By Liz Adetiba and Jordie Davies
The Oakland-based organizer and activist Alicia Garza, who is also the originator of the Black Lives Matter rallying cry and one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter Network, thinks Black people have a lot to talk about outside of police violence. In this interview, we discussed with Garza what she believed is missing from the movement, how it is portrayed in the media, and the various points of entry for activism–from politics to protest.
BYP: What is the role of Black feminism in the Black Lives Matter movement? The Black Lives Matter Website highlights the role of Black women, including yourself, in creating BLM, and so I would like to know how this informs BLM as a network?
Garza: To me, the role of black feminism in the BLM Network…it’s one of our central principles. I wrote a piece in the feminist wire 2014, that was called “A Herstory of Black Lives Matter.” The original title was “Erasing the Black from Black Lives Matter.” What we were finding is that when Black Lives Matter was catching some kind of currency, people were substituting “Black” for all kinds of stuff. What does it mean when you take “Black” out, and insert something else? Is that a replication of colonialism? I think the thing that was really poignant to us was that this was our baby.
Garza: It was fascinating to see how men, in particular, would shift the conversation. I think it was an opportunity for us, to clarify what the politics were behind that statement. What we talked about and rooted it in was that, as Black women in this movement, our experiences have been varied. While we’re fighting for liberation, the role of Black women, cis and trans, certainly was not valued. Patrisse [Cullors] and I have lots of stories about being in meetings, in a room full of men, even if there is other women in the room, the voices of women were not centralized, they weren’t even considered.
Garza: This is historical. All of the great movements that we lift up, we lift up men. Even when people in the mainstream media talk about Black Lives Matter, they talk about it as trying to solve problem of the police killings of Black men, and we never said that. So for me, I think the role of Black feminism in this network, and in Black Lives Matter as we conceptualized it, was about what I would call holistic liberation. We’re not here just fighting for Black men. We acknowledge for us to get free as Black people, we can’t leave anybody behind and that has to be the innovation in terms of this generation’s movement. We have to learn from movements prior to us that, quite frankly, could not be sustained because of the question of the disenfranchisement of women, because of the question of patriarchy. So the role here is very much about complicating about how we understand liberation.
BYP: How do you feel when the movement is painted as primarily organizing around black males?
Garza: That’s bullshit! So, part of what I feel like we need to get better at is getting very precise about the ways state sanctioned violence impacts black communities. Black men, cis and trans, and black women, cis and trans, can have different experiences tied to the same thing under the same system. So Black men are disproportionately killed by police. That’s true. But Black men are not the only ones who experience state violence, it just means that that’s the specific manifestation about how state violence impacts Black men.
Garza: Black women are less likely to be killed by police, but more likely to be sexually assaulted or experience sexual violence at the hands of police, as we saw in the case of Daniel Holtzclaw. And Black women are differently criminalized than Black men. For Black women, who are one of the fastest growing populations in prisons and jails, there’s specific angles: one angle is that Black women are disproportionately survivors of intimate partner violence and domestic violence. Black women are more likely to heads of households because of the way the criminal justice system disappears people from our families and communities. When we look at the criminalization [of Black women], it’s also often around economics.
Garza: I think part of what we have to look at here, is that it is not a competition between Black women and Black men; it’s actually about how do we take care of each other? How do we lift each other up and fight on each other’s behaves as if it was our own lives?
BYP: What do you think is missing from the current national and international conversation surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement?
Garza: I think the thing that I’m sitting with a lot lately is that is is not just about police violence. It is about reshaping the economy, very much about reshaping our school system, our places of worship, a complete transformation about the way we do things. So I think that’s the missing piece.
Garza: And I think inside of our movement there are still a lot of growing edges. There’s a growing edge around disabilities. I don’t think we are as skilled at making sure that our family with various types of disabilities are central to the movement. The other piece that’s missing is a really fundamental understanding about what we’re up against. When I sit with elders, one thing they say is that they really underestimated the power of the state, and we didn’t actually understand the state as well as we thought we did. I think that is something that is still true for us, and it is something that will make or break this movement.
