Black Lives Matter's Alicia Garza: ‘Leadership today doesn't look like Martin Luther King’

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 evolution of Black Lives Matter, Garza says, has been 'deeply humbling, and super weird to watch'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.

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