Part 2: #BlackLivesMatter Founders on Immigration & the Fight for "Safety Beyond Policing"

July 24, 2015
Web Exclusive


Alicia Garza

co-founder of Black Lives Matter and special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Patrisse Cullors

co-founder of Black Lives Matter, director of Truth and Reinvestment at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and founder of Dignity and Power Now, a grassroots organization in Los Angeles fighting for the dignity and power of incarcerated people and their families.

Opal Tometi

co-founder of Black Lives Matter and executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.

We continue our conversation with the three women who co-founded Black Lives Matter. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi talk about immigration, LGBT rights and their own personal experiences with hyper-policing. "We think that our actions, our behaviors, our everyday trying-to-get-by, shouldn’t be criminalized," Tometi says. "I’m really looking for an agenda that looks at safety for our communities beyond policing."

Watch part one of this interview.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, and we’re continuing with part two of our conversation with the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi. One of the things that Sandra Bland’s sister, Sharon Cooper, has repeatedly said is how much it means to her, to the family, that so many thousands of people are not letting Sandy die, not letting her memory die, what she stood for, because she, too, was a member of the Black Lives Matter movement. Now, you’re all gathered in Cleveland for a major summit this weekend, but we wanted to ask each of you just how the whole idea of Black Lives Matter, even coining that term, began. Who would like to start? I mean, were you sitting at a kitchen table?

ALICIA GARZA: You know, we often joke and say this isn’t—

AMY GOODMAN: Alicia Garza.

ALICIA GARZA: This isn’t a startup. We didn’t have a strategic plan. But really, Black Lives Matter was born out of the incredible pain and rage that each of us feels and that black people across the world feel when any of our lives are taken unnecessarily, particularly in relationship to state-sanctioned violence. The phrase was coined on Facebook, and it was really a response to the responses that I was hearing after the verdict in the Trayvon Martin trial. And those responses really ranged from responses that we call kind of social justice cynicism, right, where folks were talking about how the criminal justice system doesn’t work for black people, which is true, and then, on the other hand, there was a real narrative around respectability politics and how if Trayvon had only pulled up his pants and if we just vote and if we just get a better education, then somehow we can save ourselves from untimely deaths, when the reality is that structural racism kills black people every single day. In fact, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement has documented that every 28 hours a black person in this country is murdered by police, security guards or vigilantes.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrisse Cullors, when you stood up on that stage with Martin O’Malley and said, "Black lives matter," and talked about black women lives mattering, one of the things that Governor O’Malley said was "Black lives matter. White lives matter." He later sort of walked it back. But I was wondering your response, and also, to all three of the Democratic presidential candidates, how have they—have they—reached out to you—Martin O’Malley, Bernie Sanders and, as well, Hillary Clinton, who have all now addressed your issue since that demonstration, that rebellion on stage?

PATRISSE CULLORS: Yes. Governor O’Malley’s office has not—the team has not reached out to me personally. Senator Sanders’ team has reached out repeatedly. I received a text message from someone who, second-hand, said that Hillary Clinton wanted to reach out to me, but I haven’t heard from her. But I think, you know, we would be willing to have conversations. We want to have open public dialogues with each of the candidates. We will not be endorsing any candidates, but we think it’s important that we really challenge them on their platforms. And we think that we’ve been successful at sparking the debate, and we hope that it will translate into real policy change and a real agenda.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are some of those police changes you’d like to see?

PATRISSE CULLORS: I think a number of things. I mean, the first thing is actually having a profound conversation about the realities of black life here in this country, in particular, and the history that comes with the decimation of black communities. I think, from my work, I focus on mass incarceration and state violence. And so, we have one million black people living inside U.S. jails and prisons. We need to be talking about that. What are we going to do to reduce the jail and prison population? And what are we going to ensure that when those folks come home, they actually have jobs to go back to, they actually have their voting rights restored? I want to talk about what it means to divest from policing and divest from this prison system, that has completely destroyed black families across the nation, and reinvesting into poor communities, reinvesting into allowing us to have access to healthy food, access to jobs, access to shelter. It’s really simple, and yet it hasn’t—it hasn’t been done.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Opal Tometi, can you talk about what policing and immigration policy, which is what you have worked on, what would this look like if black lives mattered?

OPAL TOMETI: If black lives mattered, I believe that policing and immigration enforcement would not be the devastating force that it is in our communities. The reality is that it’s rampant and that we have theories that basically criminalize all of our communities and leave us either brutalized at the hands of police in the street, it leaves us languishing in prison cells or detention centers, sometimes deported, and it leaves our communities in shambles. Right? Family members being torn apart—one family member in one country, one in another—children who are citizens of the United States having a mom or a dad or aunt or uncle who has been ripped apart from their family. And so, I think if "black lives matter" was truly to be embraced and really actualized in this nation, that we wouldn’t see that. We would see a complete divestment from all apparatuses that criminalize our communities, that leave us languishing at every level. And we would see a reinvestment in resources that would empower our communities and that would allow us to thrive. What we’re seeing now is this complete devaluation of black life.

And I’m really concerned about things like the "broken windows" theory, right, this broken windows theory being a neoconservative agenda that was produced in the '80s and ’90s, and it's really having devastating impact on our communities even today. This theory basically premises that if we are to be safe, quote-unquote, "safe," that we need many police in our communities. And ultimately what this looks like is the hyper-policing of low-income black communities all across the nation. And we’re seeing this happen in places like New York City, where we have the commissioner, Bill Bratton, that’s terrorizing our communities, that just got 1,300 new NYPD officers on the streets of New York. They’re rolling out new programs, and they’re becoming more and more embedded in our neighborhoods. And we’re basically under surveillance 24/7, right? We’re being profiled in everyday things that we’re doing in our lives—walking down the street, dancing on a subway. Perhaps somebody’s sleeping on a park bench; they’re being approached by police. And we think that this—our actions, our behaviors, our everyday trying-to-get-by, shouldn’t be criminalized. And so, I’m really looking for an agenda that looks at safety for our communities beyond policing.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrisse Cullors, you coined the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. You, yourself, have deep personal experience, with your brother within the prison system. Can you tell us about him?

PATRISSE CULLORS: Yes. I grew up in a neighborhood that was heavily policed by LAPD, and witnessed most of the young people, at the time I was 12 years old, be incarcerated in some sort of youth authorities. When I was 16 years old, my brother, who was 19, was arrested and put into L.A. County jail. Within the first couple days, he was brutally beaten by the sheriff’s department and was subsequently tortured for a hundred days after that. He was disappeared from our family. He was neglected inside the jails. And he was actually diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder during his stay inside the L.A. County jails.

This had a deep impact on my family, on my life, and it was really sort of a turning point for me, with this clarity. It was before Black Lives Matter existed, but it was this clarity that they don’t actually care about black folks and that it’s going to take a movement, it’s going to take a campaign, it’s going to take a significant amount of work to really challenge and push back on these institutions, who have devalued our lives. And so, that experience transformed my own understanding of law enforcement. It transformed my own understanding of incarceration. And it put me on a path to really situate myself inside of a larger movement.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Patrisse Cullors, was anybody ever held responsible for what they did to your brother in jail?

PATRISSE CULLORS: Never. Never. My brother, once he was released, we had no idea he had any sort of mental health issues, because they did not inform us. They released him in the middle of a manic episode. My mother tried to call the sheriff’s department over and over again. They gave her the runaround. When she called the psychiatrist to get more information on what happened to my brother, the psychiatrist told my mother that she was rude and she had called way too many times. And so, there was just absolute neglect for my family, as well. And this is typical, this sort of treatment of family members when it comes to their loved ones inside U.S. jails and prisons. It’s typical to see family members be treated pretty badly. No one was ever held accountable. But later on, I started an organization called Dignity and Power Now that was really in an effort to bring to light the issues inside the county jails and to build a real campaign and movement inside L.A. County to challenge the sheriff’s department.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Alicia Garza, you speak from personal experience, especially around the issue of economic justice—your mom, a domestic worker. You used the term "Black Lives Matter" in what you called a "love letter to black folks." Explain.

