Top Quotes: “The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart” — Alicia Garza

Austin Rose
14 min readMay 9, 2024

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“Today, policies that encourage anti-Black harassment and violence by police are getting tossed out over the line that was drawn with the words Black Lives Matter. Policies like money bail are getting measured by that line, turning the consensus against a practice that keeps hundreds of thousands of people locked up in jail and in harm’s way for no other reason than not having the money to pay bail fees that judges and prosecutors deliberately set out of reach. We have forced telecom corporations profiting off mass incarceration to answer to that line, no longer allowing them to exploit their monopoly and charge families outrageous and exploitative rates to talk to their incarcerated loved ones. City councils across the country are drawing lines through police budgets.”

“Police do not abuse Black communities because there are good people and bad people on police forces throughout the nation — police abuse Black communities because the system of policing was designed in a way that makes that abuse inevitable.”

The terms “right” and “left” when used to describe political leanings or political values have their origins in the French Revolution, where they were used to describe who sat where in the National Assembly. If you sat to the right as seen from the president’s perspective, you were seen as in agreement with the monarchy, which tended toward hierarchy, tradition, and clericalism.”

“Urban areas were hit particularly hard as Reagan and his administration slashed federal assistance to local governments by 60 percent. Without federal aid, cities with high levels of poverty and a limited base for property taxes suffered. Job training programs, the development of low-income housing, and government assistance were effectively dismantled. When Reagan was elected, federal assistance accounted for approximately 20 percent of the municipal budgets of large cities. By the end of his term, federal assistance would account for only 6 percent of those budgets. The devastating impacts on hospitals, clinics, sanitation services, police and fire departments, and urban schools and libraries continue to this day.”

“At the New York Stock Exchange in 1989, five activists chained themselves to the VIP balcony, calling on Burroughs Wellcome — the pharmaceutical manufacturer of the only approved AIDS drug, AZT— to lower the price. Several days after the action, the company cut the price of the drug by 20 percent.”

Lennar was carefully working through a plan to take Bayview Hunters Point and turn it into San Francisco’s hottest new neighborhood. The first step in its plan was to acquire the land for next to nothing and have the city roll out a red carpet of benefits and tax breaks in exchange for Lennar’s work to develop and sell a neighborhood that was seen as undesirable. The city came through on that part: It sold eight hundred acres of waterfront land to the Lennar Corporation for one dollar. Why so cheap? Some of the land was contaminated with toxins.

Bayview Hunters Point was formerly home to the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, one of the only dry docks on the west coast. The shipyard was built in 1870, purchased by the United States Navy in 1940, and permanently closed in 1994. For years it had been the main economic engine for the community. During the 1940s, many Black people migrating from the south found decent work and decent pay at the shipyard. During wartime, it was used to decontaminate ships that carried components for the first atomic bomb. After World War II, the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory occupied part of the area, where it decontaminated ships employed in nuclear testing in the Pacific and studied the effects of radiation on laboratory animals and human beings.”

“Winning is about more than being right — it is also about how you invite others to be a part of change they may not have even realized they needed.

“I started using a different approach with the tough Black women I was organizing to fight against environmental racism and police violence. Instead of saying, “Shh! Don’t say that, it’s not nice,” or going into some academic or self-righteous diatribe about why we need to stick together, I decided to ask questions and help to place our experiences into context. When someone would make a disparaging remark about how many Latinos lived in one house, instead of saying, “That’s not true,” I would say, “Yes, I’ve seen that too. What do you think it’s like to live in a house with so many people?” That would inevitably open up room for a conversation about why so many people lived in one house — what was driving so many Latinos to be crammed in? Was that the future they had imagined for themselves when they came to this country, or was something else going on?This would inevitably lead to a conversation about racist immigration policies and why so many people were being pushed out of their homelands and forced to travel to a strange land to try to fend for themselves and their families. Why was immigration policy not uniform across the board — why were Mexicans crossing a desert with nothing but the clothes on their backs but Europeans were arriving on planes with visas in hand? Why did a lack of affordable housing in San Francisco force people to live in cramped quarters? And the same applied when I talked to our Latino members. Why were Black people standing outside during the workday, not working? It made no sense to respond to the inquiries of our Latino members by saying they didn’t see what they were in fact seeing. I saw it too. Why were so many Black people, particularly Black men, unemployed? Why had there been several periods of successful resistance to racism and yet Black people were still living in deplorable conditions?”

“You both are smarter than that,” he reasoned. And then, looking at me, “How’s your throwing arm?”

“It’s great,” I piped up quickly. “I used to play goalie in soccer.”

“Fantastic. I want you to take this pipe and throw it as far as you can.” Before he even finished his sentence, I picked up the pipe and hurled it down the grassy hill we’d been parked atop. Then I watched as he slowly returned each of the other items to the car where he’d found them. He slipped the weed back under my seat. “I want you ladies to sit up here for a minute and sober up. And then I want you to go home, and I don’t want to see you up here again. Understood?” We nodded our heads vigorously. He closed my trunk and handed me back my license, registration, and proof of insurance. “You ladies have a good night. Be safe out here,” he said, before getting back into his car and driving off.

