By Alicia Garza
The #BlackLivesMatter network, launched in 2013, began as a series of social media platforms designed to connect online people interested in fighting back against anti-Black racism and state-sanctioned violence so that they could take action together offline. It has since grown into an international network with more than 26 chapters that organize in their local communities and connect with each other.
When we started #BlackLivesMatter, we began with a set of assumptions:
The first, was that Black people deserved to live with dignity. That we were (and still are) sick and tired of being gunned down in the streets by police and vigilantes at the rate of once every 28 hours, simply because we’re Black.
The next, was that all Black people deserve dignity, not just some. Amongst the co-founding team, all of us are women, two of us are queer, and one is the daughter of immigrants from Africa. Each of us, in the course of our organizing work, has been told one way or another that our existence was not valid—in both mainstream spaces and in movement circles. Here, we also assume that creating spaces for Black people to be all of who we are, unapologetically, is an important contribution to building a sustained mass movement.
The final assumption that’s relevant here is that for Black people to build the political, social and economic power we need to transform our conditions, we also need to change the narratives developed about us, which we also perpetuate through story and through practice.
We, as a people, also perpetuate neoliberal ideas and practices within our own communities. One example of this is the notion that you cannot resist state-sanctioned violence and anti-Black racism unless you also protest Black people killing other Black people. This type of respectability narrative is often used specifically to denigrate the efforts of a people attempting to free themselves from the chains of white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism. In other words, the narrative about what some call “black-on-black crime” obscures the role that systemic racism, isolation and segregation play in intracommunal violence.
To build power, we need to center love and make it a priority to work on healing from the trauma of state-sanctioned violence and anti-Black racism.
It hasn’t been an easy road, but what we’ve seen more than two years later is that it is, indeed, a necessary one.
It hasn’t been easy because we have to navigate the reality that as much as we love our people, there are some Black people who don’t love Black people. We have been taught to love capitalism more than ourselves.
Yet, love for our people means being willing to struggle around the contradictions we embody and which keep us from getting free in mind, body and soul.
Black love is a liberatory act and an act of resistance. Black people get messages every day that we are not enough, that we are somehow deficient or dysfunctional. We are told that we are criminal, that our rightful rage is somehow violent. And, on top of that, different types of Black people get different messages about our supposed dysfunction based on how we present in the world: whether or not we have “natural” hair; our body shape and size; how we present our gender. There’s very little that is not critiqued, vilified or criminalized about the Black body.
I remember one particularly painful moment that touched me deeply. In a training conducted by Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity (BOLD), a cohort of Black leaders from across the country who do powerful work in our communities on behalf of our people, spent time together in the practice of unearthing the pain that’s internalized each and every day in our attempts to live Black with dignity. A Black cisgendered man who was a little over 6 feet tall talked about how his body hurt because he hunched down so that white people wouldn’t be afraid of him.
As a Black queer cisgendered woman, I found this profound because I know the pain he felt (having to disguise or transform yourself for your own safety), and also because I, too, at times have been afraid of Black men. What does it mean for movement building, for building power, when we are afraid of one another? How does this hiding, this shaming, this being afraid to be our full selves with one another, this transforming for the sake of safety, impact our liberatory practice together?
A Black transgender woman shared with me that she was having difficulty participating in a local chapter of #BlackLivesMatter because the only space that she’d ever been in that was all Black was in jail, and that space had been incredibly violent for her as a transwoman.
State-sanctioned violence and anti-Black racism have shaped our physical, emotional, economic, political, and cultural landscapes in profound ways that impact our ability to work together, dream together and transform together. So when we create spaces that allow us to be our full selves, unapologetically, we are engaging in acts of resistance and liberation. We are resisting the violent criminalization and animalization of our bodies by defiantly taking up more space than we are given. We are engaging in an act of liberation because we are choosing to live in the world that does not yet exist but one day will surely come.
Cleveland—The Gift of Understanding
In July, when more than 1,500 Black people from across the diaspora converged in Cleveland, Ohio the love there was palpable. Black people travelled from all over the country and throughout the world to be with other Black people in the movement for Black lives. What we shared in common was a love for Black people so deep that we would travel anywhere to be with one another, to share strategies, to cry and laugh together, to dance and sing together.
We fumbled together. We made a lot of mistakes. But in creating room to be unapologetically Black, in creating room to love ourselves and each other so fully, those fumbles and mistakes were transformed into powerful lessons that shaped us all. Those of us who are cisgender were given a gift from our loved ones who are transgender and gender nonconforming: (i) in pointing out the ways in which folks were either intentionally or unintentionally being excluded from their fullest participation; and (ii) in reminding us all that even though the world we want doesn’t exist yet, we can love our freedom and one another enough to start living the world we want, right here and now.
Getting closer to that freedom means we have to love each other enough to keep coming back, even when we hurt one another. Transgender folks and gender nonconforming folks were angry and hurt at being excluded in a space that articulated a liberatory politic but at times fell short of living that politic. Often, when we are hurt and when we are angry, we retreat into our corners and get ready to go home. This practice has split movements time and time again. But our love—for ourselves and for our people—demands that we keep coming back when things are hard, when we are angry and hurt. We keep coming back because therein lies the possibility for change, where we love each other enough to live a politic that says that no one gets thrown away or left behind.
