“Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” In July of 2013, Alicia Garza wrote these words in reaction to a jury’s acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. That post turned into a hashtag which became the rallying cry for one of the most recognizable social movements of this generation.
While it can feel like the nation’s current racial discourse is trending downward, the last four or five years have seen an ostensible, rapid expansion of social justice consciousness with public opinion polling showing racial attitudes moving in the right direction. Black Lives Matter was an enormous part of catalyzing these public opinion changes and reform movements. Alicia Garza is at the center of it all and joins us to shed light on the origins of #BlackLivesMatter and how it’s evolved in the years since.
ALICIA GARZA: One of the things that we are really trying to get across is that black people are not a monolith. We are LGBT, we are urban and rural, we are liberal and conservative and the candidate and the campaign that is going to energize us the most is going to act like they know something about us and it's going to go beyond fried chicken and hot sauce.
CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me, your host Chris Hayes. So there's this term that I started seeing online that people have been writing about the era we're in and it's a tongue-in-cheek term that I think is basically sort of derisive, but kind of in a comical way and it's the “Great Awokening.” You've maybe heard this term, the Great Awokening. And it's a reference to the great awakening, which were at least two different periods of incredible religious fervor that spread through the United States in both the 18th and 19th centuries and you know, really shaped a lot about American spirituality, religion and politics.
It led to the creation of different Christian traditions and new religions and it changed public opinion. It also, you know, provided the seeds for what would become the abolition movement, right? So this real transformation in people's consciousness, the way they thought about their relationship to each other and to God and then that became a social force that ended up in abolition.
The Great Awokening, which is again, a kind of tongue-in-cheek term, is about a sort of social justice consciousness explosion that's happened in this country I would say in the last four or five years, and I think particularly among a certain segment or sector of white people. And that's why I think the kind of Awokening teasingness is embedded in that term, right? That certain kind of person, a white person who is sort of finding a kind of racial consciousness about the nature of white supremacy, the nature of racial hierarchy, the nature of racial exclusion for people of color, the history of the country in that respect.
But I actually, I am kind of a defender of the Great Awokening. I think that one of the crazy paradoxes of our time is that there are two things happening simultaneously, and it's really hard to kind of keep them both in your head. There is a white ethno-nationalist backlash in the country's politics. There is increasingly loud out and proud avowed white supremacists, Nazis, people in the public sphere advocating for blood and soil ethno-nationalism.
There is a president in the White House who is an obvious bigot and racist and says racist and bigoted things and doesn't back down from saying racist and bigoted things and has given permission to other politicians and to other ones of his followers to be outwardly bigoted and racist about black people, about Muslims, about all sorts of different groups.
And at some level, it feels like it's as worse as it's ever been in terms of the country's racial discourse. Well, that's obviously not true. It's as worse as it's been in my lifetime or my adult lifetime in terms of the country's racial discourse and the presence of outwardly white supremacist bigoted ideas about what America should be, that it should be essentially a white man's republic which is lurking all around the Trump administration everywhere you look, right?
The positions they take, the fact they're trying to rig the census explicitly to help white people get more power. The way they talk about immigrants and not just unauthorized immigrants, but legal immigrants, too. The kind of demographic dilution, the idea that there's this great replacement happening which is this really vile white nationalist idea that behind the curtain, Jews like George Soros are paying people to flood the country with non-white folks so that white people won't make a majority. All this stuff is really dangerous, vile, disgusting and right out there.
You can turn on Trump TV and you can hear this kind of stuff. So that's one part of our racial discourse. The other part of our racial discourse is that racial attitudes in public opinion data after public opinion data are getting much better. People are more pro-immigrant now than they have been at any time in recent memory, partly, I think, as response in backlash to what Trump and Trumpism means. Appreciations and perceptions of the challenges that African Americans face, particularly because of structural racism and white supremacy by white people is getting much, much better.
Now if you dig into the data, there are huge, huge differences internally like education level and generationally, right? Young white folks with college degrees are much more likely to answer affirmatively that there are structural impediments to black advancement that are the product of white supremacy and structural racism than say a 65-year-old white person with a high school degree.
All that said, the public opinion is moving in the right direction and also, the politics of a lot of the issues on the ground around race are moving in the right direction. You see these victories. You see a city like Philadelphia elect a public defender to be the chief prosecutor, running explicitly on an agenda of completely overhauling the way we conceive of our prosecutors office, Larry Krasner, who we had on the podcast.
You see in Florida almost a two-thirds majority voting to give felons who have completed their sentence the right to vote. You see reform candidates all over the place across the country winning election on ending cash bail. All of this is stuff that the politics of which has always been intensely racially coded and in the years of the '80s and '90s particularly was used as a kind of form to demagogue on race, right? We're going to throw people in jail and lock away the key. And I lived it firsthand in New York City and I wrote a book about that experience called A Colony in A Nation.
And in many, many ways, public opinion and the politics of those issues are better now, much improved. So that’s the paradox of the moment about America's racial politics this moment. We're super polarized. The most vile kinds of thoughts about racial essentialism and racism and white supremacy are more available than they've ever been and in some ways more empowered than they've ever been. And at the same time, public opinion is moving in the right direction and there are all these local victories.
And it's hard to make sense of how this is the case, but I think you can't tell the story of where we are without talking about the movement for black lives and Black Lives Matter. Because Black Lives Matter beginning in 2013, which was the trial of George Zimmerman for killing teenager and Florida native Trayvon Martin. That phrase and the movement that built up around it, about the deaths of black people at the hands of either white assailants or police officers or the State in some way.
That movement was an enormous part of catalyzing the public opinion changes we've seen, an enormous part of catalyzing the reform movements we've seen. And yet the movement itself feels way less present in the everyday of Trump's America than it did five years ago. The amount of cable news stories about a black man dead at the hands of police is much lower. The amount of demonstrations you see in the wake of that, right?
There was a period of time in which that was so dominant in the news and in consciousness and the dominance of that in the news and the consciousness has gone away, but also, in the wake of it has transformed into really profound and I think amazing changes in American racial attitudes.