ALICIA GARZA: That’s right. Well, the night that George Zimmerman was acquitted, I think, for black people all over the world, there was a collective feeling of incredible grief and incredible rage. And that verdict not only let George Zimmerman go home to his family, but it sent a message to black people everywhere that our lives did not matter. And so, you know, the phrase itself, in the love letter that I wrote to black people, was really a way for me to soothe my own heart, a way for me to try to make sense of how is it that we can live in a world that supposedly the U.S. is the most democratic nation in the world, but yet there are people inside of our own borders who do not have access to democracy, who do not have access to our fundamental right to live with dignity and respect.

And so, that love letter was really a way to counter some of the really negative messages that were not only being sent by our legal and our judicial system, but the negative messages that we send each other sometimes. When a child’s life is taken, how is it that we can then look for reasons after the fact to blame them for their own death? When a child’s life is taken, how can we say that it’s about the fact that they sag their pants or about the fact that they wore a hoodie, rather than it being about a disease that this country has in our very DNA, where the founding documents of this country say that black people are only three-fifths of a human being? And so, that letter that evening, that love letter to black people, was a way for us to say, "You know, we don’t deserve this. We did not create these systems. And so, we need to stop blaming each other for conditions that we didn’t create, that this is a moment for us to come together, to love on each other, to celebrate all that we have accomplished and done in the face of extreme adversity, and this is a moment for us to leverage our collective power to transform the world."

Quite frankly, black folks have always been at the core of what it’s meant to make this nation human. And so, we are drawing on that legacy. And that night, we drew on that legacy. And we, even though we had no idea that this was going to take the world by storm, were so proud. This is our moment. This is our time to restore humanity to a country that has been so deeply, deeply flawed.

AMY GOODMAN: Alicia Garza, we just recently came back from Charleston. You have called what happened there, the Dylann Roof shooting of nine African Americans in church, domestic terrorism. Now, James Comey, the director of the FBI, does not agree. When the Chattanooga killings happened—now five men in the military were killed; Mohammod Abdulazeez, the alleged shooter—immediately Comey called it domestic terrorism. Can you address this?

ALICIA GARZA: You know, it doesn’t surprise me that the FBI director would not call it domestic terrorism, but it certainly saddens me. You know, that narrative, that term, "terrorism," is a racialized term. And certainly, when Cliven Bundy threatened war against the U.S. government, and in fact encouraged his followers to shoot back against federal government officials, they refused to call that terrorism. But let a black person walk down the street and look the wrong way, and suddenly we are terrorists. Let another person of color walk down the street and look the wrong way, and suddenly we are terrorists.

So, absolutely, what happened in South Carolina was an act of domestic terrorism. Dylann Roof wrote it himself. From the words of himself, he said, "I cannot let this go on any longer. You are taking our"—I think he said something to the degree of "You are raping our women, and this has to stop now." He even said that he thought about not killing the people in the church, because they were so nice to him, but he knew that he had to follow through with it. If that is not an admission, right, that he intended to kill people based on an ideology that he had been taught somewhere, right, then I don’t know what else is.

But again, it doesn’t surprise me that there would be such dissonance between our state apparatus and the experiences that we have every single day. That dissonance is exactly what we’re trying to close the gap around. We need to make sure that we have an honest, honest conversation and that we engage honest practices around how racism operates in this country. It’s not just about people being mean to each other. It’s very literally about our life-or-death chances. And that’s what’s important here.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Patrisse Cullors, you mentioned earlier that the number of times people are found hanging in their cells is far more frequent than we would think. And you’ve worked, in particular, on the incidence and the treatment of mentally ill prisoners in L.A. County jails. So could you talk about the links between mental health, race and mass incarceration?

