In a new book, Alicia Garza writes, “We can’t be afraid to establish a base that is larger than the people we feel comfortable with.”
Joe Biden may have been calculated in his efforts to project calm and stability in the waning weeks of the campaign, but the soothing influence of the incoming Biden Administration has been decisively undercut by the post-election stunts of Donald Trump, which erupted, on January 6th, into an open insurrection. As the U.S. remains mired in the coronavirus pandemic, the debates over the provision of health care and housing have become even more intense, if not desperate. Just as fraught are the unresolved questions concerning the grip of racism. Despite all of the platitudes and pledges to end “systemic racism,” its stain on the country has never been more apparent. African-Americans continue to be hospitalized for COVID-19 at nearly four times the rate of white people. Black unemployment, which is at nearly ten per cent, remains several points higher than the national rate. According to National Geographic, of the twenty-five U.S. counties with the highest projected food-insecurity rates, only four are majority white, and all of those are in Kentucky.
The political fault lines are not just between Democrats and Republicans. Indeed, for the former, the anxiety about the election’s outcome was not limited solely to fears of what four more years of Trump could produce. Progressives were just as worried that a Biden Administration would squander the opportunity to pursue transformative reforms that the U.S. overwhelmingly needs. For all of Biden’s testimony that he feels the pain of the public, those on the suffering end of the pandemic and the unemployment crisis are not in the mood for honeymoon hopefulness. They want action and results. But translating political desires into political action is a tall order. The dysfunction of the American state is part of what has compelled such passionate and prolonged political protest. Into this hectic fray, Alicia Garza, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network and the originator of the generational slogan, has launched an extraordinarily well-timed book, “The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart.”
Garza has been an organizer for more than twenty years, and the book is largely drawn from her experiences in a multitude of grassroots struggles. Born in Oakland in 1981, Garza has spent most of her life in Northern California. She was already active in campaigns against gentrification and police brutality when Oscar Grant III was killed by the Bay Area Rapid Transit police, on New Year’s Day in 2009, just blocks from her home. It was only weeks before Barack Obama became the country’s first Black President and more than two years after Ron Dellums, a Black democratic socialist, was elected mayor of Oakland. There was so much expectation that life would be different with these elected Black leaders, and then so much disappointment as murders by police pointed to more of the same. When George Zimmerman was acquitted, in July, 2013, of the murder of Trayvon Martin, Garza writes, “I cried for who we are, who America is, that we could let a child be murdered by an adult and let that adult get away with it.” Zimmerman’s acquittal and the parlous standing of Black American life that it signified prompted Garza to post an elemental declaration on Facebook: “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.”
Garza’s book is not centrally about Black Lives Matter, the global network and organization, nor is it about the movement that has taken on this phrase as its central slogan. In part, that reflects still palpable tensions over the origins and authors of the movement, over who is credited and who is left out. Garza rightfully demands recognition for the roles played by herself, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in connecting activists around the country and drawing international awareness to the crisis of racist police violence in the United States, but her goals extend beyond the struggle against police brutality or even the criminal-justice system. She is primarily interested in the larger question of how to move from engaging in protests and mobilization to acquiring the political power necessary to transform the conditions in poor and working-class Black communities. For Garza, this is bigger than Black Lives Matter: really, it is a demand for a different kind of society. “What if our leaders were as afraid to disappoint Black people as they were afraid to disappoint lobbyists, banks, and other corporate actors?” she writes. “When we declare that our future is Black, what we mean is that addressing the needs, concerns, hopes, and aspirations of Black people will bring about a better future for all of us.”
