When protests erupted across the United States late last year, after grand juries failed to indict the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner, a friend who works for a prominent media outlet wrote to me wondering “if it’s all just the internet organizing itself.” The nationwide marches and freeway blockades seemed spontaneous, after all, with the Twitter hashtag #BlackLivesMatter being widely used to publicize gathering spots and share images of the demonstrations.
In fact, #BlackLivesMatter was always more than a hashtag—and the police accountability protests that grabbed the world’s attention grew out of a nationwide network created through more than a year of steady, strategic organizing.
Alicia Garza was one of the key catalysts of this work. A longtime organizer herself, she coined the hashtag in collaboration with two other activists, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin in 2013. It was intended, Garza has written, as “an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.” But as she recounts in the interview below, Garza and her colleagues never saw #BlackLivesMatter as simply a social media meme.
They quickly built an infrastructure around the hashtag to support and encourage a broader and deeper conversation about what justice for black people might look like in an era of mass incarceration and relentless police violence—and how they might organize to achieve it. Much of this behind-the-scenes capacity-building work had already happened before Mike Brown was murdered and protests began in Ferguson; indeed, as Garza explains below, some two hundred activists around the country participated in a #BlackLivesMatter conference call just a day before he was killed.
The three collaborators brought a profoundly intersectional politics to the project from the start, shaped by their life experiences—Garza and Cullors identify as queer black women, and Tometi is the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. #BlackLivesMatter has focused attention on cases that highlight violence against black women (Renisha McBride: a 19-year-old shot and killed by a white man when she knocked on his door asking for help), the steep penalty they pay for fighting back (Marissa Alexander: initially given a 20-year prison sentence for firing a warning shot at her estranged husband after he threatened to kill her), and the added peril that black transgender people face in their daily lives (CeCe McDonald: a black trans woman who was prosecuted and jailed for stabbing and killing a white man who attacked her).
An important dimension of #BlackLivesMatter has been a conscious and deliberate reclaiming of the direct action tradition pioneered by the black civil rights movement of the 1960s. Garza is currently facing prosecution for her participation in an especially bold action organized in conjunction with Oakland’s Blackout Collective: the shutdown of a BART train on Black Friday. As you read her description of this powerful protest, be aware that Oakland’s district attorney is moving forward with criminal charges against the participants and the transit authority is seeking as much as $70,000 in fines; you can add your voice to those calling for all charges and fines to be dropped by signing this petition.
Above all, #BlackLivesMatter grew from a deep feeling of love and a passionate celebration of life. To meet Alicia Garza, as I did for a two-hour conversation in New York in December, is to feel the great warmth and emotional depth that has given this project such broad resonance. The internet can do many things, but to turn a radically inclusive message of black love into a rallying cry for tens of thousands in the streets requires much more: vision, leadership, heart, and courage.
“A Deep Love for Our People”
I’ve been doing this work since I was twelve. I started out in the reproductive justice movement and have done a lot of different kinds of organizing work, but mainly in the racial and economic justice sector. My mom had me at a relatively young age—though she was not a teenager, she was just starting her life, and she would talk to me a lot about how challenging and hard that was. I think that’s part of how I got into doing work in the women’s movement.
One of the things that really broke my heart in organizing in San Francisco and Oakland was this real burden that women are holding as our communities are falling apart. There’s all these different ways in which women—low-income women, women of color—are really holding the strings of the tatters of what’s left of our democracy together. Working with those women, working with families, really helped me think about things a lot differently—about how are we living at the intersections of all of these various oppressions. And also about creative solutions and alternatives for how it is we get out of this situation.
I think when Patrisse and Opal and I started Black Lives Matter, it was with that lens: understanding that even though we, and women that we are working with, are really holding these tatters together, the dominant discourse is not about us. For us as women who are organizers, there’s a way in which our hearts connect to each other and to a real deep love for our people. And a real deep love for those mamas who are just trying to make it work, who’ve got the bucket under the leaky roof but are figuring it out. So the project that we are building is a love note to our folks.