A year or two later, I was home from college, visiting for the summer, and I’d gone to the local Starbucks to grab a coffee with a friend. While inside, I saw an officer and knew immediately who he was. I approached him, saying, “You gave me a chance a few years ago, and I just wanted to say thank you. I’m in college, studying sociology and anthropology. Thanks for not arresting me.” He smiled. “Sometimes people just need a chance to do something different. I’m happy to hear you’re doing well.””

“Linda Burnham, leader of the Third World Women’s Alliance, a dear friend and mentor, introduced the usage of the term “people of color” as a way to get people who were not white to see common cause with one another.”

“An organizer would say that we have to get people affected by the cuts together to state what we want done instead and then determine who has the power to make the decision. If we want to influence the decision maker to either reverse the decision or do something different, we have to demonstrate that this is something a lot of people care about and there will be consequences if they don’t do what we need them to do.

And that’s what we did. We set out to find parents impacted by the elimination of the yellow school buses by knocking on doors in communities like Bayview Hunters Point and the Mission District, and we also found them through their children, through the work we did with young people in high schools throughout the city. We brought those parents together to understand the decision and discuss its implications. We brought parents face-to-face with the SFUSD board, and we met with the agency that oversees the public transportation system in San Francisco. Together, we developed a plan to demand that the Municipal Transportation Agency fully fund a pilot program whereby young people under the age of eighteen get to ride the city bus for free.

We met with decision makers, bringing along the affected parents and young people. In our meetings, the youths and the adults shared their stories of how they were being impacted by these cuts, and then we offered a solution that would ease the burden on them while promoting the use of public transportation throughout the city. Our youth members did presentations to other students in their schools about the fight for free public transportation. And we had people in our communities call members of the Board of Supervisors, Transportation Commission, and school board to support our proposal.

We won the campaign because we had an organized base who put pressure on decision makers.”

“I was a supporter, but no organizers followed up with me and asked me why I had become involved. No organizers asked me how I wanted to be involved moving forward, and no organizers laid out a plan for me to get involved and stay involved. I was a part of a constituency of people who lived in Oakland and cared about what was happening in the place I lived, and I was mobilized and inspired, but I was not organized into a base that was ready to take action to achieve systemic change.”

“One piece of hegemonic common sense is the idea that Black men are the central focus of Black Lives Matter and should be elevated at all times. The media rushed to anoint a young gay Black man as the founder of the movement, even though that was not the case. This same sort of prioritizing of Black men happened all over the country: young Black men elevated to the role of Black Lives Matter leaders, regardless of the work they’d actually put in.”

“Popular fronts are alliances that come together across a range of political beliefs for the purpose of achieving a short-to-intermediate-term goal, while united fronts are long-term alliances based on the highest level of political alignment. The phrases are often used interchangeably but shouldn’t be.

A lot of activist coalitions these days take the form of popular fronts and come together around achieving a short-to-intermediate-term objective. When I was organizing in Bayview Hunters Point, we built a popular front with the Nation of Islam, Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, and a few other smaller entities such as local churches and advocacy organizations like Environmental Justice Alliance and the Church of St. John Coltrane. We were united around advancing a ballot initiative to ensure that 50 percent of all new housing built in the community would be affordable to people making $40,000 a year or less. We had assets that we lent to one another. We were a small grassroots organization that would take thirty days to mobilize one hundred people, while the Nation of Islam could mobilize a thousand people with three days’ notice.

There was a lot that we did not agree on politically. At times, it was a source of tension between our organizations. For example, I was the lead organizer on the campaign, which meant that I made decisions on strategy and approach. In our meetings, I was often one of the only women, and certainly the only queer woman, in the group. But as the leadership in the campaign, I needed to sign off on decisions. This was different from how the Nation operated. Decisions were largely made by men, and as far as we knew there were no women, much less queer women, making decisions about the direction of their end of the campaign. When I would go to meetings at the mosque, women sat on one side of the room and men on the other. I, being me, would sit on the men’s side of the room. We knew about and were aware of our differences politically — and we also knew that we needed one another to win. We would often remind one another that out of ten items on an agenda, we probably did not agree on nine of them — but if number ten was what we were united around, then we were committed to giving it everything we had.

Of course, it was not always possible to stay focused just on the task at hand. At times our membership was hostile to the idea of building a popular front with the Nation of Islam in particular. While our organization was nondenominational, our base was largely Christian. Similarly, our organization was pro-queer, anti-capitalist, intentionally multiracial, and feminist. We were advocates and practitioners of nonviolent direct action. The Nation of Islam differed from us on many of the political pillars that were the bedrock of our organization. The Nation was not anti-capitalist and in fact was pro-Black-capitalism. They were not pro-queer organizationally and they were not multiracial. Our stances on patriarchy differed substantially.

