Alicia Garza: Taking Black Lives Matter to Another Dimension

Alicia Garza

We don't live in a two-dimensional world, says Alicia Garza, the 34-year-old who cofounded Black Lives Matter with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. As a black queer woman (whose partner is trans) and a longtime advocate for economic justice and fair working conditions, Garza understands these intersections better than most. 

"Just like we don't live in a two-dimensional world, we don't live two-dimensional lives," Garza says. "Our lives are multidimensional, and because of the systems that we live under, there are particular punishments and sanctions for different aspects of who we are."

While those punishments and sanctions may look different for different people, they're meted out by the same system. In America, that so-called justice is often delivered by law enforcement and disproportionately impacts people of color and LGBT people and anyone else deemed to be "other."

That's why Garza, who serves as the special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, refuses to be defined by any singular aspect of her identity. And it's why she pushes to make more space in the Black Lives Matter movement for all Afro-descended people who have suffered at the hands of police, vigilantes, and a culture that consistently devalues anyone who isn't white, straight, cisgender, male, and affluent.

As a rallying cry, Black Lives Matter has sparked a litany of responses. None are quite as irksome, though, as the retort "All Lives Matter," notoriously uttered by Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton in June, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley at a the progressive Netroots Nation Conference in July. As attendees booed the former Baltimore mayor's comments, Black Lives Matter activists engaged in a tense exchange calling for justice for the lives of black women killed in police custody. O'Malley subsequently apologized for claiming that "Black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter."

When asked about her reaction to the "all lives matter" rejoinder, Garza sighs. The phrase, she says, is "really a way to not deal with the question of race at all, to kind of deny that racism exists." 

"It's also pretty callous, in my opinion, to say 'all lives matter,' when black folks are being killed every 28 hours by police or vigilantes," she continues. "So that All Lives Matter thing, at its most nefarious, represents to me a lack of humanity, to put it really bluntly."

But that doesn't mean that Garza rejects all modifications of the rallying cry she created with two other black women. 

"Black Trans Lives Matter, to me, is really different," she says. "I think it speaks most directly to the marginalization and disenfranchisement of trans people within the black community." 

It also speaks to who is considered and actively welcomed as part of the black community, Garza notes. Modifying the fundamental proclamation that Black Lives Matter forces activists and allies to consider which black lives matter, and presses for the inclusion of black trans women in that call for justice. 

"What we're really trying to do there is say that black trans folks are sitting at a particular intersection that deserves attention, and that also deserves as much priority as we place when the lives of cis black men are taken," Garza explains. 

Garza's social media feed is peppered with stories about the 21 transgender women killed in the U.S. this year, the majority of whom are black. Although most of these women died at the hands of a presumably transphobic assailant or former intimate partner, Garza argues that the environment that allowed these women to be killed is the same that facilitates the longstanding pattern of unarmed black men being gunned down by law enforcement and vigilantes. 

Frustrated by the cultural hierarchy that prioritizes the lives of black cisgender men over the lives of black women (cis and trans alike), Garza laments the fact that city-wide, national demonstrations have yet to occur for black trans women killed this year. But she understands why. 

"I think that that's about cisgender privilege," she says solemnly. "And it's really also very much about a lack of understanding, or acknowledgement, of the existence of trans people. Then of course, it's also very much about patriarchy. We're seeing the re-emergence of a really vibrant trans rights movement; And at the same time, a real desire to complexify who are black people in this country and around the world." 

Garza knows that complexity makes some people uneasy. While she's willing to engage in challenging conversations about who belongs in the movement, there are some compromises she's not willing to make. She recounts hearing people within the Black Lives Matter movement tell her that the trans or so-called gay agenda "is not part of this movement."

"From the beginning, we wholeheartedly disagree," she says with a smile in her voice. 

A movement focused on ending police brutality and vigilante violence perpetrated because of someone's identity was always bound to sweep up LGBT people living at the intersections of race, gender, sexual orientation, and class.

