Black Lives Matters’ Alicia Garza

The world was introduced to the phrase “Black Lives Matter” in August 2014 via a hashtag attached to the scenes of unrest and protest in Ferguson, Mo. Since then, the phrase, co-coined by Bay Area native Alicia Garza, has permanently entered the lexicon (and has been remixed, altered, and appropriated).

The movement has had immense success — without it, it’s not likely that Beyonce and her dancers would have appeared as Black Panthers on the Super Bowl 50 halftime show — but sometimes lost in the efforts to undo racial disparity is the need to undo gender disparity.

“We need the experiences of women and girls to lead and shape movements for social change,” says Garza, who will be spending a rare few days in the Bay Area this weekend to give the keynote address at Bay Area Rising’s annual Valentine Day’s event. “Violence against women and girls is connected to the Black Lives Matter movement… we need to make women and girls more visible.”

Garza will spend most of Black History Month criss-crossing the country, speaking and organizing, but checked in with SF Weekly on Friday about the success, the work ahead, and who she wants to support for president. (Hint: it’s not Hillary Clinton.)
The success of the Black Lives Matter movement — the resonance of the phrase as well as the prevalence of the hashtag, on top of 40 new laws in 26 states over 2015, including police body cameras and law enforcement oversight — has made organizing a bit easier.

There are now 30 BLM chapters across the world, and celebrities have endorsed the phrase and the message. And, on the very same weekend, one of the biggest entertainers in the world released both a music video and put on a performance in front of the biggest television audience that pulsated with the message Garza helped popularize.

The significance of the show — just a few minutes amid a four-hours-long orgy of commercialism and pageantry — should not be dismissed.

“We’re trying to impact culture and to impact policy,” she says. “You can’t do one without the other.”

“I was really proud of her,” Garza said of Beyonce’s performance, one of the most overtly political statements a recording artist of that stature has made in some time. “That was a big risk that she took. Many artists are scared to take those kinds of positions. They’re actively discouraged against it.”

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One easy reason why is the enormous backlash the performance created.Talking heads like former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani fulminated that the performance was racist and anti-police — which Garza sees as an unwitting revelation.

“That kind of backlash shows where those peoples’ true colors lie, no matter what kind of lip service those people pay to justice or equality,” she says. “It was fascinating to watch him do these interviews and be completely oblivious to how racist his comments were… it just makes me understand more clearly what peoples’ motives actually are. And it lays bare the very issue that this movement is trying to raise.”

“We can talk until we’re blue in the face about how everybody is equal, there’s no racism, and all this. But when you hear those kinds of comments from people who make decisions that impact lives, it makes it clear what we’re up against.”

One way to look at the virulence — and the easy way in which white people lofted around the word “racism” after the halftime show — is to suggest that the movement is working. Garza sees it different: people still fail to understand the term.

“People think that racism is this real insidious thing where you’re only a racist if you wear a white hood. The reality is that racism is a worldview, a set of systems, policies and practices that impact some peoples’ lives differently than others.”

This month, Garza will head to Tennessee, Portland, San Diego, and Nebraska after a few days here in the Bay. After that? It’s 2016 and it’s a presidential year, but she and BLM are nowhere near ready to pick a candidate — or even signal where they’re leaning.

“I know that we can’t have an equal society under Donald Trump,” she says. “But by and large, both parties have significant issues.”

“I feel like I know who I’m going to vote for, but the reason why I don’t want to talk about it publicly is I don’t want it to be seen as an endorsement. There’s a lot more work to be done. I think all candidates have a long way to go to adequately address the issues our society faces — and our walking contradictions.”

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“I do know I won’t be voting for Hillary Clinton,” she added. “I don’t trust her. I think she doesn’t say more than lip service to some of the issues we really care about.”

“In the last few months she’s talked a lot about criminal justice but very little about her role in the problems that we’re facing today,” she says, name-checking The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander’s piece in The Nation as a good summation of her issues.

(Clinton, keep in mind, was a huge champion of her husband’s 1994 crime bill, which greatly expanded the country’s incarceration rate, which continues to fall disproportionately on black and brown people.

“While I respect her position as a woman who’s done a lot in a patriarchal world, I don’t think she has the credentials yet to really say that she listened and has aligned herself with the people who really need attention.”

So: Bernie? Garza demurred. “All the criticism leveled at all the candidates has been fair. We have a significant problem: we need to create a viable alternative to what is really a broken system that we feel compelled to participate in every four years, or every two years.

That really doesn’t generate change.”

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