However, what allowed us to be dangerous together was that we were indivisible on the issue of the initiative. We demonstrated a respect for one another and our differences in ways that allowed us to appreciate the strengths that we brought to the table. And, more important, the community respected our unity: If two organizations that couldn’t be more different politically could work together, surely this was a fight worth getting involved in.

“Black Lives Matter has indeed become a generic label for organizing and activism related to police violence. That is caused, in part, by laziness among journalists and other actors in the news media — describing everything related to Black people and protest as Black Lives Matter rather than being precise about Black Lives Matter being an organization, and a movement bigger than our organization, that has swept the country and the world.”

“I cannot tell you how many times I have been at events where someone will approach me to say that they know the other co-founder of Black Lives Matter, DeRay Mckesson.”

“I wish that these were innocent mistakes, but they’re not. Characterizing these misstatements as misunderstandings is gaslighting of the highest degree. Mckesson was a speaker at a Forbes magazine event, “Forbes 30 under 30,” and was listed in the program as the cofounder of Black Lives Matter, yet he wasn’t in a rush to correct the mistake — and certainly didn’t address the mistake in any comments he made that day. There was an outcry on social media, which forced McKesson to contact the planners and have them change the description. But had there not been an outcry by people sick of watching the misleading dynamic, there wouldn’t have been any change.

Tarana Burke wrote an article about this misrepresentation in 2016 in The Root, a year before the #MeToo movement swept the country, criticizing McKesson for allowing his role to be overstated. She cites a Vanity Fair “new establishment” leaders list on which Mckesson is No. 86 and accompanied by the following text:

Crowning achievement: Transforming a Twitter hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter, into a sustained, multi-year, national movement calling for the end of police killings of African-Americans. He may have lost a bid to become Baltimore’s next mayor, but he is the leader of a movement.

Burke goes on to write, “I have seen McKesson and some of his people go on social media tirades about how they are not a part of Black Lives Matter. That is, until someone from the press says it — then there is no correction.”

“When in his book Mckesson credits a relatively unknown UCLA professor with the creation of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, he doesn’t do so for the purpose of clarity — he does it to unseat and deliberately discredit the roles that Patrisse, Opal, and I, along with many, many others, have played in bringing people together to take action and engaging our communities around a new theory of who Black life encompasses and why that matters for our liberation. And in many ways he does it for the purpose of attempting to justify the ways in which he inflates his own role in Black Lives Matter.

In 2017, Patrisse, Opal, Mckesson, Elzie, and I were the subjects of a lawsuit by a Louisiana police officer who was injured in a protest in Baton Rouge. The charge: inciting violence. The officer sued the hashtag, and each of us individually became a defendant in the case.

I’m not aware of many protests that Mckesson has organized, but the Baton Rouge one was certainly organized by him — or at least he’d claimed it was on social media. Neither Patrisse nor Opal nor I was present, participated in any planning of it, nor recruited anyone to be a part of it. Nothing was organized in Louisiana by or on behalf of the Network, and I have the same understanding with respect to the Movement for Black Lives.Yet here we were facing a lawsuit because of actions that were not ours. McKesson quickly distanced himself from the protests that he took part in organizing and promoting, and from responsibility for organizing them.

The lawsuit was eventually thrown out, with the judge citing that it was not possible to sue a hashtag, among other reasons for dismissing the suit.”

“We have allowed McKesson to overstate his role, influence, and impact on the Black Lives Matter movement because he is, in many ways, more palatable than the many people who helped to kick-start this iteration of the movement. He is well branded, with his trademark blue Patagonia vest that helps you identify him in a sea of people all claiming to represent Black Lives Matter. He is not controversial in the least, rarely pushing the public to move beyond deeply and widely held beliefs about power, leadership, and impact. He is edgy enough in his willingness to document protests and through that documentation claim that he played a larger role in them than he did, and yet complacent enough to go along to get along. He does not make power uncomfortable. Mckesson is exactly the kind of Black Lives Matter representative that makes White House officials feel comfortable. He gladly met with the Obamas and senior officials in the Obama administration like Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod — after Black Lives Matter declined to attend a meeting pitched to us as “off the record” yet had a press release sent out about it the day after we agreed initially to attend. We were not willing to be used as symbols — we wanted to engage in real, unscripted, unstaged discussion about the changes that were necessary.”

“McKesson is an at-large activist, and not in coordination with the many activists who did the work of building enough pressure to force those meetings to happen in the first place, he is often at protests in the role of a documentarian — not in the role of a protester. He is using the Black Lives Matter platform and profile for access — but we don’t know who that access is for because we are unclear who he organizes, who he is accountable to, and who elevated him as a leader of this movement in the first place.

In many ways, McKesson continues to play an important role, documenting and translating for people who are new to our movements what is happening and how they can be involved. He is filling a space that our movements have left open, and I often say to his critics that if you don’t like what he is doing and how he is doing it, it is imperative that you outorganize him, not merely talk about him behind his back.”

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Austin Rose

I read non-fiction and take copious notes. Currently traveling around the world for 5 years, follow my journey at https://peacejoyaustin.wordpress.com/blog/