It all began in an Oakland bar in 2013. Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, drinking whiskey, saw the news on her phone that George Zimmerman had been acquitted in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida.
Gutted, she later posted a Facebook comment that ended with “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.”
Her language struck a chord, and from there, Garza’s friend Patrisse Cullors coined the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter — which would become the most popular Twitter hashtag of all time.
Highly visible protests in Baltimore, New York City, Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere rocketed Black Lives Matter into a defining social movement in an age of increasingly visibile police violence. Now BLM raises millions of dollars annually in chapters across North America. In 2017, Black Lives Matter won the Sydney Peace Prize, Australia’s top award for global peacemakers.
Having Garza as a speaker would be a nice “get” for any organization, and that’s exactly how members at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont must have been feeling when Garza spoke to the congregation — a “Jewish spiritual home for politically progressive people,” according to its mission statement — on May 11 at a Presbyterian church two blocks from UC Berkeley. The talk was titled “Many Stories, Shared Liberation.”
Following in the radical political tradition of Berkeley (where Kehilla was founded in 1984) and Oakland (where it was located for 14 years), the synagogue has established itself as a home for Jews of all stripes, colors, genders and sexual orientations. Among its many social justice endeavors, it holds monthly vigils protesting U.S. immigration policies and is conducting a long-term initiative “to address white supremacy and racial justice internally within Kehilla, at all levels of our organization and community,” according to its website.
As dusk fell in advance of the Garza talk, the church sanctuary buzzed with the kind of energy that usually attends a famous author or celebrity. Hundreds took their seats in ground-level and balcony pews at the First Presbyterian Church.
Garza, 38, took the stage to a standing ovation after an introduction by Aurora Levins Morales, a Puerto Rican Jewish writer and poet who’s a stalwart within several social justice movements, including Latina feminism and Third World feminism.
“It’s an honor to be here,” said Garza, an Oakland resident. “And not only here, but home.”
Garza hit on many topics in her talk: the threat posed by rising right-wing populism, a presidential administration aggressively flouting democratic norms, the flaws in American democracy in general, the trappings of power, and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and AIPAC.
Her messages were full of dire warning, but carried a reserved optimism.
“These are scary, scary times,” she said, mentioning synagogue shootings and an incident in Sunnyvale on April 23, when an Iraq War veteran drove his car into pedestrians, reportedly targeting Muslims.
“In my lifetime I have not experienced the kind of terror that I see and feel every day,” she said. Still, she is in the practice of “freedom dreaming.”
“So much of the time we know what we’re fighting against. I’m fighting white supremacy, I’m fighting white nationalism, I’m fighting anti-blackness, I’m fighting transphobia, I’m fighting homophobia. But what are we building?
“What would happen if we got it right?” she continued. She said she understood recently, in a way that she hadn’t before, “what pride some people have when they say ‘I am an American.’”
“It’s a contradiction,” she said of American democracy. “That has to be resolved.”
Garza vouched for voting — and getting your friends and relatives to vote — as a vehicle for change, as well as activism within one’s capabilities.
“Not all of us can do street action and protests and marching,” she said. “Do what you know, and what is within your reach, even if it’s imperfect.”
While the Black Lives Matter movement has a reputation for indignation and anger at the violence, and the history of violence, perpetrated against people of color, Garza’s speaking style is strikingly methodical, and has a cooling effect. She referred to her audience as “my loves.”
There is no electing-out white nationalism
Even while making stark points — such as “there is no electing-out white nationalism” — she did it in a conversational and rather friendly way.
“They’re not homies,” she said of her opponents on the right, to laughter. “You know what they are? Strategic.”
Garza spoke broadly on topics of racial, social and political justice, but it didn’t take long for her to address the elephant in the room. Black Lives Matter has been outspoken in its advocacy for Palestinian people, and its criticism of Israel. In a 2016 policy platform section titled “Invest/Divest,” in a document drafted by more than 50 organizations affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement (known as the Movement for Black Lives), support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement was expressed, Israel was called an “apartheid state,” and it was stated that the United States, through military support for Israel, is complicit in the “genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.”
Garza broached the Israeli-Palestinian topic guardedly but did not avoid it. She said she has close ties to a current flashpoint in the debate, Omar, the freshman congresswoman from Minnesota.
“You know I’m going to say this, because we’re talking about truth,” she said.
“When my sister Ilhan correctly identified powerful forces, like AIPAC, that are shaping policy and practice not only in this country but all over the globe, people were really concerned. So much so that this president began to attack our sister and call her anti-Semitic.”
The room was silent.
“Stories matter,” she said. “And power matters.”
Garza said she met recently with “a hundred black women,” including Omar, to discuss Omar’s safety in the face of threats, in part due to the president’s tweets.
Later, Garza returned to the topic of Israel and Zionism. She was reflective.
“It’s a tricky situation because, of course, we all feel very strongly about what helps us come back to ourselves,” she said. “The stories that we’ve been told by our parents and our grandparents, about what we fight for.
“I’m not going to get into this much, because we don’t have time to talk about nation-states and their validity,” she said. “Or lack thereof.”
The talk concluded with a Q&A session, with questions requested only from indigenous people and people of color. A musical Havdalah service led by Rabbi Dev Noily capped the evening.
Leaving the sanctuary after nightfall, attendees seemed in turn dazed, moved and inspired.
“I feel really overwhelmed,” said Michael Robin, a Kehilla member. “She talked about so many things in a really clear and articulate way.”
Many attendees shared Garza’s view on the importance of solidarity among historically oppressed groups. “I thought it was wonderful that the synagogue has understood that at this moment in history, standing alone is not OK,” said Nancy Feinstein, another Kehilla member. “To be scared about anti-Semitism doesn’t mean to separate from the African American community, the Muslim community.”
“It was absolutely moving and insightful and important for the Jewish community to take a really strong stand in support of the Black Lives Matter movement,” said Ariel Luckey, a playwright and performer. “A lot of really powerful wisdom was shared.”
“I thought it was inspiring,” said Barry Schwartz, a Kehilla member whose wife is active with the shul’s economic justice committee. “I wish it had been a little more specific about how you bring groups together, each of whom thinks their issue is the most important issue.
“I understand in the abstract how you get past it,” he said. “I don’t quite see how you get past it concretely.”