It’s also, hopefully, shifting the narrative from a help narrative: it’s not about black communities needing help, right? It’s about investing in and resourcing black communities to be able to do for ourselves. Part of the dialogue that we want to be having is around investment, around resourcing, around intersections, around how state violence looks in a multitude of ways and how it impacts us in many aspects of our lives. And we also want to be having the conversation about the leadership of women, and the leadership of queer folks, and the leadership of trans folks, as folks who are often left out of the narrative but who are also often doing most of the actual work.
I would say that the feminist lens of our work is just how we live in the world, and part of that is about really celebrating the leadership and capacity and potential and brilliance of women who have been at the margins for a long time. We’re organizers, so we think a lot about how we build relationships between people, and what those relationships have the potential to leverage. We think a lot about the demands: “What are the demands of this moment, and how do those demands get us closer to where we’re trying to go?” And we think a lot and do a lot to ensure that we are visibilizing what is still being invisibilized in 2014.
The Origins of #BlackLivesMatter
Black Lives Matter began after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin. We had been watching the case for a long time, probably over the course of a year, before it actually went to trial and then the jury reached a decision. There was a real disgusting way in which the mainstream respectability narrative—including among black folks and people of color—was looking for a reason that Trayvon was dead, and where they were looking was in his family, in his behavior, you know, they did everything they could to blame that poor child for his murder. But those of us who were watching and following the trial (which was kind of like the O. J. trial for many of us in how riveted we were) I don’t think expected that George Zimmerman was not going to be convicted for something.
When he was acquitted, it felt like a gut punch. And I remember sitting with friends and talking, and there was nothing to say, but we just wanted to be around each other. A lot of what I was hearing and seeing on social media was that they were never going to charge somebody and convict somebody of killing a black child. My thing was: I’m not satisfied with that. I’m not satisfied with the “I told you so” and I’m not satisfied with the nihilistic “it’ll never happen” kind of thing.
I was basically popping off on Facebook saying, “Yes, I’m going to be surprised that this man was not held accountable for the murder of a child.” I was basically sending love notes to black people and saying, “We’re enough. We are enough, and we don’t deserve to die, and we don’t deserve to be shot down in the streets like dogs because somebody else is fucking scared of us. And our presence is important, and we matter. Our lives matter, black lives matter.” And Patrisse was like, “Oh my god, black lives matter.” And she put a hashtag in front of it, and that’s the origin of it.
Opal and Patrisse and I are all connected through a network called Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity, a network of black-led organizations. And so Opal, being the brilliant genius that she is, was like, “You know, we should create space for our folks to be able to tell our stories, share grief, share rage, collaborate together. People are in motion right now, and we have a real contribution to offer.” So that’s where we started a Facebook page (we got a design donated to us through Design Action Collective, who did a whole skin for our page and made it all fancy); and a Tumblr page where people could share stories, events, collaborate; and a Twitter page. We were really asking people to share with us what they were doing to build a world where black lives matter.
“Social Media is an Avenue, Not the Destination”
So Opal built all that out, and got a bunch of folks to contribute and donate, and that’s how the project started. We were trying to think about what we wanted this thing to do. Because we’re organizers, and we know social media is an avenue, but it’s not the destination. So: “How is it that we use this as a place where people can share ideas and exchange information and even have some debates about what time it is and what this moment means for us?” And, “Let’s figure out how we also catalyze that work onto the streets.”
And then Renisha McBride was murdered. Marissa Alexander had recently been put in jail. CeCe McDonald was in jail for defending herself. So we used the hashtag to really try to spread consciousness. This is Trayvon, and it’s Renisha, and it’s Cece, and these are all black folks. And black means a lot of things, and we are really diverse and powerful as a community, and we need to start lifting that up. It’s not just about being inclusive, it’s actually about making sure that we all get free, or none of us get free.