For Garza, achieving this kind of social reorganization and redistribution begins with an understanding of how the deep inequities that strangle our society came to be. Early in the book, she offers a surprising discussion about the rise of the conservative right and its political consolidation during the successive terms of Ronald Reagan. This is critical context for those who compare the current iteration of Black struggle to the civil-rights movement. Even in the fury of the rebellions of the nineteen-sixties, Black rebels had a glimmer of optimism, seeing their struggles as part of a global uprising for justice and democracy. The response of Democratic Party officials to every outbreak of violence—bearing new programs and opening new veins of spending—connected activism and revolt to tangible change in people’s lives. Garza’s account of the consequences of Reaganism makes clear that the Black Lives Matter generation came of age in the rubble of the civil-rights era, with the retrenching politics and policies rooted in Reaganism but readily inherited by a Democratic Party all too willing to do the bidding of the right. As Garza recalls, Bill Clinton signed two landmark pieces of legislation—the crime bill of 1994 and welfare reform in 1996—that “identified Black people as a threat to the American way of life.” The further we got from the era of Black rebellion in the sixties, the more comfortable politicians from both parties, including Black officials, became with blaming Black communities for the conditions of inequality that existed within them. This tendency bred cynicism and disconnection. Garza writes, “Movements shape us, and we shape them—sometimes consciously, other times unconsciously. My generation was and is still being shaped by the conservative consensus and the right’s rise to power.” The poet Reginald Dwayne Betts has described this generational cohort as the “Bastards of the Reagan Era.”
These conservative politics have hemmed in the horizons of both activists and ordinary people. The Democratic Party’s acquiescence to the narrow world view of the right resulted in progressive movements’ thinking small and organizing in sometimes inconsequential ways. Garza goes to some lengths to describe these phenomena, critiquing efforts to organize safely among the already initiated amid what she describes as throwaway culture, “the willingness to terminate or cancel people from movements for perceived deviations.” Garza assesses the “barriers to becoming the movement we need to be” as being both internal and external. Externally, she identifies “increased repressions, a retrenchment of systemic racism, and increasingly predatory forms of capitalism” as significant barriers to the movement. But these hardly constitute the entirety of what gets in the way. Garza attributes the internal barriers to being “content to be the God of small things.” She elaborates:
We can’t be afraid to establish a base that is larger than the people we feel comfortable with. Movements and bases cannot be cliques of people who already know each other. We have to reach beyond the choir and take seriously the task of organizing the unorganized—the people who don’t already speak the same language, the people who don’t eat, sleep and breathe social justice, the people who have everything at stake and are looking to be less isolated and more connected and who want to win changes in their lives and the lives of the people they love.
It is worth pointing out that this “cancel culture” within the left is not what its right-wing and liberal critics have claimed. Both have created caricatures of the imaginary power of the left to expel, banish, or punish. But the political intolerance that Garza identifies is hardly an expression of power. Instead, in the absence of real power, left-wing organizing and political communities become the one area where people feel some modicum of control.
In a country brimming over with racist hate speech and a pervasive rape culture, it is not a cardinal sin to elevate what is politically and socially permissible within movement spaces. But there is a difference between establishing mutually agreed-upon standards of engagement and respect and reinforcing a culture of exclusivity that results in further marginalization. Garza and other organizers are grappling with how to raise a level of accountability while also opening doors to new people who are not schooled in this kind of political culture. They are asking different kinds of questions, such as “What will it take to expand our ranks and build our movements broadly?” Phillip Agnew, a former surrogate for Bernie Sanders’s Presidential campaign and an organizer with Black Men Build, describes the approach of his organization in the following way: “Come as you are, grow as you go.” That’s not cancel culture, that’s movement culture.
Garza also takes on the mindless variety of identity politics that often appears within social movements, in which any politics or ideas emanating from those who are racially oppressed or marginalized are assumed to be progressive. Lived experience of oppression does not, alone, constitute radical politics. Indeed, the lived experience of oppression can lead some to draw the worst conclusions about race and gender or the human condition, including the idea that Black people are responsible for their own oppression. Garza celebrates exclusive Black organizing spaces, but she also notes that there are pitfalls to avoid—“the creation of cliques and uniformity of thought.” She describes this as a possibility “when organizers adopt a shallow view of Blackness—Black people as a cool, inherently revolutionary monolith.” People do not come into the world fully conscious of the ways in which they are oppressed and exploited. If they did, then we would have overturned the disorder of this world a long time ago. As Garza argues, “These are the activists who wax poetic about Black power but don’t acknowledge the impact of generations of exclusion, gaslighting, extraction, disenfranchisement, exploitation, domination, and oppression on Black communities.” Experiencing oppression is not nearly the same as knowing what to do about it. That comes from history, politics, and, ultimately, organizing.
