The Trump mob’s Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, “was an outpouring of rage that a lot of people were surprised by,” according to Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza (pictured above), while of many Black Americans and others left out “very few were surprised.”
The Oakland, California, activist and author of “The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart” (One World/Penguin Random House), which debuted in October, was giving the Boston Public Library’s (virtual) Lowell Lecture on Jan. 14, presented in partnership with the GBH Forum Network.
“We have had a leader in this country who has trafficked in racist ideas for the entirety of his presidency,” Garza said. But we’ve been told that he was just a “wack-job,” that he didn’t mean it. “All of those strategies are rooted in amnesia.”
Garza said this moment in American history feels like the period of Reconstruction after the 1860s Civil War: “What are you going to do about all the people who still want to uphold the institution of slavery?”
There are “two big lessons” from the Trump mob’s attack on the U.S. Capitol, Garza said. First, “Race really is the elephant in the American room. The longer we try continue to ignore it or deny it, the worse it will be, the more people will suffer.” Second, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.”
“The culture of this country is politics happens somewhere else,” Garza said. “…You have to protect it [democracy] and you have to maintain it. … The best way to protect democracy is to participate.”
“So many of these decision-makers work in complete protection from us,” Garza said. We’re tuned out and don’t know how it works. “This country is where it is because most people are disengaged from the processes that are shaping our lives.”
“The Purpose of Power” is not a history of Black Lives Matter because “Black Lives Matter and our story is still being written,” Garza said. Instead, “it’s stories about how I grew up, stories about how I came to think and believe and do the things that I do now.”
Garza grew up in California’s Bay Area. Her mother, who died three years ago, didn’t believe in telling fairy tales that distort one’s sense of the world. “Sex makes babies and babies are expensive,” Garza recalled her mother telling her. Her mother didn’t identify as a feminist, but instilled her daughter the belief that “we’re responsible for each other. Women can do anything men can do. Women’s lives are valuable and deserve respect.”
Garza said her political activities began when she was 12, with a successful campaign to make contraceptives available at school nurses’ offices across her school district in Marin County, California.
“Winning a campaign is addictive,” Garza said. “…Winning inspires you to think of what other things you can make change of.”
Garza located her contraceptive campaign in the context of the conservative movement’s sexual abstinence and punitive campaigns of the 1980s and ’90s. “Wherever we enter into history is what has shaped us,” Garza said. She spoke of growing up during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, amidst an ascendent conservative movement and “culture war,” as the country abandoned Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” for the Republican “War on Drugs.” It was the birth of the AIDS crisis as well as an era of Madonna and Prince and other “barrier breakers” in music.
“There’s not just one movement,” Garza said. “And movements aren’t just reserved for those who want to see peace and justice in the world.” There’s the conservative movement as well as the Black liberation movement, of which Black Lives Matter “is a tributary.”
“When I came out to college, I became a community organizer,” Garza said, “…to do something about the things we saw that were not working for us”—joblessness, crime and violence, gentrification and displacement.
As an organizer, she learned that marches and protests are the most visible part of social change, but much important work happens behind the scenes, she said. Similarly she believes, “Hashtags don’t start movements—people do.”
On the night of July 13, 2013, Garza, then an organizer with People Organized to Win Employment Rights, and friends were having drinks at an Oakland cocktail lounge after George Zimmerman was acquitted of fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black 17-year-old, in Florida. “We don’t deserve to be killed with impunity. We need to love ourselves and fight for a world where Black lives matter. Black people, I love you. I love us. We matter. Our lives matter,” she posted to Facebook.
Her political organizer friend Patrisse Cullors reposted the line on her social media accounts, adding the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Which went viral. Another political organizer friend Opal Tometi built their websites and other online infrastructure “ensuring that millions of people could participate in a movement for inclusive democracy,” according to Tometi’s website.
“My sister Patrisse put a hashtag in front of it. I didn’t know what a hashtag was at the time,” Garza said. “…I don’t think Patrisse or Opal or myself had any idea that these three simple words would be the catalyst for how people were describing what we were fighting for as a generation.”
Garza said, “Early on what Black Lives Matter was intended for was to bring people together to fight for Black lives, realizing we can’t reach the promise of America without realizing the dignity of Black lives.”
“Black Lives Matter falls into the lineage of movements that have been attacked and demonized because of its resonance, because of its power,” Garza said. “…This movement is based in the pursuit of love and justice and dignity.” Black Lives Matter is about “restoring dignity to Black communities that have been divested from, that have been attacked.”
Garza stepped away from the day-to-day operations of the Black Lives Matter organization in 2017. The following year, she founded the Black Futures Lab, which works to make Black people powerful in politics. In 2019, she co-founded Supermajority, which provides information, resources, tools and organizing to increase the power of women in politics. And she hosts the “Lady Don’t Take No” podcast.
Racism remains one of the most polarizing issues in our society, Garza said, but we avoid talking about it deeply. “There’s a lot of confusion over what racism is and what it is not. … Everybody’s got to be talking about it.”
“The conservative movement … has been using race for three decades to polarize the country,” Garza said.
“Racism is about power,” Garza said. “…There are a lot of really good people who hold racist ideas.” Racism is about rigged rules. Racism is about false claims of a fraudulent presidential vote—“There are all of these Black people who voted and we want to invalidate their votes.”
“Everybody has internalized racist ideas. Only some of us are able to uphold racist rules,” Garza said.
Garza said we need to change rigged rules that prevent Black people from living with dignity, we need to fight state-sanctioned violence. The Black Lives Matter movement is “fighting for connection, fighting for the beloved community …. fighting for Black people to be seen as human beings.”
We have to oppose underlying cultural narratives—like people who work hard thrive while Black people in inner cities take advantage of welfare programs—that support unequal distribution of resources, she said.
The legend of “people gaming the system … gets turned into rules,” Garza said. We need to change what’s happening in our society to change the rules—and we need to change the rules to change the stories we tell about ourselves, she said.
Racism persists, Garza said, because “we are the country that functions on the engine of amnesia.”
If this is the kind of coverage of arts, cultures and activisms you appreciate, please support Wonderland by contributing to Wonderland on Patreon. And sign up for our free, (hopefully) weekly newsletter so that you don’t miss any of our reporting. (All content ©Greg Cook 2020 or the respective creators.)