Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, & Opal Tometi – Sparking a New Wave of Racial Justice Activism
Black Lives Matter is an organization or network that emerged out of the series of killings of unarmed blacks by police officers over the past two years. It started with social media interaction, then was galvanized in Ferguson following the killing of Michael Brown. Now it is having an impact on the campaign for President, especially challenging Democratic candidates who have too often assumed that the African-American vote will be theirs. Black Lives Matter is demanding that national and local leaders take the issues of structural racism seriously and commit to some of the substantive change related to policing and the criminal justice system.
Birth of the #Blacklivesmatter Movement
When George Zimmerman was acquitted of Trayvon Martin’s murder, Alicia Garza posted on Facebook,
Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter. Her friend Patrisse Cullors responded with the hashtag: #blacklivesmatter. When Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson their hashtag became the slogan of protest. According to Twitter it was used over 200,000 times.
Garza and Cullors were activists in labor and prison reform movements in California. They were joined by Opal Tometi, an immigration rights activist and formed the network or coalition Black Lives Matter. The organization has no formal leadership structure but has been a banner under which many have organized locally to address the state powers that intentionally degrade, demean, devalue, and destroy black lives. When they started they had no idea how rapidly their network would grow. Garza said,
I don’t think we knew that it was going to sweep the country and the world. But we’re just getting started. That determination to make a difference this time around and to press forward has kept the movement from not just being another short-term 15-minutes of fame around one local crisis.
Importance of Intersectionality
A key characteristic of Black Lives Matter is the participation and leadership of people who have often been marginalized in previous civil rights and black liberation movements. Women and GLBTQ folks have been in the forefront. They affirm that all Black lives matter, including those traditionally marginalized in the Black liberation movement. On the Black Lives Matter website they state:
We affirm our contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression. We have put our sweat, equity, and love for Black people into creating a political project–taking the hashtag off of social media and into the streets.
Lessons of the Past & Advantages of the Present
They also set up a coalition that fosters and encourages creative self-starting leadership, a characteristic of many millennial activists. They know their roots in the struggle for racial justice, but see the special opportunities in their moment of history. Charlene Carruthers from Chicago said:
We’re standing on the shoulders of giants that came before us. We have different tools at our disposal. We have the power of social media. We have the advantage of retrospect. And many of us have been organizing for a long time.
The roots in community organizing in various issues and with the hope and frustration of politics related to President Obama’s campaigns has created a cadre of skilled, committed, and experienced activists. Black Lives Matter has connected them around issues that have both local and national import. Through their confrontation with the Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton campaigns they are showing they will not be deterred as they continue to press forward with their demands for justice.