Black love as resistance, as a pathway to our collective liberation, is not something that this generation of organizers and activists came up with on their own. The #BlackLivesMatter network sits within a context shaped by 20th century social movements and Black freedom organizations. It’s difficult and somewhat irresponsible to make comparisons to movements and organizations that existed or exist in vastly different social, political and economic conditions. There are, however, important lessons that present iterations of movements and organizations can learn from the successes and contradictions of the organizations and movements of the 20th century.
The first lesson being, nothing replaces the work of base-building and political education. Even with the prevalence of technology and the culture shift that has accompanied it, consistently and critically engaging the hearts and minds of everyday people and inviting them to become a part of a movement, while deepening consciousness about why our world functions the way it does and who is responsible for the misery that so many of us face, is essential and is an act of love. Though this is an era in which Twitter followers and Facebook friends can give individuals a platform, having a vision that is compelling enough to get people to take action offline is critical to our liberation.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) took the work of base-building very seriously, immersing themselves in communities that were being denied access to their basic dignity and humanity, and their ability to determine their own futures. They began as a loose network that later solidified into a powerful national organization.
The #BlackLivesMatter network also takes the work of base-building very seriously. Begun as a loose network of Black people coming together online to take action together offline, it has since evolved into a network organized into 26 local chapters that are connected, yet relatively autonomous. The #BLM network is still in the process of solidifying its organizational structure, but the majority of its chapters are involved in base-building and political education around a range of issues at the local and regional levels.
The next step is learning to build across class while being rooted in and led by poor and working class communities. Movements and organizations in the Black freedom tradition have struggled with this, and the #BlackLivesMatter network and movement is no different. The organizations that had the most impact among 20th century movements were the ones that prioritized organizing amongst those who were the most impacted, yet knew how to leverage the support of the Black middle class.
Leadership and Liberalism
In his book, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, James Forman, recounts:
The liberalism of which I have spoken tended to negate leadership as a valuable factor in an organization. This tendency was not something new. SNCC’s staff was young and idealistic. We rejected the “great leader” orientation of other civil rights organizations. We wanted no part of the corruption which attended that kind of attitude, the denial of the importance of people—especially poor people. We were fed up with hearing the words leader and leadership, especially from the press and so-called civil rights leaders. We believed in community organizing, in the power of the people to develop their own strength and direction.
But this attitude had become a kind of general neurosis in the organization, especially in the minds of the middle class element and especially among those who had been strongly influenced by ideas about participatory democracy coming out of Students for a Democratic Society. What had been born as an affirmation became a simplistic negation. Instead of finding ways that people with natural leadership qualities could make their contribution and help to develop leadership qualities in others, this attitude simply said, “Curb your leadership.”
…[We] lost sight of the fact that it was a power achieved not through manipulation and tyranny, not out of self-interest, but as a result of performance, good ideas, hard work, tremendous courage, self-sacrifice, and, above all, a spirit of humanity (p. 419).
This is a powerful reflection and one that the #BlackLivesMatter network and movement must pay attention to. First, contrary to some understandings, #BLM, both as a network and as a movement, does not see itself as without leaders, but as a leaderful network and a leaderful movement. This is in contrast to the principles underlying the Occupy movement to which #BLM is often compared. We do not glorify participatory democracy in and of itself, yet we deeply believe in the power of Black people to develop (as Forman says) our own strength and direction.
Still, the #BlackLivesMatter network and the #BlackLivesMatter movement are susceptible to some of the pitfalls Forman describes. Social media has created, in some instances, bully pulpits where some leaders are revered and others denounced, thus following the trajectory of the same respectability politics and individualism that we seek to reject in the first place. What’s more, leadership (and who is a leader) is being defined in part by the corporate-controlled media, rather than by the work an individual does within their community, the way they interact with and support others, and the love that they bring to the work of building a movement. In other words, leaders personify Black love and leadership is the regular practice of cultivating and regenerating Black love.
A deep, abiding and unconditional love for Black people lay at the heart of the organizations and movements of the 20th century and continues to be at the heart of the organizations and movements of today.
20th century organizations and movements grappled with respectability politics in their desire to have access to power without transforming power itself. Organizations, like the SNCC and movements, like the Black Power Movement, rejected this notion over and over again. In fact, tensions arose between SNCC, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for this very reason. Many leaders within SNCC recall a frustration with these organizations for not being grounded genuinely in the community, which in addition to professionals, included sharecroppers who were poor and facing eviction for attending meetings about voting rights or for exercising their right to vote.
While this was certainly about class division within Black communities that represented themselves in respectability politics—particularly with respect to disenfranchised poor and working class Black people, student sit-ins, and direct action tactics—it was also about promoting a narrow image of Black people: those who deserved respect and love and those who did not. Ultimately, there were times when sharecroppers got thrown under the bus in exchange for the shinier and more popular student sit-ins.
Today, that struggle continues. The #BlackLivesMatter network has placed a great emphasis on the principle of all Black lives—that none of us are free until all of us are free. And so, we must devote ourselves to complexifying Black life in this country. To do so means that we claim our transgender and gender nonconforming family as Black lives worthy of dignity, respect and Black love. To do so means that we do not participate in the valuing of one tactic over another, instead, we value a diversity of tactics and refuse to throw anyone under the bus for the sake of a seat at the table.
To refuse to be divided, to reject crumbs in favor of an entirely new pie where there is enough for everyone—that is the ultimate form of Black love, Black resistance, and the key to winning and sustaining Black liberation.
Alicia Garza is special projects director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. In 2013, Alicia co-founded #BlackLivesMatter with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi.