Meet the BART-stopping woman behind “Black Lives Matter”
Last Friday, I found myself trapped in a BART station in San Francisco, listening to an announcement that all train traffic into and out of Oakland was suspended due to “civil insurrection.” Because we live in the future, I was able to sit there, underground, and read about what was happening. About an hour earlier, a group of 14 people had walked into the West Oakland BART station, hung a banner over the side that read “Black Lives Matter” — the adopted slogan of those who condemned the recent decision of a grand jury to refuse to punish a police officer, Darren Wilson, for shooting an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo.
The protesters then walked into a BART car headed for San Francisco and locked themselves down to the safety rails inside with cables and bicycle u-locks. Then they locked themselves to each other, forming a human chain that extended out of the car and onto the platform. With the doors blocked, the train couldn’t leave the station. Their goal was to shut down BART for four and a half hours — the length of time that Michael Brown’s body lay in the street. They lasted about an hour and a half; the police ended up disassembling part of the BART car to remove them.
Who were these people? I wondered. It wasn’t just that there was a protest; ever since a grand jury had refused to indict Darren Wilson for murder the week before, protests had been playing out in both San Francisco and Oakland. Then I learned that one of the BART occupiers — an organizer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance named Alicia Garza — had actually devised the slogan “Black Lives Matter” years ago, with two other organizers: Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. I had to know more.
I was in luck. Both Garza and Cullors made the time to talk about civil rights, the trouble with charismatic figureheads, and what it’s like to have the project that you created with your friends turn into the chosen slogan of a mass movement.
Q. Could you tell me the story of what happened at West Oakland BART?
A. Garza: We decided to find a target relevant to our area. Oscar Grant was murdered at the Fruitvale station on BART – that was one of the first times, in Oakland, that a police officer has been convicted of murder. The West Oakland stop represents a whole different bunch of aspects of state violence against black folks. A thriving black community there was divided and gutted by the development of BART.
BART is a very real representation of how our regional economy functions. BART is what ensures that commuters can get back and forth to SF and San Jose. On Black Friday BART does something like 400,000 trips a day. It was important to us that the call was about stopping business as usual until we get justice for our communities. We need to be fighting for the lives of black people, not running to the stores.
That was a collaboration between Black Lives Matter and the Blackout Collective, which is a full-service direct action training collective. Most of us are folks who had some kind of connection to what is happening in Ferguson. Several of us had been to Ferguson and were working with local organizers. We came together as a community to talk about what we wanted to do in Oakland, recognizing what happened in Ferguson is happening all over the country, and wanting our friends in St. Louis to know that we had their back. So we brought some folks together and just started talking about what we were feeling and the moment of waiting for the grand jury to decide whether they were going to indict Darren Wilson. We came to the conclusion — it’s not about the indictment. No matter what, we want to continue to apply pressure, so that we can see real change in our communities.
Q. How were the police?
A. Garza: They were surprised. When we locked ourselves to the train we were greeted pretty quickly by 10 to 14 riot police. They were ready to quell an uprising. And when they arrived, they saw 14 of us locked to a BART train. I’m not sure they knew what to do.
They were not violent. They were relatively respectful. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that it was a very visible action, during the day. A lot of us are really known in our community for the social justice work that we do and I think that had a lot to do with their response to us.
Q. This phrase that you came up with, Black Lives Matter – it’s now being used by everyone. What has that been like, seeing this phrase that you came up with turn into the catchphrase of the movement?
A. Garza: We’ve been humbled at how so many folks across the country have come together under this banner. It’s been used in a whole bunch of different ways, some of which are not appropriate. All Lives Matter. Animals Lives Matter. All kinds of stuff. So when people approach us and want to change it, we ask the question — why do you want to change it? When we start to say “All lives matter” we start to represent this post-racial narrative that quite frankly isn’t true. Of course all lives matter.
Language is something that is malleable and mutable and that’s one of the beautiful things about it. But we also have to think about what’s embedded in our culture, and what’s embedded in our culture is a real fear of black folks and black lives. And a real disdain for black lives. For us it’s a not about being proprietary. It’s about, “What are you actually saying?”
Q. How did you meet each other?
A. Garza: Patrisse and Opal and I are all part of a network called Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity (BOLD). That’s some of how we know each other. Opal is the executive director for an organization called the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. And so — we cross paths through different circles.
Cullors: A lot happens through social media. Conferences. Hearing about each other. Especially being black organizers, there are not a whole lot of us in the states. I think BOLD has been a guide in bringing us together. And then the murder of Mike Brown brought people who have been doing this for years, like Alicia and I — together with a significant number of black people, and allies.
