Alicia Garza is not synonymous with Black Lives Matter, the movement she helped create, and that’s very deliberate. The 39-year-old organiser is not interested in being the face of things; she’s interested in change. “We are often taught that, like a stork, some leader swoops from the sky to save us,” she tells me over Zoom from her home in Oakland, California. That sort of mythologising, she says, “obscures the average person’s role in creating change”.
Garza is also scornful of fame for fame’s sake and of celebrity activists. The number of people who want to be online influencers rather than do the work of offline organising – knocking on doors, finding common ground, building alliances – depresses her. “Our aspiration should not be to have a million followers on Twitter,” she says. “We shouldn’t be focused on building a brand but building a base, and building the kind of movement that can succeed.”
That doesn’t mean Garza doesn’t care about her image: for our interview, she has sneakily avoided having her webcam switched on, but only because she’s “doing a [skincare] face mask before your shoot today, so I didn’t want to scare you”. While Garza is ferociously smart, laser-focused on “pushing our political system to move from symbol to substance”, she also has a lighter side. She laughs often, draws you in; her passion is infectious.
The origin story of Black Lives Matter is one of collective, collaborative action rather than individual glory. After George Zimmerman was acquitted of fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, in 2013, Garza wrote a Facebook post she called “a love letter to Black people”. Her friend Patrisse Cullors shared the post with the hashtag BlackLivesMatter. Another friend, Opal Tometi, designed the blacklivesmatter.com website and social media platforms, using the signature black and yellow colour palette. Seven years later, that rallying cry has changed our lexicon and landscape. Black Lives Matter has been chanted by millions of protesters around the world. It has been painted in giant letters on a road leading to the White House, and posted on windows in primary schools in Northamptonshire.
The evolution of Black Lives Matter, Garza says, has been “deeply humbling, and super weird to watch”. Particularly considering she was repeatedly told, by everyone from pundits to peers, that the name sounded too threatening. “People said we should call it All Lives Matter or Black Lives Matter Too, if we wanted to get more people involved. There have been so many full-circle moments.”
Four years ago, nobody talked explicitly about Black Lives Matter during the Democratic National Convention, for example. But, Garza says, you couldn’t get through five minutes of this year’s without the movement being namechecked. What’s more, it’s being talked about with “more substance than we’ve seen before”. In the early days, many of the solutions being discussed in relation to the movement were “relatively symbolic measures, like mandating that the police wear body cameras, requiring implicit bias training and setting up police reform taskforces”. Now, however, there are serious discussions about defunding the police; about “whether or not policing keeps us safe. And that is a huge, huge change.” Those conversations aren’t just happening in the US, either; they’re happening around the world.
Garza attributes the movement’s global spread to two catalysts: Donald Trump and his overtly racist administration; and Covid-19, which meant people were more likely to be at home and glued to their screens when George Floyd was killed on camera. “Black Lives Matter is now in the muscle memory of many of us,” Garza says. “And it was triggered by watching a man murdered by a police officer, who stared into the camera as he did it.”
Garza has distilled the lessons she has learned from Black Lives Matter, and a decade of community organising, into her first book, The Purpose Of Power: How To Build Movements For The 21st Century. While the subtitle makes it sound like a how-to manual, one of its key lessons is that there is no quick and easy way to build a movement. As she writes, you don’t just add “water, oil and milk to a premixed batter; after 30 minutes in the oven, a movement is baked.” Building movements, she stresses, means building alliances.
Garza’s book starts with a history of one of the most successful movements of recent times: rightwing conservatism in the US. One reason the right has been so powerful, she argues, is that it has been very effective at building “networks and alliances and coalitions that all agree on the purpose of power – which is for them to keep it”. The right are very good at bringing different groups together around a shared vision, and have been “building power for the last three decades”, Garza says, entrenching their agenda and values in the US. You can see it in the way conservatives have strategically, often surreptitiously, used the media to advance their ideology. Take Sinclair, for example, which late-night TV host John Oliver once called “maybe the most influential media company you never heard of”. Owned by a fervent Trump supporter, it’s the largest operator of local television stations in the US and has compelled its news anchors to parrot Trump talking points.
