Tag Archives: Alicia Garza

The Role of Accountability in Building Power for Black Liberation

One of the best quotes I’ve heard in the last year of attending several workshops, direct actions, and conferences is:

Oppression is deeply complex; we can expect our pathways to liberation to be just as complex.

Although I don’t remember the name of the person who said this, it has stuck with me in my experiences of facilitating consciousness in various spaces and participating in the movement to build power for black liberation ever since. What I think particularly stands out to me in this evolving #BlackLivesMatter movement is the role of fostering a deep sense of accountability in the innovative and holistic spirit of creative strategic engagement for social transformation. This call for accountability is exemplified in Alicia Garza’s piece, A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement. I first discussed this piece in an article written last December for this blog. Since the writing of that piece, I have had plenty of opportunities to engage with the question I ended it on, “What’s Next?”

Alicia Garza

As we see the political projects of the #BlackLivesMatter movement maintaining national attention and (more importantly) gaining traction across grassroots collective organizing efforts, there is an ongoing need to mitigate the harmful effects of co-optation as it inevitably occurs. It is clear that in many ways the movement’s “hotness” is shaping and prompting more programming and generative work within progressive networks on racial and economic justice issues. However, there is a danger that happens when the language of a movement is adopted, but not the full fierce analysis behind it. Time and time again, this is how the reproduction of cultural hegemony takes place in movements for social justice which is ultimately dis-enabling. As Garza states,

In 2014, hetero-patriarchy and anti-Black racism within our movement is real and felt. It’s killing us and it’s killing our potential to build power for transformative social change. When you adopt the work of queer women of color, don’t name or recognize it, and promote it as if it has no history of its own such actions are problematic.

Within this call to be accountable to the legacies of queer black leadership in this movement and the historical and political framework set out by its creators, there is great potential for building mass participation in the work for black liberation in ways that are radically intersectional and deeply accountable to those most impacted by the violence of marginalization. Those with more access to power and resources often have more opportunities to shape public discourse than the people involved at the grassroots level. We must allow for multiple voices to take up space and disrupt this patterning in order to continue to root the work in the contributions of the organizers and the historic contributions of invisibilized collaborators in past movements for collective liberation.

Some recent, particularly impressive, disruptions of co-optive behavior that I witnessed this year occurred at the Creating Change conference on LGBTQ Equality in Denver, CO on the week of February 5, 2015. In the wake of the murder of Jessie Hernandez at the hands of Denver police, a group of queer and transgender people of color (QTPOC) organizers took over the stage and demanded that the LGBTQ movement shift its focus from access and privilege to ending state-sanctioned violence against queer and transgender people and to hire more transgender women of color in leadership positions. This protest ultimately blocked the speaking engagement of the Denver mayor, which was called out as ‘hypocritical’ given the prevalence of state violence in the city, which has the second highest rate of police killings in the country.

Following this direct action was a conversation called, Ferguson On Our Minds between the Executive Director of Race Forward and the Executive Director of Color of Change. There was a co-optive tension to this dialogue because several young LGBT activists from Ferguson were present at the conference, as well as the three queer black women who started the #BlackLivesMatter platform and neither group was asked to speak during this opening plenary conversation.

Despite the amazing work and contributions of both Executive Directors, there was this undertone of organizational clout in that dialogue and a downplaying of the trans-led action that had just taken place before the plenary discussion, which did receive a brief thanks for “keeping the movement accountable”. The next day, the conference organizers invited the Ferguson activists to speak before the State of the Movement Address, but they were only allotted 5 minutes. Instead, they took over the stage for over a half an hour and invited black trans people in the audience to take up space in that moment as well.

At a conference attended by over 4,000 people and in a movement that has been heavily and rightly critiqued by queer and trans people of color organizers, it was so potent to see a consistent string of events where folks were confronting the “business as usual” within this movement for social transformation. Soon after I returned from the conference, I was told that it is a sign of maturity when the left, right, and center of a movement becomes visible. As we move forward in divesting from these systems and ways of being in relation to one another that do not serve us, I hope that we are willing to shed all that we must along the pathways to get free.