And we were seeing that it was stretching, for some folks, where they were at. Whereas people would absolutely be like, “Trayvon, oh my god”—when it came to CeCe, it was like people didn’t understand. So we wanted to make sure that we were out talking about the breadth and complexity of our community. And demonstrating that trans, queer, straight, woman, man, whatever: if you’re black, you’re a target. Part of it for us was making the connections, challenging our folks internally to really embrace who we are as a people and celebrate that and fight for each other.
That’s how the hashtag started to pick up, and folks started doing really interesting collaborations with one another, building curricula, doing art, all kinds of projects that folks were working on independently and autonomously that they would share with us. Facebook and Tumblr were the main gathering spaces, with a reach of maybe two thousand.
So there were lots of conversations happening both online and offline. In CeCe’s case there was a whole controversy because they were trying to put her in a men’s prison, and she was so brilliant in saying, “It doesn’t actually matter, a cage is a cage. We have to get rid of these cages. Men’s cage, women’s cage: I don’t care, it’s still a cage. Right?”
Renisha’s trial took place—largely because of the work of organizers, who forced there to be a trial, because, again, black lives don’t actually matter in our society—and her killer, Ted Wafer, was convicted. And there was some conversation about: “What does that mean? Is that a victory?” We were starting to have conversations about abolition: “What are we actually calling for? Are we really claiming victory when we say, ‘OK, now this killer has gone to jail?’”
We don’t know. So we put together a national conference call, to have a conversation about what justice looks like in a dynamic like this. And really grappling with prison abolition and revenge and punishment and the political roots of that, just having an opportunity to have conversations as a team. Black Lives Matter hosted that call—we had close to two hundred people from across the country on that.
It was right before Mike Brown was murdered. The news about Renisha’s trial was on a Friday. Mike Brown was killed that Sunday. And Eric Garner was just before. It was all within two weeks; there was a damned slaughter.
Mike Brown and the Black Lives Matter Freedom Ride
Part of what I was watching was not only a slaughter on our folks but also people saying: “Stop this. No more.” The fact that they let that boy’s body lie there for four and a half hours—I mean, it’s clear as day. When you leave somebody’s body in the street for four and a half hours, steps away from his mother’s house, for everybody to see, it’s a message. It’s not an accident.
We were all watching and going, “What is happening?” A child was murdered, next thing you know there’s tear gas and riot cops and tanks, and we’re watching in horror, like, “What is happening to Ferguson, Missouri, and what is happening to our people? Why is the response from the state so intense, given what just happened? They’re not trying to clean it up; they’re like, ‘You need to be quiet.’”
So that’s where Patrisse and Darnell Moore, a New York-based activist and managing editor of The Feminist Wire, came up with the idea to do a Freedom Ride to Ferguson. So they and this whole team of people did a lot of really incredible work to mobilize over five hundred black folks from across the country, who got in vans, got on trains, got on planes, and rode out for Labor Day weekend.
We had a team that left from the Bay Area that drove for thirty-six hours. People raised their own money, got on trains and buses; we asked for organizers, bloggers, journalists, healers, medics, lawyers, just anybody who cared to go and show solidarity and place eyeballs on this place where, if it were up to CNN, we would have a really different side of the story.
I was already there, I was already in St. Louis doing work, and building with folks, trying to be available for support. The crew that came from the Bay had a really deep experience. A lot of folks had never been out of California, had never been to the South, had never been in the Midwest, so the experience of even getting there was a real eye-opener in terms of what are the racial attitudes in this country.
There was a lot of stuff happening. We instantly realized that this was a struggle being led and directed by young people, and people were trying to figure out how to respond and how to relate to that. Young people were really fighting for their space, and really saying, you know, “We’re getting killed. And we’re not going to go home, we’re not going to be quiet, we’re not going to be nice, we’re not going to tone it down. This stuff is going to stop today.”
When we got there, there was a real tension because people had been flooding to Ferguson for a couple of weeks by then. Jamala Rogers from the Organization for Black Struggle said it’s like disaster tourism in the movement. People want to come see and get tear-gassed and be a part of the action, and it’s like, “This shit is happening in your community, and you don’t need to come here to see it, you can fight right where you are and really help grow this,” right?
