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?