So I wanted to talk to someone who's been at the center of this trajectory about where we are right now. Her name is Alicia Garza. She is the co-creator of Black Lives Matter Global Network. She is a principal of this really cool organization called Black Futures Lab, which is a kind of think tank that's trying to think about different ways of imagining the future for black people in America. And she's the director of strategy and partnerships of the National Domestic Worker's Alliance. And you have probably read about her or seen her.
She is just incredibly compelling and dynamic force. If you ever see her speak, you will remember. You will write down her name. You will remember her. You will remember the way that she talks. She was the person that wrote the phrase Black Lives Matter in this impassioned Facebook post in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman for Trayvon Martin's death. She's an organizer and an activist. And you'll hear in this conversation she's got incredible wisdom and first-hand experience in how you build movements and sustain movements for social justice.
And she also has a feature ... I was talking to Tiffany about this. She has something that I'm finding more and more is a kind of a common thread in a lot of people we interview here on #WITHpod and that I find interesting which is that we like to think of American life as very fluid and mobile, that people can begin at any station, rise very high and we don't have these huge barriers. But the reality of it is it's often not that way. It's often like the deck of the Titanic.
People are consigned to different parts of an experience. And something that Alicia has is life experience in many different worlds of American life and experience of being a person who was the other, who was different than the world that she was living in, which you'll hear her talking about. And I think that imbues her, and it imbues a lot of the other people that we talked to on the podcast with this kind of perspective. This almost sort of form of moral prophecy that comes from experiencing yourself in relation to others in this very sort of distinct way.
And so you can hear her talk about how she found her way through her upbringing, through her life experience to the work that she's done and crucially, where we are right now in this moment. How do you think about the paradox between Donald Trump and the White House, white nationalism and ethno-nationalism on the march globally and the movement for black equality and true, genuine, egalitarian multiracial democracy in the 21st century.
You've been on my radar screen for years now and I just thought maybe I'd talk a little bit about your upbringing. You're from the Bay Area, right?
ALICIA GARZA: Born and raised.
CHRIS HAYES: Born and raised. What was your upbringing like and where did you sort of start to get your political consciousness?
ALICIA GARZA: You know, I was born and raised in the Bay Area, lived in San Rafael, California, represent, and then moved to Tiburon and people always at this point go, "Oh, Tiburon." This very swanky place. And yes, I was one of the only black people who lived there for anybody who's asking. I grew up the product ... My mom, she was incredible. She passed away a year ago.
CHRIS HAYES: I’m sorry.
ALICIA GARZA: It's okay. Thank you. She was kind of a jack of all trades and could do everything and anything. But I wouldn't say that my mom or my parents were political at all. I mean in some ways, they lived kind of a political life. They were an interracial couple and so I think you get to avoid politics when you're, you know, challenging them by your very existence.
CHRIS HAYES: Totally.
ALICIA GARZA: But I wouldn't say that they were necessarily political.
CHRIS HAYES: They were not activists. They were not ...
ALICIA GARZA: No.
CHRIS HAYES: It was not dinner table fights on the news.
ALICIA GARZA: Not at all. Not at all. They weren't encouraging me to go to marches and things like that, you know. I'm not a red diaper baby. I actually got politicized at the age of 12. There was a fight happening in my school district about whether or not to offer contraception in school nurses' offices. And my mom, you know, had me as a single mother. And she didn't expect to have me and so she had to figure it out. And from a very, very young age, she talked to me about sex and the real story. She wasn't there's a stork and you know, I didn't get any of that.
It was sex makes babies, babies are expensive and that's the end of the story. So when it came to being able to provide tools for people to be able to determine what they wanted their life to look like, when and if they wanted to start and have families, it seemed like a no-brainer for me, but it was certainly a big deal.
CHRIS HAYES: So was the fight about the accessibility or the availability of contraceptives in the school?
ALICIA GARZA: Yes. Absolutely. And, of course, this was during the Bush era, the first Bush, where you know, there was "Focus On The Family" and there was a huge fight happening nationally, actually, about abstinence only education in schools and then comprehensive sex health ed. And I was right in the middle of that.
CHRIS HAYES: So you became an activist at 12.
ALICIA GARZA: Very much so.
CHRIS HAYES: For the availability of contraceptives in your school.
ALICIA GARZA: Absolutely.
CHRIS HAYES: And did that sort of awaken that kind of part of you?
ALICIA GARZA: It did. It did. I really enjoyed not only kind of uncovering truth, how I thought about it, but also really thought it was important that people had the information that they needed to make decisions that were right for them and been going ever since.
CHRIS HAYES: So what was it like? You said you were one of the few black people where you were growing up.
ALICIA GARZA: Literally one of the few.
CHRIS HAYES: And your parents were a mixed-race marriage. How do you think that sort of formed your consciousness, your perception?
ALICIA GARZA: Well, in a lot of ways, it made me really conscious of being different.
CHRIS HAYES: I can imagine.
ALICIA GARZA: So conscious of being different. And you know, I mean, in the town that I grew up in, you know, which is relatively liberal, right, compared to most places, I remember that my mom would get pulled over in my town and she would have to call my dad to come and pick her up and vouch for her.
CHRIS HAYES: Vouch.
ALICIA GARZA: Because literally, the police in this very small community didn't believe that this woman who's driving a Mercedes or whatever she was driving at the time actually lived there, that the car was hers. And my parents lived in that community for about 25 years.
CHRIS HAYES: And that would happen with you in the car.
ALICIA GARZA: Totally. It would happen with me in the car. That would happen without me in the car. You know, it's very common.
CHRIS HAYES: You know, a thing I think about a lot. I think about how tall people, I think particularly tall women who get tall very early, they tend to slouch, right?
ALICIA GARZA: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: And it's protective, but it always strikes me that there's this incredible thing that's happening which is that your perception of the world and the way that you move through the world and stick out in it is actually having the subconscious effect on your spine, right?
ALICIA GARZA: Absolutely.
CHRIS HAYES: And it's I think about that a lot in the context of different kinds of difference, whether that's disability or race. That's doing some work way below whatever is in the prefrontal cortex.
ALICIA GARZA: That's right.
CHRIS HAYES: That's all the way down through the cells, moving through that world.
