The back-to-back murders of 37 year-old Alton Sterling, and 32 year-old Philando Castile ignited a fire in the Black community, and now more than ever, people are ready to take action. ESSENCE spoke with Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza on how everyone has a place in the movement, why using economic power to fight back is key, and why policing in America can’t be reformed
In the two most recent cases of police murders of Black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, both examples of apprehended citizens who did “everything right” to comply with the law in the heat of a police confrontation. Philando immediately let the officer know he had a registered gun on him, and was licensed to carry in an attempt to avoid the very type of situation that ultimately claimed his life. Can you speak about this, and about the similarities in these two cases?
I think one of the important things for us note from the point you raised is what we’re feeling is the direct exposure of the contradiction that we’re living under. So, there are a set of rules for Black people and then there’s a set of rules for White people. I’m not going to say it surprises me that both of their rights were not upheld. It doesn’t surprise me to see Sterling being shot and then having a gun pulled from his pocket.
And it doesn’t surprise me that it would be wholly ineffective for Castile to have noted to an officer that he had a gun in his possession and that the officer would still shoot and kill him. It should not be surprising to any of us but for those of us who are newly surprised, we invite you to join this movement because we have been highlighting this phenomenon for many years now.
I think it’s important to note as well that we are so enraged, in particular at the lack of serious action to defund police departments that continue to wreak havoc in our communities. We are enraged at the lack of action towards demilitarizing the police to make sure they are not carrying weapons of mass destruction to test and experiment in our communities. And we are outraged that we are not having serious conversations at the legislative level about slashing police budgets.
It is no longer acceptable to have these fringed conversations that don’t actually address the root causes of the problems we are facing. Black people collectively are in mourning and we’re tired of watching videos of our people be gunned down and slaughtered in the street. It wasn’t acceptable then and it’s not acceptable now.
Speaking of getting to the root of the problem, a Black female cop recently called out corrupt police officers on social media—which unfortunately isn’t something we see very often. How can more “good” cops who aren’t involved in these killings begin the process of holding their own accountable?
I’ll be honest with you, I think that it’s really difficult, this framing around “good cops” and “bad cops.” Policing as a system is incredibly corrupt, period. There are people inside of these departments who want to reinstate a level of integrity into those departments and they should be commended. But they cannot do that on their own. So, the first thing that I would suggest is that we stop doing this framing around good cops and bad cops and really address the fact that policing as a whole in this country is deeply, deeply corrupt and cannot be reformed. That’s my opinion.
The second piece is if we’re serious about making the types of changes that need to happen, we need to be really serious about redirecting resources. Why are we paying tax dollars to departments that continue to murder our people? I don’t want to pay for people to kill us, and I don’t think anybody in our communities want that. What’s also really important is what you just said, that’s so fantastic: there’s not enough people inside of these departments that are seeing what’s going on, speaking up and speaking out. And so, we’re at that point now, and we’ve been at that point for a while, where we have consistently said: ‘What side are you on?’ And if you’re quiet, knowing that there’s a culture of racism inside most police departments, and you’re not saying anything, you are on the wrong side of history.
The other thing that I think is really important to continue to say is we need to stop this political theater and get to work. If our legislators can sit in around a gun control bill that was actually awful, then where is the civil disobedience from our legislators around the continued, ongoing, sustained murders of our people? We’ve been watching this every single day on TV. I never want to see another 15-year-old child cry out for their daddy. I never want to see that again. I don’t think any of us will be the same, and we have to move out of being numb to what’s happening. This isn’t a show. We’re not out here for peoples’ entertainment. Our families are being slaughtered.
What are some things people who want to take action but feel helpless can do to get involved?
The first thing I would say is to get involved in the movement. This is not the time for anybody to be sitting or standing on the sidelines and offering commentary. And there are so many credible organizations, and efforts that are happening that you can plug into. So, whether it’s giving your time, your love, your money to folks like The Dream Defenders in Florida or Hands Up United in Ferguson, Missouri or even things like Black Youth Project 100, you know, there are a million organizations that have been working tirelessly to make sure the day comes when we don’t have to keep mourning, and calling the names of our dead and putting hashtags in front of them.
Many people have voiced they feel like the only thing left to do is to physically fight back against the police and rebel against these laws that have repeatedly failed our community. Do you think a “revolution” is the answer?
Well, I think we have to be clear a revolution is a process. It’s not an act, and it’s not a destination. The second thing is, I think what people are calling for is radical action, and what people are saying is we don’t want to keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. Ultimately, people have the right to feel disgusted, and frustrated and to be calling for new types of action that get us further than where we’ve gotten so far. If people are serious about getting involved and figuring out how we take the movement to the next level, it really has to be focused on making sure we’re building a base of power that is more powerful than their power.
Ultimately, that’s how we’re going to get to where we want to be. So, for folks trying to figure out how to do that—in addition to joining efforts and organizations like the ones I just named—folks should also absolutely, 100 percent call your representative and demand—particularly at the state and local level—the budgets for policing in their communities are cut in half. Demand there are real penalties, and real sanctions for police officers who murder people without any cause. And people should also be very invested in making sure resources we’re using to pay for trained killers in our communities get redirected into support services for our people, and redirected into the needs our people have.
And certainly, we have to make sure our police forces do not have weapons of mass destruction with which they can terrorize our communities. I think if we’re able to focus in some of those areas, we’ll be in a much different place than we are right now.
What’s your response to people who believe protesting and “hashtag activism” are ineffective?
For one, I would hope the work and the activities people are engaged in right now is not putting a hashtag in front of somebody’s name, and thinking that’s going to change something. We’ve said from the very beginning Black Lives Matter is a network, and also as a broad set of individuals, is an organization moving to transform the way our society values black lives. It’s not an “Internet movement.” It’s not. So, if anything, these moments highlight more than any other. What is also true is, we cannot, in our anger and our frustration, discredit the work people are doing because it is incredible work.
When we look at places like New York, they’ve been moving a Safety Beyond Policing campaign for the last year, and making incredible strides. When we look at work folks are doing in Los Angeles around civilian control of the sheriff’s department, and making sure no death goes unanswered. That’s incredible work. When we look at programs likes the ones Hands Up United are doing in Ferguson around Books and Breakfast and making sure our people able to develop critical consciousness so we can change our society. That is important work, and that is not “hashtag activism,” it’s not Internet activism. It’s work with real people in real places who are committed to making a difference.
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