Black Lives Matter: Queer Black Women and Contemporary Black Leadership

The black encounter with the absurd in racist American society yields a profound spiritual need for human affirmation and recognition –  Race Matters, Cornel West

Black Lives Matter Logo

In February of 2014 I attended a faith-based LGBT Film Festival in Pasadena, CA as part of my work with the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry. This festival also included a number of workshops and discussions held at a gallery near the theatre. The events were primarily attended and organized by white participants and proved to bring about quite a number of problematic moments for me as a queer black woman. One moment in particular that sticks out in my memory in the wake of recent events in Ferguson was a subtle undermining of my contribution to a room of public messages. This room was made of mirrors that everyone could draw and write messages on with colorful erasable markers. I wrote in large pink letters, “Black Lives Matter,” on one of the mirrors.

I don’t quite remember what was going on for me personally, socially or politically at the time, but I felt that that phrase needed to be added to this room that was filled with pretty tame and apoliticized phrases. I came back to the room several hours later to find that someone had written under my message, “All Lives Matter.” I was so upset about this at the time and wished that I had the opportunity to articulate to this person why the Black in Black Lives Matter was so important. I wanted to let them know that illuminating the historical and contemporaneous devaluing and denigration of black bodies as well as the contributions and resiliency of black peoples is at the heart of this campaign. To erase blackness from it is to reinscribe the inefficacy of colorblindness.

I did not realize until recently that this online media platform was created by three queer black women, one of whom I know from a circle of friends in Los Angeles. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi started the #BlackLivesMatter social media hashtag and have since infused their organizing efforts with analysis and action rooted in this rallying cry for the affirmation of black humanity in the face of systemic criminalization and police brutality (and perhaps by extension in the face of black cultural nihilism and cynicism).

Much of the collectivized work that has been done by these organizers and their teams of activists speaks directly to the “Crisis of Black Leadership” discussed in Cornel West’s Race Matters (1994). As he reflects on what is to be done about this postmodern gap in creative and effective black leadership in both intellectual and political frameworks, West states, “locally based collective (and especially multigendered) models of black leadership are needed. These models must shun the idea of one black national leader; they also should put a premium on critical dialogue and democratic accountability in black organizations” (45).

Organizations like Dignity and Power Now, founded by Patrisse Cullors, exemplify and expand upon the politics of this model. However the visibility of the work and commitments of these organizers are being threatened and overshadowed in waves of online, organizational, and corporate media co-optations of the Black Lives Matter messaging campaign. In an article for the Feminist Wire, A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, Alicia Garza discusses in detail the genesis and meanings of Black Lives Matter and the nature of the invisiblizing of black queer women’s contributions to movements for social change. She states:

When you design an event / campaign / et cetera based on the work of queer Black women, don’t invite them to participate in shaping it, but ask them to provide materials and ideas for next steps for said event, that is racism in practice.  It’s also hetero-patriarchal. Straight men, unintentionally or intentionally, have taken the work of queer Black women and erased our contributions.  Perhaps if we were the charismatic Black men many are rallying around these days, it would have been a different story, but being Black queer women in this society (and apparently within these movements) tends to equal invisibility and non-relevancy….In 2014, hetero-patriarchy and anti-Black racism within our movement is real and felt. It’s killing us and it’s killing our potential to build power for transformative social change.

Just two days ago on November 29th, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry did a special on the Black Lives Matter movement titled, What it means to say ‘black lives matter.’ Guess who was not invited to this discussion? What It Means To Say ‘Black Lives Matter’ Although the cofounders of #BlackLivesMatter have been interviewed and featured in many local and independent media outlets since the online platform’s inception (as documented on their Facebook page), the nature of viral social media, national solidarity efforts, and national media discourse present familiar problems of accountability and acknowledgment for marginalized voices within social change movements.

As Garza states, this campaign and much of the organizing work we as a public have witnessed in Ferguson is “a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.” How do we amplify these deeply engaged dialogues? How do we shape this call for a collective consciousness to be inclusive but not reductive of our histories and realties? What’s next?