Twenty-first-century organizing also means getting back to older forms of politics, Garza writes, letting go of the belief that technology and hashtags can organize movements, or the idea that organizations don’t matter. In perhaps her sharpest comments, Garza uses the Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson, whom she describes as a “social media personality,” as an example of confusing online influence with having a political base from which to operate. Mckesson, who became known for his Twitter posts during the Ferguson uprising (and for his bright-blue Patagonia vest), eschewed traditional organizing and instead claimed that social media offered protesters the tools to build movements in new ways. In the fury of the Ferguson moment, McKesson argued that individuals were enough to catalyze a movement:
Individual people can come together around things that they know are unjust. And they can spark change. Your body can be part of the protest; you don’t need a VIP pass to protest. . . . I think that what we are doing is building a radical new community in struggle that did not exist before. Twitter has enabled us to create community. I think the phase we’re in is a community-building phase. Yes, we need to address policy, yes, we need to address elections; we need to do all those things. But on the heels of building a strong community.
Mckesson’s disavowal of the traditional ways of organizing was not an abstraction. His response gained traction because he and his political cohort were angered by the efforts of Black liberal organizations and Black elected officials to dictate the outcome of the protests in Ferguson. They were particularly angered by the entry of the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and their criticism of local people who had engaged not only in protests but also in looting, burning, and confrontation with the police. Mckesson and others decided that organizations and in-person meetings were the tropes of this old guard in Black politics, who were much more interested in gatekeeping than in the freedom of young Black people—those who were taking the brunt of tear-gassing and beatings by the police. In this context, Twitter and other social-media platforms seemed new, as did the idea that activists could simply bypass organizations and be the movement themselves.
But other organizers on the ground in Ferguson—such as Jamala Rogers, of Organization for Black Struggle, and those with Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment—were able to hold on to principled criticisms of the formerly charismatic Black preachers who rolled into Ferguson and the Black elected officials who implored young Black people to get off the streets, while also recognizing that transforming rebellion into lasting change required some level of organization and conventional tools culled from grassroots traditions. As Garza points out, it’s easy to misinterpret social-media influence as actual, tangible influence among the broader public. She mentions Mckesson’s failed campaign to become mayor of Baltimore, in 2016, based on the illusion that his social media profile, including his then three hundred and thirty thousand followers on Twitter, could be translated into votes. But in the real world of elections, Mckesson captured a dismal 2.6 per cent of the vote in the Democratic primary—fewer than four thousand votes. Garza concludes, “Hashtags don’t build movements. People do.”
But she has an even more important argument: we don’t have to be beholden to failed models of previous organizing—including relying on top-heavy leadership structures or glorifying men while minimizing the contributions of women—but we can learn from movements past. Garza writes, “Every successful social movement in history was undergirded by organizations: the suffrage movement, the anti-apartheid movement, the anti-war movement. Even in the age of technology, it is a fallacy to believe that organizations are unimportant or unnecessary.”
For Garza, the entire objective of the progressive political enterprise is the pursuit of power. She describes power as “the ability to make decisions that affect your own life and the lives of others, the freedom to shape and determine the story of who we are. Power also means having the ability to reward and punish and decide how resources are distributed.” And, for Garza, the road to power passes through electoral campaigns. She is offering a framework for social change that “requires pressure from the outside, pressure from the inside, and pressure against the structure of the system as a whole.”
She is well aware that this view is controversial within the left orbit she travels in. A large part of what is appealing about Garza’s book is how honestly and directly she delves into political debates within the B.L.M. movement. In 2016, activists around the movement were not only skeptical of Hillary Clinton but also reluctant to support her campaign. Clinton and her husband had built some portion of their political careers on the backs of poor and working-class Black people. And Hillary Clinton’s comments referring to young Black people as “super predators” in 1996 had rightly come back to haunt her candidacy in the throes of a movement against police racism and abuse. But, for Garza, the consequence of that reluctance has been the disaster of Trump. She writes, of the left,
We don’t like politicians, and yet it is politicians who represent us and make decisions on our behalf. We don’t like how power operates and so we shun power, but we need power in order to transform it. The contradictions themselves are not the problem. The problem lies in not being decisive about how we will impact politics so that we can change our own lives and the lives of millions who are suffering under our indecision.
