It started with a love note.
When George Zimmerman was acquitted for the death of Trayvon Martin, organizer Alicia Garza said it felt like a punch to the gut. Reacting to cynicism and resignation, she wrote the love note calling for the end of the killing of Black people.
When Patrisse Cullors read the line in the note, “Black lives matter,” she had a flash of inspiration. She created the social media hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and shared it with the world. Since then, the Black Lives Matter movement has become the center of race advocacy.
Cullors recently visited Portland and met with community organizers to discuss the growing movement and its future.
Cullors said she is part of generation living in the middle of the war on drugs and the war on gangs. She grew up watching the rise of violence and the destruction of her community. When Cullors, Garza and Opal Tometi founded the group, they wanted to honor and include all Black lives.
“We understood we needed to have mass movement as part of Black liberation,” she said. “It was going to take all Black lives to stop the genocide of Black people, inside this country and outside of this country.”
The meeting was organized by the McKenzie River Gathering Foundation, which funds social justice movements in Oregon. The meeting was attended by representatives from the Black Lives Matter Portland chapter, Don’t Shoot PDX, the Portland chapter of the NAACP, the Black chapter of PFLAG, the PSU Student Union and the Black Student Unions of Lewis & Clark College and PCC.
Sharon Gary-Smith of MRG talked about the challenges of organizing around racial justice in one of the Whitest cities in the United States.
“Here in Portland, we have some unique and very different kind of circumstances, but we still know that ‘Black Lives Matter’ rattles around here,” Gary-Smith said. “We have evidence of shootings in Portland that could rival cities with significantly more people of color.”
The group discussed Black Lives Matter’s disruptive tactics. Cullors said her chapters are encouraged to sit and talk with Mayors, police union leaders and Chiefs of Police, but disrupting political events and holding public protests are useful actions as well.
The movement received backlash after activists interrupted a rally for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Cullors said Black Lives Matter lost some support from White, left-leaning progressives.
After the incident, in advance of his speech in Portland, Sanders met with activists in Portland. Hillary Clinton also had a well-publicized meeting with a different chapter. The movement has yet to endorse any Presidential candidate. Cullors said there hasn’t been a candidate willing to go beyond courting and lip-service.
“The reality is that we do not have a candidate who is saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ and actually meaning it,” she said. “We don't have a candidate that is saying they are going to develop a Black agenda, that's going to look at poor Black communities. We don't have that candidate yet.”
The backlash is part of the growing pains that often accompany a mass popular movement. The group talked about having more influence because of the size of the movement, but noted they also dealt with more personal attacks.
Alyssa Pagan described being harassed on the Portland State University campus for her work, which has included efforts to disarm campus security officers at PSU.
Another big concern was the co-opting of the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” Pagan said people regularly scream at her, “All Lives Matter.” This appropriation can be seen in “White Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” variations as well as “Christian Lives Matter,” which was used after the Umpqua Community College mass shooting.
During the same week of Cullors’ visit, the Portland Police Association, the labor union that represents police in Portland, paid for a billboard that read “Having Enough Police Matters.” The billboard is part of a campaign to pressure the city to hire more police officers, and is located across the street from a downtown church with a “Black Lives Matter” banner.
Cullors addressed these concerns with a calm reserve. She said left-leaning politics has long been too White, too male and too middle class, effectively marginalizing Black concerns. She urged activists to work closely with their lawyers. She also called out foundations to fund groups that are working on criminal justice reforms.
She acknowledged the Black Lives Matter movement and slogan is always in danger of being co-opted by outside influences. She asked the activists to focus on doing good, smart, engaged work that benefits all Black lives.
“Only in my dreams would I imagine we'd have a movement that would bring this many Black people together,” she said. “The fact that this is happening with all of its contradictions is powerful and beautiful and must be celebrated.”