One of the first things Alicia Garza did at the podium of the first speech of the President’s Lecture series of 2016 at Old Dominion University was pay her respects to the indigenous lands the school was built on, and comment on the unusually warm February day.
“It reminds me it’s a result of our behavior,” she said about the global-warming induced weather. Her opening statements showcased just how aware she is, and that she was prepared to wake the audience up.
Alicia Garza is one of the co-founders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which sparked soon after the death of Trayvon Martin. After the acquittal of George Zimmerman, Garza was stunned at the responses from her friends on social media. Her news feed was flooded with “social justice cynicism,” caution, and a whole lot of hopelessness.
Weather it was her activist friends unsurprised by the injustice, or others who pointed out the tragedy and offered options to avoid the next one – such as stay educated and don’t walk around late at night with your hood up.
“We didn’t create this system, Garza said to the latter, “but we sure are accountable for them.”
Garza penned a love letter to her indifferent, self-blaming, and equally outraged community. “I wanted to love on us when seemingly no one else would,” she said. “I believed in our ability to set ourselves free. I love us enough to say enough is enough.” In the letter, she begged for her race to be valued beyond entertainers and athletes, and asked her community to “fight for more freedom and a few less crumbs from the table.”
The final line read “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.”
These words would spark a worldwide movement towards the fight against racial inequality with the help of Garza’s “chosen sisters” and fellow #BlackLivesMatter founders, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. Tometi encouraged Garza to redistribute the energy online to create real-world platforms, and a safe space for people offline. Cullors got this ball rolling by slapping a hashtag in front of Garza’s words.
#BlackLivesMatter’s power was seen on August 14, 2014, after the shooting death of Renisha McBride by Theodore Wafer, when she knocked on his door for assistance after a car accident. Countless conversations were sparked by the trial, and the question was begged that while a man is incarcerated, a woman is still dead – is that truly justice?
Soon after, Mike Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson in a previously little-known town called Ferguson, Missouri. After the acquittal of his killer, Darren Wilson, over 500 people organized through #BlackLivesMatter to come to Ferguson and form relationships with people in the community. Garza said she was “heartbroken” to see her friends, who were protesting peacefully with their hands up, met with tanks and military-grade weapons. “This isn’t a riot,” said Garza, “it’s rebellion.”
Garza and others went beyond the streets, and attempted to talk to the Robert McCulloch, the St. Louis County Prosecutor, peacefully at his home. When he didn’t answer, they talked to his neighbors and created art installations in his neighborhood. While these were all valiant efforts, the Ferguson community asked activists to not become “tourists,” but to take what they learned in Missouri and bring it home to their own communities, and broaden the fight.
“Hashtags don’t start movements,” said Garza, “people do.”
Since then, the the inter-generational movement has pushed through 40 new civil rights laws in 28 states, and has 15 to 30 chapters across the nation. When asked if Hampton Roads has a chapter folks can join, Garza responded “No, but it sounds like y’all should start one, just sayin’,” welcoming anyone interested to email her.
Of course, the movement does have it’s critics. Soon, #BlackLivesMatter was met with #AllLivesMatter. “This shows the state of our country,” said Garza, “which is still deeply divided by race.” This counter-hashtag does the opposite of what it attempts by failing to acknowledge the privilege some have at the expense of others. Pointing out such differences is not racist. “Obviously,” Garza followed.
“We’re not talking about you right now,” said Garza playfully, continuing sternly. “All lives matter… as do black lives.”
This hashtags epitomizes what Garza said is a society constructed around white comfort and privilege. #AllLivesMatter is a goal, not a reality. “If we want to get to that world,” said Garza, “we have to fight like hell to get there. The goal is not to invert the pyramid, but to redistribute – there shouldn’t even be a pyramid.”
Instead of denying injustices with counter-hashtags, Garza calls for white people to speak up in their own communities about white supremacy. “I can’t have the same conversation with white people y’all can have,” said Garza, “and you’re guilt [alone] isn’t helping my freedom.” She urges those who are afraid of imposing on safe spaces to consider SURJ, or Showing Up for Racial Justice, an anti-racist group of the white and privileged who stand in solidarity.
Garza said the black community needs everyone for the goals of #BlackLivesMatter to overcome. “In general, we all want the same thing,” Garza said about these goals. “We all want a good life.”