ALICIA GARZA: That's right and being very conscious of the fact that you're always being watched and having to kind of get comfortable in that. And I think when I was younger, I was very uncomfortable with it. I really wanted to blend in. But there was no possible way for me to do that, literally no possible way. And so it forced me to get comfortable really early with not only being okay with being different, but being okay in my own skin.
CHRIS HAYES: Was the move toward activism when you're 12, which is young, do you remember that as part of that kind of processing of that difference or something? Like claiming it in some way, right? If you're the focus of attention, you have agency over that, over the eyeballs, right, if you're putting yourself out there.
ALICIA GARZA: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I don't remember. I mean what I know is that I loved talking to my peers about sex and desire and intimacy and also, you know.
CHRIS HAYES: You're not from a Catholic household.
ALICIA GARZA: No. Definitely not. Definitely not.
CHRIS HAYES: I love talking to my peers about sex and intimacy. Yeah.
ALICIA GARZA: I did. And I was even having sex at the time.
CHRIS HAYES: That's totally my upbringing.
ALICIA GARZA: Which is even funnier. But you know, I mean part of it is I do think that what felt important to me was that women like my mother could have the choice as to whether or not they wanted to have a me. My mom had me at what was relatively a young age. I mean she was in her mid-to-late 20s when she had me and I'm in my late 30s and I cannot imagine.
I don't have kids yet and I'm still ... You know, I twitch at the idea. So think about this woman who's, you know, 28 years old and she's trying to figure out what she's going to do. Her whole life is changing in front of her eyes and had my mom been in a state, for example, where abortions were banned or birth control was limited, she would not have the same range of choices that she had with me. And I think that everybody should be able to have the same range of choices. And that's what really drove me.
A lot of the people that I went to school with, you know, they were from wealthy households. My household wasn't wealthy, but their household was. And people weren't talking openly about things that were happening right in front of their eyes. I wasn't having sex at 12, but a lot of my peers were and were doing it in ways that were not safe and not protected. And it wasn't because people were reckless, it's literally because their families were not having these conversations with them. The only place they could have that conversation was at school and people are debating whether or not that conversation should happen in a place of learning.
So I think I was really motivated by filling a gap, but also, really making sure that everybody was as empowered as I felt and as my mother was when she decided after she learned she was pregnant she was going to have me. But she had choices and she could have chosen something else, right? And that's the whole point. So that's what motivated me, and it still motivates me today.
CHRIS HAYES: You've done organizing, right, in sort of more formal or less formal settings, I think.
ALICIA GARZA: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
CHRIS HAYES: After Trayvon Martin's death, tell me what happened. You wrote a post about using the phrase Black Lives Matter.
ALICIA GARZA: I did. I was sitting at a bar with friends. We heard that the verdict was going to be announced that day. We were ...
CHRIS HAYES: This is the Zimmerman verdict.
ALICIA GARZA: The Zimmerman verdict.
CHRIS HAYES: It wasn't during the death. It was when the trial happened ... I remember that summer I was on the air at that point.
ALICIA GARZA: Yeah. It was during the trial. And I had been watching it religiously. I was really fascinated by it, really fascinated by the way in which Trayvon was reconstructed to be a grown man who was a hulk and scary. I was really fascinated by the way that his friend was treated. I think her name was Rachelle. The way she was ridiculed about her literacy levels and how she talked. And she was really defiant in the courtroom, which I thought was awesome. I was like, "Get it, girl." You know what I mean? You don't have to tell anybody anything you don't want to. But she was really vilified for that.
I was fascinated by the way his parents and his mother, especially, was vilified for not paying enough attention to him or not watching him. And I was horrified when I was seeing pictures that they were showing of this child, you know, flashing money, trying to turn him into an archetype that he very much was not.
And so when they announced that the verdict was going to be read later that day, I was on the edge of my seat. Friends and I went and had some drinks and we were talking about what we thought was going to happen. None of us expected that George Zimmerman was going to walk. All of us expected that there would be some consequences that he would have to face. After all, it was 2013. It's not 1965 or 1954, right? We don't kill kids in this country and get away with it, is what we thought.
But actually, what we found is that you can, and you can because there are laws in states like Florida, in states like California that allow you to protect your property, especially if you're in a position where you "feel scared."
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
ALICIA GARZA: So in California, where I'm from, they call those king of the castle doctrines. In Florida, they're stand your ground laws. And after that verdict was read, I literally felt like I got punched in the gut. And I didn't know Trayvon. And I didn't have a relationship with his family, but I had become so invested in what I was seeing that it did feel personal to me. And I have a brother who's eight years younger than me and he's six foot something and he's black and he lives in Marin County.
And what terrified me is that Marin County is not that different from Sanford, Florida.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. Exactly.
ALICIA GARZA: Not where he was living, right? He was living in basically a gated community and he was killed because he was black and living in a gated community where somebody decided that he didn't belong there.
So I went home that night, and I woke up in the middle of the night crying. And I wrote a Facebook post about it. And I wrote about a lot of things. But the thing that came to me first was just that all these people were talking about the verdict and there were all these responses and reactions, but very few of them refused to blame black people for the outcome of the trial. So...
CHRIS HAYES: What do you mean by that?
ALICIA GARZA: Well, on the one hand you had, and this might be my algorithms right? I'll take responsibility for that. But on the one hand, I have my social justice homies who are like, why is anybody surprised that this happened? Criminal justice system doesn't deliver justice. So why are you as naive to expect that it would?
CHRIS HAYES: I just want to say, I just want to briefly intervene to say that that is a very common trope on social media and that drives me absolutely bonkers.
ALICIA GARZA: Why are we doing this wet blanket thing?
CHRIS HAYES: Also like if you're worked up about something, God bless, that's the engine of anything.
ALICIA GARZA: It's actually excellent. It's human.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, like get worked up. It's just such...
ALICIA GARZA: Right.
CHRIS HAYES: It's real common though. And it's like, no, I'm not saying that like I'm a naive. I'm saying that I'm-
ALICIA GARZA: I feel.
CHRIS HAYES: I feel and I'm angry or I'm outraged. Or the other thing is that like, I also think that expectations are actually part of a model for change. If you don't have expectations...