It's no secret that, as in many parts of the African-American community, mistrust of the police runs high in the LGBT community. The modern movement for LGBT equality was ignited by the 1966 riots at Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco, and three years later at New York City's Stonewall Inn, when LGBT patrons of the those establishments finally pushed back against the police raids they'd been subjected to for years. Queer mistrust of law enforcement is so ingrained in our psyches that The Advocate listed the police as one of the 45 biggest homophobes we've faced in the past 45 years. 

A 2014 study by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that transgender women are nearly six times more likely to experience police violence than are cisgender people. Overall, trans people were 4.6 times more likely to experience violence at the hands of police than were cisgender people. The same study found that slightly more than half (54.2 percent) of survivors of other violence reported those assaults to the police. 

A first-of-its-kind assessment in San Francisco this year determined that 36 percent of LGBT respondents did not believe reporting violence or harassment to the police would be effective, leading many people to not report such attacks at all. According to the LGBTQI Violence Prevention Needs Assessment, published in February by the SF LGBT Center and Learning for Action, 66 percent of those LGBT people harassed did not report the incident to police. When it comes to physical violence, 44 percent of incidents involving LGBT people went unreported, while 46 percent of LGBT sexual violence incidents in San Francisco went unreported.   

Since Garza, Cullors, and Tometi created #BlackLivesMatter in response to the 2012 shooting death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin at the hands of a self-proclaimed neighborhood watch patrolman, George Zimmerman, the nation has been engaged in a challenging conversation about whose life matters, says Garza. That conversation has become more complicated as police and vigilante killings of unarmed black people continue to make headlines, from Tamir Rice to Walter Scott to Sanda Bland to Laquan McDonald. 

Further complicating these stories of life and death, Garza says, is the tension around the circumstances of how people die or are killed. 

"I think that there are real concerns that we have around whose life is important and why," she says. "So if the official story is, for example, somebody was running from the police, does their life matter? If the official story is that somebody was involved in sex work when they were killed, does their life matter?" 

That question lands at an intersection with which many black trans women (including some of those killed this year) are all too familiar. Despite journalistic best practices that prescribe otherwise, local reportage on transgender women killed frequently makes mention of unrelated past convictions, and often mentions if a victim was killed in an area suspected to be frequented by sex workers. These assumptions also play out in less fatal scenarios, as the case of Monica Jones, arrested for "walking while trans" in Phoenix in 2013, and the false accusation of prostitution and imprisonment of Meagan Taylor in Iowa this year demonstrates. Both Jones and Taylor are black trans women, who were arrested based on false perceptions that they were sex workers. Charges against both women were ultimately dropped

"That, to us, is really the next frontier that we need to just get deeper into — a real valuation of life overall," Garza adds. Conquering that next frontier will require "real understanding of the circumstances that lead people to be killed, or who lose their lives because of things that are completely preventable, like poverty," Garza adds with the half-hearted chuckle of someone whose work involves agitating for change around the unhealed wounds of grief. 

Despite the myriad forces that could be seen as conspiring against Garza's aim of a society that genuinely respects the lives of all marginalized people, Garza is undaunted. 

"I'm incredibly hopeful," she says of her vision for the future. "Or else I wouldn't be doing this, because this shit is hard."

But she persists, because the arc of history is on the line.  

"What's exciting about this moment is that it feels like so much of this has been bubbling under the surface for so long, that as it emerges, it's just rapid-fire transforming the landscape that we live in," she says. "I'm so excited to tell my child that I was alive for this moment. I'm excited about the story that I will tell them. And it's still being written, as we speak. 

"But what I can say to my child, just like my mom says to me, is that there was a time when it wasn't OK for people to be out. There was a time when black people were being slaughtered. And I hope that the end to that story is, 'and then we organized, and we built a vibrant international movement, and we really changed conditions for black people in this country, and for everybody.' 

"And I'm hoping that the story that I'm also able to tell is that our demands went beyond 'stop killing us,' to ensure the quality of life for everybody. And that we won that."

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