Eric Liu: Alicia Garza, as many of you know, is one of the cocreators of #BlackLivesMatter, and for reasons I imagine she will elaborate on, chooses her language very precisely when talking about her role in this movement, her “job title” in this movement. She has—I don’t know how she does it—she has a day job also, as the Director of Special Projects at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, founded by our friend Ai-jen Poo, who spoke this very evening last year.
But Alicia is to me one of the great embodiments of, let me put it this way— Alicia is one of the reasons why, for all the reasons there are today for us to be pessimistic and fearful and anxious and nervous about how we’re going to keep the bile levels down, and fearful about the contagions of hate that are spreading through our communities— In spite of all of that, I’ve got to tell you, I’m optimistic. I’m really optimistic. Because I believe we are in what may be an extended and maybe an extended, painful, period that is called birth.
We are experiencing the birth of the America we were promised. We are experiencing the birth of a different kind of country that doesn’t equate whiteness with Americanness. That makes a more complex dialogue about who is us, and how we define ourselves and define the very idea of American. And Alicia Garza in her voice, her work, her bearing, and her impact, is to me an embodiment of the possibility of this moment and one of the great reasons why I still do believe in the possibility of this country. Please join me in welcoming Alicia Garza.
Alicia Garza: It’s great to be here. Thank you so much for having me.
I would like to start off by acknowledging the indigenous nations whose land we’re on right now. And to say thank you for continuing to steward this land that we’re on. And thank you for continuing to push all of us to be better stewards of this land that we’re on. Thank you for pushing us to remember that indigenous people are still here and still very much on the frontlines of what it means to save not just this nation but this world from disaster.
I also want to appreciate you, Eric, for inviting me here. And for the civic collaborative for inviting me here.
It is important to us that we understand that movements are not begun by any one person. That this movement actually was begun in 1619 when black people were brought here in chains and at the bottoms of boats. And certainly we should be reminded that it is the combined effort of so many incredibly courageous and bold and fearless and wise people that some, you will never know their names. But you should know that they too are cocreators of what it is that we are experiencing and participating in today.
With that being said our role has been to remind us of our humanity. To remind us that black lives matter, too. To remind us that we are still living in a time when that is a contested statement. And it should not be.
When I was in high school, I was required to take a civics class, where I learned about my responsibilities as a citizen of the United States. My civics class taught me about how our system of democracy works. It taught me about where that system of democracy comes from, and it taught me that citizenship was a privilege earned only by active participation.
And yet what civics did not teach me, and black people like me, was that my citizenship is conditional. This is the harsh reality for black people in America today. That we are expected to participate in democracy while receiving conditional citizenship in return.
In 2005, black people—many of them poor—waved white t‑shirts on tops of roofs in the Gulf Coast, waiting for relief that still today has never come. Stuffed in stadiums, abandoned in jails, shot as we were attempting to cross bridges to find safety, we were called looters and rioters while white families were called finders and survivors.
This was also the year that Stan Tookie Williams, a product and ultimately a victim of the circumstances that created him, was executed in the prison where my mother was once a corrections officer.
In 2009, Oscar Grant was shot at a BART station platform just three blocks from my home on New Year’s Day. His last words to the world were, “You shot me. I have a daughter.” Tatiana is now an 11-year-old girl living with the legacy of her father, who has now become an icon, murdered when she was just four years old.
In 2011, an innocent man named Troy Davis was put to death in Georgia.
In 2012, Jordan Davis was executed in Jacksonville, Florida for being guilty of playing his music too loud in a gas station. His killer immediately afterwards went home and ate pizza with his girlfriend. That same year, CeCe McDonald was jailed for defending herself against a racist and transphobic attacker. Also that year, Rekia Boyd was shot and killed by Chicago police.
In 2013, George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin. 2013 was also the year that 19-year-old Renisha McBride was shot when she went onto the porch of a man that she didn’t know after she had gotten into a car accident, asking for help. She was shot in the eye through a locked security door. That happened today, in 2013.
In 2014, Michael Brown was murdered just steps from his mother’s home in Ferguson, Missouri. And just two months later, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by police officers in Cleveland while playing alone in a park.
We’ve been living in an era where everything and nothing is about race. Where expectations of the events that I just described are often cast aside as the result of a few bad apples, or an unfortunate consequence of what happens to people who don’t try hard enough to succeed.
We emerge from an era where talking about race and racial inequity and systemic racism has been deemed racist in and of itself. In fact, in 1992 even Rodney King, whose brutal beating by Los Angeles police officers in 1992—one of the first that was caught on videotape and broadcasted around the world—Rodney King responded to the rage that many poor black and brown people felt, and that erupted in Los Angeles in the form of an uprising, Rodney King responded by saying, “Can we all just get along?” As if it was just as simple as people being nicer to each other.
