Two days after a Minneapolis cop killed George Floyd in late May, the novel coronavirus tallied its 100,000th American victim. More than 22,000 of those lost were black, though we only make up 13 percent of the overall U.S. population. As the global pandemic was laying bare virtually all of America’s structural inequalities, unrest on the Minneapolis streets swelled into the largest and most numerous public demonstrations for civil rights seen in generations. Tens of thousands of nonviolent protesters from various cultural backgrounds, in city after city, are crying out “black lives matter,” the mantra of the modern civil-rights movement and the rallying cry against the casual acceptance of our deaths.
Civil-rights organizers Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi put those three words into our minds and hearts seven years ago, when they began to change the country. The sweeping calls for change we see today are not sudden, but the fruits of the labor of activists like them. Their work has given us room to demand more, because black lives don’t truly matter just because people simply say so. This year alone, a white father and son carried out the modern-day lynching of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick, Georgia. If black lives mattered by now, we wouldn’t have to say the name of Breonna Taylor, lost to a hail of police bullets in her own home in Louisville in March. Or chant the name of Floyd, killed for allegedly spending a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill at a corner grocery.
The protesters mobilized quickly and with unapologetic fury, their range of targets plentiful, whether it be overly militarized policing or inadequate medical services; mass incarceration or bigotry in the workplace; food insecurity or housing, Confederate monuments or racism in the entertainment industry. As “black lives matter” rings out from the mouths of protesters and corporations alike, what will it take to build an America where those three words are a statement of fact — not a fight for survival?
It was seven years ago this July that Garza reacted to George Zimmerman’s acquittal of murder in the Trayvon Martin case with a viral Facebook post expressing her pain, writing: “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter. Black Lives Matter.”“I was impacted in a way that I didn’t expect,” Garza tells me. “We see black death all the time, and I don’t know what it was about this, but I know I went home and then I woke up in the middle of the night crying. And I picked up my phone and I started clickety-clacking, right?” Garza is now the principal of the Black Futures Lab, which works with voters and produces a Black Census Report. Patrisse Cullors, a Southern California activist close to Garza, saw the post and added the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. In New York City, immigration organizer Opal Tometi learned of the Zimmerman verdict after leaving a screening of the Ryan Coogler film Fruitvale Station, about the 2009 police shooting that killed Oscar Grant III. Already emotional, Tometi then read Garza’s viral post.
“That is what hit me,” Tometi says. “There [was] a lot of rage, a lot of pain, a lot of cynicism. But her post resonated with me, for a number of reasons. I think it being explicitly black, it being a message rooted in love, and it just felt very hopeful.”
By the next day, Tometi, who knew Garza through the Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity Network, contacted her fellow organizer. She hadn’t yet met Cullors, but in short order, the three joined forces and launched the Black Lives Matter Global Network.
“Patrisse and I, we started talking about building an organizing project around state violence,” Garza said about the Global Network’s founding. “Patrisse had been working on her own stuff at the time — the Dignity and Power Now. She was just getting that off the ground. All of this stuff kind of came into synergy. I knew designers and artists here in the Bay [Area] who were really excited to help and reached out and said, ‘What can we do?’ And so that’s really the genesis of this.”
Garza says Black Lives Matter was not initially her full-time job. But after the shooting death of Michael Brown Jr. by officer Darren Wilson in 2014, a Freedom Ride to Ferguson, Missouri, came together. Cullors, writing with co-organizer Darnell L. Moore in The Guardian that September, described the bus ride with 40 others in the spirit of the Freedom Rides across the segregated South during the early 1960s as “a tangible example of self-determination in the face of anti-black violence on the part of Ferguson residents and those of us who traveled from across the country to join them.”