From the September-October 2021 issue of News & Letters
The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart, Alicia Garza, One World Press, 2020.
Alicia Garza is proudly Black, Queer, feminist, and a long-time community organizer best known as a co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter. Her book relates her experiences to important milestones in the 21st-Century movements for Black freedom.
In the first half of The Purpose of Power, Garza narrates her development as a Queer Black feminist community organizer. In 2013, hearing the shocking “not guilty” verdict for the vigilante killer of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, Garza emailed activist friends Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi: “I can’t breathe. NOT GUILTY?!?!?!?!?!
“Where those folks at saying we have moved past race and that black folks in particular need to get over it?…We GOTTA get it together y’all…This verdict will create many more George Zimmermans…#blacklivesmatter.”
‘THE TRUTH OF BLACK LIFE’
By the next day, “everything was exploding”: protests were called nationwide and the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was circulating on social media. Just three days later, on July 16, 2013, Garza wrote: “#Blacklivesmatter asserts the truth of Black life that collective action builds collective power for collective transformation.” The hashtag had become a vehicle for “activism, organizing, and analysis.”
In 2014, #BlackLivesMatter became an organization supporting the rebellion in Ferguson, Mo., after Michael Brown was shot six times by Police Officer Darren Wilson. Yet Garza cautions, “Hashtags don’t build movements. People do. Now we have to learn how to build movements for the 21st Century.”
In the second half of the book, “Notes on the Next Movement,” Garza asks, “After protests die down…where do people go to take sustained action?” The movement had grown way beyond its origins and led Garza to wrestle with its developments and contradictions in relation to building power. The power she describes is both visionary and practical: “the ability to make decisions that affect your own [and others’] lives…the ability to reward and punish and decide how resources are distributed.”
AFTER THE GEORGE FLOYD MURDER
Black youth-led worldwide mass protests after the 2020 murder of George Floyd drew in white support. Now questions of unity and solidarity, identity and intersectionality, leadership and co-optation had to be revisited to ensure sustainability of principles.
In the last chapter, “In the End: Power,” Garza writes that Black power can be transformed to “unlock a new democracy, a new civil society, and a new economy in the United States.” Yet, I am reminded of Audre Lorde’s comment, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
American history, as caught in American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard, reveals that “at each historic turning point of development in the U.S., it was the Black masses in motion who proved to be the vanguard.” Frantz Fanon had written of the 1960s revolutions in Black Africa in Wretched of the Earth: “for Europe, for ourselves and for humanity, humanity cannot do otherwise than define a new humanism.”
Is it possible to radically transform the politics of a capitalist USA? Garza points out this will not be easy. Her experience, questions, vision, and rootedness in the Black freedom movements make this book necessary for all who want to sustain Black Lives Matter movements.
—Susan Van Gelder