You see, a cauldron has been bubbling under the surface for a very very long time, occasionally expressing itself in instances of uprising. But none as sustained as what we are experiencing today. Indeed, the last decade of postracialism, and the neoliberal assault on black communities, has prompted a beautiful upsurge in black resistance. And it is a resistance that has resulted in a new political order.
Each year, there are more than one thousand fatal shootings that occur by on-duty police officers. Each year, less than five of those shootings on average result in a charge of murder or manslaughter against those officers. Now, in the last few years the number of officers who are being held accountable has tripled, but let’s put this into context: from five to fifteen every year. It’s nowhere near close to enough. It is in no way the solution to police violence and police brutality. The solution to police violence and police brutality is not to lock up killer cops. The solution is to reimagine what kind of safety do we want and deserve.
Even still, even though it’s not enough, and even though it is not the solution, those convictions would not have happened were it not for the organizing and disruptions of the last few years.
Were it not for the organizing and disruptive direct action in Oakland, Oscar Grant’s killer would not have been charged in his murder, nor would he have been convicted. And I believe he was one of the first officers in the history of California ever to have been held accountable for a crime.
Were it not for the organizing efforts in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, Ted Wafer would not have been charged in the shooting of Renisha McBride. And he would not have been convicted in her murder.
Were it not for the courage and tenacity of young people who occupied the state capitol in Florida for thirty-one days and thirty nights, demanding an end to stand-your-ground laws after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin, many of us wouldn’t have known that the laws that are designed to uproot structural racism have been under continuous assault by these other kinds of laws that give vigilantes the power to be judge, jury, and executioner.
Were it not for the community of Ferguson, Missouri who’ve refused to go home, who refuse to let the system work, Darren Wilson would still be patrolling that community. And the corrupt nature of policing and debtors’ prisons, and all of the other things that we have learned about what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri would still go unchecked.
Were it not for the years of organizing in Chicago to fire the officer who killed Rekia Boyd, to expose the collusion between the Mayor and the prosecutor, we wouldn’t have seen the recent unseating of Anita Alvarez, who was complicit in the cover-up of the shooting of LaQuan McDonald, who was shot sixteen times in the back by Chicago police.
Were it not for the organizing that didn’t get national attention, prosecutor Timothy McGinty, who refused to bring charges against the officers who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice playing alone in the park, would still have a job.
You see, black people, black resistance, and black organizing, has changed the landscape of what is politically possible. Whether or not you call it Black Lives Matter, whether or not you put a hashtag in front of it, whether or not you call it The Movement for Black Lives, all of that is irrelevant. Because there was resistance before Black Lives Matter, and there will be resistance after Black Lives Matter.
What’s more important to acknowledge is that black people today are determined to make the impossible possible. And that that work cannot be credited to either political party. When we say “no more business as usual,” it is an indicator that we aim to transform this democracy into something that supports all of us, not just some of us.
Black people have been at the center of the fight to force this country to live up to the values and ideals that it espouses. The very ideals and the very values that underpin our version of democracy. From Nat Turner’s revolts, to Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, to white suffragettes, to Fannie Lou Hamer being sick and tired of being sick and tired and calling for independent black political power, black resistance and black organizing have consistently shaped the way that we understand and the way that we experience civic participation.
Black folks have consistently been denied the rights to privilege that come with citizenship that so many of us take for granted. And that’s why so many of us are no longer satisfied with the compromises and negotiations that happen behind the scenes, that continue to leave out too many people whose lives depend on the ability to participate in the decisions that impact their lives.
Too many of us, but not enough of us, are no longer content with the same old tactics devoid of a larger strategy that stares transformation directly in the face. What is possible in policy and politics has been facilitated in large part by black organizing and black resistance. It is a resistance that challenges the notion that only policy change will get us to where we are trying to go. It is a resistance that calls us all to the mat, to live the values that we espouse. It is a resistance that says, “No, we are not happy with the lesser of two evils. We are not satisfied with the process as it stands.”
This generation of black resistance says that we are not satisfied with the crumbs that may fall from the table of power, and we are not satisfied with merely sitting at the tables of power. This generation of black resistance, of black organizing, says that we aim to completely transform the way that power is distributed, the way that power functions. And that we aim for a new kind of power that is in collaboration rather than in competition. [applause]
Our generation of black resistance and black organizing says that we aim to exercise power with rather than power over. [Laughs quietly.] Y’all don’t hear me. Our generation of black resistance and black organizing says that we aim to exercise power with rather than power over. [applause]
Our generation of black organizing and black resistance understands that in order to have any kind of meaningful policy change, we must equally value the role that culture change plays. Said more simply, the battle to win hearts and minds does not begin nor does it end at the policy table. It is the work that is necessary to ready the ground for new agreements about how we interact with one another.
