in.
Do you think America has been becoming any less racist over the past 10 or 20 or 30 years?
There’s a real battle. The emergence of Donald Trump, and the phenomenon around him, is really a backlash against how successful this movement has been. There’s millions of people backing a fascist ideologue.
Is there a role for Black Lives Matter to play in stopping Donald Trump?
Ultimately, Donald Trump is not talking to us. He’s trying to organize disaffected white folks who feel like immigrants are taking their jobs. He’s trying to organize the business class. So if Donald Trump is going to be stopped, it has to be by people who he wants to organize saying, “We’re not standing for that.”
Do you worry that your protests will create a backlash and more support for Trump?
No. What I worry about in doing disruptive action is that because there is a set of forces that are whipping up hysteria, what it means sometimes is that there is violence rooted in that hysteria that then gets directed at my folks.
So what is there to do about that?
Organize, and hold folks accountable. Part of what’s happening with this culture of vigilantism is that people are able to do it and get away with it. George Zimmerman has actually attempted to make some money off of his act of vigilantism.
What do you make of the FBI director’s suggestions that scrutiny of the police may be leading to more violent crime?
It’s hard to take those statements seriously, because they’re not grounded in any evidence. They are used to generate distrust and to squelch dissent.
Have you been disappointed with President Obama on racial justice?
He obviously occupies a very difficult position. He has to be a consensus builder and a coalition builder. He’s in a context where the very fact that he is a black man is to his disadvantage. You had an enormous amount of really disgusting things that were being thrown at him.
And at the same time, when he’s given the opportunity to address the problem of racial inequity and racial injustice, he often uses it as an opportunity to scold black people about what we should be doing differently.
Has Hillary Clinton done or said anything as a presidential candidate that’s surprised you?
Early on, she would say, “Yes, black lives matter,” but she wouldn’t acknowledge her role in processes that fundamentally showed black lives did not matter. She says that she is for economic justice, but she doesn’t support $15 an hour as the minimum wage.
After Bill Clinton told black protesters, “You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter,” you wrote, “My back is tired of being the path to the White House.”
I was angry about that for about a month—seriously, like every single day. It’s reprehensible for him to defend the impacts his policies have had on our communities. The Clintons use black people for votes, but then don’t do anything for black communities after they’re elected. They use us for photo ops.
So where does that leave you on a Clinton-Trump election?
I am going to do everything in my power to make sure that we are not led by Donald Trump. That being said, there’s lots to be engaged in at the state level, the local level. We’re going to continue to push. We’re not indebted to or endeared to the Democratic Party.
How does technology help or hinder the organizing?
It connects us across boundaries. Technology is a tool to bring people into closer relationship, but the work offline is critical to making sure that lasts. The open source nature of the internet is both a blessing and a curse, because just as much as we can watch what’s happening around the world, we can also be watched.
What’s the worst advice anyone has given you?
“Tone it down.”
What have you taken, tactically or strategically, from the successes and the failures of the ’60s civil rights movement?
One thing is that you cannot underestimate the power of direct action and disruption. The other is that you have to be willing to use many different tools: electoral organizing, community organizing. We need to make sure we’re creating spaces to create new leaders and new types of leadership. And we cannot be afraid to imagine what it means to have power. You don’t want to just be throwing rocks at the castle. We look at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and their strategy for the Democratic convention, where they built a new political party and tried to be seated there. We have to use all the tools available.