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The Bay Area Roots of Black Lives Matter 

Wednesday, Nov 11 2015
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A BART car weighs thirty tons and can travel up to 80 miles per hour. When a train departs San Francisco's Embarcadero station, it accelerates as it enters the Transbay Tube, making the six-mile journey to West Oakland in just seven minutes.

On Nov. 28 of last year, two trains arrived at the West Oakland BART station a few minutes before 11:30 a.m., one heading east, the other heading west.

It was the day after Thanksgiving, and as a stream of passengers pushed their way off the westbound train and onto the platform, a pair of young African Americans dressed in black stepped forward and held open the sliding doors on one car. In the scrum around the doors, a cadre of other black people began to work quickly and efficiently, emptying rolling suitcases of PVC piping, chains, and locks. A man locked chains around his waist to the BART train bike rack and used a bicycle U-lock to chain his neck to the car's safety handle. About 15 feet away, on the platform, a woman chained herself to the bars of a bench. Between the two, three more protesters connected arms through thick PVC piping — a common practice to prevent police from breaking protesters' grips.

Another human chain was forming on the eastbound platform. By a few minutes after 11:30, BART was effectively shut down. It would remain so, on Black Friday — the busiest shopping day of the year — for more than two hours, until police and firefighters managed to detach the handles in the BART cars and unlink the anchors of muscle that had brought the Bay Area to a halt.

The Black Friday 14, as the group of arrested protesters came to be known, were all black. They wore black t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan #BlackLivesMatter. The hashtag was also stenciled onto the PVC piping that linked their arms. As they stood in defiance of an angry crowd of frustrated riders, they sang freedom songs and passed chants back and forth from the eastbound platform to the westbound platform.

"If Mike don't get it!"

"Shut it down!"

"If we don't get it!"

"Shut it down!"

"Black! Lives! Matter!"

"Black Lives Matter" was, by then, a slogan that had come to define the racial unrest that exploded in Ferguson, Mo., where a white police officer had shot and killed an unarmed teeanger named Michael Brown. As Ferguson, a small, majority-black city north of St. Louis, erupted in nightly protests, with heavily armed police squaring off against crowds of demonstrators with their hands held up, Twitter captured real-time scenes of grief and outrage for an international audience. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter became the rallying cry for a nascent civil rights movement dedicated to exposing the epidemic numbers of black men killed by America's cops.

But the Black Friday BART shutdown wasn't aimed at the police, the criminal justice system, or even elected officials, but straight at the heart of American capitalism: Christmas shopping.

"Black lives can't matter under capitalism," says Alicia Garza, the 35-year-old Bay Area activist who coined the phrase and co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement with two other California black activists, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. "They're like oil and water."

Garza was one of the protesters holding back the BART train last year. Since then, she has moved to the forefront of a new generation of civil rights leaders. She was named No. 4 (behind Shonda Rhimes, Serena Williams, and Lebron James) on the Root 100, an annual list of black influencers featured in Cosmopolitan. She's spoken to audiences across the country, from humble local union halls to the grandeur of the United Nations Office of the High Commission on Human Rights.

Meanwhile, the phrase (and idea) "Black Lives Matter" has been embraced by President Barack Obama, become a litmus test for Democratic presidential hopefuls, and even served as the incongruous backdrop for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf during her annual State of the City address this year. It's also been co-opted by popular culture (popping up in Law & Order: SVU), heatedly rebuked (opponents insist, "All Lives Matter," while defenders of former Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Brown, say "Police Lives Matter"), and straight-up twisted ("Black Rifles Matter" was the slogan on a popular T-shirt for sale at this year's Urban Shield law enforcement trade show).

#BlackLivesMatter remains contested ground, both on- and offline. Young activists protesting in the streets of Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Oakland have strong opinions on what the movement is and who it includes, while older generations of Civil Rights leaders, politicians, and pundits often struggle to keep pace.

That's a weighty, unexpected fate for a phrase that Garza coined in a Facebook post two years ago. At the time, she was a respected Bay Area activist and community organizer. On the night of July 13, 2013, she was having drinks with her partner and some friends at Room 389 on Grand Avenue in Oakland, mourning the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the Florida man who'd shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. "#blacklivesmatter" she posted on Facebook at 7:14 p.m. that night. Then, five minutes later, she posted again: "black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter."

The next day, Garza joined dozens of other families at Sole Space, the downtown Oakland shoe store and cultural space whose owner's practice of opening the storefront to the community in the aftermath of police shootings, non-indictments, and light sentences has become a depressingly frequent tradition.

"Jack [the owner] had opened up the space for people who were just grieving and weren't trying to march and wanted to be in community," Garza recalls. "So people started to do a bunch of art. We plastered his whole storefront with art that said 'Black Lives Matter.' It was awesome."

By the end of the day, Garza, Cullors, and Tometi announced on Facebook that they were "embarking on a project" called #BlackLivesMatter.

The contours of the project were vague at first.


About The Author

Julia Carrie Wong

Julia Carrie Wong's work has appeared in numerous local and national titles including 48hills, Salon, In These Times, The Nation, and The New Yorker.

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