Fox News and other conservative outlets claim that anyone who says “Black Lives Matter” represents the movement as a whole. When a video surfaced of activists at the Minnesota State Fair walking behind a banner reading “Black Lives Matter” chanting, “Pigs in a blanket/Fry ’em like bacon,” Fox’s Elisabeth Hasselbeck asked why the larger movement hadn’t yet been classified as a hate group. Megyn Kelly contrasted reporting on Black Lives Matter with coverage of the Tea Party and claimed a “double standard.” After admitting the video showed a single incident, she said, “But suddenly the actions of a few do not apply to the many.” Other conservative outlets called the demonstrators a “branch” of the movement.
Why the confusion? I’d suggest it’s intentional. Conservatives want to distort the mission of Black Lives Matter because of what it represents: the potential to transform unfair and unequal power dynamics in our society, our economy, and in our democracy. We began the #BlackLivesMatter Network in 2013, and now “Black Lives Matter” has come to signify a larger movement for justice.
But who and what really is #BlackLivesMatter?
The #BlackLivesMatter Network was started by three Black women: me, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. We challenge anti-Black racism and state-sanctioned violence in all of its forms, through grassroots organizing, political education and leadership development, arts and culture, communications and media, policy advocacy, and healing the trauma of the violence our communities endure every day.
We began with a belief that technology can help amplify good work happening in communities. However, we also knew that technology cannot replace a base of people committed with a common vision, working together toward it. We wanted to use technology to unite people to accomplish amazing things in the service of Black communities.
We began with the personal and organizational relationships we have built through more than a decade of on-the-ground organizing for racial, economic, and gender justice. Those relationships gave rise to new relationships when we organized a Freedom Ride to Ferguson, where more than 500 Black people mobilized from the United States and Canada to support young people fighting for the dignity of their communities. We leveraged relationships to give a platform to young people who were risking their lives for freedom and democracy in the forgotten communities of America.
The #BlackLivesMatter Network is rooted in a deep and profound love for Black people, in the face of a set of systems that seek to deny us our basic humanity.
The Freedom Riders, inspired by the rebellion in Ferguson, went back to their communities to help ensure the stories of Black people were being told on our own terms. They returned home inspired by being in community with hundreds of other Black people from different experiences, perspectives, and identities. And they continued to organize. This is how #BlackLivesMatter became a network with chapters in many communities.
The BLM Network organized these Freedom Riders to participate in a Week of Action Against State-Sanctioned Violence, culminating in the International Day of Action Against Police Brutality on Oct. 22, 2014. They stopped freeways, occupied a local branch of the Department of Justice, did teach-ins and die-ins—demonstrations where people lie down as if they’re dead. More than 15 cities participated in these actions.
One month later, a grand jury did not indict former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, and the city went up in flames. One week later, a grand jury did not indict New York Police officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner. Protests erupted around the world. Around this time, with increasing prominence in the mainstream media, the label “Black Lives Matter” came to describe both the specific #BlackLivesMatter Network, and more generally, a human rights movement united in a demand that Black people deserve to live with dignity.
Today, the #BlackLivesMatter Network has a total of 26 local chapters—including two international chapters in Toronto, Canada, and Accra, Ghana. Chapters have an official registration process and are accountable to guiding principles of how we are with one another and how we are in the world. We are committed to living the world that we ultimately want to create.
I describe the origins of both the #BlackLivesMatter Network and the Black Lives Matter movement to illustrate three important points.
We are committed to living the world that we ultimately want to create.
First, the #BlackLivesMatter Network is rooted in a deep and profound love for Black people, in the face of a set of systems that seek to deny us our basic humanity. We’re united in a commitment to fighting back against anti-Black racism and state-sanctioned violence in all its forms. We are building an organization that has and will continue to shift the public narrative about anti-Black racism, and has and will move policy and cultural change at the local, state, and national level.
Second, the Black Lives Matter movement that has since emerged is also rooted in a similar set of principles (if not the same principles), and has become more diverse than the #BlackLivesMatter Network. It includes organizations like the Black Youth Project 100 and Southerners on New Ground. It includes faith leaders like Michael McBride of the Live Free Campaign, the PICO National Network, and Pastor Traci Blackmon from Ferguson, Missouri. It also includes people who don’t see themselves as a part of any organization but who are committed to ending violence against Black people.
Third, the #BlackLivesMatter Network is a part of, but is not, in and of itself, the movement. The emerging movement for human rights and Black equality is much larger than us.
And to describe it as a hate group or a terrorist organization is mere political hyperbole. But I would argue it’s hyperbole with a purpose. In response to a wave of protests that have galvanized hundreds of thousands of people around the world, many have responded with rhetoric designed to confuse and defuse. Besides questioning why Black Lives Matter isn’t labeled a hate group, or accusing it of being a terrorist organization, conservatives have challenged “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter.” These counter-messages attempt to erase the specificity of Black experience and portray a world in which nothing is ever about race, privilege, and power.
When people in power try to dismiss a movement as a mere slogan—as Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush did—that means something. It means the movement cannot be ignored, and must be undermined as simply nothing more than a brand, a hashtag, a slogan. It reduces “Black Lives Matter” to a commodity, for a society in which everything is commodity. But this apparent dismissal shows us that we’re pointed in the right direction, because the forces that be have been rattled to the point of needing to distort, discredit, and redirect the movement. That means they fear for their own power, and are coming to recognize ours.
Alicia Garza is an organizer, writer and freedom dreamer living, working, and loving in Oakland, California. She is a co-founder of the #BlackLivesMatter Network and is the special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance.