At USCA 2018, Black Lives Matter Cofounder Alicia Garza Discusses HIV and Building Black Social Justice Power

Senior Editor
Alicia Garza addresses attendees at USCA 2018
Kenyon Farrow

Before she became a cofounder of Black Lives Matter, before she founded her newest project, Black Futures Lab, and before her work with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Alicia Garza and I knew each other from our close network of friends and organizers who all got involved in social justice work in our 20s in the George W. Bush post-9/11 era. And we're all now active in different areas of social justice work. I was excited to find out she was going to be one of this year's featured keynotes at USCA 2018 in Orlando, Florida, and she did not disappoint. Following her speech, we sat outside the conference hotel and discussed HIV's relative invisibility in black social justice spaces, despite its disproportionate impact on black communities.

Kenyon Farrow: So, first and foremost, you could be a lot of places. What made you decide to speak to the USCA crowd?

Alicia Garza: First of all, I was honored by the invitation, and I actually think it's a big deal for a bunch of reasons. Many sectors, like HIV/AIDS and reproductive justice, get professionalized and whitened in this weird way -- and sterilized. Because it's meant to make it more palatable. And so, the fact that I was invited to speak was really an honor.

The other reason is because I grew up at the height of the AIDS crisis. When AIDS came on the scene in a major way, you know, and Ronald Reagan's ass was out here, letting people die, and really did not give a shit, that's my political context.

And so, a few years ago, my grandmother passed away, and we were going through some of her stuff. And my uncle was telling me about different family members, as we were reading the obituaries, who had died of AIDS. And their obituaries didn't say that. But he knew it, and he was passing that to me. And it's not something that we ever talked about.

My background in organizing is actually in reproductive justice. And so, I did a lot of HIV and AIDS testing and counseling and all kinds of work around this piece of things. And so, it's important to me that, particularly in black communities, we're having this conversation. And then, also, it's important to me that black folks see other black folks having a transformative conversation about the crisis that still exists and how it's impacting black people, specifically.

KF: So, you talk about that in terms of how your uncle relayed to you the folks who had passed from AIDS. You know, it's almost an exact example that I use in doing the work that I do and, like you, being similarly situated in a number of different movements that I have a relationship and history with.

But what usually happens when I'm not in HIV-specific places with black folks -- this has happened at major conferences with some of the biggest black academics and public intellectuals ...

AG: ... is that people don't talk about it.

KF: Right. They don't. And I'm like the one person. And I raise it....

AG: Yeah. You could be the one person that's ready to talk about this.

KF: Yeah. And then what happens is it doesn't really permeate the discussion in the space in that way. But people, after I talk, will come up to me.

AG: And tell their stories.

KF: Yeah. And say, "Thank you for bringing that up because ...," you know? And then it's like, "my uncle," "my brother," "my sister," "my grandmother," whatever.

AG: "Somebody I love."

KF: And folks, in some cases, have done writing or political organizing where they also talk about their father being in prison or their mother being prison. So, those stories get politicized –- but there's a way that HIV still becomes the sort of hushed and whispered story.

AG: We're guilty of that, too. You know, it's hard. Because, on the one hand, when we talk about having an intersectional frame, there are so many aspects of black communities that don't get highlighted. And we all have to be better. And I think that part of where that comes from, quite frankly, is that there's a perception that it's not a crisis anymore. You know what I'm saying? There's a perception that that was then, and then this is now, and we've made all this progress.

And so, if we're talking about it, it's like to find a cure, that kind of -- like, the Susan Komen-like [breast cancer] bridge, but not the racialized genocide that AIDS has, and HIV has, really inflicted, particularly on black communities. It's deep to me that we are such a small percentage of this country and that we are overrepresented in every disparity.

KF: Right.

AG: Like, every single one. You know? Like, it's us and indigenous people, basically. You know what I'm saying?

KF: Yeah, yeah.

AG: So, yeah. But I wouldn't be being honest if I didn't say we're guilty of that, too. I'm guilty of it.

KF: Yeah. And I don't have the answer, so I feel a little bit weird asking you the question. But what do you see as possibilities for kind of transforming that? And I get it, because I agree that it's almost like we're under so many kinds and forms of death, right? And people make decisions that are political and social and cultural about what they prioritize.

But it's a question I've been asking myself: How do we begin to sort of dislodge that so that, you know, whether it's HIV or other things, people actually see as part of, as you described, a racial genocide or a number of other things?

AG: That's right. The first thing I think is really important is actually what we've started to do -- and I say started because five years is like a drop in the bucket, in the span of time. But I think this shift around talking about the complexities of our communities and trying to even make more nuance to who black folks are is really, really important. And I don't even think we've scratched the surface, quite frankly. I think we have a lot more work to do on that.

And then the other thing that feels really important to me around this is, like, we have to challenge the ways in which our movements get professionalized in such a way that they get neutralized. So, I'm all about: I don't think you need to be scrappy to be effective. Do you know what I'm saying? I'm like, that's not the hit.