But the dilemma is not simply to vote or not to vote. There is a deeper problem, rooted in the electoral choices that the two-party system presents us with. In a conversation we had about her book, Garza explained that, in this past year’s Democratic primaries, Joe Biden was not among her top five choices. She said that, during the primaries, “I had moments of rage because I, like many people, I think, are so through. Tired of being faced with impossible choices, and it’s not just in the electoral realm, it’s everywhere.” But, at the same time, she told me, “I also was very clear that it was an immediate task.” Last February 20th, Garza and her new organization, Black to the Future Action Fund, endorsed the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. Warren had strong backing from Black feminists, including Black Womxn For, a group of more than a hundred prominent Black women. Garza tweeted that Warren “has the best grasp of how race impacts policy and practice, and she has the best plans for addressing those challenges, and including us in the process. We’re all in—she provides the best terrain for the fight ahead of us.”
Garza attributes Biden’s primary win to the failures of progressives to unite around a candidate. She then goes further and blames some of Bernie Sanders’s supporters for creating “litmus tests around ideology and labels that were and are largely irrelevant for millions of people who are trying to decide where they are going to place their votes.” Garza believes that Warren or Sanders should have left the race; given Black to the Future Action Fund’s endorsement of Warren, she seems to have placed the burden on Sanders, who was often assumed to be the less electable of the two because he described himself as a socialist. Yet Sanders consistently outperformed Warren throughout the primaries. When Garza’s organization endorsed Warren, she was still polling at a distant third or fourth place. It was Sanders who was the front-runner. He ultimately lost after the South Carolina congressman James Clyburn backed Biden, lifting the former Vice-President’s campaign from the dustbin of history. In the immediate aftermath of Biden’s win over Sanders in South Carolina, the remaining Democratic candidates quickly started exiting the race and closing ranks to support Biden.
Sanders’s campaign was not undone because he identified as a socialist. Rather, he was unable to generate the new voters his candidacy needed to survive. Of course, this relates to Garza’s broader point that candidates and political organizations cannot just drop in on communities every four years and expect to have credibility and legitimacy. Ultimately, Sanders was done in by voters’ belief that he could not deliver an agenda that millions of people agreed with in principle. That’s not just cynicism: it’s the reality of our dysfunctional government, which cannot even produce minimal reforms, let alone transformational change.
Garza would argue that this is why communities must be organized around clear demands and be prepared to withhold their support if the demands are not met. It also might be further evidence that we need more electoral options. The fact that the left perpetually acquiesces to the Democratic candidate is part of the reason that the Democratic Party has moved so far to the right. There is no position that any Democratic politician can take that is so noxious that progressives are morally allowed to refuse the candidate. Instead, they are piously called upon to “hold the candidate accountable” while holding their noses over politics they abhor. The problem, of course, is that closing ranks within the Democratic Party has almost always required abandoning the issues that are most important to the left. Even before the final votes in the general election were tallied, the leadership of the Democratic Party began to attack its progressive layer for echoing demands arising from the B.L.M. movement—specifically the demand to defund the police.
Sanders’s candidacy was hardly one of ideological purity; it was a serious effort to engage in politics on different terms, not as they are but as they could be. His campaigns in 2016 and 2020 found broad support for his central issue, Medicare for All. They undoubtedly helped to transform the national debate concerning health care and debt, reinvigorating ideas that government should spend its enormous resources for public provision. Sanders’s ideas had such wide appeal that they shaped the political terrain of the Democratic Party primaries, as candidates raced to demonstrate their progressive credentials. None of this is lost on Garza, but for her the central questions were “Who can win?” and “How does their victory benefit Black communities?”
