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In early 2012, neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. Martin had been on his way home from a convenience shop, carrying Skittles and a can of Arizona iced tea, when Zimmerman pulled the trigger.
A little over a year later, the six-person jury for the State of Florida v. George Zimmerman trial reached a verdict after sixteen hours of deliberation. They rendered Zimmerman not guilty on all counts.
Following the acquittal that evening, Alicia Garza, a social activist in California, posted a “love letter to black people” on Facebook, which read, “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter. Black Lives Matter.” Garza’s fellow community organizer, Patrisse Cullors, took the last three words and put a hashtag in front of it. Back then, Garza didn’t know the significance of the hashtag.
“I didn’t know what a hashtag was,” Garza admitted as she stood at the podium, addressing a packed crowd at Kraushaar Auditorium on the evening of March 30. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s cute. Is that an emoji?’”
And so #BlackLivesMatter was born.
“People began to share their stories,” Garza continued. “People began to talk about the impact of anti-black racism on their lives, on their futures. People began to imagine what the world where black lives actually mattered look like, feel like.”
The Black Lives Matter movement was nationally recognized a year later in 2014 when news of the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City came out. Like Martin, Brown and Garner were unarmed black individuals who had been targeted by law enforcement officers. Questions emerged—if those men had been white, would the police officers have thought twice about using the gun? Just how deeply embedded is institutionalized racism in this country? Is this what white supremacy looks like?
Even as people campaigned against violence towards the black community, more names soon appeared on the headlines announcing their deaths, including Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland, Ohio, whose toy gun had been mistaken by police officers for a real one; Jonathan Ferrell, a former college football player in Charlotte, North Carolina, who had been in a car accident and sought help at a local’s house when police officers opened fire at him, and Freddie Gray, a Baltimore native who suffered life-threatening injuries to his spinal cord as a result of unnecessary force at the time of his arrest.
Black women, too, have been victims of police actions. A Cleveland police officer slammed Tanisha Anderson’s head onto the pavement while she was exhibiting erratic behavior symptomatic of bipolar disorder. Rekia Boyd was only 22 years old when a police detective, who was off-duty at the time, shot her as she was walking away from him with her friends in Chicago. The detective claimed he mistook the cell phone one of Boyd’s friends was holding to be a handgun. After being accused of shoplifting at a Wal-Mart in Houston, Shelly Frey, a mother of two, was shot by a security guard as she tried to leave the parking lot. Most—not all—of the police officers who carried out the acts were acquitted.
These individuals came to symbolize the key principles behind the Black Lives Matter movement. As the obituary list continued to grow, #BlackLivesMatter essentially became more than a social media hashtag. It is, as Garza put it, “an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.” Now an influential organizing network with no sole leader, there are more than thirty chapters worldwide, including one in Canada, and Garza doesn’t envision the movement deteriorating anytime soon. According to Garza, one supremacist initially “swore to put Black Lives Matter out of business,” which only fueled perseverance among advocates of the movement.
“We have to be clear that Black Lives Matter is not just a cultural phenomenon,” Garza said, adding that the organization aims “to build power” and “to change the conditions” for the black community.
Although much of the activism occurs on social media, including Twitter and Facebook, participants also organize peace protests and demonstrations to reinforce awareness of racial inequality. Garza, Cullors, and other #BlackLivesMatter co-creator Opal Tometi—all three are known as “The Women of #BlackLivesMatter”—were listed as runner-ups for “Person of the Year” for The Advocate in late 2015. The Root also recognized them on their “Top 100 List” for making a social and political impact.
“We know that we live in a world where black lives don’t matter, so the necessity of even saying that black lives matter is not a plea for white people to understand that black lives matter. We know our lives matter,” Garza said of the movement during the event. “ . . . It is a reminder that we are human in a world that aims to dehumanize us at every step. So, when we say black lives matter, it doesn’t mean your life doesn’t matter. It means we have to consistently remind you—and ourselves—that our lives matter too.”
Garza’s talk was part of a speaker series hosted by Goucher centered on the theme, “The Science, Ethics, and Practice of Mindfulness” this semester. According to Emily Perl, Assistant Vice President for Student Success, the organizers of the semester’s theme collaborated with the Center for Race, Identity, and Equity to host Garza’s visit. Prior to the evening talk, Garza met up with various students on campus to openly discuss topics ranging from intersectionality to identity.
