2014 was a year when police brutality against black men was brought to the forefront of the American consciousness. The police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, along with no legal sentences for the perpetrators, arranged themselves into a pattern that was difficult for the public to miss. Among the responses were protests, riots, classroom discussions, and the swift rise of the hashtag “#blacklivesmatter.”
The brains behind the hashtag? A woman named Alicia Garza.
Garza, who works as a special projects director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, created the hashtag along with social justice workers Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi after George Zimmerman was found “not guilty” for the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013. Garza began adding #blacklivesmatter to her Facebook statuses discussing the issue, and the tag caught on.
#Blacklivesmatter gained significantly more ground, however, after the murder of Michael Brown in August of 2014, an event that spurred Garza to action on a national scale. Garza, Cullors, and Tometi organized a bus tour to Ferguson, Missouri, where Brown was killed, to protest police brutality and to take the movement beyond the virtual sphere. Together, the three organized some 600 Americans from all over the country to march in Ferguson.
According to Garza, the movement centered on the idea that black Americans are the “canaries in a coal mine;” that the way they are treated should matter to all Americans because the way that the most marginalized members of society are treated is indicative of how the future will turn out if the government continues along its current path.
I was inspired by hearing Garza's story because it had never occurred to me that the #blacklivesmatter hashtag had an origin, let alone that that origin could be a woman. I was inspired by her work with the movement beyond the tag line for which she is famous.
But most of all I was humbled by the fact that Garza's words have made this movement feel close to home. For one thing, she was able to articulate why black lives do matter—and should matter—to everyone, regardless of race. When faced with replies that suggested that “#alllivesmatter,” Garza has been gracefully able to explain why her movement does not negate the value of all human life, but rather emphasizes a previously overlooked issue in our country.
Furthermore, Garza is a native of Oakland. I live in Albany, California, 8 miles away from Oakland. I pass through Oakland every day on my way to school, and from the train window I am able to see several houses that have been painted to read “Black Lives Matter.” The roots of the Black Lives Matter movement are a reminder that racism and police brutality are not far-off issues that belong to far-away states. They are here in my neighborhood, they are now, and they are current. #Blacklivesmatter matters.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.