What it Means to Rise

Alicia Garza ’02 and the spark that started a movement.

Three simple words started a global movement. Three simple words, born from tragedy, frustration, and pain over the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman.

Jurors found the neighborhood watch volunteer acted in self-defense when he shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager returning home from the store with a bag of Skittles and iced tea. As a wave of hopelessness surged over social media, with posts of anguish and disappointment with the justice system, Alicia Garza ’02 wrote her own Facebook post, a call to action that ended with a wholehearted expression of love: Black people. I love you. I love us. We matter. Our lives matter.

Those three final words resonated with Garza’s friend and fellow activist, Patrisse Cullors, who amended the sentiment and added a hashtag: #BlackLivesMatter. Another friend and activist, Opal Tometi, supported the message, and from there it went viral, appearing on social feeds across the nation, including my own. It was beautifully simple and unapologetic—a declaration of love and acknowledgment of our existence. It resonated with those exhausted from institutional racism. It reminded those who feel erased that our lives, the lives of our children and families, are to be valued just like other lives.

As the message continued to strike a chord and the movement gained further momentum, its three founders were thrust into the spotlight and I realized that I knew Garza, that we were linked. Not just by those words that captured what so many were feeling, but by who we were, and where we came from.

 

Before I became a journalist and Garza an internationally known activist, we were UC San Diego students, both finding our passions in the late ’90s. Looking back, I realize Garza (then Alicia Schwartz) and I crossed paths many times. I worked at the Office of Academic Support & Instructional Services (OASIS) with students of color and was active in organizations related to diversity and feminism. She was involved in campus politics, likewise advocating for diversity. We had common friends, and the shared desire to take the knowledge we gained from our education back to underserved communities. We both graduated in 2002, but ironically, I knew her only in passing. I recall seeing her at my second home, the Cross-Cultural Center. I was probably on my way to a function for the then-African American Student Union while she was there for a student activist meeting, perhaps. We likely acknowledged each other with a nod and a smile, what Black students do on campuses where there are so few of us.

It was different meeting up with Garza outside her downtown Oakland office. Being both Black women from the Bay Area who attended UC San Diego, we have an unspoken familiarity and ease comfortably into conversation. We meet outside the National Domestic Workers Alliance, where she is director of strategy and partnership, an important position that helps many marginalized people, yet one often overshadowed by her role as co-founder of Black Lives Matter. Garza’s passion for defending people’s rights can be traced back to middle and high school, where she first advocated for access to information on reproductive health and contraceptives. However, she didn’t arrive at UC San Diego with dreams of being a full-time activist.

Journalist Jeneé Darden ’02 only knew Alicia Garza ’02 in passing while on campus, but the two connected for this article. Photo: Jan Sturmann

“I thought I would be an architect or something,” Garza recalls. But a human sexuality class shifted her path. Things changed when her professor, whom she describes as a funny guy from Santa Cruz, screened a documentary about Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger.

“She was a complicated woman,” Garza says, regarding Sanger being a force in reproductive rights, yet a supporter of racial eugenics. “On the one hand, she was driven to get what she needed. On the other hand, she used racism to do it. That didn’t seem right to me. It sparked me to look into more.”

Garza would ultimately go on to be a different kind of architect—one for change. A sociology and anthropology double major at Marshall College, she became interested in student politics after her roommate, Dylan de Kervor ’02 joined a slate of other activists and swept the A.S. election in 2001. De Kervor won the Vice President–External seat. “The external office felt like a home for people of color to be involved,” says de Kervor, who is now an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. “The external office was involved in engaging with the community and UC students across the state.”

Garza got involved with A.S. and traveled often to other UC campuses, where she worked closely with the UCSA, or University of California Student Association. She also began making her mark on her home campus. “She immediately stood out as someone who was connecting our struggles,” says fellow activist Alex Tom ’99 of his first time meeting Garza. Now the executive director of the Center for Empowered Politics in Oakland, Tom, along with Garza and other students, was among the first to advocate for campus janitors to have better wages.

Garza was also on the team that organized the first UC-wide Women of Color Conference at UC San Diego in 2002. “It was spurred by some of the work we were doing with UCSA and sharing the experiences of women of color throughout the system, as well as understanding how alienated people felt,” she says. With the theme of Breaking Chains, Creating Links, the conference encouraged women from across the UC system to mobilize and discuss issues such as activism, the prison-industrial complex and interracial relationships. The conference attracted international attendees, including women from South Africa. “Nearly 20 years ago she was ahead of her time,” Tom recalls, “already speaking truth to power and talking about our collective liberation.”

Twenty years ago, one couldn’t have imagined how much could be said with just three words typed into a phone. But in August 2014, one year after Garza’s post, the Black Lives Matter movement went offline and onto the streets, as well onto as television screens nationwide. A group of more than 500 supporters took part in a “Freedom Ride” to Ferguson, Missouri, with the goal to support and organize protesters after the police shooting of Michael Brown, another unarmed black teenager. The killing was the last straw for a community where racism was a major problem for black residents, and the unrest in the city went on for days.

This would be the first massive public gathering under the Black Lives Matter banner, and though Garza and her co-founders were present, she points out that the movement is non-centralized, with no one governing body or headquarters, but rather chapters of activists organizing efforts under a unifying message. “We created Black Lives Matter not as a plea for people to care,” Garza said in a recent speech back on campus, “we created it as an opportunity for black people and our allies to get organized and start to develop, and implement, and win solutions to some of the biggest problems that our country faces.”