ALICIA GARZA: Then what are you changing?
CHRIS HAYES: Then what's the benchmark, right? Gandhi said this once about the British imperial system, where he basically was talking about how it was monstrous, but it was also hypocritical by the Brits own vision of what they were. And that was a key part of Sathi Graha, was like holding them to some standard. You get rid of the standard, it's not clear to me what... Like, no, that's messed up. That's an injustice.
ALICIA GARZA: How do we know change is happening? How do we know we've achieved change? How do we know what change is if we don't think it's possible?
CHRIS HAYES: Right. So you have one hand of people being like, why are you surprised?
ALICIA GARZA: Right, which I just couldn't deal with. And then there were the other people who are saying things like, this was terrible, but that's why we need to make sure our kids get an education. That's why we need to make sure our kids pull their pants up. And I'm like-
CHRIS HAYES: Oh these were black folks. These are black friends of yours.
ALICIA GARZA: Yeah. I'm like, well what does that have to do with anything? If his pants were around his waist, he wouldn't have been killed? If he had a high school diploma, he was going to graduate at some point. By all indications. The only thing that got in the way of that was George Zimmerman. And so one of the things that felt really important to me that I was writing about, was how we can't blame black people for living under conditions that we didn't create. That in some ways that feels not only unfair, but it feels like you're constantly moving the goalposts, right? So how do you blame black people for the outcome of a criminal justice system that was rigged against black people in the first place?
And then we do things like in Oklahoma, right after this verdict, they tried to pass laws in the state that banned wearing hoodies in schools, as if that was something that was going to protect young black people from being killed by vigilantes, which it won't. Wearing a hoodie or not, should it matter? You should be able to wear your pants around your ankles or around your waist and still live to be an adult, right?
CHRIS HAYES: Live.
ALICIA GARZA: So I wrote about that. And part of what I was trying to communicate is that I love black people, and I don't think that we are dysfunctional. I don't think there's anything wrong with us. I think that we are incredibly resilient under the worst kinds of circumstances. And that's really what Black Lives Matter was for me. And that's why I said black people, I love you. I love us. And that our lives matter. And that we matter. And that black lives matter.
CHRIS HAYES: You know, it's fascinating because I have read in various profiles and various coverage, I've read this sort of origin story, but it is never before clicked to me, that the audience for that statement was fellow black folks.
ALICIA GARZA: Oh yeah, totally.
CHRIS HAYES: Which actually kind of a Copernican revolution in the way that I think of the birth of the phrase. Because it became such a polarizing phrase in this very lame and I think disingenuous way, around these sort of racial lines. But the fact that you are saying that to...
ALICIA GARZA: Us.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. Right.
ALICIA GARZA: Each other.
CHRIS HAYES: An internal communication...
ALICIA GARZA: Yes, yes, yes.
CHRIS HAYES: Is really moving to me. One of the things that we're seeing, and we'll talk about this a little bit, you're doing this really interesting public opinion project called The Black Census.
ALICIA GARZA: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: One of the things I talked about this on the podcast a lot because it's a fixation of mine, which is that we're reduced to these kinds of demographic categories. You talked about like the black community, and it's like-
ALICIA GARZA: There's lots of black communities.
CHRIS HAYES: Tens and millions of people with crazy diversity of views. All over the place. Conservative, liberal, apolitical, the whole nine, human beings. Just lots and lots of them. And you know, but seriously, people see these chunks. We have these chunks, these blocks. It's just fascinating to me that that statement, that impulse is born of a conversation happening among African Americans about what had just happened.
ALICIA GARZA: Absolutely. And for me, who needs to respond to this, right? It's everybody, but black communities in particular. In order for us to be powerful, we have to believe that we are powerful. And after that verdict was announced, I don't think that people felt powerful. I didn't feel powerful. And from what I was seeing on social media, a lot of people didn't feel powerful. And I posted that and I woke up in the morning and there were some legs. Patrice retweeted it, and she put a hashtag in front of it. And I was like, what is that pound sign? Because I'm actually relatively social media illiterate. Surprise, surprise. For a thing that was born on social media.
CHRIS HAYES: Patrice, there's a typo. You put a typo.
ALICIA GARZA: I did. I was like, girl, why are you putting the pound sign in front of these words? She was like, yeah girl, that's a hashtag. We'd do that on Twitter. I was like, oh. I think I have an account. I don't know how to use it though.
CHRIS HAYES: That's wild.
ALICIA GARZA: And then Opal was really instrumental in helping to create the forums on social media that we did, to be a home for people who are also trying to grapple with why is this happening in 2013? Why are black people being killed with impunity? Why do we continue to blame black people for conditions that we didn't create? And what can I do about it, first and foremost?
We were getting people, retweeting articles and asking, pleading, what can I do? Where can I plug in? And for us, that's the beauty and the value of Black Lives Matter is that we were never intended to be in the middle of it. In fact for the first year that it operated, nobody knew that we were the ones behind the keyboards, connecting people who would email us. Like a teacher from Indiana would say, I really want to do a curriculum in my classroom about Black Lives Matter. And we would say, well we met and talked to 12 other teachers today that want to do the same thing. Can we connect you all? Send me your emails, send me your social media handles, we'll connect you all, and you all should do that. I'm not a teacher, but you are, and y'all should figure that out.
And what we saw was that that really just exploded, right? We started to see in the demonstrations, shortly thereafter, people carrying signs that said Black Lives Matter. October of that year, I remember coming home and somebody had texted me and said, Black Lives Matter is on an episode of Law and Order, which was so bizarre. So it was actually kind of a weird episode, to be honest. TBH. It was a mashup episode that kind of mixed a lot of different themes.
CHRIS HAYES: Oh yes, I remember this.
ALICIA GARZA: It's called American Justice. And it mixed the Paula Deen racism scandal with the murder of Trayvon Martin. It was very strange.
CHRIS HAYES: They will occasionally do these like current events smoothie shows, where they just throw like four different stories in at the same time. And there's some weird overlay. It's like here's an incel who uses a drone to-
ALICIA GARZA: So odd. And there was a very lackluster protest scene that happened outside of the trial.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, I remember that too yeah.
ALICIA GARZA: Outside of the courthouse. And somebody's holding a sign says Black Lives Matter. But the protest wasn't very spirited, and I was a little bit offended by that. We do turn it up when we're out on these things.
CHRIS HAYES: So that phrase happens at this moment of this sort of explosion that is a cultural explosion, a political explosion, a protest explosion, consciousness explosion, right? So there's an entire discourse that arises around the phrase, around this meaning, around racial justice, criminal justice, white supremacy, forms of structural oppression.
ALICIA GARZA: Yup.
CHRIS HAYES: Why? What was that? What happened there? Why the phrase and why the moment that that ignited?
ALICIA GARZA: Yeah. I am excited to talk about this. When Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, and people watched on their televisions, black people on roofs and in stadiums, and being shot on bridges trying to flee devastation, it broke something open in this country that I think had been closed for a little while. And we were in a moment where people were talking about how we had moved beyond race, how we were post racial. But yet these very stark racial dynamics were presenting themselves for everybody to see. So when Kanye West gets on television and goes off script and says, "George Bush don't care about black people." He really pulls the scab off, right? And opens up this Pandora's box that I think had been being tamped down since the Rodney King uprising.
CHRIS HAYES: Totally agree. I was just going to say that was this other sort of flashpoint moment. There was that. There was OJ.
ALICIA GARZA: Yup. There was OJ.
CHRIS HAYES: Then there's this sort of suppression in the Katrina moment is another huge...
ALICIA GARZA: It's huge. And what opens up after that is Oscar Grant is murdered in Oakland, California, three blocks from my house at the Fruitvale Bart Station. And it's caught on video. One of my former interns actually caught that video. And they had actually just spent the year before with me organizing, in Bayview Hunters Point, organizing in a low income black community fighting gentrification and environmental racism. And a few months later they're on a Bart train on New Year's, and witness a murder. His footage is actually in the Fruitvale Station movie. So that happens. Oakland erupts for weeks. And it results in the first prosecution of a police officer, I believe in the history of California. He spent mere months in jail, but nevertheless the mark was made.
Occupy kicks off not too long after that, and Oakland is the second largest encampment outside of Zuccotti Park. Again, you see these real racial tensions and dynamics, and people talking about revolution of sorts. But black people are kind of left out of that conversation. And so by the time 2013 rolls around, and to be honest, when Trayvon was murdered in 2012, Jordan Davis I believe also was murdered in 2012. Very different outcomes in those trials, but certainly people are outraged and trying to make sense of what has this country become? Not understanding that these kinds of tensions were just being tamped down under the surface.
And then the next year, Mike Brown is killed in Ferguson, Missouri, and his body is left to lie on the street for four and a half hours in front of his mother's home. Lots of people, and this isn't my story to tell, but I will say that lots of people from Ferguson can tell you that, what happened with Darren Wilson and Mike Brown was not exceptional or extraordinary. It was the rule rather than the exception. And that day, it just happened to boil over. But I think that the power behind the phrase, the power behind people being upset, wanting to do something, is really feeling like we're going backwards.
And the confusion about it is that all of this is happening under the first black President of the United States, ever in the history of this country. And I think you see the tensions there, right? You see him grappling with, how do I deal with this? In a lot of ways, I think he was in a really complex position. Being the first anything just sucks, to be honest. There's really no glory in it, because you have to set a standard and you're responsible for it.
CHRIS HAYES: There's glory in the history books.
ALICIA GARZA: Sure, after the fact.
CHRIS HAYES: But when you're waking up every morning, yeah right.
ALICIA GARZA: So there's people saying Obama's not doing enough for black people. And then of course you have the GOP who's calling him a Muslim terrorist socialist and saying he only governs for black people. It's like really untenable.
CHRIS HAYES: I'll never forget that moment, the moment I remember listening on the... I had taken the day off actually, when he came out and he talked about Trayvon. And I remember I was driving in the car, had one of my oldest daughter was one child. My wife and I were listening on radio to the live comments that I wanted to listen. I didn't have a show that day because I took the day off. I remember listening and just being so moved, and also thinking like, so dumb and naive of me in some ways. I remember him saying it, and me just thinking, man you thread the needle as always. That was so empathetic and graceful and non-polarizing or polemical in any way. But really. And then it was like everyone freaked out. Like he had come out and, like, given a Malcolm X speech. People just flipped. They flipped. He looked like it could've been my son. Like the most banal observation that a-
ALICIA GARZA: It's totally benign.
CHRIS HAYES: Human being could make about a...
ALICIA GARZA: Yeah because you're not actually, even as the first black President, you're not actually allowed to be black.
CHRIS HAYES: Exactly.
ALICIA GARZA: I think that was a huge struggle that they had over eight years.
CHRIS HAYES: But that backlash was so revealing to me because it was like... The only other moment that it was like was the Skip Gates moment. And I was in that room in the White House when he got asked that question. He said the police officer acted stupidly. And again we had to deal with two weeks of ridiculous backlash. And you just saw that the precariousness of that, of his sort of post racial identity or whatever, you know?
ALICIA GARZA: Yeah. And I think it's an important symbol to understand the struggles happening in black communities across America. To try and understand the persistence of that level of racial tension, while everybody around you is telling you that it doesn't exist anymore. And so on the one hand, yes, people are astounded that Barack Obama talks about race in the aftermath of this killing. The other thing that he does though is he encourages people to be calm and let the system work. And I think what you see in Ferguson is people saying, the system doesn't work, and we're not going to wait. We're not going to continue to try and make sure that things are going to be okay. I think ultimately, you see a real shift in the movement. And you also see a shift in black America.
There's increased skepticism around whether or not safe policing is possible. There's increased skepticism around police being able to police themselves and monitor themselves. And there's increased frustration around officer after officer, vigilante after vigilante, walking away scot-free, killing black people, unarmed black people. Now there are some cases where that wasn't true, but by and large, most of the people who are being killed are not carrying weapons, and it's being justified because the person who kills them says, "I was scared for my life." And there's no requirement that anybody has to qualify what makes you scared? Is it the presence of a black person or was something actually happening? And in so many of these cases, it's literally just the presence of a black person.
