The bitter cold and snow did not deter nearly 600 students from gathering in the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater Wednesday evening to hear from Alicia Garza, a prominent social activist and a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The event served to kick off the University’s 30th annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium that takes place in the days leading up to and on the holiday commemorating the revered civil rights activist.
Garza said she wanted to structure her speech as a conversation, which the audience responded to by punctuating her words with appreciative snaps and words of agreement.
“Being Black is a crime,” Garza said. “I’ll say that again. In this country today, it’s safe to say that being Black in the United States is a crime — meaning shoot first, ask questions later.”
The Black Lives Matter movement began with a 2013 social media post expressing Garza’s anger over George Zimmerman’s acquittal. Zimmerman, who was on trial for the shooting death of Black teenager Trayvon Martin, was acquitted after pleading not guilty by self-defense.
She ended her post with the phrase “Our Lives Matter, We Matter, Black Lives Matter.” The message stuck and Garza ,with two others — Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors — began promoting the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media. The hashtag ultimately prompted a nationwide discussion on race relations, specifically after recent police shootings of unarmed Black men and boys such as Michael Brown and Tamir Rice.
Garza also discussed the future of the civil rights movement and the importance of the people perpetuating activism in the real world.
“Hashtags don’t start movements,” she said. “Hashtags are ways to continue a conversation. But movements are comprised of people who share a vision, who share a set of values, who take action together, in order to bring about some kind of change, and without the work that it takes to make that happen, we would just be talking on Facebook.”
James Hilton, University librarian and dean of libraries, also spoke to the theme of this year’s symposium, #WhoWillBeNext, during the event. He said the theme is meant to ask both who will be the next victim and who will be the next leader of the movement.
“Who will be next to suffer racial discrimination and oppression?,” Hilton asked.
Who will be next to suffer due to their gender, gender identity or sexual orientation? Who will be next to suffer oppression because of their birthplace or religion? On the flip side but equally important, who will be next to take up the banner of leadership, to fight discrimination, oppression and injustice?”.
LSA sophomore Jay Akolkar, who attended the event, said he wanted to learn more about the Black Lives Matter movement firsthand.
“You see a lot about it on social media, but you don’t really get to see a lot about the people behind it, and I thought it was very interesting,” Akolkar said.
Garza also spoke about her experience attending Tuesday’s State of the Union address, where she was a guest of her congresswoman, Rep. Barbara Lee (D–Calif.). She came to the University directly from Washington, D.C.
Garza said she felt compelled to attend in case she got the opportunity to speak with President Barack Obama. Though she did not get the opportunity, she said her message to the president would have been to discuss Black lives in the United States, as well as to spread peace internationally.
“We can still be proud that we have a Black president, but I’d be even prouder if that Black president could admit that Black people in this country are having a really hard time surviving,” Garza said.
In particular, Garza said she would have appreciated clearer language in the president’s address about the issue.
“We have violent, racist rhetoric that is taking hold in this country and it impacts all of us,” Garza explained. “First, it’s directed towards Muslims. Then, it’s directed towards Black people. Then, it’s directed towards immigrants. And then who’s next?”
LSA junior Kayla Countryman, who attended the event, said she came after seeing and following the Black Lives Matter Twitter and finding it relevant to her personal and academic life at the University.
“She is so personable, and what she was saying felt so relevant and easy to understand, but it was also deep in a sense where I really felt it, and it made me want to go out and do something, rather than just tweeting a hashtag,” Countryman said.