Before he became the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson sat down to compose the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” he wrote. At the time, he was a slave-owner. Hypocrisy aside, there’s a “duh” factor in saying “all men are created equal,” but Jefferson must have found value in the proclamation of a self-evident truth. The fact that he needed to spell it out might have reflected the reality that we didn’t then live in a world where all men were treated equally—and we don’t now.
On July 13, George Zimmerman was acquitted on murder charges for killing Trayvon Martin. Immediately thereafter, Alicia Garza, an organizer and special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, took to Facebook to write her own self-evident truth: “Black Lives Matter.” At once powerful and haunting, those three words have been embraced as the banner under which a new generation of activists and organizers is building a movement for racial justice. Like Jefferson’s “all men,” the statement is undeniable in its truth. But unlike the celebrated founding father, Garza’s words do not echo a hypocrisy. Instead, they challenge a nation that has failed to live up to its stated belief that “all men are created equal.”
I sat down with Garza, in the first of a series of interviews with the three creators of Black Lives Matter, on February 21, 2015, the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, and we spoke about imagining a world where the fact that “Black Lives Matter” is self-evident.
The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Mychal Denzel Smith: In everything you have written and every interview that you’ve done, you say that Black Lives Matter, as a movement, does not depend on convictions and incarceration for the sense of justice. Why is that?
Alicia Garza: What we are dealing with right now is a disease that has plagued America since its inception. Convicting a few cops isn’t going to deal with that disease. We’ve been trying hard this year to be clear that state violence is bigger than police terrorism. Although police terrorism plays a specific role on behalf of the state, it is not the totality of what state violence looks like or feels like in our communities. We’ve been shifting the narrative to talk about state violence being structural racism. Given that, what we are lifting up here is that we need a bigger vision than just Band-Aid reforms—we need to move towards a transformative vision that touches on what’s at the root of the problems we are facing.
The new movement against police violence was sparked by specific deaths of young black people, as movements of the past have been. In the moment, people want a sense of justice. The chant goes: “Indict, convict, send that killer cop to jail!” Is it hard to get people who are drawn to these rallies and marches on the basis of those deaths to understand that there is more to the movement than convicting the individual police officer—and we need to think bigger than relying on the criminal justice system?
In some ways, [the focus on individual deaths] allows us to build the movement. Right now, our movement is very segmented. Where are the people doing work around housing in this fight around black lives? They may not see the connection between the murder of young black people and evictions and the demolition of public housing. We need to, if we are going to sustain what we’ve started, but also if we are going to get free. Which is the point, right?
The thing that’s important in this moment is that our movement doesn’t become an intellectual exercise, but that it’s something that actually happens in practice. At the NDWA, we’ve been having a lot of conversations about state violence against black domestic workers [and their families]. People say, what’s the connection? Well, we are three-dimensional beings and black women who are working in other people’s homes also have families and are afraid for their children. These are women who are living in communities that have really high rates of unemployment where their kids can’t get quality education. They are living in conditions where over 60 percent of black domestic workers that we talked to said that they didn’t have food in the last month. Many are also spending way more of their income than they should on rent or mortgage. The way we organize forces people to choose what’s most important to them as opposed to creating movement space where people can understand and can put words to and have a framework around what they live every single day.
Is Black Lives Matter a movement aimed towards abolition of the police?
When we sit and think about what the world needs to looks like in order for black lives to actually matter, there is a debate: what is going to make our communities safe, how do we deal with harm, how do we solve problems that come up in our communities? I saw a piece in The Nationthat said we should abolish the police, which was awesome and in some ways is forcing questions that we have been afraid to talk about for a long time. The point to me is to be able to dig into these questions as opposed to being prescriptive about what the answers are.
In the same way, we are living in political moment where for the first time in a long time we are talking about alternatives to capitalism. Socialism became this weird household word partially because right-wingers call Obama a socialist, which he is the farthest from. It is a political moment that’s opening up opportunities to envision a world where people can actually live in dignity. So whether that’s abolishing a criminal justice system that feeds off the labor and the lives of black and brown people, whether that’s abolishing an economic system that thrives on exploitation, poverty and misery: this is the time for us to not just dream about what could be, but also start to build alternatives that we want to see.
But the institution of policing won’t be abolished overnight. In the interim, what does policing look like in a world where black lives matter?