CHRIS HAYES: So I want to get into the movement of Black Lives Matter, and specifically where it stands today, just after this.
You have these incredible, the protests that happened in Ferguson, both that summer and then that winter when the verdict... Not the verdict.
ALICIA GARZA: The refusal of the grand jury to indict Darren Wilson.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, exactly. The refusal of the grand jury to indict Darren Wilson. When that happens, I was there for both. I was there in the summer, I was there in the winter. That night I remember the storage space burning and it smelled like a campfire. And then I was in Baltimore for Freddie Gray. You have a succession of stories after that, and a succession of protests. And like I said, this kind of consciousness rating, and I think it has changed a lot of things. It's changed the framework, the conversation. You see a sort of very sophisticated policing and criminal justice reform, or prison abolition movement, sometimes in different tracks, that is pushed ahead by that. And yet the movement, as Black Lives Matter, feels like it kind of erupts into this vacuum and then disappears?
ALICIA GARZA: No, not at all. So here's what's cool. I am somebody who studies movements. I like to think of myself a little bit as a history nerd, maybe a movement nerd. And I can tell you Black Lives Matter is still very much alive. I think what's hard is that people measure movements by how much they perform for you. So if there's not hundreds or thousands of people in the streets, there's no movement. Well, no. In fact, just today I got an email about a bill that Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and other organizations throughout California are pushing through the state legislature, to hold police accountable there. There are laws that are being passed all over the country that Black Lives Matter chapters are behind. There is all kinds of organizing that is still happening.
But I think that there is a fatigue around protests, marching, tear gas, jail, bail, GoFundMe's for bail funds, occupations, right? We did that too. And at a certain point, I think people start to say to themselves, we have to have more tools in our toolbox. And one thing that happened between I think 2013 and probably 2016, is that there was this real weird narrative being pushed by some. That protest was really where it was at. And if you understand social change and how people have activated social change efforts, you know that protest is one tactic in a toolbox. And that it's best used in a strategy that is escalating pressure on a target.
When you start with one of the highest levels of escalation, there's really not far for you to be able to go. So that's really a question of how does our movement mature? And our understanding of what is the strategy that we have to employ to build power? I think what you saw, and what we're still seeing, is that there are a lot of new people coming into activism, coming into organizing, coming into social change work, realizing things are really bad and I have to do something about it. I can't stand on the sidelines. And there's a big learning curve, right? For a lot of us, the first time we ever marched in a protest we felt amazing and exhilarated. And then maybe a little disappointed because nothing changed. But that's the utility of being a part of organizations.
CHRIS HAYES: Well, it seems to me there's a really interesting... There's a bunch of things happening at once that are intentional with each other in fascinating ways. One is that we're living this horrible moment of reaction, right? Both domestically in the US, and then globally, of this sort of rise of this very ugly, dark, bigoted, ethno-nationalist wave of reaction. Below that, it's like the forces of Black Lives Matter are actually winning in many ways, both in terms of local political concrete victories, but also in public opinion.
It's a really underappreciated aspect of American life right now, which is that racial opinions, particularly among white people, post-Black Lives Matter, have moved quite significantly, and if you break down generationally, really dramatically. I mean really dramatically. I think that because Trump looms so large, it's very hard to see that underneath the fact that that guy's the President. But it is true, as far as we know from public opinion, and it shows this across various surveys, both concretely what governments are doing, how the movement is working, institutionalizing, but also just how people think about race is changing.
ALICIA GARZA: I think that's right, and it's often credit that we don't receive. And I don't mean Black Lives Matter doesn't receive the credit. What I mean is-
CHRIS HAYES: No, but the move, it didn't just happen.
ALICIA GARZA: There was work that went into that, and frankly, if we're being honest, there's a new conversation happening in this country that hasn't been happening for a long time. When I look at what's happening with the presidential candidates right now for example, I'm like, in 2016 people were actually afraid to say Black Lives Matter, right? Now everybody wants to talk about mass incarceration and black maternal health and black mortality, and how do we close the racial wealth gap? Those things are being pushed into the public arena by Black Lives Matter, and I think that's incredible.
CHRIS HAYES: What's also really interesting to me is that I remember all the critiques of, "Oh they're rioting in Baltimore, and there's the guy, he stabbed the fire hose." It's going to alienate... I remember, it's like you always something like you alienate the white folks, and there'll be a backlash. And there was some of that. I think there was some of that.
ALICIA GARZA: There was some backlash.
CHRIS HAYES: I think some of Donald Trump was a little bit about that backlash.
ALICIA GARZA: A lot of it, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: But it also, it did other things too, and it actually did push people. I have to say, I think partly because I'm a straight white guy who ... I wrote a book about race and criminal justice, but also just get spoken to by viewers. I get a lot white people coming up to me wanting to share their newfound racial consciousness, but I got to say, it's legit. It's real. It can be whatever, it can be kind of a little simplistic, it could be a little cloyingly white liberal, whatever.
ALICIA GARZA: Everybody's got to get in somewhere.
CHRIS HAYES: That's my point, and there is real consciousness revolution happening, mind by mind, soul by soul, in a lot of parts of America, brought about by the push of Black Lives Matter.
ALICIA GARZA: That's right. Absolutely. And I think we're still just getting started. Here we are six years later and, you know, we have more infrastructure than we did. We've been through things together that we hadn't been through before, and the movement is growing. And I agree with you 100% that there has been backlash and we should be very mindful of that. I mean, Donald Trump ran on a law-and-order platform, and some of that had to do with us. There's new designations in the FBI that are about black identity extremists, and that is literally based on us. There has been backlash but, by and large, I even think that that backlash has convinced people even more that there's something that people are trying to hide or sweep under the rug. And so, what I see is that more and more people want to better understand, how do we just rid ourselves of this once and for all?
I hear people say to me all the time, "I thought we were so much farther than this, and my heart is so broken that it feels like there is not much that has changed since I was a kid in the 1950s." And I say, "Hey, things have changed, but the thing about change is that it's not linear." Right? We go sometimes in circles, and it's our responsibility, every generation has a mandate to figure out how to get us to the next level.