In some ways, Garza’s response to the earned cynicism of her activist milieu reflects a kind of pessimism that can take hold when movements fail to break through, for all of the reasons she elaborates in the book. In the first iteration of the B.L.M. movement, a popular chant was derived from a poem written by Assata Shakur in her autobiography: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win.” But movements don’t win just because they are morally superior and righteous in their ambitions. The success or failure of social movements is a test of timing, and of how many, in the balance of social forces, are on one side versus the other. Political experience and organizing prowess can also make a difference, but social change is hard in a country where the most powerful forces are committed to maintaining the status quo. The lack of a breakthrough can be demoralizing, and it can lead activists to conclude that other methods may be more fruitful in obtaining the outcome they have dedicated so much to securing.
In this country, that has often meant turning to electoral politics to win the elusive goals of justice and greater democratic inclusion. Many of the activists of the Black movement of the sixties transitioned into electoral politics, giving rise to a new heyday of Black mayors and other elected officials, which eventually created the conditions for the political career of Barack Obama. But the resumption of Black activism and rebellion that led to Black Lives Matter was, at least in part, a reaction to the failure of the turn to politics to improve the lives of people in poor and working-class Black communities. Why should we expect a different outcome this time around?
Garza writes that during the 2016 election, three years into her organizing around the call that Black lives matter, “what we learned was that protest is not enough to shift politics as much as we need them to shift. This is the work of governance.” But transforming the lives of Black people and, really, all poor and working-class people in the United States requires more than governance. As Garza suggests, it requires a massive redistribution of wealth—and that will require extraordinary political pressure generated through protest and social movements.
The difficulty that the movement continues to encounter is exactly what Martin Luther King, Jr., confronted when he turned his attention to fighting racism in America’s northern ghettos. He understood that repelling Jim Crow was relatively cheap in the world of politics—by changing the laws, American apartheid could disappear. But changing the conditions wrought by American racism—including poverty, substandard and segregated housing, under-resourced schools, health disparities, and the entrenched racism of American police and the criminal-justice system—would require the wholesale redistribution of wealth and resources in the United States. It would require what King described as a “radical reconstruction” of American society. This realization compelled King to call for massive civil disobedience in Washington, D.C., as part of the unrealized Poor People’s Campaign, which was cut short by his assassination in April of 1968.
Garza writes sparingly about capitalism, even though it has evidently helped to constitute much of the misery that she has spent her adult life organizing against. Her attention is mostly trained on the day-to-day crises that capitalism creates in the lives of ordinary people. That is the important work that social reforms can attend to today. But there are looming systemic crises that most of our elections barely touch, and that require more than the acquisition of political control or governing capability to fully address. The global pandemic is only the most recent evidence that the crises we face as a species are existential. While climate change is the most dramatic evidence of this fact, there is also the spectre of chronic insecurity in obtaining food, housing, health care, and even income—which also poses threats to humanity. This reality raises the bar for what should be expected of politics—the strategies and tactics necessary to change the world, not just elections.
Garza identifies what she sees as the limits of protests, but it is the massive outpouring of protests that erupted over the summer which played a critical role in shifting the consciousness and expectations of millions of Americans. It is also obvious that protests alone are not enough. Of all the elected officials and corporate executives who took to saying “Black Lives Matter” over the summer, very few have followed through with tangible reforms. Garza would say that the lack of a clear Black agenda, along with deep organizing to make it legible politically, has allowed elected officials to willfully ignore demands emanating from Black communities. What we should learn from the latest iteration of the B.L.M. movement is that we need more organization, not less, and that we need clearer points of entry into such organizations for those who wish to do more than just demonstrate. But building successful movements is not just about formulas; it is also about allowing oneself to have what the historian Robin D. G. Kelley describes as “freedom dreams,” to envisage an altogether different world.
This doesn’t mean that electoral politics don’t matter. We have to struggle for what can be obtained and make life better today. But, as Garza writes:
Making America great is ensuring that America remembers that each of us is but a tiny speck on this planet who must learn how to coexist in ways that allow others to live well too. Making America great is making right all that has been done wrong in the name of progress and profit. And at its core, making America great is a commitment to ensuring that everyone can have a good life.
These are tasks that take us beyond what our political system is organized to deliver. Nothing short of mass movements to uproot, overturn, and radically reconstruct can produce the new America envisioned here. Garza’s excellent and provocative new book is a gateway to these urgent debates.
[Originally published on January 13, 2021 via The New Yorker]