Quite honestly I’m not sure we can have both [policing and the valuing of black lives]. That’s me personally.
Right now we have a really harmful set-up where the police police themselves. They act as judge, jury and executioner, usurping democracy. That’s how we can get a situation where a white man in Wyoming or Montana can stalk and shoot a black chief of police and still be alive. Where people like Cliven Bundy can openly call for an uprising against the government and still be alive and holding property and land—but a little black kid can’t go into a store and get Skittles and an iced tea and live to see the next day. Another little black kid will lay bleeding out for four and a half hours in front of his mother’s home because he is walking in the middle of the street.
I’m not sure that the way that we can have policing where black lives matter because the institution of policing is rooted in the legacy of catching slaves. But what we can do in the interim is make sure that police departments don’t get tax dollars for tanks, for bazookas, for flash grenades and things like that. We can make sure that police departments that have been shown to exercise a pattern and a practice of discriminatory and quite frankly racist policing don’t get resources to do that.
The other thing we can do immediately is insist on more oversight over police departments—oversight that is accountable to the communities the police purport to serve. What this looks like is civilian review boards that actually have teeth. In the worst cases, review boards are still constructed by the police. People who are not going to raise questions or rock the boat are handpicked to play a role. Then we see amazing things like in Los Angeles, where activists just won permanent civilian oversight of the Los Angeles sheriff department, which has not happened before. They are fighting to ensure that there’s teeth and accountability and a redistribution of resources from militarization to community needs, so that we don’t need to put people in jails and prisons.
Black Lives Matter as a slogan and as an ideology has taken off, with a lot people embracing those three simple words. You created it in a moment where you needed to say it for yourself to affirm black lives do matter because there was a pervasive feeling that they don’t. How do you feel now about the way this phrase has been embraced?
That’s such a big question. You know, I’ve been reflecting a lot today. Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination and I’ve been reflecting a lot on his contributions. One thing I really admire is that Malcolm talked about self-actualization, self-love and being really rooted in who we are unapologetically. When [Opal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors and I] created Black Lives Matter, it absolutely was about: how do we live in a world that dehumanizes us and still be human? The fight is not just being able to keep breathing. The fight is actually to be able to walk down the street with your head held high—and feel like I belong here, or I deserve to be here, or I just have right to have a level of dignity.
Before [Black Lives Matter] I was hearing people not want to talk about race, even black people. They would say, “When we talk about race it sets us apart from everybody else.” I’m like, “We are different and that’s OK!” It’s actually OK to be unique and have your own contributions, to celebrate what it means to be black, how we’ve survived and thrived through the worst conditions possible.
After Trayvon was killed and when George Zimmerman was acquitted, I was in a public place with a lot of other black people. I felt like I got punched in the gut, but it was like we couldn’t look each other in the eye because on televisions across America that court said black lives don’t matter.
We carry that in our shape. We carry that in our physical body. So what’s profound to me about this moment is the way that black folks are looking at each other in the eyes, the way I was taught to by my mother, who came up in really different political conditions. She told me any time you see black person, you say, “What’s up.” I don’t give a fuck who they are, what they’re doing, what they look like. That’s a culture that we created to survive, a culture of solidarity. It’s what has kept us alive.
I’m really feeling that right and I see it. People come up to me and say, “I’m having a hard time sitting with the fact that I didn’t think this was going to happen again in my lifetime and I just resigned myself to it. Now I’m so hopeful and I don’t know how to feel about how hopeful I am because I’m also scared. I’m scared for what the backlash will be. I’m scared that you all will have to hold what we had to hold and you will have to watch your movement be dismantled.” They say, “We are rooting for y’all.” I’m like, no, “We are rooting for us.” It’s profound.
I don’t know how to wrap my head around what’s happening with Black Lives Matter right now, but what I can say is that I’m so in awe of how bold and brave people have been. I’m so in awe of the folks in Ferguson who are still fighting, no cameras. They are out there every day at the police station doing direct actions, calling out the mayor. They are in it. I’m really honored to be a part of this moment. This is a moment I have dreamed of my whole life. Growing up, I learned about the black freedom struggle and the Black Liberation Movement and was told that this was a “lull period” or that it wasn’t possible to have black liberation in our lifetime. So I’m just grateful to be alive in this moment where more and more people are saying: we believe it can happen and we’re gonna to fight for it.