CHRIS HAYES: You know, my metaphor in this always is that, you know, social change is not like painting a room, which is painting a room is very satisfying, because you know at every moment, visually, how far you are in painting the room. But it's like getting a stuck lid off.
ALICIA GARZA: That's right.
CHRIS HAYES: So you're like three minutes of like, "Well, you try it." "Well, you try." And then like, pops off. But no one at any point in that four minutes of wrestling with the jar can tell you how close you are to the jar coming off.
ALICIA GARZA: That's right. That's right.
CHRIS HAYES: You know?
ALICIA GARZA: That's absolutely right. That's a good metaphor.
CHRIS HAYES: And it makes it hard to stick with it sometimes-
ALICIA GARZA: It does.
CHRIS HAYES: ... because it's like, "Okay, I've tried, you've tried, you've tried. Like it's just not working."
ALICIA GARZA: That's true.
CHRIS HAYES: You know, one of the things that has been interesting about following this moment, too, is that there's a lot of internal debate, and sometimes it gets real vicious, and I think people sometimes over-particularize that, to like this moment or Twitter. It's like, if you go read what was happening in SNCC-
ALICIA GARZA: Are you kidding me?
CHRIS HAYES: ... it's just like destroying-
ALICIA GARZA: Has anybody read The Making of Black Revolutionaries by James Forman? I mean, they were like-
CHRIS HAYES: Destroying each other.
ALICIA GARZA: ... going at each other over like, "Do we do direct action? Or do we register people to vote?" And at the end of the day, they ended up doing all of those things.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, right. But it's also, I think, a testament to just how, again, this kind of view of the unity of opinion or the community, and it relates to this very interesting project you're doing now, which you're calling The Black Census-
ALICIA GARZA: Right.
CHRIS HAYES: ... which I've been really fascinated by. I saw a snapshot of the data today, which someone was retweeting, about how black folks that you have polled perceive who politicians work for-
ALICIA GARZA: That's right.
CHRIS HAYES: ... and it's pretty wild.
ALICIA GARZA: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: I think it's a pretty accurate assessment. Tell me about the project.
ALICIA GARZA: The Black Census Project is a initiative from the Black Futures Lab, which I started in 2018, and the goal of the Lab is to be an innovations and experimentation lab to make black people powerful in politics. And what I know is that, in order to address the challenges that black communities face, and there are many, it requires innovation and experimentation, but more than that it requires black political power to be able to implement those solutions and where we see them. And so the Black Census Project really set out to talk to as many black folks as we could about what people are already experiencing in the economy, in our democracy, in our society, and to ask black folks a question that basically we never get asked, which is "What do you want to see for your future?" What we were able to accomplish is the largest independent survey, we believe, of black communities in America in 154 years.
CHRIS HAYES: Wow.
ALICIA GARZA: And the last time that we can find that a survey of this size was done was after Reconstruction, when slavery was formally abolished in this country, and the government was trying to figure out how to integrate newly-emancipated people into a social fabric that had previously excluded them. W.E.B. Du Bois writes about this in Black Reconstruction. He actually details this process with an incredible level of intricacy. For us, we think it's ridiculous that this hasn't happened in 154 years, given the importance and the important role that black communities play, not just to culture or entertainment, which I think a lot of people kind of acknowledge, but certainly to the preservation and advancement of our democracy.
Black people are the most solid base that the Democratic Party has but, in my state, the state party raised about $30 million in the last election cycle, and only about $50,000 went to black engagement. 31,000 people who took our survey most often would say to us when they were done, "Nobody has ever asked me what I experience, what I think or what I want. Most of the time people are telling me what I should think, telling me how I feel, telling me what I should care about, but nobody's ever asked me, 'What do you imagine for your future? What are you actually experiencing on a day-to-day basis? And what do you want to see done about it?'"
The reason that's troubling to me, personally, is because the very people who should be doing that are the people that you elect to represent you.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
ALICIA GARZA: I mean, what? Right? You know, frankly, people are so excited that somebody finally was saying, "Your voice matters. Your opinion matters. Your experiences matter." But the fact of the matter is, I'm not an elected official. I'm not a mayor, I'm not a congressperson, I'm not a member of the House of Representatives. I'm an activist, I'm an organizer, I'm somebody who cares about building power for communities and with communities that have had power stripped from them. And I think this is a real gift to the people that we elect to represent us. We actually did them a solid and said, "Hey-
CHRIS HAYES: Totally.
ALICIA GARZA: ... "with way less resources than you have access to, we did the largest survey of black people that's been conducted in this country in 154 years. And we're now giving you the gift of understanding what we experience, what we want for our futures, and what that looks like in relationship to policy."
CHRIS HAYES: What are you learning from it? Are there surprises in there? Are there things you're like, "Oh, look at that. I did not think of it that way, or I was not expecting that."?
ALICIA GARZA: You know, I like to think of myself as a black people connoisseur, since I am one. I'm not sure that a lot surprised me. I was pleasantly engaged every time I would see our little ticker going up and up and up and up. I was really happy that we were able to reach black people in all 50 states. I was really proud of our process of, you know, partnering with online civil rights organizations like Color of Change and Demos and PushBlack. PushBlack and Color of Change have millions of members online, black members and their allies. Partners like Demos and Socioanalytica Research, who helped us craft the survey tool, and Demos, who's been helping us churn out these reports with the analysis of the data.
I'm really proud of the more than 30 black-led grassroots organizations we partnered with in 27 states across the nation, who are rooted in black communities that really don't get talked to, like black people who live in rural areas, or black people who are currently incarcerated, or black people who are migrants to this country. And I feel really proud of the breadth and the depth that we were able to accomplish with this survey, and I can say one thing I'm surprised by is how surprised other people are by the results of this survey, which essentially tells me that black people are severely understudied, but we're also incredibly over-scrutinized, and we've got to change that dynamic. Most people have a picture of who black people are that is just one slice of the breadth of the complexity of our communities here in the U.S.
CHRIS HAYES: One really interesting place recently that this cropped up in a fascinating way was the Farrakhan discussion that happened when a bunch of social media companies took, like sort of de-platformed folks, and Farrakhan was among them. There's a headline that described conservatives, and the people were like, "No, no." And then this really interesting sort of discourse happened around, well, what is Farrakhan ideologically, and where does he stand? And it was a tiny little pinprick in the simplification that you're talking about, which is like, "Oh, well. Black people are 12% of the population, and they mostly vote Democrat." And call it a day.