In particular, Garza says, the right has perpetuated the idea that success is purely a matter of personal responsibility. The message to poor people has been that it’s their laziness holding them back; the message to black people, that systemic racism doesn’t exist – the problem is their life choices. Worse, “the narrative of personal responsibility for systemic failures has often been used by Black leaders to secure their seat at the table,” Garza writes. That includes Barack Obama who, she notes, carefully avoided criticising law enforcement when Zimmerman was acquitted after the Martin shooting: “He acknowledged that there is a long history of racial disparities in our criminal justice system while making sure to state that you can’t blame the system.” In adopting these “rightwing talking points”, she says, he capitulated to the same people who had called him and Michelle Obama “Muslim socialists”.
Obama isn’t the only liberal hero Garza takes to task. Her book also analyses the way in which Bill Clinton ushered in legislation such as the 1994 federal crime bill, which greatly exacerbated mass incarceration. And she is unsparing about the racism of Hillary Clinton’s presidential primary campaign against Obama in 2008, citing an occasion when a photograph of Obama in traditional Somali dress was leaked to the media. (The Clinton campaign denied responsibility, but a Clinton supporter then went on MSNBC and said Obama shouldn’t be ashamed of being seen in “his native clothing”.)
It is unusual to see a nuanced critique of Clinton and Obama, I say. Does Garza think liberals idolise certain politicians, treating them like celebrities rather than public servants? Absolutely, she says: “Our political system functions around personalities rather than policies, symbol over substance.”
One example of that interplay, she says, can be seen in the case of Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed in her home in Kentucky earlier this year. The day before our conversation, a grand jury has brought no direct charges against the police for killing Taylor, sparking widespread anger.
For Garza, there is an irony in the announcement. “The attorney general of Kentucky, Daniel Cameron, is a Black Republican, and lots of people would say it’s good that we have a Black person in this role, right? That’s the symbol. But in Cameron’s press conference, about not holding any of these officers accountable for her murder, he upheld and espoused racist ideas and policies. He announced that he was going to start a commission studying how they execute search warrants in Kentucky. So the symbol of a Black man in a position of power is not enough.” What’s needed is people in power who will create substantive and systemic change for black people.
There is also a big difference between popularity and power, Garza says. DeRay Mckesson, who has amassed more than a million Twitter followers after gaining prominence as a community journalist during the 2014 Ferguson unrest, is a case in point. Mckesson is probably the leading example of the celebrity activist phenomenon Garza decries, and her book uses his 2016 failed bid to be mayor of Baltimore as a cautionary tale about the limits of online fame. Despite his celebrity friends and high profile – Beyoncé follows him on Twitter, and Rashida Jones donated to his campaign – Mckesson won only around 2% of the vote in his home town. Garza’s message is that you can’t just tweet your way to political power; you’ve got to put in the work.
Photograph: Johnny Nunez/WireImage
Mckesson’s high profile means he is often (wrongly) credited with launching Black Lives Matter, and with the work Garza and her co-founders started. It’s a mistake, she notes, that he often doesn’t seem overly eager to correct. She is not, I want to emphasise, being petty here. I get the impression she’s far too much of a pragmatist for that. “This is bigger than DeRay,” she tells me. “It’s a question of how we see leadership and who we think deserves it.” The people who we think deserve to be elevated tend to be men; meanwhile, black women’s labour is often overlooked and erased.
“Why,” she asks, with a touch of frustration, “are we holding on to a trope about leadership that is older than me? People are still looking for the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr when, actually, leadership of movements today looks more like Lena Waithe and Laverne Cox.” Cox is the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy award in an acting category, for Orange Is The New Black; Waithe, a queer black writer, actor and producer, won an Emmy for the Netflix show Master Of None. “The things that make us different, those are our superpowers,” Waithe said in her acceptance speech.