So we got there on the tail end of a whole wave of folks coming from all over the country. For Black Lives Matter, I think, we were really trying to figure out: “How do we support the team that’s being built here, how do we do that, and then how can we help cultivate their leadership? How do we not replicate the dynamic that Mama Jamala is talking about—the disaster tourism dynamic—but instead, really use it as an opportunity to activate our people? Because people are angry and wanting to do something but don’t know what to do.” We were like, “We’re not here to pick up garbage, we’re not here to plant flowers; a meal line would be great, but that’s not what we’re here to do. We want to lend capacity to what you’re doing.”
So people on our team canvassed with local organizations in prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s neighborhood to talk with his neighbors about the case, and then there was a full-day strategy session on the last day of the ride, with everyone who came, to talk about next steps and how we were going to bring what we saw and learned and did in Ferguson home to the communities where we live.
On our last day, there was a group consensus to do a week of action around state violence, culminating on October 22, the longstanding national day of action against police brutality. Part of the push that we were making was that state violence is not just about police killings: State violence is about poverty. State violence is about people in Detroit not having access to water. State violence is about black girls being used as bargaining chips during wartime. That’s all state violence. We wanted to make sure that we broadened out this narrative, because our lives were on the line, and we can’t afford not to make these connections.
#BlackLivesMatter put out the call for a Week of Action Against State-Sanctioned Violence, and we were joined by Ferguson Action. People self-organized in their respective regions, with support from our team, predominantly Patrisse. We held conference calls so that people could share their ideas of what they would be doing or attempting to highlight during the week of action. It was really successful—twenty-eight cities, I think, participated. Many freeway shutdowns, highway shutdowns, shutdowns of some business or government, almost all of it militant direct action.
Direct Action: “What Our Spirits Need Now Is to Stop the Wheels”
I think what it felt like for me in St. Louis was that when your back is against a wall and you don’t think there’s any other way to get out, you’re going to fight like hell to save your own life. And so inasmuch as people are throwing tear gas canisters back at the National Guard, it’s really a fight for survival. Once the National Guard departed the first time, I think what was left was this real sense of determination and fearlessness.The feeling was profound: it felt like, “Get free or die trying,” you know?
So the turn to militant direct action around the country came out of a feeling that we don’t have anything to lose. I honestly think that’s the feeling. We should be clear. We’re going to ebb and flow between those moments where direct action and militant direct action are tactics that people are willing to engage, depending on the level of repression that they face from the state, and that’s real. People know that, and I think continue to hold the moral center: “We’re just fighting for our lives, and you’re trying to take our lives.”
We’d been waiting for it, the grand jury decision on Darren Wilson, for a while. We were already in conversations about how we were going to really support the movement, what that was going to look like in our hometown, where Oscar Grant was murdered, just a few blocks from my house.
So when the news came, we were already in planning, had been meeting, and had been shaping our plan and practicing our plan. It was still a gut punch, but this time we had what we didn’t have before: we had a team of people that we were connected to, black folks, black space, where we could grieve together and also where we could collaborate and strategize together. It was across organizations, it was across ideology, it was intergenerational, it was queer and trans and folks that were formerly incarcerated: we were all at the same table, having the same conversation and actually executing a plan. Which we didn’t have in 2013, which is why we created that space. So we’re maturing. We have some space to grieve and be angry, but we also have a really important opportunity to stop the wheels.
So that’s where we were when we heard the news: in a planning meeting. There were twenty-eight of us in the meeting I was attending, and a broader team of us that was probably up to seventy-five people that were collectively planning a Bay Area response action. We were planning in different spaces so we could come together at a certain point and execute together.
