The Ms. Q&A: Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Alicia Garza on Getting Intersectionality Right

Black Lives Matter (BLM) co-founder Alicia Garza is co-presenting at this year’s National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) Conference with fellow feminist and prison abolitionist Angela Davis, launching a weekend of conversations about the intersections of feminism and racial justice activism and academia as both NWSA and the historic Combahee River Collective Statement celebrate their 40th anniversaries.

Garza, who has been organizing for over two decades for police accountability, labor rights and environmental justice, among other issues, talked to Ms. to mark the occasion about the importance of activism and urgency of organizing in our current political climate.

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Is this your first time attending NWSA?

This is my first time. Barbara Ransby, [NWSA’s president] is both a living legend and a person who has been such an important support for BLM and a new generation of black freedom fighters. Basically, what that means is when she asks me to do something, I do it, which is why I said yes when I was invited to give this year’s keynote.

What will you be addressing at NWSA? Will you focus on the theme of activism or scholarship, or perhaps a combination of both?

What I bring to the table is more than 20 years of organizing in black communities for racial, economic and gender justice. I have organized in Oakland, fighting around police accountability and economic justice mostly for renters. I did a lot of organizing with tenants and residents to try to bring together this idea that economic security is community security, much more so than policing community. Of course, BLM is kind of a new expression of work that people have been doing for a long time. I’ve been a long-time organizer since I was 21. I share an activist perspective with various folks who’ve been working inside of communities to use a range of tools to change the conditions under which we live.

In what ways do these community actions merge with feminist movements?

I think all these efforts are deeply shaped by aspects of feminist movement. One of the major contributions of the Combahee River Collective and other black feminists is that gender doesn’t exist in a vacuum; they gave us an understanding of how power relations within this notion of gender shape everything around us, including our access to survival on many different levels.

What I know is that many of the people that I’ve worked with have been women. And that has to do with how women and gender nonconforming people have been disenfranchised. What’s happening in low income communities, often what we find is black women, women of color, immigrant women who are concentrated in poverty. Who are impacted by environmental racism and housing discrimination? It’s black women. In our communities, black women are overwhelmingly the breadwinners, and yet our neighborhoods lack the support to help black women, who are heading families, to strive.

I think the work of Barbara Ransby, Barbra Smith,  and so many other black feminists have shaped the work on the ground and our understanding of the history of feminism and also its future.

What do you think is the biggest challenge that BLM or any other movement is facing in this current political climate?

I think all our movements are facing specific challenges arising from this current moment, and there are historical challenges we’ve always faced. Right now, we are facing a re-organization of power, in which those in power have a clear and coordinated agenda to continue to disenfranchise and marginalize and otherwise disempower the various communities that are the engines for this country. I think our movements are facing a new chessboard, and some of us aren’t even playing chess, maybe checkers if that. I think we need to be very critical of the state and the way it operates and to also understand that the state is the primary way in which our communities are organized. How do you have an opposition to something or a set of things that is so detrimental to our lives while also not making the mistake of acting as if we can’t engage it because we don’t like it? Too many people don’t have faith in the ability of America to live up to the promise that it has ostensibly said it is grounded in, which is understandable. At times, though, the response is that some of us don’t want to engage and think we can build our own thing on the side. In doing so, we just assume that the state will wither away. That’s a mis-assessment of power and how it operates.

What do you think we should be doing in this current moment?

We should be asking: What are the possibilities for transformation of the state and of the various governing systems that shape our lives and cause us so much misery? And how do we keep a big-picture vision that is innovative and creative and experimental while also being grounded in the material conditions that we live in? We must figure out how to play chess in this moment, where we know that the systems we’re in opposition to aren’t going anywhere but we must continue to undermine them. We need to find new ways to bring people together to create change.

But that challenge isn’t unique to today’s climate.

Movements across time have faced the challenge of how we collaborate across differences and how we understand which differences are major and which are minor. This is not unique to BLM, of course, whether we look to feminist or civil rights movements in the past. There are times when we treat each other as enemies rather than focus on our real enemies. There are times when we are too polarizing amongst each other when we’re not impacting at all the actual systems we’re trying to dismantle. We saw this in the Civil Rights movement with tensions between direct action and electoral organizing, or around integration versus nation-building.

I think one of the things that the Combahee River Collective struggled with is the issue of our relationship with white women, and with who’s part of the united front to defeat capitalism, to defeat fascism? Who are our allies, our supporters and our actual enemies? Throughout history, we’ve gotten confused about who is who. There are ways that our individual egos are involved on all sides.

In moving forward, and given how BLM emerged out of social media, what do you think is the role of technology in relation to these challenges?

BLM was certainly popularized on social media. Twitter and Facebook were part of that, and the hashtag is what connected them. We are living in a digital age when more people depend on technologies in their everyday lives. We need to be mindful of how we bring technologies together with the best of the traditional models of organizing, as opposed to pitting them against each other.

The biggest threat that I see is the way that many of the platforms we engage in is not under our control. The Internet is supposed to be the great connector, and the open-source nature of it was supposed to balance out the inequities that exist outside of technology. But the reality is they’re being perpetuated and replayed in digital space. Part of our challenge is to make the Internet accessible to everyone, where it’s not a place where people are surveilled, and where we can make it a place for people to form connections free of fear. We also need to be savvy enough to recognize that what’s most important about these platforms are the relationships that we build.

That’s what we must protect and defend: our ability to build and create and form relationships with people across geography and across the barriers the Internet has tried to equalize.

What would you say to NWSA, which is primarily an audience of academics? What do you think they should prioritize in their classrooms or in their scholarship?

I think there needs to be a deep dive into intersectionality and relations of power. Intersectionality has been around for a long time and has resurged as a core principle of what movements need to be effective. And yet I see a lot of misunderstanding of what intersectionality is. In some ways, the identity politics of people like Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde and others is now being bastardized in a way that makes me angry. When the Democratic Party says they lost last year’s presidential election because of identity politics and not enough focus on class–as if class is not a part of that!–it really shows a lack of understanding of intersectionality.

In a country that is rapidly becoming majority people of color, in a country that is overwhelmingly powered by women–particularly women of color and immigrant women–what does it mean that the major places in which people take political action are completely ignoring the demographic that they need to win elections? What does it mean that intersectionality is now being talked about as some kind of weird diversity project as opposed to an analysis of how power interacts with itself and each other? And what is at stake when we don’t get it right?

Our communities have been under siege for a very long time, but this kind of siege is a different siege than we’ve ever seen. We have not lived under a neo-fascist regime before, and that’s going to have specific impacts on our communities. What’s at stake if we don’t understand the complexity of why intersectionality is important as a movement-building tool? I would hope that NWSA would offer that kind of contribution, which will have real-time impacts and ripple effects if done well.

Janell Hobson is associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender.

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