Aria Eghbal ‘18 attended both the open discussion and the reception and was impressed by Garza’s demeanor. “She had a truth about her and her presence was both calming and powerful,” Eghbal wrote.
Ann Duncan, Associate Professor of Religion and one of the planners for the semester’s theme, explained in a Facebook post the relationship between mindfulness and Black Lives Matter.
“In planning this semester we have been committed to continuing the important conversations on campus last year about race and about the transformation of our community into one that embodies the ideals of equity and justice that we espouse,” Duncan wrote. “ . . . We wanted to expand people’s perception of this term beyond ideas of self-care, stress-relief, or internal transformation and to think about what happens—what you notice, what becomes uncomfortable—when you do truly open your eyes and notice all around you.”
Duncan also shared that “Garza’s work has been focused on just that practice—opening our eyes to the struggles and, on a very basic level, the humanity of all people and then doing something to change the injustices we see.”
Lasting about an hour long, the talk included Garza’s speech and some open dialogue at the end, the latter giving audience members the opportunity to share thoughts and questions regarding some of the points Garza brought up. For several members of the audience, the evening was refreshing and, in many ways, eye-opening.
“I think the demystifying of Black Lives Matter was really important . . . in terms of saying what it is and what it isn’t, just to make that clear once and for all,” Arthur Mutijima ‘18 said. “This is the person who runs this organization saying, ‘this is what it is’ and ‘this is what it’s not’. Period. And I’m like, ‘Yes, thank you.’ That was great.”
Yabsera Faris ‘17, who serves as chair for the Social Justice Committee on campus, also made note of Garza’s emphasis on goals of the movement, which has stirred up controversy since its founding for having an non-inclusive motto. In particular, many critics have disparaged Black Lives Matter for not stating that “all lives matter.”
“Being at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI) such as Goucher, conversations on race and the interactions of it are always limiting and usually leave marginalized communities exhausted and neglected,” Faris wrote. “Although I felt like Garza’s talk was tailored to a white audience (which makes sense because Goucher is a PWI and white people tend to be the ones with the most misinformation about the #BlackLivesMatter organization), her mere presence as a queer Black woman and the eloquence and grace she brought to the stage left me confident in my own skin.”
Aside from elucidating the mission of Black Lives Matter, Garza also touched on the ways in which movements are inaugurated, as well as how to get involved and practice self-care.
“People ask me all the time, ‘How did you get your hashtag to start a movement?’ And the answer is, you don’t. Sorry,” Garza remarked. “Hashtags don’t start movements. People do. It is everyday, ordinary people . . . who come together, examine the problems that we face, try to understand what’s at the root of those problems, and begin to articulate a vision for something different. That is how movements begin.”
Garza also took the time to explain the definition of white supremacy, pinpointing it as “a system, the set of policies and practices, procedures, common sense, that says that some people deserve power and privilege at the expense of others.”
“We’re not talking about how white people are bad,” she continued. “What we’re talking about is a system that constructs everything around your needs, your wants, your desires—that places all of us within a context that is shaped by whiteness, that makes whiteness habitual, against which everything else is compared.”
The activist later added that white people, once mindful of the ongoing oppression of those of color, must join the fight against white supremacy. “Don’t just be an ally, but build a movement as co-conspirators to the black-led, anti-racist movement,” Garza urged.
During the talk, Faris observed that there weren’t many white students in the audience.
“I think when (white) privilege is talked about on Goucher’s campus, white people tend to remove themselves from the conversation because they think they are getting personally attacked or they feel guilty. However, white privilege is about power and the structures and policies that justify that some people deserve humanity and some people don’t,” Faris wrote. “During Garza’s speech she spoke candidly about white supremacy and whiteness which was something I wish more white students were there to hear.”
Faris also explained that while many students are quick to participate in protests or walk-outs on campus, she can name only a small number of white-identifying individuals “who are committed and taking responsibility of educating themselves and their peers.”
For Mutijima, the most thought-provoking feature of Garza’s speech was the beginning in which she addressed the United States as being “the land of indigenous people.”
“I’ve never heard a speaker do that before, preface a speech and giving thanks,” Mutijima pointed out. “That was just so powerful and set the tone for the rest of the talk by keeping it one hundred all the way.”
Garza also reminded the audience of the one-year anniversary of the Baltimore protests, also known as Baltimore Uprising, which ensued following Gray’s death. The protests began on April 18 of last year, and continued for another two weeks. More information about the programs and events being held to commemorate the experience can be found at the website for the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, located on East Pratt Street in Baltimore.