Now, the last few years have given us much to consider, particularly as it relates to the assumptions that we hold about how change happens, what type of change we seek, and what gets in the way of us obtaining the type of change that we want. To be clear, this movement is not just engaged in an external struggle, but also an internal one, as it aims to clarify what it stands for and what it stands against. We too are navigating the tension between allowing a thousand flowers to bloom, while at the same time distinguishing between what are flowers and what are in fact invasive weeds that may threaten to consume the entire ecosystem.
From my perspective—and it is just my perspective—there are three critical lessons that we have learned about how social change happens. The first lesson, and this may be the most important one, is that organizing works. And that we must remain clear that organizing and protest are not the same thing. Protest is an important tactic, and it raises the stakes. But protest alone will not accomplish all that we seek.
The hard work of building a base that is an ongoing dialogue with one another cannot and must not be underestimated. It is the work of building relationships, not just with the people who agree with you, but building relationships across difference, for the sake of our collective transformation. It is the work of placing sustained and escalating pressure upon those who refuse us access to the decisions that impact our lives. It is the work of aligning ourselves deliberately with others in motion, in order to create a more coherent whole.
The work of organizing has been somewhat distorted in the age of technology. It is possible in this age to move thousands of people online to accomplish a task. It is not, unfortunately, what is sufficient or required for long-term movement-building. We are learning that our online presence is not the totality of who we are. It’s not even the best of who we are. It is the way that we want to project ourselves. Our carefully curated projections are no match for the nuance and hard work that movement-building requires. What is required is an organizing model that is three-dimensional, knowing that each of us exists at the intersections of many different experiences and that it is those experiences that can help us unlock the potential of what a new world can and should look like.
At the same time, those of us who seek to upset the table of power cannot and must not continue to assert that somehow disruption is destructive to the aims that we seek. Frederick Douglass expressed this in a speech he delivered in 1857:
If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.
Disruption is the new world order. It is the way in which those who are denied power access power. And in the context of a larger strategy for how we contend for power, disruption is an important way to surface new possibilities.
Now, the final lesson here is actually one of foreshadowing. It is the reminder that movements are not reserved solely for those of us who see ourselves on the left. In fact, for the last thirty years, many of us have been contending with a powerful movement that has left a lasting impression on every aspect of our society. That movement has worked diligently to unravel many of the gains that my ancestors, my family, and my community have fought and continue to fight so hard for. It is a movement that aims to rewrite history in order to determine the future. A movement that has had incredible implications on the lives of all of us.
Now, that movement has offered us valuable lessons about what it means to maintain coalitions and alliances of groups of people who do not agree on how to get to where they’re going, but they certainly agree about where they’d like to end up. They’ve taught us valuable lessons about the kinds of power that are necessary to reshape society. They’ve taught us that narrative power and political power and economic power and disruptive power, in coordination with one another, matter. And yet that same powerful movement is facing its own disruption from within, much like the disruption that I’m experiencing in the movement that I see myself as a part of.
Now, I’ll be honest with you that I am terrified about the current and eventual impacts of that movement. It is a movement that seeks to deny many of us our fundamental humanity. What we know today is that a new way of organizing, of connecting across difference, of articulating our values and what we stand for, and what we will absolutely no longer stand for, is imperative if we are to survive.
This is no longer about ideology or worse yet, political parties. We know this because neither Democrats or Republicans have been able to stop the tide of frustration and disillusionment and hatred that is washing over our country today. It’s up to us to take seriously the task of moving differently. We can no longer afford to congratulate ourselves, especially those of us who self-identify as progressives, when there is a backlash against the movements that are set on saving us.
We cannot continue to congratulate ourselves as we are largely non-responsive, or responding in ways that are ineffective and dangerous. You cannot—we cannot—tell communities who are experiencing the brunt of this kind of racist violence that the solution is to vote for a Democrat. [Laughs.] And similarly, you cannot tell us that the Republican Party is the only one that is buoyed by racism. It’s unfair, it’s untrue, and it’s disingenuous.
We are in the midst of a moment where mass shootings have increased. Where attacks on the centers that provide women much-needed health care, including but not limited to abortion, have increased. We are in an era where the number of people who are dying at the wrong end of a gun is increasing rapidly. And our faith in the sanctity of the political process is eroding before our eyes.
We must acknowledge that what we are experiencing is a powerful backlash to powerful movements in the making. That means that we must acknowledge and actively disrupt the processes that divide us. It means we should get comfortable not in sameness, but in difference. It means we should get comfortable knowing that while we are not all the same— (And that’s okay. It’s okay, y’all. It’s okay.) While we are not all the same, we are all impacted by the dangerous systems like white supremacy. It’s not Donald Trump that we need to be afraid of. It’s the system and the society that created him.
I believe deeply in our ability to succeed. I believe deeply in our creativity, in our courage, in our determination. Let us build the movement that says, “Not in our name.” Let us build the movement that unites millions of us, brilliant and wise in our differences, and convicted in the belief that we are exactly what we need to free ourselves.
As our sister Arundhati Roy once said, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” Thank you.