Garza: I think our practice with how we deal with conflict could be much better. I think our focus on care and caring for each other has to go beyond the way we talk about it–it’s very individual. It’s always like “take a day off.” It always involves capitalism. Those individual responses don’t do anything to interrupt the logic of capitalism. It’s very much like survival of the fittest. What we need to do to interrupt the logic of capitalism is invest in collective care, as much as self care. And do a little bit of a deeper dive around healing trauma. There’s lots of conversations about, you know, people being triggered, and everything is violent and I think that that’s dangerous. I think that that’s dangerous because we’re not as depthful as we could be around what it takes to address harm, and what we do to address trauma, and how we do that in a way where we don’t throw each other away but we build each other up.
BYP: Do you think the Movement has been reduced to rallying around police brutality, instead of the many other ways Black lives in this country are systematically oppressed? If so, why do you think that is?
Garza: I think it has a lot to do with the way that some mainstream media outlets report on what this movement is. What happens a lot is that Black men only get associated with criminal justice, or criminalization. For example, in the presidential debates, they think they’re talking about race when they talk about criminal justice, but yo, there’s so many things to be talking about as it relates to Black folks. You could be talking about access to healthcare, you could be talking about health disparities, like what’s happening in Flint, Michigan with fucking water poisoning. You could be talking about the deficits in our education system, where Black students by and large are not being educated but they’re being put in jails and prisons and detention facilities. We could go on and on.
Garza: I think that responsibility really rests in the way some actors in the mainstream media really limit the frame about what Black people care about is police and the “justice” system. Some of it is nefarious and some of it is just the way that our news works. But most people can walk and chew gum at the same time. Most people understand that the things that they’re concerned about aren’t able to be limited to one issue. Movements get boiled down to soundbites, and that impacts how people get involved, how they see the movement, and whether or not they see themselves within it.
BYP: What was your attraction to Bernie Sanders in the primary? According to results from the GenForward Survey, majorities of young Americans across races (18-35) supported Sanders in the primaries and wanted him to be the democratic nominee for president. What do you think this says about the future of American politics?
Garza: I think that there isn’t cohesion yet around moving an electoral strategy that creates space for Black people to build political power, and I think, in as much as we do have those conversations, it really does center around people’s disgust and dissatisfaction with the various systems that keep our people disenfranchised. And I get that. At the same time, I think it’s really important to make sure that we are organizing on multiple fronts. We shouldn’t leave any front untouched, in my opinion.
Garza: For me, I think that people confuse voting in the elections with supporting the system. And from an organizing standpoint, we need to deal with what we want, but we also need to deal with what is. Both of those things need to happen at the same time. And I think we mostly deal with what we want, rather than dealing with what is. The reality is that I don’t love elections at all. I don’t buy into the narratives that our ancestors died so we can vote. That’s not true. Our ancestors put their lives on the line to make sure that we could determine our own destiny, and voting was one way that happened—but not the only way.
Garza: It’s interesting because there were lots of critiques out there about people supporting candidates from the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, and I understand that. I have been part of that club at many times in my life, but as for where I’m at right now, we need to pick the terrain that we fight on. I believe that we should think about how to build alternatives, thinking and practicing about how to democratize this bourgeois democracy. And I think what it would require for this to be viable is masses of people getting organized to build another party, and then that party actually doing the groundwork to build a base…and that’s not really what’s happening.
Garza: This election season is rough, because both candidates are actually really concerning, but they’re not the same. They are absolutely not the same. I don’t support candidates on the presidential level, but I’m supporting a terrain that I want to fight on. So if Hillary Clinton gets elected, then I know what that terrain is and I’m going to fight like hell to make sure that she is accountable for all of the atrocities that she’s been involved in. And if Donald Trump is president, that’s another kind of terrain. I’ve heard people say, ‘we already know that terrain, we’ve suffered so bad in our communities’….I get that. And it’s not to say that it’s going to be worse, it’s to say that it’s going to be different, and a less favorable terrain to fight and win on.