Q. But Black Lives Matter dates back to Trayvon Martin, right?
A. Garza:Very good! Yes, Black Lives Matter did start after George Zimmerman was acquitted after the murder of Trayvon Martin. Opal and Patrice and I were on pins and needles to see what the verdict would be. When the verdict was announced and George Zimmerman was acquitted, we saw a lot of things in our community — black folks, but also progressives across the country — that we thought needed to be shifted.
Q. What needed to be shifted?
A. Garza: We were hearing “Well, he’s never going to be convicted for killing a black child.” And, “I’m not surprised.” And “What do you expect?” That was not an acceptable response. We do know that the justice system often does not work on our behalf. But we though it was important not to carry a message of resignation, but instead to carry a message of indignation, and resistance.
The fundamental question is: how do we create a world where black lives matter? Where there are no more Trayvon Martins walking to the store with a hoodie on and talking to their girlfriend on the phone and being mistaken for a threat. How do we make sure that there are no more Jordan Davises, or Renisha McBrides?
The reality is that George Zimmerman going to jail, or not, is not the fundamental question. It’s bigger than policing. It felt really important that the narrative out there about black men being the only ones to be impacted by state violence isn’t true. Black trans folks are also black folks, and they are disproportionately targeted. When we’re talking about Black Lives Matter, we’re talking about all black lives.
Q. Someone sent me a link to a video of Philip Agnew. He’s part of the group of Ferguson activists who met with Obama recently. In the video he mentioned queer people — which was interesting, because usually in progressive circles, you don’t hear about queer people unless someone is specifically organizing around queer issues.
A. Cullors: That’s right. He should have mentioned them. This is our generation. There’s no leaving people behind. This is not about respectability politics. This is not about the black person in the suit and tie, the black person who goes to church on Sunday. This is about all black people — our relationship to this country and its relationship to us.
Q. Were there other instances of people using the phrase widely between then and Ferguson?
A. Cullors: Imagine having a significant amount of grief. It was a call of desperation. It was an “enough is enough call.” It was not, “feel sympathetic and be sorry for black people.” We were proclaiming that black lives matter no matter who you are, no matter what you are, no matter what you think.
Q. Did both of you come from backgrounds where your parents were politically active?
A. Cullors: No.
Garza: No. [laughs] I have been organizing my own family. I talked to my mom this morning and she was almost in tears about how incredible it is to see this movement. She said “I hope this brings real change to this country.” I almost cried. But that’s not where we started.
Cullors: Yeah. I’ve been organizing my mom since I was 16 years old. I came out as queer. It was very difficult. But she’s totally transformed. I came into this work because of my own history of law enforcement. I grew up in Los Angeles, born and raised. My brother was brutalized by the sheriff’s department and almost died in the county jail here. He had gone into a manic episode — he has schizoaffective disorder. He hit a car. No one was injured but he evaded pursuit and that’s a felony. He was a two-striker. That would have been his third strike, and he would have been in jail for life.
I organized all my friends and raised $10,000 in two weeks to get him a private attorney. They were able to fight his life case and that’s when my mom said, “Oh, I get what it is that you do. You aren’t just going to protests. You’re building power and resources for communities.” And in this case, that community was my own family.
Q. One of the things that I noticed when I was writing about Ferguson was just how many stories there are like it – many of them happening right around the same time. Why do you think people coalesced around this case?
A. Cullors: I think that St. Louis and Ferguson caught wind because there was an uprising. And folks kept coming back. Mike Brown was murdered on Aug. 9. One of my closest friends was like, “Patrisse. Are you looking at Twitter.” Our Twitter feed was flooded with an image of a young black body lying on the ground for hours and no one at law enforcement doing a thing about it.
And then as the day goes on, people protest and hold a candlelight vigil and the police arrive with M16s and dogs. This juxtaposition of the black protestor up against these police officers — mostly white, male police officers — essentially trying to hold space for the grief that comes from witnessing such a tragedy, and what’s coming back is tear gas and rubber bullets. I think the act of people coming back every day and saying “enough is enough” with their bodies — just showing up — was what moved me and what moved black folks across the country to say, “This happens in our own communities.” There were protests about Oscar Grant but those died down. There was a need for us to keep this going. So three weeks later, with Darnell Moore, we organized cities across the country — 500 people across the country to ride to Ferguson as part of a Black Lives Matter ride.
Q. One thing that I’ve noticed about the protests this week is that they feel very organized. Were they planned? It seems unlikely that they would be totally spontaneous.
A. Cullors: That’s because they weren’t. The uprising after Mike Brown’s murder was spontaneous. But what you’ve seen in the last month — there’s been a significant amount of organization. Alicia and I have been on the ground in Ferguson a handful of times now.
There’s a certain naiveté about how protests happen. What people don’t understand is that we’re organizers. That means we’re organized. A lot of people have put a significant amount of work into doing this across the country. Around putting together a set of demands. Around the call Black Lives Matter. Direct Action is one tactic. There is a strategy. And whether or not we’re blasting it on social media, that is happening.