And at the same time, there is an agenda behind being more presentable. And I think we have to understand the difference between being presentable and reaching whiter audiences. And I do actually think there is a difference.

KF: Yeah, I agree. Now, I really want to talk about your current life's work, like what you started, Black Futures Lab.

AG: So, the work that we're doing is to make black people powerful in politics. And the thing that I'm really obsessed with is how we stop being symbols and start actually being relevant. And so, we're in this moment where black is a brand. You know what I'm saying? And everything about black is cool, except what it actually means to be black.

For us, coming out of the 2016 elections, there was all this dialogue and discourse about what Black Lives Matter should have done, could have done, might have done, and why we didn't, like, get behind a candidate. I'm like, well, we have to understand politics in a different way. So, were there missed opportunities? Totally. That's not a Black Lives Matter thing; that's a left thing -- whereas we're ambivalent, honestly, about power.

That has to shift. And so, we can't be radical if we're not thinking about: How do we shift what's happening at the root? And, in order to do that, unfortunately it does mean that you have to engage in the structures that distribute power. And so, we're trying to figure out how to do that in such a way where it's not symbolic, where it's actually authentic, and where it's not representative, either.

So, I don't think that electing more black people shifts power. We have to elect more black people that share a vision for what shifting power looks like. So, that's what we're up to.

We have a project right now called the Black Census Project. We're trying to talk to 200,000 black people across the country about what we experience and what we want for our futures. And we're using the data to impact and influence legislation in cities and states. And we're using it as an opportunity, also, to train organizers, people who know how to build power. And we think we need millions of organizers, people who know how to build the kind of relationships necessary to shift the way that things are arranged. That's what we're up to right now.

And we've also started to do some candidate work, where we're getting behind folks that are black and that share a progressive vision. And we're defining what that means, so that progressive, even, doesn't get lost in this mishmash. You can be progressive and actually be really fucking regressive on a bunch of shit. But because you're black you get a pass. You know?

For example, in my city, in San Francisco, we have the first black woman ever to be elected mayor. And a lot of people backed her, and a lot of people are celebrating her. Now, I'll be a 100%: She doesn't share our vision for a progressive future. And it doesn't mean that she can't be cultivated, or she can't be moved. But what it means is, if we're not focused on that, and we're just happy with getting a black woman in office, we're never, ever going to get to the point where we need.

And when we're talking about HIV in a place like San Francisco, that matters. And totally matters. So if you have somebody who, you know, is wary of providing more services, somebody who is wary of providing affordable housing to people who need it, somebody who is pro-development in every single way, at the expense of people, that's not going to move the conditions that we're concerned about. And we need to be honest about this. You know?

And especially in the era after the first black president we have to be really honest about: What are the benefits and limitations of having representation without a genuine reflection of what our communities are experiencing?

KF: So, Just talking about San Francisco/Oakland, I think what you're saying about representation and shared political values is indicative of the kind of fight happening now about whether the International AIDS Conference happens in the Bay Area in 2020 or not.

AG: They can't hold it all in San Francisco now. And second of all, Oakland is being gentrified. And so, it's actually a tool, in a lot of ways.

Whenever you have a thing that is bringing thousands of people to a place, that is generating resources for a place. But then, you have to ask yourself: What are those resources going toward? And who are those resources going toward?

Related: At USCA 2018, the International AIDS Conference in 2020 Casts a Broad Shadow

KF: So, for folks who are reading this, who might want to step into building power, as you put it in your talk today, what would be advice to young activists/organizers or folks who are not young and want to step into the work?

AG: So, this is unpopular, but I don't care.

I think you need to join an organization. And I think in this climate organization gets confused with nonprofit, and I think that it should not. Nonprofits are vehicles that people try and use in political ways. They are set up to do particular things.

You don't have to join a nonprofit, but you should join an organization. Because an organization, I think, is the smallest unit of what it means to actually be in political community. And I think that for people who want to get involved, the first thing you have to do is stop being isolated and break this idea that one person is going to change everything. It's like change happens when people are in relationship. And so, you have to be in political relationship with people.

That also requires that together, what you're doing is understanding why are things happening the way they're happening, who's responsible, and what can be done to change it. That's really hard to do just by going on social media or going to a protest.

And I know today protests are really where a lot of people get politicized, and I think that's important. But we should note that protests are acts of resistance, but they are not, in and of themselves, long-term vehicles for resistance.

So, join an organization.

The other thing is, make a plan to make it so that the people who make decisions give a shit if they disappoint you. And in that kind of a strategy, you can use protests all the fuck you want. And you should. Because when we look at the HIV and AIDS movement, it wasn't [successful] through lobbying alone. And, in fact, frankly it wasn't until people turned up the heat that that lobbying became effective. So, understand that there are a number of different things that need to work in relationship to each other -- like people -- that actually creates change.

This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.