When Alicia Garza wrote “Black lives matter” in a Facebook post nearly seven years ago, the activist from Oakland, California, never imagined that those words would come to define a global movement. The July 13, 2013, acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, sparked her post.
A year later, the shooting of Michael Brown, another unarmed Black teen, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, galvanized Black Lives Matter to become a national organization. Now, with the death of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests have erupted around the world and the words themselves are painted in massive yellow letters on the street leading up to the White House.
At first “we were fighting people to even say Black lives matter,” says Garza, who created the Black Lives Matter Global Network with Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors. “Now everybody’s saying Black lives matter. The question now is, Well, what do you mean?” (Hear from those marching for racial justice.)
Garza, who also heads up the politics and policy organization Black Futures Lab, recently spoke with National Geographic about this historic moment and what she thinks will happen next.
Why do you think the three words “Black lives matter” have so much power?
“Black lives matter” is so simple and yet so complex. It really is a very direct assertion of both a problem and a solution at the same time. Here we are seven years later, and I think what's become clear is that some of the discomfort with this statement is that it forces you to choose sides. You can't say some Black lives matter or they kind of matter or they matter sometimes. The statement asks you, do you believe Black lives matter? And if so, is that the world that we live in right now? And if not, what are we going to do to close the gap there?
In this insane moment—in the midst of protests, pandemic, and the faltering economy—what, if anything, is giving you hope?
Everything, actually. I mean, things are bonkers. That's a fact. When I'm in my right mind, what I say is, what a time to be alive. The fact that Black Lives Matter is such a major part of our global conversation right now. And that it's forcing people across all walks of life, all sectors in our economy, and every corner of the planet really, to assess whether we are where we need to be—and what we need to do to get to where we're trying to go. That makes me feel hopeful, but I don't have illusions at this stage that everything is going to change tomorrow.
Even though this time is really intense, it makes me hopeful because this is the second time around. The first time we were fighting people to even say Black lives matter. Now everybody's saying Black lives matter. The question now is, Well, what do you mean? I would say that's progress. And that does give me hope.
What do you fear will happen instead?
One threat that is real is that this movement is so powerful that we also have really powerful enemies. I'm sure that you've been watching and reading the news in the last couple of days. The president of this country said that Black Lives Matter was a “symbol of hate.” I would say that that's a big threat. The threat here, just to be specific about it, is that there are forces that don't want us to win and that want to distort what it would mean for us to win. I think our opposition wants to frame this as: if Black lives matter, that means other people's lives don't. That's clearly ridiculous but it could be effective.
I think our job right now is to make sure that we keep this momentum going where everybody feels like this is a movement that is theirs. It's not just for Black people. So many more people have taken this on as theirs and that is where the power lies.
Your work spans what looks to be a broad array of causes: stopping police violence, advocating for domestic workers, mobilizing women, building Black political power. What unites these movements for you?
What unites them for me is that everyone right now is longing for something different, something better. In the midst of all of the grief and rage and pain, there's a hopefulness. There is a longing for who we can be together. This movement crosses so many others, which shows that we can build new kinds of communities where everybody can belong, and where everyone can be valued and where everybody can be powerful. And that is what drives me to be a part of these movements. It’s what motivates me. (Here's how protests can change the world.)
Do you think there's any significance to the fact that Black Lives Matter was founded by three women?
Absolutely! I think the fact lends itself to a deep understanding of who has been left out and who's been left behind. We already knew in this [2020 election] cycle that women were going to be the linchpin in deciding which direction this country goes. And we know that has been true throughout history. Even though we're told different stories, we know the facts. And the facts are that women have always weaved community in places where it was missing because our survival depended on it. I think the same is true today.