Garza: People see each other out in the streets, night after night, and start to get curious about who each other are. People build relationships with each other. The other thing that’s important to understand — a lot of where the lack of comprehension comes is that this is a new movement.
We are rejecting a lot of the things that don’t work — things that we’ve done in the past. It’s important to not keep doing the same thing over and over, and expect to get different results. There’s an activist in St. Louis called Tef Poe and he always says, “This is not your grandparents civil rights movement.” Without being disrespectful to the real sacrifices people made, what’s real is that this is our generation’s time. We’re going to do it the way that we know how.
Q. What’s an example of an old strategy that didn’t work?
A. Garza: Restricting a movement to a few charismatic leaders. Typically black men who get catapulted to the front as leaders for the rest of us. St Louis has to be one of the first places that has rejected a traditional civil rights establishment as leadership – one that would tell people to be calm, or tell them what they need to look like, or try to broker compromises and deals that don’t advance people to a new stage.
When Patrisse and I were in St Louis, people were telling us a story about how a particular leader came to St. Louis. They had a bunch of TV cameras with them and asked the crowd for donations. People are grieving, and they are upset and they are broke. They said, “You’re asking us for donations for something that is not going to help us.” And that particular person hasn’t been seen much in St. Louis since then.
Q. What will winning look like? Will it be a national database that will track incidents of police violence? Will it be body cameras for police?
A. Cullors: I think there’s obviously policy changes — you know, Michelle Alexander calls it the new Jim Crow. We would see less funding towards law enforcement. We would see more funding in black communities towards shelter and food and education.
But we have to do more than that. We have to shift culture. Darren Wilson killed Mike Brown because he thought he looked like a demon. Policy is not going to shift that. Jim Crow laws are gone, but we still have Jim Crow hate.
Obama just pushed for this hundred-something million dollars toward body cameras. OK, that’s an interesting first step. That was definitely one of the demands. But we can’t think that body cameras are going to change policing. We have to actually think about public safety from a holistic view. Often when people talk about public safety they mean policing — but public safety also means when people don’t have to go to bed hungry and when people have a roof over their heads. That’s what makes communities safe.
Garza: One thing I am really grateful for is the demand to create a national plan of action around racial justice. We need a comprehensive plan for how to address these things. It does feel really important that we really break open what is racism and how does it work and how do we fix it. People who want the protests to stop and the unrest to stop don’t realize that it’s not just about people being nice to each other — that there’s this whole complex web of ways where some people have lower life chances than others.
Q. What do you think a national plan of action would look like? Are there precedents for this?
A. Garza: After decades of unrest around racism. the federal government in the late ’60s and early ’70s did create a whole set of agendas that were intended to really dive into this issue of why we have inequity in this country. So we had the War on Poverty — which, with the rise of neoconservatives, became the War on Drugs, which was actually a war on black people.
People think, “Well, you had the civil rights movement, and now black people are equal, so what are you complaining about?” It’s important that we really talk about how that is a stage in an unfinished project that really has been going on for hundreds of years.
Q. Are there movements that you’ve experienced that are an inspiration to what you’re doing now?
A. Cullors: I think the anti-war movement. It was international. The entire globe stood out on the streets to push back against the Bush administration. It was my first protest. I was 19 when Bush declared war on Iraq. I was out protesting every week, out in the streets. After that I would say the fight on SB 1070. One million people were out on the streets of Los Angeles fighting the anti-immigrant bill.
Q. What was great about them?
A. Cullors: I don’t know about great. Impactful? It was a moment for me as an organizer. A visual of what it was like for people to be out there in public space, occupying areas they were not supposed to occupy. The feeling of being very clear as a group that this war was not in our names.
And I think the fight against SB 1070 — fighting against this anti-immigrant narrative and being able to stand in solidarity as a black person with Latinos — Mexicans and Central Americans. SB 1070 was a horrific bill — a bill that would criminalize them and their loved ones.
Garza: Definitely SB 1o70, and the Not One More movement. But I’ve also been inspired by movements internationally — Brazil and the movement around the Quilombola community. I’m inspired by the long history trajectory of black freedom movements in this country and internationally.
Q. One of the books that people have been telling me to read is Taylor Branch’s three-volume history of the civil rights movement.
A. Garza: The other one you should really read is Black Reconstruction by W.E.B. DuBois. He’s a brilliant documentarian and scholar. He literally wrote it as a black man working under the precursor to Jim Crow, researching it in the basements of libraries that he wasn’t allowed to be in. So when I think about the inspiration of what we’re doing today, I think about people like him. I think about people like Fannie Lou Hamer, who were really invested and dedicated to helping people speak for themselves. She was a visionary. What she was calling out for is what we’re calling out for today: We are the people that we have been waiting for.