By Angeline Bergman
Black. Lives. Matter.
The hashtag emerged in 2013 and changed social activism ever since. It’s 2016 now and those words still serve as a call to action. The co-founders of that hashtag aim to live in a society where everyone has the access to make decisions over their own lives. They have been traveling across the country and most recently made an appearance right here in Milwaukee.
The women began the discussion briefly sharing some of their background with the audience. Alicia Garza considered herself an activist at the young age of 12 when she became interested in reproductive rights. Patrisse Cullors began at the age of 15 as a poor, black, queer girl in high school. They both agreed that traumatic events in their childhood sparked them to use their voices. The two said to of met one another at an organization where they bonded on the dance floor.
Two of the three co-founders participated in a discussion-like panel in the Wisconsin room on the Union’s second floor. The sold out event took place on Oct. 13 and brought together a diverse crowd of high school students, college students, community members, and senior citizens.
Garza captures the attention of the audience as she answers a panel question. Photo by Angeline Bergman.
In the last few months, the hashtag has been extremely prominent in Milwaukee, and nationally as the city had to deal with the aftermath of violent protests that broke out on the city’s north side. The protests were the community’s response to the death of Sylville Smith, who was fatally shot by a police officer in August. The Distinguished Lectures Series at UW-Milwaukee welcomed the Black Lives Matters co-founders to campus to educate the community on what the movement means for society.
Both women highlighted how emotions come into play. Garza stated that it is anger that causes the violent protests but that will not help to create a new society. Instead, they suggested that the rage be turned into love that creates a society that accepts one another. Garza said rage prevents society from building the mass movement needed to transform current conditions.
“Let’s figure out how we can co-create,” said Garza.
When put into perspective so clearly, the crowd reacted with overflowing support. Snaps, claps, and shouts could be heard all throughout the room of nearly 800 people.
The goal of the Black Lives Matters movement is to create a platform that allows for all black lives to be important, not just some, according to Garza. Regardless of religion, sexuality, disability, or class they wanted black people to feel safe and accepting of their whole selves.
The saying “black lives matters” has caused controversy since it came to life almost four years ago. The death of Trayvon Martin sparked a national outrage when George Zimmerman, the man who shot him, was acquitted and Martin was then held accountable for his own death.
“All lives[matter] is a secret way of saying white lives matter,” said Garza.
As time progressed, the controversial deaths of black men and women began getting picked up by the media. Many of the situations that sparked national outrage were those in which police officers pulled the trigger.
“I don’t think it’s fair, just because you’re black and wearing black doesn’t mean you’re bad or a criminal,” said Laquan Conner, a senior business student at UW-Milwaukee.
As a result, the hashtags #AllLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter were also created. The Black Lives Matters website states “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.”
The women believe the response of altered hashtags shows just how powerful this movement is. They acknowledged that police officers have hard jobs. But they also urged people to realize that good people do bad things and that people need to be separated from their job.
“If all of us are not free, then none of us are free,” said Garza.
An emphasis was placed on relationships. Protesting does not allow people to make decisions for their own lives. Instead healthy relationships will allow people to get where they want to be. Cullors said it all starts with a healthy discussion, even if not everyone agrees.
“When a student feels that they matter and belong, they are going feel good and feel successful,” said Seth Kaempfer, who completed his undergrad at UW-Milwaukee.
Kaempfer currently works as the assistant director of the Multicultural Center at Ball State University in Indiana. Upon hearing that Garza and Cullors would be speaking at his old school, he made it his mission to take a road trip back to gain insight on the Black Lives Matters Movement. He wanted a better understanding of how to utilize the core beliefs and interconnect it with his students of color.
The event seemed to come to an end too soon as each question was more intriguing than the last. Every answer was delivered slowly and with the eyes of the speakers focused on the crowd. With the announcement of the last question, the audience sighed. The takeaway was awareness. Cullors and Garza urged the audience to use their voices while sharing their space with others.
“What social media has allowed for in this current, historical moment is a new narrative,” said Cullors. Black Lives Matters is a chapter-based national organization. Thirty-five chapters are based in cities across the United States and one international chapter is based in Toronto.
The event was sponsored by the UW-Milwaukee Student association, Student Involvement, and the Socioculture program as part of Black Lives Matters week.