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Alicia Garza on 'defunding the police,' Biden and what's next for Black Americans

"It's important for us to not let up the pressure," says Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza.
\"Power To The Polls\" Voter Registration Tour Launched In Las Vegas On 1st Anniversary Of Women's March
Alicia Garza during the launch of the Women's March "Power to the Polls" voter registration tour in Las Vegas on Jan. 21, 2018.Sam Morris / Getty Images file

Between the unrelenting toll of the Covid-19 pandemic, protests over police violence after the death of George Floyd and hostile rhetoric from President Donald Trump, Black voters had had their fill in 2020. And they made that clear at the polls.

Black voters from major hubs in battleground states ultimately helped push Joe Biden over the finish line. Black organizers were instrumental in that effort.

Many are celebrating the successes and heeding the lessons learned, but for some, the work isn't over just yet. The battle for a Senate majority hinges on two runoff elections in Georgia, with Democrats hoping to pull out two more victories in a state that turned blue for the first time since 1992.

Alicia Garza, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and principal at the Black to the Future Action Fund, was one among many organizers and leaders who made inroads toward encouraging Black voters to head to the polls by building connections with people who are usually left out of voter outreach efforts. The collective work of Black organizers, she said, ultimately supported Black people who were figuring out how to take their protest to the polls.

In an interview with NBCBLK, Garza shared her perspectives about the conversation about "defunding the police," how Black community organizers worked to deliver a victory for Biden, the Senate runoffs in Georgia and how the Democratic Party can best engage Black voters.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

How did community organizers approach driving Black voter turnout in the November election?

Alicia Garza: At the Black to the Future Action Fund and the Black Futures Lab, we've been gearing up for this moment for probably two years now. All of us inside of this ecosystem have been really clear that the real key to interrupting the greatest threat to humanity was to really dive deep into turning out Black voters. We started out in 2018 releasing a project called the Black Census Project. We conducted the largest survey of Black people in America in 155 years, from all 50 states, all different demographics that you can imagine.

We then took that information and used it to really do a few things. We developed a legislative agenda, called the Black Agenda 2020, that really lays out in concrete ways how to make Black Lives Matter from City Hall to Congress. We also used the data to better provide information for our communities about where candidates up and down the ballot stood on the issues that we care about. And then we used the agenda to organize Black voters and to register Black voters to vote. We targeted people in our communities that are often left out of voter registration efforts. And we also invested resources in Black-led grassroots organizations in nine states to make sure that they had the capacity to be able to reach as far and wide as possible. In partnership with all of those groups, what we were also able to do is become a political home for Black folks who were trying to figure out how to take their protest to the polls.

We avoided any kind of messaging that chastised people for not voting or chastised people for not being involved. Instead, we provided the tools for our communities to be the superheroes in our own stories. What that was able to accomplish — alongside hundreds of Black organizations that did some more work in relationship to mobilization and education and turnout — is that it allowed for Black folks to be able to flex our power in a way that didn't overstate the outcomes but also didn't understate the impact and the necessity for people to be engaged and involved.

Before the election, one of the emerging narratives was that Black voters "settled" on Biden and weren't as enthusiastic about voting for him. Was this a sentiment organizers heard from many people they interacted with and, if so, how did they still motivate people to get out and vote for him?

Garza: Black folks are deeply underserved by the current state of democracy. So many of us are clear about that, especially after these last four years. But really, it's a longer trajectory than that. For Black folks, our experience is that it's always a "both, and." We're practical when it comes to how we understand how white communities tend to vote. And we understand that no candidate is going to give us all of the things that we need.

With that being said, I think that certainly there was some dissatisfaction with the positions that the Biden campaign took, and I think you saw Black voters pushing this campaign the entire way. It's important for us to not let up the pressure.

During the summer uprisings against police violence, the phrase "defund the police" often took center stage during protests and generated considerable debate in the lead-up to the election. Rep. James Clyburn has since said that "defund the police" may have hurt Democrats at the polls, and former President Barack Obama called it a "snappy" slogan that could alienate people.

What could explain any disconnect between how the phrase is perceived and the substance behind it, particularly within Black communities?

Garza: I'm not sure that there's a disconnect in how the phrase is perceived. I think there's a disagreement about what to do about policing that is largely unaccountable, highly overfunded and does not deliver the results that it promises.

The way to address public safety in our communities is to make sure that people have the things that they need to live well. If you actually reprioritize where you invest your resources — if you make sure that police officers are not being called to be mental health counselors or address homelessness when they don't have that training or capacity — then you have to move resources into the sectors, structures and people that do have that capacity.

And so, it's not a question of people not understanding the phrase. It's a question of people not agreeing that resources need to be reallocated. It begs the fundamental question of, well, what kind of criminal justice reform are you actually talking about? At the end of the day, we need to build a structure that holds people accountable when they commit harm in our communities, and that includes police. We also have to build structures to address the needs that exist. And that requires moving money. We just need to have a real conversation that is not being politicized.

Ultimately, what we're facing here is an uphill battle in terms of political will. And I think that Rep. Clyburn and former President Obama need to be honest about that.

You were one of the voices calling for Biden to choose a Black woman as his vice president. What should Biden consider as he continues selecting Cabinet members and senior staff in order to inspire confidence and trust from the Black people who supported him?

Garza: I think that the Biden administration should consider a few things. First, Black voters aren't going anywhere. We are going to demand our due, and that's not going to change. And for so many Black voters, these labels actually don't matter: progressive, moderate, etc. What matters is "do you deliver?"

We found in the Black Census Project that Black communities really do care about criminal justice reform, but it's actually not the top issue that is impacting our communities. It is, in fact, the symptom of a deeper disease. The incoming administration needs to broaden out how they understand what Black voters want beyond some of the moderate voices that surround us. What needs to be prioritized is real racial justice. That requires reallocation of resources, and it requires a reallocation of power.

We've seen that there are certainly a lot of white folks that are getting appointed to positions, and, you know, it's not a good look as it relates to Black community. What this administration needs to prioritize is making sure that this country is able to actualize a multiracial democracy. So it's great to see Kamala Harris and [Biden] having an all-woman press team. But we need to move beyond the symbols of representation, and we need to really dive into what are the values and the governing priorities being represented in the administration.

What does the Democratic Party need to do to best support the organizers and groups that worked to fuel Black voter turnout in key states?

Garza: It needs to invest resources. So when you think about groups like Black Voters Matter, they engaged thousands of Black voters, if not more. They were doing that with no resources from the party that they were actually mobilizing people to rally. That is unconscionable in 2020. And so [the Democratic Party] really needs to make sure that it's not relying on Black organizations to do its work without investing in Black organizations to do the work that they do.

The Georgia Senate runoff elections are a month away, and Black organizers have had to work against the headwinds of a pandemic and voter suppression. What will be necessary to replicate or build upon the successes from the November election?

Garza: What's necessary is a robust outreach engagement strategy and ensuring that Black organizations have the resources they need to continue at this level.

In Georgia, one of the major challenges that we faced in the 2020 election was that, you know, Black voters are not a monolith — and as we saw overwhelming turnout in Black communities to oust Trump, we also saw some flips. Those flips are not ideological. They were literally about a lack of concrete engagement. It's not because they became ardent Trump supporters. It's because they have lost faith in a party that has been ignoring and neglecting them for too long.

As we move into these Senate races, it's a great opportunity to show that [the party] has learned the lessons from even a month ago — and to continue demonstrating to the communities that are your strongest base that you hear them and that you take them seriously.

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