By Connor Jang and Georgia Johnson
“What might we achieve if we believed that freedom could come about in our lifetime?” Black Lives Matter (BLM) co-founder Alicia Garza asked the audience of nearly 400 at the Santa Cruz Civic Center. “Black history is important, but black futures are also important.”
After the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors wrote a Facebook post that gave a name to a movement to end violence against black people. Garza signed it, “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” The letter was shared with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.
Garza was the keynote speaker at the 32nd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation on Feb. 12.
“We carry the burden of wanting to be loved in a world that does not love us. So I wrote that letter because it is time to restore that love of the world,” Garza said to the audience. “To restore it would mean that there could be a little more love for all of us. A little more chance for all of us to get free.”
BLM is a continuation of a struggle that has transpired for generations, and must be recognized as a new incarnation. It’s a new movement, but not a new cause — a modern day response to a long history of oppression against which leaders like King fought.
“King didn’t have just a dream, King had a scheme. He was a community organizer, he was a strategist, he was a coalition builder,” said Santa Cruz Inner Light Ministries Rev. Deborah Johnson in an introduction to the crowd. “King knew how to make things happen. We are here to learn from that and to continue it. We are here to learn how to make things happen.”
Past speakers at the convocation include Angela Davis, Joseph Lowery and Cornel West. All honored the legacy of Dr. King, one of the criteria the convocation planning committee considers. February’s Black History Month often subscribes to the mainstream narrative of King as a champion of nonviolence in the face of overwhelming oppression, Garza said. While King is remembered for his methods of protesting, Garza implored that the black community does not succumb to passivity.
“We should not mistake nonviolence for peace,” Garza said to the audience. “We should not mistake nonviolence or use nonviolence in a way that essentially asks us to be patient, to not rock the boat and to wait until change comes.”
Last November, UCSC students from the black community and on-campus organizations marched in solidarity with the University of Missouri and demanded more representation and support for black students on campus.
During the protest, the black community listed demands including the creation of a Black studies department, more scholarships for black students, a 48-hour response to hate crimes and additional funding for the African American Resource Center.
“We are committed to improving both the numbers and the experience of black students on our campus,” said UCSC Chancellor George Blumenthal after the convocation. “We are doing a number of things as we go forward in terms of hiring counselors, putting in place people in the admissions office. We are trying to make some real progress here.”
Black leaders on UC campuses have taken opportunities to meet with campus administrators, Afrikan/Black Student Alliance (A/BSA) said co-chairs Keiera Bradley and Melissa Lyken in an email. “We are no longer waiting for the changes that should have happened long ago, these changes will come now.”
Blumenthal expressed that his new monthly meetings with the A/BSA co-chairs have been “helpful conversations.” Currently, less than 2 percent of UCSC students are black.
“It starts with being able to see more people who look like you,” the A/BSA co-chairs said in an email. “That alone can be a very isolating experience, and can make wanting to go home to familiarity a very real idea, which means students are not being retained and graduating from UCSC.”
UCSC’s lack of representation extends beyond the campus — in Santa Cruz county, black residents account for only 1.4 percent of the 271,000 population.
“It brings me a great sadness to feel like I’m still in this white community that still doesn’t see me, that still doesn’t value me and still doesn’t care about my life. That makes me upset,” said Black Lives Matter (BLM) activist and community member Jasmine Schlafke. “I’m upset that I live in a community where my life is not valued.”
Alicia Garza emphasized the importance of BLM as a leadership movement, empowering individuals across the world to demand freedom and challenge traditional leadership structures and practices.
“It is incumbent upon those who benefit from these policies and practices, systems and structures, that make some lives matter more than others,” Garza said to the audience. “It is incumbent upon you, to commit yourself to dismantling the systems so that all lives can matter … I didn’t create this system, I am impacted by it, but I didn’t create it.”
Her comments were met with opposition from a community member in the audience who interrupted by vocalizing his idea that “none of us created it, we are all born into it.”
“People are not born into racism, we teach racism. Racism is learned,” Garza said in direct response. “I would argue that we are born, curious about one another, open to one another, wanting connection, interaction and love. At some point, we are taught that there must be some separation.”
Garza said BLM is about getting to a world where all lives do matter, but to get there, we must acknowledge that there are some lives that don’t matter.
“We want you to be free, too. Free from the burden of the misconception that you are somehow better than someone else,” Garza said. “We want everybody to be free. But in order to get there, we have to acknowledge that freedom does not yet exist.”