Black Lives Matter co-founder says movements need to occupy politics

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RIO DE JANEIRO, RJ (FOLHAPRESS) – Alicia Garza woke up at dawn on July 14, 2013 and cried. The day before, watchman George Zimmerman had been acquitted of the murder of black teenager Trayvon Martin, 17, shot unarmed. Disgusted, Alicia grabbed her cell phone and wrote on the networks: “I’m still amazed at how little black lives matter. Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.”

The next morning, Garza saw that his posts had been shared hundreds of times, and that the hashtag Black Lives Matter –Black Lives Matter– was starting to go viral. With the help of activists Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, the movement would gain enormous international repercussion in the months and years that followed, serving as fuel for a series of protests against racial violence.

Garza’s first book, “O Propósito do Poder” (ed. Zahar), has just been released in Brazil. In it, the social organizer mixes personal stories about her struggle as a black woman with lessons about building movements, an area in which she has worked for 20 years.

In an interview with Folha, she says that, among all the successes, Black Lives Matter failed to hesitate to get involved in traditional politics.

Garza understands that power is an indispensable instrument for bringing about long-term change, and says that social movements need to leave the comfort of the cultural arena. More than that, she argues, it is necessary to seek alliances with those who are not yet part of your group.

Folha – Why “The Purpose of Power”?

Alicia Garza – I wanted to focus our energy on changing the rules that were created against us. Sometimes people see society’s problems as individual, like personality problems, morality problems, whether you’re a good person or a bad person. But it has nothing to do with it. It has to do with the rules that are made that protect some and leave others vulnerable. I wanted to center the book around power, because that’s what we’re fighting for. We’re not fighting for people to be nicer, better.

Folha – How did the idea for the book come about and when did you start writing it?

Alicia Garza – I started writing in 2017, right after the US presidential election. At first I thought it would be a book that would help explain Black Lives Matter. But when I started writing, I realized that what came most were lessons in movement building. The book is partly memoirs and partly lessons in organizing, and I hope it turns out to be two things.

First, it helps the reader to engage in their own political and historical context. How I got to where I am now, how my ideas were shaped. And I hope it also gives people a context on how to do work that changes the world, what to expect, what to avoid, and some of the big issues that many movements are still grappling with.

Folha – Is it possible for social movements to profoundly change society without occupying traditional politics?

Alicia Garza – I don’t think so. In the book I talk a lot about our ambivalence about changing policy, and the understandable reasons for doing so. Most people understand that there is corruption in politics, and this is not just a US phenomenon. People don’t engage because they don’t want to be corrupted. Other times they don’t engage because they don’t believe the policy can be changed, they think nothing can be done.

My point in the book is that this is a big mistake. Politics is where rules are made, where government shapes our lives. If we leave it untouched, we are leaving a huge arena of power in the hands of other people.

I think we have two questions. First, how we reinvent and reimagine a way of being together that is not corrupt or predatory. Second, how we create a culture that supports the values ​​around why we have these rules in the first place. In the book I talk about the success of the conservative movement, and how they were able not only to change the law, but to change the values ​​that justify their existence.

It’s very important for us to fight in both arenas. People are often comfortable in the cultural arena rather than actually fighting to change the political arena as well.

Folha – In recent decades, we have had a strengthening of identity guidelines, and of the idea that minority groups should occupy politics. But is it enough to elect a black person who is not necessarily engaged in the racial agenda, or a woman who is not really involved with gender issues?

Alicia Garza – No. It is an incomplete transformation. Representativeness is having people who look like you in positions of power. But change really happens when you have people who share the same values ​​as you, and who fight for those values ​​in positions of power.

This is difficult because part of what we are dealing with is both a lack of depth when discussing the changes we are fighting for, but also pressure from the opposition, which is reshaping the things we are fighting for. In many ways, we get caught up in the opposition’s framings, rather than defining for ourselves the reasons why it’s important to change not just the face of the political character.

There’s a debate in the opposition around why identity politics is a futile exercise, and you see people on the left getting into that debate as well.

It is important to have marginalized people in positions of power. But it’s not just about gender or sexuality, it’s also about values, and how they struggle to convert those values ​​into laws, just as the opposition has been doing for a long time.

