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“Movements Are Not Just About Protests”: BLM Co-Founder Alicia Garza on How to Build & Wield Power

StoryOctober 27, 2020
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In her new book, “The Purpose of Power,” Black Lives Matter co-creator Alicia Garza lays out how people can build power and effect change. “Movements are not just about protests,” she says. “Movements are absolutely about how we get more power into the hands of more people.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We’re spending the hour with Alicia Garza, the principal of Black Futures Lab, co-founder of Supermajority, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network and director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Her new book is just out. It’s called The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Alicia, I’d like to begin on your book. Could you talk about the title, How We Come Together When We Fall Apart? Explain to our listeners and our audience what you mean to say in the book.

ALICIA GARZA: Well, this book really does a few things. It is about how we build the kinds of movements that last, the kinds of movements that are able to win the changes that we seek, and, really, how it is that we transform the way that our lives are organized. And “how we come together when we fall apart” is a pithy way of talking about movement building. You know, one of the things that I like to remind people is that movements are not just about protests. Movements are absolutely about how we get more power into the hands of more people.

And frankly, what I’m offering here in this book is a reflection, not from an outside perspective, but certainly as somebody who has been building movements and has been organizing, campaigning all throughout this country for the last 20 years. And I place myself and my experiences inside of a historical context, and I talk about the powerful movements that have shaped my life. And I talk about how those movements have actually inspired me to build different movements, that are actually bent towards justice, not away from it.

But I also talk in the book about what it actually takes for us to come together. So often when we talk about building movements — right? — we try to reduce ourselves to the most common denominator and wash away all of the things that make us who we are. And, in fact, I make a different argument in this book. I say that we have to pay attention not just to dignity and survival, but we have to pay attention to the ways that race and class and gender and so many other ways of organizing us have impacted our ability to get more power into the hands of more people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: One of the things that struck me most in the book, I think it was in chapter 10, where you try to make a distinction between the rise and development or the evolution of the Occupy Wall Street movement and of the Black Lives Matter movement, and you say that Occupy Wall Street was a decentralized, leaderless movement, whereas Black Lives Matter saw itself as a decentralized, leader-full movement. Could you explain that?

ALICIA GARZA: Sure. Well, first and foremost, I do talk in the book a lot about how it’s hard to compare movements. But yet, every time we talk about Black Lives Matter, I think Occupy Wall Street tends to be a reference point that people use, and they will say things like, “Oh, well, Black Lives Matter is decentralized.” And I think that that’s not necessarily a term that we’ve used to describe ourselves.

But what I do here is I talk about the importance and the role of leadership. I talk about the fact that, you know, it’s important that we recognize that leadership is happening everywhere, and that while there are some forms of leadership that can be predatory or corrosive, leadership, in and of itself, doesn’t hold those tendencies. And so, one of the things that we try to interrogate in this chapter is, you know, what does leadership look like, and what are the kind of functions and roles that we need to play in movements for them to be successful, and, again, how do we put more power into the hands of more people.

I also talk in that chapter about the utility — right? — of not consolidating leadership inside of one, two or five people, that actually one of the lessons that we can learn from movements that predated us are that when movements have been consolidated inside of one person, when people have been thrust to the front and told to represent the movement, those leaders have often been the subject of attacks and assassinations. And it meant that it sent those movements reeling, and it took them a long time to rebuild. Rebuild they did, but it took a long time to restabilize. You know, with Black Lives Matter, we have an emphasis — right? — on developing many leaders. And that has proven to be successful. I think it is one of the core factors to how this movement has been able to spread globally.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m wondering if you can talk about the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, talk — go back to 2013, 2012, the murder of Trayvon Martin, the acquittal of the white vigilante, George Zimmerman, and how you and Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors came together. Now, that happened in Sanford. I also couldn’t help but notice: When President Trump resumed his campaigning, what was the first place he went to? It reminded me of Reagan in Philadelphia, Mississippi. He went to Sanford, in Florida, to have that first campaign rally after he was sick. But can you talk about those — that coming together of the three of you and how you coined that term, “Black Lives Matter”?

ALICIA GARZA: Sure. Well, we’ve told this story a million times, and so I want to actually talk about, you know, what are the implications of this movement that we have been so honored to be the smallest component of.

You know, number one, here we are, seven years later, and we’re seeing a second eruption all across the globe of Black Lives Matter. But what we’re seeing this time, which I think is different than the first time around, is a couple of things. Number one, we are still seeing the presence of vigilantes, in addition to police, enacting violence in our communities. But I think what we’re seeing is a spreading of this movement, not just amongst people of color or Black folks — right? — but really across demographics. And, you know, that has meant that actually Black Lives Matter has really become a part of the muscle memory of this nation and also of the globe. It’s inspiring people to fight back, from Nigeria — right? — all the way to the U.K., to Germany — right? — to Australia. This truly is a global movement. And so, I think that’s something for us to feel proud of.