Our plan was to execute a BART shutdown. We were talking a lot about how we wanted to see more direct action in the Bay, how we wanted to see black folks really reclaim the tradition that comes out of our freedom movements and really own that. And we also were like, “We all like marches and rallies and stuff, we’re down for that, but what our spirits need right now is really to stop the wheels. That’s what our spirits need right now. And that’s what the spirits in St. Louis need right now”—because they were being re-traumatized. We watched the city burn, and so all the people that we had been building with in St. Louis, we were calling them and we were asking, “What’s happening? Are you okay?” And they were like, “This is happening to us again.”
So we were calling to make sure they’re safe, and to say, “We got your back. As long as we’re all turned up, they can’t come for you in the same way.” Do you know what I mean? What kept there from being more destruction in St. Louis—of people, I mean, not property—was the fact that the entire world’s eyeballs were on what was happening. So as much as they wanted to put people’s safety in danger, there was a point that they couldn’t really go past, because it would really crack the facade of the little support they had left.
The BART shutdown was planned for Black Friday. We had a lot of discussion about what was going to be the character of this action. Some people really wanted us to do something the day that the decision was announced. But we decided, you know, “Actually, let’s do something and plan it really well. We don’t have to respond to what they are doing, we can do our own thing and make our own intervention the way that we want it made. We can escalate any time we want to.”
Black Friday for us was important because state violence is of course rooted in an economic system that prioritizes profits over people. So we really wanted to make the connection between profit and black bodies and the condition of our folks. We also wanted to make sure we were making an intervention by actually engaging our people. So we put out a request that it be a space for black folks, and you’d be surprised at how not supportive people were around that.
I haven’t fully wrapped my head around everything that happened that day, but what I can say is that ten really courageous people locked themselves to a train and said, “This is not going to happen anymore, and we need you to understand what’s going on in our communities, and we need you to take action.” A lot of the messaging was around ending the war on black communities and breaking down what that looks like. The war on black people is gentrification, the war on black folks is lack of adequate health care, the war on black folks is poverty, right? All of these different things. And we did the action in a way that it was led by women, it was about affirming our humanity and asking people to join the fight.
It was really intense on a lot of levels. Like the reaction of the police: they didn’t know what to do. We were linked together with lockboxes, with “Black Lives Matter” written on the PVC pipes that joined us, and chained at one end to a bar inside the train. Some people were chained to the benches on the platform. Other folks were engaging with the passengers, engaging with the conductor, engaging with the police, engaging with the media.
We decided that we were going to decide in the moment whether or not we were going to make them cut us out or whether or not we were going to free ourselves. My side chose to free ourselves, but we held the platform longer than the other side. The other side had to get cut out, and the way that they did it, they just cut the bar that one of our persons was attached to.
So they arrested us, and they had no idea what to do, basically. For the week prior, people had been in the streets, building barricades in the middle of the streets, and lighting stuff on fire, and all kinds of stuff was going on. When they showed up to arrest us, they came with fifteen riot cops first, and then they saw us there, and we’re singing freedom songs, and we’re chained to each other. And the police and the media had a narrative that said, “This is so organized, and it’s so peaceful.” We didn’t want to be part of any narrative of “good and bad protest.” But we also knew that it could go either way. The attitude of the police could either be really aggressive, because they’d been dealing with all kinds of stuff all week, or it could be really lenient, because what we were doing was not what other folks were doing. But what we didn’t want is for those things to get pitted against each other, because they’re all really important.
And you know, in interviews afterward, the media was asking us a lot about what we thought about the violence happening in the streets. And we were like, “What are you talking about? What kind of violence are you talking about? Because the violence that we’re seeing is not people setting fire to stuff in the middle of the street. That’s not violence. You might not like it. That’s okay, you don’t have to like it, but it’s not violence, and it’s not comparable. It’s not comparable to the violence that is exacted on our communities. So people should express their rage in the ways that they feel like is appropriate, and the question we need to be grappling with is, what are you going to do about it?”
“If you don’t like to be uncomfortable, you need to get to the root of what you’re uncomfortable with. We’re uncomfortable too, right? So it’s not a question of good and bad, it’s a question of moral and immoral, and your actions are immoral, your systems are immoral.”