Folha – In the book you also talk about allying with people who think differently from the group you belong to. How is it possible to join those who have different goals without losing the essence of their movement?

Alicia Garza – I talk about allying with people who are different from you, but I also argue that it is very important to ensure that values ​​are aligned.

There are real people, experiencing real problems, who don’t see themselves in terms of labels, left, or center-left, but as someone who wants change. one of the lessons [que podemos aprender] is that we are comfortable exchanging with people we share the same language with. What we miss with this is that there are a lot of people who are totally disorganized, looking for a place, a house. In order for us to build change that can bring dignity, there are alliances that can be made with people who have not chosen sides.

I don’t believe we should invest a lot of time trying to change who is already organized. We need to fight for the hearts and minds of people who do not yet have a position, but who want to live lives with dignity and respect. Our opposition seeks out these people, and encourages them to choose sides. We have not yet given our best answer to this dilemma.

Folha – With the strengthening of identity issues, many activists grew and gained followers on social media talking about their own experiences. Perhaps some of them could be considered “celebrity activists” as you call them in your book. From what point does the exploration of the image itself, from relevant causes, become problematic?

Alicia Garza – I defend that there is activism and there is organization. Activism assumes that the individual will act on the things he cares about. Organizing is about bringing people together to act collectively. It is very important not to confuse the two.

For me there is a new phenomenon that has happened in the last decade, in which activists are becoming celebrities. It’s not something I’ve seen before, I’m 40 years old and I’ve been doing this work for half my life.

Now people who take action, like us, are appearing on television shows, on the covers of magazines. It’s not bad to have this platform, but what I ask is: who are your people, in defense of which community you are using your platform to get attention and to get more people to take action. If you’re not doing that, then you’re building a personal brand, and trying to be an “entertainer”, which is a different endeavor than promoting social change.

Folha – In the book you say that intersectionality is not an “oppression olympics”, and that this rivalry becomes explicit when someone says “I am a black woman, so you have nothing to say to me”. In Brazil, we see a particular interpretation of what is called the place of speech, a concept that is often applied as a monopoly of speech, to close a debate. What do you think of this behavior? Does it harm or strengthen the identity policy?

Alicia Garza – I always believe that dialogue is important, and that we lose depth if we are constantly excluding other people, saying that one’s own personal experience is the most important thing. In the end, women’s experiences are incredibly diverse, and no woman speaks for all, although there are similarities that come from situations of unfairness. Dialogue is the best way to expose someone to injustice that they may not see or experience. But there is a challenge… Changing your mind sometimes takes time, patience and humility.

Folha – You say in the book that “hashtags don’t start movements, people do”. How did Black Lives Matter evolve from a hashtag to a successful movement with an international impact?

Alicia Garza – One of the great components of Black Lives Matter’s success has always been relationships. When we started, we used our networks of contacts, organizers, activists, artists, and social media to make the movement a conversation.

We did things like bring people together to talk about important topics that shaped our lives. We connected people who were trying to figure out how to build disciplines for their students around anti-racism, or help them understand the Trayvon Martin murder.

There were already many organizations fighting for the rights of black people. Black Lives Matter had to be a hub where those organizations that were already doing this work could connect and work together on projects that would increase our strength and our power.

I think the secret recipe for the movements is how well they build and rebuild relationships, and how well they build and rebuild connections between people who might already have a lot in common but who never realized it.

Folha – How do you assess the impact of Black Lives Matter in reducing racism and police violence? Has there been significant progress in this direction since the movement began?

Alicia Garza – This movement and the stamp of this generation on it certainly changed not only this country, but the world. Now there are conversations going on out loud that were once a whisper. Conversations about police violence, crime, racism, white supremacy, which we were afraid to have. Conversations about who was being left behind in our community while we were fighting for more power. These changes are still happening, but I think the book helps to understand how we got to where we are now, to better understand what we need to do.

Alicia Garza, 40 Co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, the social organizer holds a BA in anthropology and sociology from the University of California, San Diego. Author of “O Propósito do Poder”, from 2021, she is the presenter of the podcast “Lady Don’t Take No”


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