I think the thing for us to also feel proud of is that this movement is maturing. You know, I say in the book that, initially, I thought that this was going to be the story of Black Lives Matter, about how we’ve come together and what we’ve been able to impact. I thought it would be a book doing a lot of myths and facts. But, in fact, that’s not what this book became. And I’m really glad it didn’t. Actually, Black Lives Matter, our story is still being written. It’s being written by the hundreds and thousands of activists across the country who are working hard on a piece of legislation called the BREATHE Act, which I think can be considered our generation’s version of the Civil Rights Act. We are working hard to mobilize and activate our communities to be able to impact the decisions that are impacting our lives every single day. And we are reaching out beyond the normal circle of folks who I think we can always count on to show up, right? This is a moment that is calling us to grow our movement besides and outside of the usual choir. And I’m so, so proud that this movement is doing that.

At the same time, this book is an opportunity for people to figure out what is your role in this upcoming period in history. And, number one, how were you shaped? How did you get here? What influences have helped you see the world the way that you do? And given that and given your experiences, what is the role that you can play in helping to move this movement forward?

And I hope what people get from this book is two things. Number one, that it’s deeply important for us to not be ravaged by cynicism, that I talk about how, in this book, you know, hope is not the absence of despair. I feel hopeful and devastated at the same time. But part of how I am able to generate that hope over and over again is by coming back to my purpose. And my purpose is to build power for my communities. And I want to help activate and inspire other people to do the same.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m wondering, in terms of reaching other sectors that previously had not been reached, when you see things like the National Basketball Association printing “Black Lives Matter” on the hardwood floor of the NBA championship game, or when you see other corporations at the same time adopting “Black Lives Matter” as a slogan, do you have any concerns about the possible cooptation of capitalist America of this movement that only a few years ago was regarded by most of the establishment as a fringe movement?

ALICIA GARZA: You know, I think it’s important for us to remember that change is not linear. And one of the things that I’ve been privy to over this last year is that there are real reckonings happening in every sector across this nation and throughout the globe.

Of course, when this movement breaks into the mainstream, it absolutely has the potential to be symbolized and in some ways coopted by corporations who want to use the language of Black Lives Matter but don’t actually want to make Black lives matter.

But I think we’ve also seen ways in which people have pushed it a lot farther. In the case of the NBA and the WNBA, these players used their platform to educate millions and millions of people, who watch them for entertainment, on the politics that were happening around them. That is significant. These players have organized themselves to turn arenas into voting areas for people to go, knowing that in their communities — right? — that the places where people can access their vote are shrinking, so they have expanded that. That is important.

And so I think we’ve got both sides to this, right? There’s the symbolism and the substance. And what I’m seeing more and more of is people with large platforms, that they’re usually using for products, use those platforms for politics. And that, I think, represents a concrete shift that we should be celebrating and applauding.

AMY GOODMAN: Alicia, we are speaking to you one week before Election Day. The election actually is a whole season, as we’ve heard something like 63 million people have voted, maybe the — to say the least, smash every record in terms of voter participation, in every different group. And I’m wondering, in these last minutes we have, if you can talk about the significance of people voting, participating, at a time where people may have in the past chosen not to. They don’t feel that candidates represent all of their views. But also, what happens next, when you have, if Joe Biden wins — continually saying he won’t end fracking, he hasn’t endorsed the Green New Deal, putting down defunding the police — what role movements play there, and if President Trump continues in office, whether he wins or not?

ALICIA GARZA: It’s an important question. And I’ll add here that I think a few things are necessary. So, number one, I get it. I mean, for people who are disappointed in the way that this democracy is failing us and has failed us, you’re absolutely right. You know, coming from Black communities, what I know is that, frankly, even though Black people are the strongest base of the Democratic Party, that time and time again Black people’s concerns and needs have not been addressed.

But the only way that that shifts is by Black people and other communities — right? — getting organized and using their vote as a form of protest, using their vote as a form of being able to exercise power. And my friend Rashad Robinson from Color of Change always says that, you know, you know you have power if people are afraid to disappoint you. Well, right now people are not afraid to disappoint us. But I think that could actually shift in this election cycle. With a massive turnout, it really shows what the mandates are for the future of this nation.

And certainly, our work doesn’t end there. We have to work to transform how this system functions. We are seeing the impacts of a clear and strong and focused movement who has been focused on building power for the last three decades. Now here they are, and they are fighting for the House, they’re fighting for the Senate, they’re fighting for the last one-third of statehouses throughout the country, and they are also fighting for the Supreme Court, and they’re fighting for the White House. They are not all aligned on everything. Not all of their elected officials represent everything that they care about. But because they have come together with a clear goal, we are now seeing the impacts of their level of organization. We’re seeing the impacts of their ability to build the kind of infrastructure that is needed to take the power that they want.

And so, I think, for us, moving forward, there are some questions laying in front of us. Certainly, I’ve been disappointed by positions that Joe Biden has taken on. And he was not my first choice, my second choice, my third choice, and not even really my eighth choice. But here we are. The contest is now between Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and Donald Trump and Mike Pence. But much bigger than that, the contest is about whether or not we are able to have free and fair elections in this country. And this contest is about what is going to be the future of this country. And frankly, that doesn’t just play out at the ballot box.

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

ALICIA GARZA: That is going to be played out by movements. And so, that is why this book is so important. It helps give us tips and tools about how to build the kinds of movements that can last and that can win.

AMY GOODMAN: Alicia Garza, we want to thank you so much for being with us, principal of Black Futures Lab, co-founder of Supermajority and Black Lives Matter Global Network. Her new book, The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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