PATRISSE CULLORS: Yes, U.S. jails and prisons are de facto mental health institutions. Los Angeles, Cook County—which is in Chicago—New York City, all three of those jails have the highest rates of folks with mental illness. L.A. County jail is the largest mental health institution inside this country. That is a crisis. And who ends up in those jails with mental illness are mostly black people, are mostly brown people.

And so, we have this moment where we have an opportunity to actually support human beings. And we have an opportunity to actually support people in their mental health issues. But instead, we choose to criminalize them. Instead, we choose to put them in cells for 24 hours a day. We choose to torture them, essentially. Imagine having bipolar disorder and being unable to see your family. Imagine being overmedicated on a daily basis. Imagine being yelled at by guards when you’re in the middle of an episode. This is what happens in our country right now. We have people who are suffering, I mean deeply suffering, and they’re not being treated well at all. They’re completely dehumanized. And so, I think what we have is a public health crisis. I think the issues around incarceration, police, the court systems, it’s a public health crisis.

We’ve chosen to allow for police to become the social workers. They’re the mental health providers. They’ve become the de facto healthcare providers. That’s absolutely ridiculous. And we’re feeling the weight of it. Many family members end up feeling the weight of that, that outcome. And so, I think in L.A. what we’ve been trying to do is, one, ensure that folks inside L.A. County jails with mental illness are actually provided treatment, that they don’t end up inside L.A. County jails, and then we’re also trying to push a larger conversation about this being a public health crisis. At this point, I think the number is half the people inside U.S. jails and prisons have some sort of mental health diagnosis. They either came inside with a diagnosis, or, because of the conditions inside prisons and jails, they developed some sort of diagnosis.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking about the intersection of your personal lives and experiences, Opal Tometi, your involvement with immigration issues, and you talk about, in particular, black immigrants being discriminated against. Talk about your own life experience—when you were 16, a friend of yours, her father deported, and ending up living with you, and other experiences like this.

OPAL TOMETI: Yeah, so, in this country, we have a number—11 million immigrants, right? Eleven million undocumented immigrants, let me correct myself. And of that immigrant population, of black immigrants who are undocumented, we have about 500,000 undocumented black immigrants. This leaves for a very precarious life, where you’re trying to make ends meet, where you’re trying to provide for one’s family, where you’re trying to get maybe services and support and help to have a dignified life.

In my own personal experience, I’ve had different family members who have been held in immigration detention because they’ve had some sort of challenge financially, and they were making difficult decisions, and that led to their immigration detention, and eventually deportation. My own best friend was left behind with her three younger sisters, and that meant that as U.S. citizens of a single mom, they were here trying to navigate the system as minors. And this is happening all across the country.

And oftentimes black immigrants get invisiblized in the larger discourse. But the reality is, if you’re black, you’re in America, you are being profiled and targeted anyway. And so, we see disproportionate rates of immigration detention and deportation of black immigrants. Similar to the way that sentencing works in this country, we’re seeing black immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa cop to plea deals and not know what the consequences really will be. And ultimately, the consequences likely look like them having to leave the country and being forcibly deported.

And so, for us, we’re really concerned about this. And I’m also really concerned about the fact that black immigrants are experiencing disproportionate rates of unemployment in the immigrant population. They’re also experiencing much discrimination in the workplace, as well as the lowest wages of any foreign-born population. And so I think it’s really important that we understand the ways in which blackness plays out, right, and discrimination against black people impacts different communities in different ways, but ultimately leaves them undermined and really devalued in our society.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Alicia Garza, you’re married to a trans—your husband is transgender. Can you talk about the intersection of the Black Lives Matter movement with the LGBTQ movement?

ALICIA GARZA: Sure. I mean, the simplest way to say it is that black people, we are everyone. And so, there is no separation between the black community and the LGBT community. As a black queer woman myself, I often have to assert, right, that it’s not one or the other, but that I am all of these things. And, you know, honestly, what I’m so excited about this weekend is that there are so many people who are coming together from all different backgrounds, and what unites us all is that we are black. And it’s an opportunity for us to witness our complexity.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors, co-founders of Black Lives Matter. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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