BYP: Blue Lives Matter has recently become a new rallying cry in response to BLM. With the recent deaths of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, some states have even written legislation in response to make attacking police officers a hate crime. What are your thoughts about this type of legislation?
Garza: Here’s what I think about that. One, it’s completely ridiculous, let’s keep it 100. I’m not going to say I don’t understand where it’s coming from–I do. And that makes it even sillier. At the end of the day, police are completely protected and sanctioned to commit all types of acts of violence, and they’re not held accountable in any way, shape or form. I don’t think we need more laws to protect the police. What I do think is that it demonstrates the irony of policing in and of itself. Every time there is this move to come and say that Blue Lives Matter or create these dynamics where police somehow get lifted up and venerated, it’s a direct statement from the system of policing that they do not value Black lives. So in essence, it feels like they’re just telling on themselves. Every time I see shit like that, I think ‘wow, you’re just showing your ass.’
Garza: From a strategy perspective, if I were them, I would be talking about how much we do care about Black lives. I would be talking about how Black people are also police officers. That’s what I would be doing…but they’re not doing that. So number one, their strategist needs to be fired, and number two, it just becomes clearer and clearer to the general public that the system of policing refuses to acknowledge what they do, and refuses to take responsibility for what they do. And I think that is one core reason as to why we’re seeing so much support for this movement because of the way police are engaging and interacting in the conversation, and because of the way they continue to act with impunity. I mean how many more videos can we see of people with disabilities getting shot and killed? I just read an article today about a white man in Arizona who begged for his life before he was shot and killed by a police officer. He was doing absolutely nothing. So I think that those kind of measures are reactions to the power that the movement is building, and the power that this movement is demonstrating. And so the stronger we get, the harder they tried to come back. So I think we should also look at it as a litmus test for how successful we actually have been.
BYP: What do you say to critics within the Black community and within organizing circles who don’t believe the movement is pushing far enough?
Garza: A lot this, I think, rests with an ahistorical narrative of the last period of civil rights. I think the way in which we are talked to about the accomplishments of what is known as the civil rights movement is talked about as if it happened overnight. ‘People marched, people boycotted and then we got free,’ right? It’s really disastrous. Most people, when they think of the Civil Rights Movement, think of it as the period between 1954 and 1968. But the reality is that it ebbed and flowed for 40 years. And we are in our third year, so just compare those things. Yes, it is true that a cohesive movement needs to develop a strategy to build power and contend for power, and three years does not make that strategy, nor does three years make for enough time to build the power that we need to actually change some shit. So my response to that is this: this is a marathon and not a sprint. So that’s one piece.
Garza: The other piece that I do think is… in my opinion, I think that what people want to see is Black people not being murdered without consequences. The prevalence of social media that brings everything to your phone and your computer within seconds does create a level of anxiety about how quickly things are changing. So my response to those people would be ‘yes, and…’ Yes, and in three short years, this movement, this explosion in Black organizing and Black activism and Black resistance has transformed the landscape of this country, and that is something we should celebrate.
Garza: And the other piece that I would respond with is to say that if you want to see things change, you have to be a part of that change. We don’t need anymore arm chair quarterbacks. What we need is all of those people who are reading on their phones and computers and waxing poetic about what people need to be doing, to actually be doing it. With that being said, I’ve seen lots of instances where individuals will kind of run with something that requires a mass base. And that’s not what I’m talking about. It doesn’t mean that you sit in your kitchen and dream up a new policy and try to go at it on your own. It means that you have to do the hard work that many of these organizations are trying to do, which is organizing and bringing people together at scale, more than your five friends, to craft solutions to the problems that we face, and then to build strategies for how to get to those solutions.
Garza: That is what Charles Payne calls ‘slow and steady work.’ The similarities between the last period of civil rights and today, is that that work is still necessary. Twitter is not going to change the world. It has revolutionized how we communicate and how we give and share information, but that’s just one piece. The other piece is actual, legit organizing. We’ve got a lot of work to do to figure out how we use these incredible communications tools to mobilize people in a real way. You know, we can get thousands of people to comment on Mary J. Blige and her video, but we still are not able to translate that into political power.
Photo: Kristin Little Photography