Garza making Black Lives Matter with Pride

  • by Yael Chanoff and Chanelle Ignant
  • Tuesday June 23, 2015
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This month, the global LGBTQ community will celebrate Pride. But for Alicia Garza, a San Francisco Pride community grand marshal, the Black Lives Matter uprising across the country in recent years has been the best Pride she could ask for.

"The last couple of years have really kind of demonstrated what black, queer pride looks like. It's black queer and trans people filling the streets. Leading demonstrations, leading protests. Leading a new vision for what our world can and should look like," Garza said.

In 2012, Garza authored a Facebook post ending in the three words that mobilized a nation around police violence against the black community. Garza's initial post that proclaimed "Black Lives Matter" was a response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin. She's now a co-founder of a worldwide Black Lives Matter movement, along with two other women, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors.

All three are queer, and have worked to center queer and trans leadership in the movement. It's part of what's made Black Lives Matter so powerful.

Garza, 34, grew up in Marin County, and she's since lived in San Francisco and Oakland. She's now the special projects director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

In 2012, when Black Lives Matter first went viral, Garza was co-executive director at People Organized to Win Employment Rights, a nonprofit based in the Bayview. She headed campaigns to fight Lennar, a developer that scooped up acres of waterfront land for a pittance, and for free Muni for youth. But when she was fighting these local economic battles, she said, it was through a lens of queer black liberation.

"I think they're actually inseparable," Garza said, especially when many queer people have a harder time accessing housing and employment. "Being excluded from the formal labor market means that you have a much harder time accessing health benefits and services, accessing housing, food. All of the basic necessities that we need to survive."

At POWER, Garza always encouraged leadership by the most marginalized, said Jaron Browne, who was an organizer there at the time.

Browne remembers when Garza's initial Black Lives Matter post began to catch fire.

"She was like, 'This thing that I started is going crazy.' It was so clear, this is really the historical moment that Alicia's been waiting for," Browne said.

Still, Browne said, because of how quickly the words caught on, it was easy to forget that Garza had been the first to write it. Browne wasn't the only one �" as Black Lives Matter was shared, it was also co-opted and used in ways that erased its focus on black liberation. Garza addressed this �" and the need to recognize queer black women's leadership in the movement �" in an essay for Feminist Wire that was widely shared as a founding document of the movement.

"It was clear how significant the phrase was, as well as the significant role that [Garza, Tometi and Cullors] played in navigating these political questions of the movement," Browne said.

After two years of gaining traction on Tumblr, and then Twitter, and making some news, a critical mass of people began to proclaim that Black Lives Matter during last summer's protests in Ferguson, Missouri after a white police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Garza was part of organizing a series of "Freedom Rides" that brought black supporters of the movement to Ferguson. There, she said, organizers used multiple strategies to cultivate and centralize queer leadership.

"The first thing that we do is one, we name that this needs to be a part of the conversation. And we try to do a lot of political education around why. The other thing that we do is we're very intentional about making sure that queer and trans lives are at the center of our planning processes, and that we kind of adopt strategies that allow for the participation of queer and trans folks," Garza said.

It's now been more than 300 days since protests began in Ferguson, and the movement hasn't slowed down. On May 21, a dozen black trans and cis women, recalling West African nude protest traditions, stood in the middle of San Francisco's Market Street, chests bare and messages ringing clear. The protest, which was part of a National Day of Action for Black Women and Girls, was organized by the Blackout Collective.

"It was really important to that team that we not just talk about the bodies of cis women," Garza said. "That black trans women were a part of planning and executing that action. And I think we see that across the country, that folks are not just doing the kind of politics of inclusion piece �" which is like, let's have a trans person speak or let's have a queer person speak �" but really making sure that queer and trans people are part of the planning, the execution, and the visioning of what our activities look like and feel like."


Irony of her selection

But if these demonstrations, led by queer black people and celebrating a liberatory future, are the real queer pride, how does Garza feel about being honored at San Francisco Pride, the corporate party edition?

"It is ironic that Black Lives Matter would be chosen as community grand marshal for the Pride parade, in a city that is hemorrhaging black people and black families faster than any major U.S. city outside of post-Katrina New Orleans," Garza said.

She's also concerned about the corporatization of Pride, particularly, this year, with sponsorship by Facebook. The company has been the target of protests since last fall for a policy of deleting accounts that don't use "real" names, which has amounted to discrimination against trans people and drag performers on the site, according to the My Name Is campaign and other groups.

"It has impacted queer and trans people who have used that service in a very negative way. It's a big contradiction," Garza said.

Following a spirited protest at the social media company's Mountain View headquarters earlier this month, Justin Osofsky, Facebook's vice president of global operations, said in a post that the company is now acting quicker when name issues arise.

Osofsky wrote that Facebook has also expanded the types of documentation it will accept for name verification, which can now include mail, a library card or a magazine subscription. "We clarified language throughout our site to make it clear that when we say authentic name, it does not necessarily need to be a legal name," Osofsky wrote.


Staying focused

In her community grand marshal position, like everything she's done, Garza wants to keep the focus on black liberation.

"Can we celebrate the contributions and the rebellion and the resistance of queer and trans people without legitimizing some of the very forces that continue to repress us? That's a question that we'll be raising in my role as grand marshal," she said. "We will continue to raise it."

After the Pride celebrations, which Garza will probably mostly spend on the East side of the Bay Bridge �" "I'll be honest that I tend to frequent the ones that happen in Oakland. Because they just feel a little bit more diverse" �" Garza and the Oakland chapter of Black Lives Matter are going on a few different trips. In June, the group did a retreat in Detroit, and in July they'll be in Cleveland for a convergence of the national movement for black lives.

But in the end, Garza said, she will always come home to the Bay Area.

"The Bay Area has changed a lot in my lifetime," she said. "And so I think the promise of it is in contention right now. But I will say that the Bay Area has always been an incubator for social justice movement, for radical and thinking and practice.

"You know, this is my home," she added. "I think, having been all over the world, there's really no place like the Bay Area. And it's important to me to do work where I'm from and where I have roots."