Garza knows a thing or two about being different. She grew up Alicia Schwartz, raised by her black mother and Jewish stepfather in Marin County, a predominantly white San Francisco suburb. She describes herself as queer. “Maybe it’s an outdated ass word,” she laughs, but adds that it’s a useful umbrella term for “being more fluid in who I’m attracted to and who I build intimate relationships with.” Garza is married to Malachi Garza, a trans man and activist, whom she met in 2003.
Difference, she notes, can be a source of strength and power; it can give you a vantage point with “potentially more range and insight”. Yet the NGOs for which she worked after graduating from the University of California, San Diego seemed to have little room for difference: while the staff were mainly people of colour, those running the show were white. She moved into more grassroots organising, fighting for affordable housing in San Francisco’s black communities by building neighbourhood coalitions. This work, she says, changed the way she thought about politics. It was where she began to understand that winning is about more than being right; it’s about inviting people to be part of a change they may not have known they needed.
Black Lives Matter has certainly mobilised people; but its move into the mainstream hasn’t been without its issues. Garza accepts that the phrase has become a generic term that gets attached to anything related to police violence or black people. The decentralised nature of the organisation has contributed to the confusion.
Mistakes were also made as Black Lives Matter grew. It’s hard to build a plane while you’re flying it, Garza notes, and the organisation missed opportunities, such as developing clear demands to take on the 2016 campaign trail. Following eight years of a black president who hadn’t brought as much hope and change as he’d promised, many within the network were disillusioned with electoral politics and focused on direct action instead.
So Garza has taken the insight she has gained from Black Lives Matter and channelled it into a new organisation called Black Futures Lab, which she launched in 2017. Protesting can only get you so far; now Garza wants politicians to feel as accountable to black people as they do to corporations. “Our work is purely focused on making sure that Black people are powerful in politics, so that we can be powerful in every aspect of our lives,” she explains.
Obviously “Black voters are not a monolith”, Garza says, so one of the first challenges has been to create a consistent and coherent agenda for a diversity of experiences. In 2018, Black Futures Lab initiated what Garza calls “the largest survey of Black people in America in 15 years”; the resulting data went into developing the Black Agenda, a policy platform reflecting “the most common concerns within Black communities across the political spectrum”. One policy point, for example, is raising the minimum wage to $15, a move 85% of respondents to the Black Census supported. Other demands include creating more opportunity for home ownership and limiting police presence in schools, to “dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline”.
Now that a policy platform has been developed, Garza is building support for it ahead of this year’s presidential election. “We’ve had 60,000 Black voters pledging to support the Black Agenda. What [these voters] are saying is that they will be using the agenda as they make decisions about who to vote for.”
The Black Futures Lab occupies much of Garza’s time now; she hasn’t been involved in the day-to-day of Black Lives Matter for a few years. It might seem odd to step away from a movement just as it goes mainstream, but Garza isn’t someone who wants to bask in her past achievements; it frustrates her how many times she’s been asked the same questions about Black Lives Matter. She’s focused on changing the future rather than rehashing the past.
That said, she hasn’t completely cut herself off. “Oh my God, of course,” she says when I ask if she still hangs out with her co-founders. The three were recently in Los Angeles together for the Time 100: Most Influential People of 2020 photoshoot, she says warmly, and remain “very much in touch”.
Garza has had her camera off throughout our conversation; she isn’t still wearing that face mask, I ask? We’ve been talking for an hour and I’m not sure how long you can leave those things on. “I slipped it off,” she reassures me. “Now my face is nice and soft, and I’m gathering my things for the shoot. We’ve got to head over there in two minutes.”
Before I let her go, I ask if she is anxious about the forthcoming election. Of course, she replies. But the way she handles that is by “making sure I’m doing everything in my power” to get the country back on track. There was a time when she was a cynic and thought the US was beyond saving, but over the last 10 years she has become profoundly hopeful. Now is the time to fight and to engage. Voting, she says, can also be a movement.