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Meet Alicia Garza, Pride’s community grand marshal who helped coin ‘Black Lives Matter’

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Alicia Garza, right, joins others during the Black Friday 14 protest that shut down BART service on Nov. 28 during the shopping bonanza that follows Thanksgiving every year. Courtesy Julia Carrie Wong

At the center of the tensions among police and black communities nationwide is a single phrase that has been used as a rallying call.

“Black Lives Matter.”

It did not come out of thin air. Longtime activist Alicia Garza, who is black, is one of the originators of the phrase and popular social media hashtag, along with activists Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. Garza, 34, is being honored by San Francisco Pride as community grand marshal for her work championing the struggles of many communities.

As former executive director of People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), and now special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Garza fought for the black community, the LGBT community, workers and the poor.

She also linked arms with the Black Friday 14 who shut down BART for an afternoon in November. That demonstration was, Garza said, meant to call attention to “state sanctioned violence” against black people.

Garza lives in the East Bay with her partner. “Mostly I identify as queer,” she said.

The San Francisco Examiner recently spoke with Garza about how the struggles of the black and LGBT communities intertwine. Her responses have been edited for length.

Q: So how did the phrase Black Lives Matter originate?
A: Black Lives Matter started in 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin. It started off as a love letter to black people, to let them know our lives still matter.

Q: Is there a divide in these communities as they struggle for justice?
Absolutely. One of the benefits of being a grand marshall is folks are saying, “I’m coming to Pride.” It’s
not something I usually do, because I don’t often see a lot of folks that look like me.

Q: Why do you think that is?
It’s a few things. For somebody like me who is black and queer, there’s not a separation of those two things. Even in a place like San Francisco known throughout the world as a progressive mecca, racism exists. It even exists in the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender community.

Q: There was a recent protest aimed at the gay community for black lives in the Castro, right?
A number of activists went to Toad Hall Bar to say Black Lives Matter. Folks got shouted out, folks got yelled at. Here we are in 2015, and we’re still really grappling with these questions even within other marginalized communities.

Q: How does the Black Lives Matter movement court allies in the gay and lesbian communities?
The first thing is really fighting criminalization of black people across the board. There’s a lot of big fights happening in San Francisco, over whether or not a new jail will be built — and 50 percent of the jail population is black.

Q: Arrest rates of black women are high as well.
They’re huge, and that’s all across the nation. We’ve had silence around scandals inside the SFPD and the Sheriff’s Department. We saw a slew of text messages back and forth between officers that were degrading to black people.

Q: Do you lose hope when you see San Francisco’s black population shrink?
No, you have to keep fighting. We can’t leave anyone behind, there are still black people there that want to stay there.

Q: Where did you grow up?
Marin County, but I came to San Francisco a lot. We have to make sure San Francisco maintains its character, especially for people fleeing intolerance and injustice. Now San Francisco is becoming what people came here to get away from.

Q: Tell us about your personal history with Pride.
I’ve been to Pride many times. But since I live in Oakland now I often go to that one; it’s much more colorful. Quite honestly, what I want to see, and hoping we see this year, is a real re-embracing of the roots and origin of Pride. While it is very much a celebration, the origins of Pride are that of rebellion. People saying, “I’m no longer going to be treated as a second-class citizen, or to be beaten or abused.” The way I want to live in the world is to be unafraid, unashamed, and to be who I am.

Below is San Francisco Examiner footage of Garza’s protest to drop charges against the Black Friday 14, at a BART board meeting.

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