ALICIA GARZA: Yep, yep.
CHRIS HAYES: In the public opinion of these tens of millions of people. And it's like, "Well, no, it's pretty complicated," and there are folks with conservative, even right-wing reactionary views, which I think a lot of people feel Farrakhan is accurately described as. And yeah, it was interesting because people's conception is so along the partisan spectrum of American politics that, because whiteness and the power of whiteness is such a dominant force in one of the two political coalitions, and we essentially have segregated politics, it means that the full spectrum of black political opinion just happens to be contained in one party, but it doesn't mean that everyone thinks the same way. And people have this way of confusing the two.
ALICIA GARZA: That's right. I mean, there's so much in what you said. So let's break that down, because one of the things that we suffer from in our political system, and also in our society, is that black people are defined by whiteness and white society. And so, the way that black people are portrayed in this country is that we are either militant radicals, right? Or we are nice, church-going people. And there's nothing really in between. And where you see that, actually, is the way that candidates and their campaigns engage black communities when they do it.
If I see another piece of fried chicken or another bottle of well-placed hot sauce, I might scream because, you know, if you actually know black people then you know, for example, that not all black people like fried chicken. And you also know that fried chicken is not a substitute for talking about how you're going to deal with Medicaid expansion in the South, where GOP legislators are blocking federal funds, which is severely impacting majority-black states and preventing black communities and poor communities from being able to access healthcare. Hot sauce is not going to deal with the fact that the majority of black people in this country make at least $10,000 less than what they need to send their kid to one year of a four-year public institution.
When we engage black people, based on the symbols that we think represent black communities, and those symbols are shaped by white people, you have to imagine what it's like for black folks. Because for me, I'm like, "Cool. Sylvia's is a great restaurant." It's delicious. It's delicious. Let's be clear. They have excellent fried chicken, but-
CHRIS HAYES: I agree.
ALICIA GARZA: And I'm sitting and watching these photos, and I'm like, "Hey, I don't even think you like fried chicken. That plate is untouched. And you know what? If you had respect for that fried chicken, there'd be a bite out of it right now, as you're talking about policy that's going to impact us."
CHRIS HAYES: I mean I will say... the only thing I will say to this is that I 100% agree. There is a degree to which politics does this to lots of different subgroups, like the whole go-to-Iowa, the butter cow and like eat the corn. There's a little bit of-
ALICIA GARZA: That's actually what they do.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, but there's a little bit of oversimplified sort of appeals that is the baseline. The relationship of the Democratic Party leadership to the black base of the party is extremely tangled up in the trafficking of tropes and "outreach" in a way that feels extremely Johnny-come-lately.
ALICIA GARZA: 100%. And it's not consistent outreach, and it's not consistent engagement.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean, look at the staffs on Capitol Hill. The staffs on Capitol Hill do not reflect the racial makeup of the Democratic Party. They don't. Go walk around Capitol Hill.
ALICIA GARZA: 100%.
CHRIS HAYES: It's white people after white people after white people.
ALICIA GARZA: Literally. But there's another shot at the apple in 2020-
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
ALICIA GARZA: ... and we're early enough in the campaign season that I'm hoping that candidates and their campaigns do a U-turn. I'm hoping that what we're able to accomplish is a more nuanced way of engaging black communities for the sake of cementing turnout and increasing turnout in black communities, who we already know are not only the most progressive voters, but they're the most consistent ones. So logic tells you that you want to make sure that you keep those people in your corner, and it also tells you that you want to expand that base, right? Because if you're going to defeat somebody who also traffics in tropes-
CHRIS HAYES: Yes, exactly. Yeah.
ALICIA GARZA: ... if you are going to defeat someone who, quite frankly, also traffics in untruths, otherwise known as lies, you have to have a base that is activated, energized and motivated to activate other people who've been deciding to sit it out.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean the wildest shit about this is that Donald Trump acts towards white working class folks like he's got the most ridiculous New York real estate heir, condescending caricature of them, that's like-
ALICIA GARZA: People eat it up.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes, exactly. It's like you idiots like monster trucks, right? Don't you idiots like monster trucks? It's like the whole way he... I am shocked. It's offensive. It's like literally offensive the way that he talks to his own base about them.
ALICIA GARZA: Exactly. And so why should the Democrats repeat the same thing? Now, to be clear, I think people have been trying to crack this nut for a minute, and part of it is just a question of political will. And there's lots of money being raised by parties, not just at the national level, but certainly at the state level. And I think across the board, if you were to pull back the curtains, what you would see is that the investment in black engagement is so minimal. The investment in black turnout and black education, so minimal. And in fact, even when you look at things like what consultants our party is using to engage communities. These aren't black consultants. They are white people trying to figure out how to engage black folks, and I'm like, okay cool. Maybe that's possible, but there's also a lot of really talented black people who know each other and know ourselves and know exactly where you need to be and what you need to be doing.
All I can say is, when we talk about the Black Census, and we talk about the data, one of the things that we are really trying to get across is that black people are not a monolith. We are LGBT, we are urban and rural, we are liberal and conservative, and the candidate and the campaign that is going to energize us the most is going to act like they know something about us, and it's going to go beyond fried chicken and hot sauce.
CHRIS HAYES: Alicia Garza is the co-creator of Black Lives Matter. She works on strategy and partnerships at the National Domestic Workers' Alliance. She's a principal at Black Futures Lab, which is the outfit that is running this very cool Black Census, which you should check out. You can find it online. We will link to it. I love data, so I found it really fascinating. Thank you so much, Alicia.
ALICIA GARZA: Thank you so much for having me.
CHRIS HAYES: Once again, I want to thank Alicia Garza for making time when she was here in New York to sit down and talk with us. I really learned a lot from that conversation. As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts and feedback on that conversation or any conversations that we've had. You can tweet us, #WITHpod. Email email@example.com. We do read all of those, I assure you.
"Why Is This Happening?" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the "All In" team, and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mention here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.