5-years of Black Lives Matter, a movement led by women, partly born out of Oakland

Image 1 of 6

When George Zimmerman was acquitted of a murder charge in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, it was a reality check of sorts. One that thrust race relations in America to the forefront of the national conversation. 

How was a 17-year-old, unarmed Black boy killed by a neighborhood watchman? 

It was July, 2013. Oakland activist Alicia Garza and her husband were at a crowded bar drinking tequila and, like many others around the nation, keeping close tabs on the jury that was deliberating in the trial of George Zimmerman. 

Zimmerman, a white neighborhood watch volunteer, stood accused of shooting and killing Martin in Sanford, Florida. 

When Zimmerman was acquitted, Garza was in complete shock and immediately took to Facebook with a message: “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter, Black Lives Matter,’’ she wrote.%INLINE%  

She’s only 37, but Garza has been handed plenty of awards, given many notable speeches and had her writings on social justice published in several newspapers and magazines. 

But her most notable achievement first took root in cyberspace five years ago when she wrote that simple message on Facebook that inspired the national #BlackLivesMatter movement—a movement in part, born out of Oakland. 

A fellow activist Patrisse Cullors added a hashtag and shared the post on social media. In the next three weeks, #BlackLivesMatter appeared on Twitter nearly 2 million times as protests, some of them violent, broke out in cities around the nation, including in Oakland. 

Five years later, Garza, who is still involved in Black Lives Matter, reflects on where the movement has been and where it’s headed.

“I have been an organizer in the Bay Area for almost 20 years, focusing on work with low-income Black communities,” Garza said over the phone. 

Trayvon was only the tipping point. A pattern of nationwide police shootings against people of color that often ended in no charges for officers involved only stirred activism, further fueling the movement. 

In 2014, the unrest over Mike Brown’s fatal shooting by police in Ferguson, Missouri was enduring and came in multiple waves. 

“To be honest, I feel like we're just getting started. It’s never been about us,” Garza said speaking about the three women who founded the movement. New York-based, Nigerian-born Opal Tometi completes the triumvirate. 

“The movement has transitioned from day to day. Black Lives Matter is proud of what we’ve accomplished.” 

Part of that accomplishment is how BLM is permeating our culture, influencing sports, pop culture and entertainment. 

Colin Kaepernick, who is still unsigned by any NFL teams, led the Take a Knee protest, forcing sports fans to deal with an uncomfortable topic, while sparking the president’s ire. 

"There's people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable," Kaepernick said referring to police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement in 2016. 

That same year, Beyonce not only gave a sartorial nod to the original Black Panther Party at her politically-charged Super Bowl Halftime Show, but the performance pledged support for Black Lives Matter, which earned her plenty of criticism including from former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. 

Lest we not forget the local chapter BLM protesters who took photos with Bey’s backup dancers on Levi’s Stadium’s sidelines while they held ‘Justice 4 Mario Woods’ signs, in reference to a Black suspect killed by San Francisco police—an incident critics compared to death by firing squad.   

Marvel’s "Black Panther" continues to shatter box office records, showing no sign of slowing down. To say the film could in part thank BLM for inspiring and encouraging other activist movements like Hollywood’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign may not be much of a stretch. Up until now we hadn’t really seen any mainstream films being made, centered on a Black superhero.

Garza said she’s less involved with the day-to-day of BLM and currently serves as Bay Area-based Black Futures Lab principal. The progressive organization seeks to engage all Black people, but emphasizes queer, trans, disabled folks, immigrants and the formerly incarcerated. 

“This movement is led by women, queers, and the trans community taking on systemic racism I think,” she highlighted the role Black women have historically played in the kind of change these movements seek, referring to the earlier abolitionist movement, Freedom Riders and the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties. 

“One thing that feels important is how Black women have been on the forefront of change in this country.” 

The week Garza spoke to us happens to coincide with the release of several San Francisco police officers’ body-worn camera videos in a fatal officer-involved shooting of Jesus Adolfo Delgado. As many as 10 police shot 99 rounds, hitting Delgado, an armed-robbery suspect, who was hiding in a trunk, 25 times. According to police, the suspect fired on them first. 

Officers recovered a 9mm handgun from the trunk the suspect was hiding in, said they initially tried less than lethal rounds and even had a Spanish speaking negotiator on hand.  

Garza said a friend of hers lives right above where that incident happened in the Mission. She has been critical of police strategy and says a lot of people are being put in danger in these situations. 

“First and foremost, you have to remember the person who was shot in the trunk was a part of our community. People who are murdered are dehumanized immediately. When it gets to the news we start saying ‘suspects.’”

“The justification doesn’t fit the means. There needs to be real dialogue on [police] use of force.” 

The number of officer-involved shootings disproportionately affects people of color. Those findings were backed by a 2016 Blue Ribbon Panel study that said while African Americans are only 5.8 percent of San Francisco’s population, they made up about 40 percent of the victims of SFPD officer-involved shootings from January 2010 through January 2015. 

The need to highlight that Black Lives Matter still seems as relevant as ever. In the span of a week, BLM protesters and their supporters have made an impact by blocking the entrance to Sacramento Kings games in their cries for justice for Stephon Clark, an unarmed Black man shot 20 times and killed by police in his grandmother’s back yard.  

"We are proud of BLM Sacramento," Cullors said in an email. "What you are seeing now in Sacramento, with the March for Our Lives, with the surge in activism is a generation of people unafraid to build power — and change the world."

But while the movement attributes much of its momentum to social media, those digital platforms can also be a place for vitriol and critics who like to chime in with lines like, “All lives matter” or pro-cop movements like, “Blue Lives Matter."

“There’s no such thing as ‘blue lives,'" Garza said. There is no hue of a blue life. Being a police officer is an occupation. It's a job. ‘All lives matter’— it's like saying the sky is blue. I haven’t heard how police are on the right side of history.”

Nearly five years on, Garza said the media is still paying attention to what she describes as an enduring movement, but critiques it would be great if there was more. 

She’d like to step outside from her insider’s perspective and see how she’s changing the conversation in police departments. 

Though no specifics were given, a series of events and activities are being planned for the BLM 5th anniversary. Cullors said that the goal is to "celebrate the movement, amplify our activists and connect the world, even more deeply to our message." 

Cullors sees the future of the BLM movement as "limitless," noting that they're not going anywhere.

One of last things Garza said over the phone was, “We can safely say this is the Civil Rights Movement of our generation.”