This summer the Black Lives Matter movement took center stage, from global protests to a renamed plaza in Washington, D.C., to murals adorning neighborhoods throughout the country. And last month, the movement’s founders – Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza – found themselves on the cover of Time magazine.
“My hope in helping to put this forward wasn’t to start a movement,” said Garza, the Oakland-based activist who’d coined the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” “My hope was to actually change people’s minds, to change the way that we see ourselves, so that we can stand up in a stronger footing to be able to change the things that we don’t like that are happening around us.”
Garza’s soon-to-be released book, “The Purpose of Power,” is her own story of Black organizing and Black resistance. She talked with “Sunday Morning” contributor Mark Whitaker about her book, from Marcus Books, the country’s oldest Black bookstore. “I wanted to make sure that we were in a place that really represents the legacy and the enduring tradition of Black organizing and Black resistance,” she said.
While many might remember first hearing the phrase “Black Lives Matter” during the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the movement actually began a year earlier, the day George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida. After the verdict’s announcement, a stunned Garza penned several Facebook posts.
Whitaker asked, “Was that a phrase, just something that came pouring out?”
“Well, let me just say I’m not a big Twitter user. So, when I first used the words ‘Black Lives Matter,’ it was on Facebook.”
Cullors, a Los Angeles-based activist who was Twitter savvy, added a hashtag.
“I thought it was a pound sign!” Garza said. “She broke down what hashtags are to me. And that’s how #BlackLivesMatter was born.”
Now called “the hashtag heard around the world,” Black Lives Matter is a worldwide phenomenon.
Garza traces her own path to activism to her mother and her upbringing during the 1980s and ’90s in an affluent suburb of San Francisco, where, she says, being an outsider gave her a unique vantage point. “I grew up with the ethos that you always fight for the underdog. You know, Black folks forever had been working hard to get ahead, but that this country wasn’t working hard for Black people and didn’t plan to.”
Garza also credits MTV News for broadening her perspective. with stories about the apartheid system in South Africa, famine in Ethiopia, and domestic politics.
“This was a time when there was a big debate happening nationally about the epidemic of teen pregnancy,” said Garza. “And there was a big fight over whether or not young people should have the tools that they needed to make decisions as they were making choices about whether or not to have sex.”
“So, that was your first big cause as an activist?” asked Whitaker.
“I was 12 years old, I was in middle school,” she replied.
In her book, Garza recounts a formative moment at age 17: a run-in with a police officer who found her smoking marijuana with a friend, and let her off with only a warning. “I was a kid who was doing things that kids do,” she said. “And I was given a shot. But most Black kids who were my age at that time are not given a shot. And guaranteed, if I had been a 17-year-old Black girl in West Oakland caught with the same amount of marijuana, I would’ve spent, not just the night, but I would’ve had a criminal record.”
The takeaway from this encounter resonates with Garza today: “I think the moral of that story is this: we have a criminal system that is intent on treating some people differently than others. It’s actually baked into the architecture of that system.
“And what this movement is fighting for, it is to, frankly, dismantle a system that was designed to criminalize Black people, that was designed to criminalize poor people and people of color and other oppressed people.”
Whitaker asked, “So, when you use the term ‘dismantle,’ I think some people are confused right now about exactly what that means. Does it mean dismantling a certain kind of policing in certain communities? What do you want dismantled?”
“Well, I didn’t talk about dismantling police; I talked about dismantling systems,” Garza replied. “And so, when we talk about dismantling systems that are harmful to our communities, it means taking them apart and stopping our usage of them. But we can’t just dismantle without building something in its place. And I think what’s important for all of us to engage in is a reimagining of what it looks like to have dignified communities where we are not patrolling communities with guns and tanks.”
Garza is now focusing her efforts beyond Black Lives Matter, founding groups aimed at empowering women and building Black political power.
Whitaker asked, “What do you tell people when, as I’m sure they do on a daily basis, White folks say, ‘What can we do to help?’ What do you tell them?”
“Well, I say, ‘You can join a movement,'” she laughed. “Being in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, being a part of this larger movement for change in this country and around the world can’t be about charity. I don’t wanna fight next to anybody who’s, like, ‘You know, I’m doing this because you people need this.'”
And for those who think Black Lives Matter is merely a social media movement, Alicia Garza offers this: “The story of movements is not about how many people follow you on social media. It’s about how many people will step forward. And you can have a million followers on Twitter and not get one person to step forward and take action!”
“So, is the leader or the founder of one of the most famous social media movements of the modern era telling us that social media isn’t everything?” asked Whitaker.
“Well, I can tell you, as the founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, which is now considered to be the largest protest movement in history, that hashtags do not start movements. People do.”
For more info:
- “The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart” by Alicia Garza (One World), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available October 20 via Amazon
- Marcus Books, Oakland
- Black Lives Matter Global Network
Story produced by Kay Lim. Editor: Mike Levine.