Today there are 40 Black Lives Matter chapters in four countries, and the movement is vocal about including people from all backgrounds: immigrants, people with disabilities, and all facets of the LGBTQ spectrum.

And though protest footage is most often the face served to the public, Garza also clarifies how their fight for justice goes far beyond picket signs and marches. “Black Lives Matter does a lot of policy work,” she says. People may assume they’re not active when they are not seen publicly protesting, but as Garza put it, “Protesting is like a physical demonstration of people’s anger, but there are other things that you have to do in order to change laws. And it doesn’t involve a bullhorn.”

For example, in 2018 then-California Governor Jerry Brown signed groundbreaking bills related to police transparency. One required police departments to release audio and the video footage of a shooting or other circumstances of severe force within 45 days. Another bill gave public access to internal investigations of officer-involved shootings, and instances of officers accused of lying or committing sexual assault. “That’s the work we’ve been doing,” says Garza.

That work has its champions, as well as detractors—with much of the opposition centered on, of all things, the movement’s name. Early opponents reacted to the phrase “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter.” To this, Garza points out how the two are hardly mutually exclusive; one simply follows from the other. “Black Lives Matter doesn’t equate to only black lives matter,” she says. “All lives do matter—including Black people. It’s a call for Black people to be valued and respected like others.”

Still, opponents of Black Lives Matter have accused the organization of being a terror group, anti-police and racist against whites. Even the government is keeping an eye on them. “Our organization and our movement got us FBI designation,” Garza says. In 2017, reports from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security were released showing the organization was under government surveillance and seen as a threat. Other past Black activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were also monitored by the FBI. “That’s history repeating itself,” says Garza.

This scrutiny is just one of the ways Garza’s life has changed since that post. Between her heavy travel schedule, professional workload, writing a book and the emotional labor that can come with so many roles, balance can be hard. “I try to keep things light, even though I know that things are pretty dark. That’s helpful for my own mental health,” she says. “I keep a very close circle of people around me that help give me perspective, but also have my back. Things are less scary when you know that you have community. That’s really important.”

One of those in her circle is legendary activist and fellow UC San Diego alumna Angela Davis, MA ’69. “That’s my people,” Garza says. “She’s an inspiration to me and certainly a teacher and friend. She always reminds me to be humble. She doesn’t romanticize things that I think people romanticize about her. So even this whole idea and practice about being a revolutionary, you know people want to wear it like a jacket. But she spent time in jail, has been threatened, and has FBI files on her. That is not sexy.”

There are activists from Davis’ era still in prison and living in exile. Davis has told Garza she doesn’t want to see that legacy for her.

“The best advice she’s ever given me,” says Garza, “is how it is so important for our movement to be able to operate above ground. The goal is not to be as extreme as you can. The goal is to stay free, and your people free, and be able to do the work that we do. That’s important. We’re in a moment right now where I don’t even think we’ve seen the worst of the attacks on the work that we do.”

Her college roommate, de Kervor, also is there to lift her up. Though they live on opposite coasts, they still keep in touch. She says the Garza she knows is hilarious, fun to hang out with, and above all, kind. de Kervor was a freshman when her mother passed away, and Garza helped her through the loss. “I don’t know how I would’ve made it without her,” de Kervor says. “She made sure I ate and stayed in school. She is everything you could ever ask for in a friend.”

Garza puts that kind of heart for people into her organizing. Edwina Welch, DEd ’09, director of the Cross-Cultural Center, has known Garza since she was a student, and isn’t surprised Garza extended her advocacy to uplift others. She recalled a talk Garza gave on campus in recent years: “There was this idea of her saying, ‘I honor and love my black people, but I know it’s not just black people suffering. We’re not going to get there unless we all get there.”

These days, with the momentum behind Black Lives Matter, Garza is less involved with the movement, pursuing other social justice issues. In her role with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Garza and her colleagues work to organize and advocate for laws that include labor protections for domestic workers: nannies, housekeepers and home health care workers, many of whom are immigrant women and women of color. Since these workers have multiple employers, they have more difficulties in organizing for labor rights.

Garza and her colleagues are trying to fix this gap, not only with traditional grassroots organizing, but with technology as well: “We are launching a platform called Alia for domestic workers’ employers to pay into, so that they can have access to health insurance, time off and paid leave. Right now, at the federal level, those things just are not provided.”

Garza hasn’t slowed her commitment to the Black community, either. Last year she launched the Black Futures Lab, an organization devoted to empowering Black people in the electoral process. One way they’re doing this is by a census project. “We collect data on the experiences that Black folks have and what we want for our future. We also train Black communities how to translate solutions into policy that can implemented in cities and states.” So far they’ve gathered data from 20,000 Black people nationwide.

Photo: Jan Sturmann

As our walk winds down at Oakland City Hall, I ask her if she would ever run for political office. “I’ve considered it,” she replies. She tells me she’s thought about running for mayor. I ask her if she’d ever run for president.

“If I had a good crew, I would.”

Back at her office, Garza and I part ways with smiles and a heartfelt “Take care of yourself.” I continue down the busy Oakland street, past the Black art gallery and café packed with a multicultural crowd, where different languages fill the air right along with the car horns. I don’t know what the future will look like for Black people, or our nation. The news can be so bleak sometimes. But after talking with Garza, I am reminded there are people fighting for a better tomorrow. Maybe one day we as a nation won’t have to ask in anguish, “How did we ever get here?” but instead ask with awe, because we finally got it right.