Alicia Garza, right, meets with students in the Days-Massolo Center.
Alicia Garza, right, meets with students in the Days-Massolo Center.

Although social media activism campaigns are started almost daily, seldom do they accomplish their goal of creating and sustaining national interest that lasts for years. Nevertheless, occasionally these movements successfully promote awareness, draw together communities and create lasting conversations that can affect lives across the country, and even the globe. One such campaign is the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, co-founded by Alicia Garza.

Garza and her partner, Malachi Larrabee-Garza, were invited to campus by the Days-Massolo Center for a community conversation related to the movement’s work. The pair was interviewed by Professor of Africana Studies & Classics Shelley Haley. The Sept. 18 event filled Bradford Auditorium and overflow seating in two additional classrooms.

Haley used questions that had already been submitted by the SDC, a group composed of student leaders from over a dozen on-campus organizations  and the event concluded with a question-and-answer period for the audience.

Garza explained that BLM “was started out of an interest to express deep and profound love for black life and to demand that black life be centralized” in response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the Trayvon Martin murder trial. Garza was troubled that “Zimmerman was acquitted and got to go home to his family, while black people around the world received the message that their lives aren’t valuable and that someone can take their life without being held accountable.”

Garza went on to explain that “the reason that BLM has focused so heavily on how we exist in the world is because our very existence is targeted for demise and erasure.” Fighting against this expunging force, Garza points out that she “very deliberately, uses the term ‘black,’” because for her, “it is a political statement that means a whole range of things; in particular,” she points out, “identifying as unapologetically black is an embrace of my political history, an embrace of the resistance of my ancestors and a counter-hegemonic opportunity to reshape how we engage race in this country.”

To do this, Garza pointed out the necessity to “complexify what it means to be black in this country, and this world.” This is because ‘black’ is narrowly defined in society and thus, movements can become misconstrued, while marginalized individuals within the community itself are kept invisible, she explained. “If we are going to pursue a real transformation, not just in this country, but around the world,” she continued,  “then we have to complexify who we are, we can’t leave anybody out and we should also remember that black is a diaspora: there are black folks everywhere and there’s a lot that connects us.”

Larrabee-Garza added that although national and global transformation require people with various emblems of identity to collaborate, it is vitally important to “also create ‘solo spaces’ that actually aren’t for everyone, that are race or ethnicity or sexuality specific. There’s this mythology that we have to think of everyone as the same,” he continued, “but the postracial idea is a mythology, as is the claim that [having solo spaces] is damaging, dangerous or unimportant, because it’s actually about being unapologetic.”

Disentangling myth from fact was also addressed by Garza, who stated that, “We need to pay attention to the way in which our resistance is racialized. If people refer to our tactics as ‘aggressive,’ then ‘aggression’ sits in a political, social and economic context that must be acknowledged as a disparity in how we describe activism, how we understand what is appropriate for whom, and what we believe the goals and intended outcomes of the movement are.”

“Be mindful of the rhetoric and what it’s intended to do,” warned Garza. “It’s unfortunate but not surprising that the right wing and conservative forces have begun describing BLM as a hate group, despite the fact that BLM as a movement and organization has at no time ever advocated violence against anyone.” Rather, she believes that these lies are being propagated due to “the real anxiety about demographic change in this country.”

Garza suggested that although “the majority of decision makers in the country don’t reflect the demographics of the population, if we got our act together it could.” Garza drew comparisons between the modern day Patriot Act and COINTELPRO as being state run programs intentionally designed to suppress social change during periods of “black upsurge.”

Larrabee-Garza pointed out that although demonstrations and protests are often reframed as “disruptions,” knowing the historical trajectory of movements makes it clear that “disruptions can be tactics used to open up room for negotiations.” Nevertheless, a generational divide in comfortability with such tactics can be seen, “making it important to bring in layers of leadership from the ‘old guard’ to train [current activists] and build cross-generational relationships.” This is strategically important, he points out, “because movement’s require different central protagonists at different moments.”

Further flushing out this generational divide, Garza explained that BLM is currently youth-driven but that “the courage that young people are demonstrating right now is moving, deeply and profoundly, the spirits of the seasoned warriors in our communities.” Drawing on work by James Forman, famous for his involvement in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Garza explained that “generational challenges arise from different approaches to social change and different ideas about how change happens, not to mention the fact that the older generation is still grappling with sadness and anger about how things turned out and how the state clamps down on social movements and freedom movements.”

Although some see the hashtag “#BlackLivesMatter” as missing the larger humanitarian message that “all lives matter,” Garza argues this is precisely the point. She admitted that she “couldn’t do the work [she does] everyday if [she] didn’t fundamentally believe that we could create a world where all lives matter,” but also that in order to get there, “we have to tell the truth about where we are, and the truth is that in our current world, not all lives do matter.”

Garza elucidated this claim by saying, “we have to be clear that there are systems and structures in place that make sure that some lives have more value than others, and that that’s not a function of personal agency, personal desire, or personal will, but rather a function of power.” Larrabee-Garza added that, “‘All Lives Matter’ is an expression of 21st century racism in this country, hiding in plain sight while white power movements co-opt the phrase ‘All Lives Matter.’”

Addressing intentionally propagated myths, reified social ‘facts,’ and genuine ignorance and misunderstandings, Larrabee-Garza stated, “My new thing is that I like to call people out and then invite them in, because with a little bit of knowledge you can undo a lot of foolishness.”

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