To Imagine What a Real Democracy Can and Should Look Like

Democracy is increasingly hard to define, especially in today’s political context. Not everyone agrees on what democracy is but one thing we do know is that democracy has always excluded Black people.


Editor’s note: One of the highlights of Personal Democracy Forum 2016 was this keynote talk by Alicia Garza, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter. Her talk was titled, “What’s Democracy Got to Do With It?  How Black Power Aims to Transform Democracy.”

Today my talk will be focused on how Black power is transforming democracy—and yet I am also a proud member of the domestic workers movement and currently serve as the Special Projects Director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, in addition to my role at the Black Lives Matter network. We in the domestic workers movement are thrilled to be back here at PDF. It was on this very stage last year that my colleague Palak Shah drew the first connections between domestic workers and gig workers. Since then, we’ve been building bridges between our social movement and tech companies and I’m excited for you to hear from Anand Kulkarni later today from LeadGenius on how tech and labor can collaborate to build a movement for good work.

When I was in high school, I was required to take a civics class, where I learned about my responsibilities as a citizen of the United States. My civics class taught me about how our system of democracy works and where it came from. It taught me that citizenship was a privilege earned only by participation.

And yet, what civics didn’t teach me was that my citizenship is conditional. This is the harsh reality for Black people in America—we are expected to participate in democracy, without receiving the full benefits of citizenship.

Democracy is increasingly hard to define, especially in today’s political context. Not everyone agrees on what democracy is but one thing we do know is that democracy has always excluded Black people.  

For our purposes today, we can talk about democracy as having four key characteristics.

First, democracy requires a political system for selecting and replacing the governance system through free and fair elections. Second, democracy requires the active participation of the people, as citizens in politics and in civic life. Third, democracy requires protection of the human rights of all citizens. Finally, democracy requires that the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.

But let us take a look at our democracy in its current state.

In 2005, Black people, many of them poor, waved white t-shirts on top of roofs in the Gulf Coast, waiting for relief that never came—even today. Stuffed in stadiums, abandoned in jails, shot as we tried to cross bridges to find safety, we were called looters and rioters while white families were called finders and survivors.

This was also the year that Stanley Tookie Williams was executed in the prison where my mother was once a corrections officer.

In 2009, Oscar Grant was shot on a BART station platform just three blocks from my home on New Year’s Day.  His last words were “You shot me, I got a daughter.” Tatianna is now an eleven year old girl living with the legacy of her father who has now become an icon, murdered when she was just four years old.

In 2011, an innocent man named Troy Davis was put to death in Georgia.

In 2012, Jordan Davis was killed in Jacksonville, FL for playing his music too loud in a gas station. His killer, immediately afterwards, went home and ate pizza with his girlfriend. That same year, Cece McDonald was jailed for defending herself against a racist and transphobic attacker. Rekia Boyd was shot and killed that year by Chicago police.

In 2013, George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin. 2013 was also the year that nineteen year old Renesha McBride was shot in the eye on the porch of a man’s house, after she’d gone there to ask for help.

In August 2014, Michael Brown was murdered just steps from his mother’s home in Ferguson, Missouri. Just two months later, twelve year old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by Cleveland police officers while playing alone in a park.

We have been living in an era where everything and nothing is about race. Where explanations of the events that I just described are often cast aside as the result of a few bad apples or the unfortunate consequence of what happens to people who don’t try hard enough to succeed. We emerge from an era where talking about race and racial inequity has been deemed racist in and of itself. Even Rodney King, whose brutal beating by Los Angeles Police officers in 1992 was one of the first caught on videotape and broadcasted around the world, responded to the rage that many poor Black people felt by saying, “Can we all get along?” as if it was just as simple as people being nicer to each other. A cauldron has been bubbling under the surface for a very long time, occasionally expressing itself in instances of uprising but none as sustained as what we are experiencing today.

Indeed, the last ten years of post-racialism and the neoliberal assault on Black communities has prompted a beautiful upsurge in Black resistance—resistance which has resulted in a new political order.

It has also forced this country to question and to imagine what a real democracy can and should look like.

Each year, more than 1000 fatal shootings occur by on duty police officers.  Each year, less than 5 of those shootings, on average, result in a charge of murder or manslaughter against those officers. In the last few years, that number has tripled, and while it is still nowhere near close to enough, it would not be happening at all were it not for the organizing and disruptions of the last few years.

Were it not for the months of organizing and disruptive direct action in Oakland, Grant’s killer would not have been charged in his murder, nor would his killer have been convicted.

Were it not for the organizing efforts in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, Ted Wafer would not have been charged with shooting Renesha McBride in the face, and he would not have been convicted in her murder.

Were it not for the courage and tenacity of young people who occupied the state capitol in Florida for 31 days and 30 nights demanding an end to Stand Your Ground laws after George Zimmerman was acquitted, many of us would not have known that the laws designed to uproot structural racism have been under continuous assault by these types of laws that give vigilantes the power to be judge, jury and executioner.

Were it not for the community of Ferguson, Missouri who refused to go home and let the system work, Darren Wilson would still be patrolling that community, and the corrupt nature of policing and debtor’s prisons built off the backs of poor people there.

Were it not for the years of organizing in Chicago to fire the officer who killed Rekia Boyd, to expose the collusion between the Mayor and the Prosecutor, we wouldn’t have seen the recent unseating of Anita Alvarez, complicit in the cover up of the shooting of Laquan MacDonald, shot 16 times in the back by Chicago police.

Were it not for the organizing that didn’t get national attention, Prosecutor Timothy McGinty, who refused to bring charges against the officers who killed an unarmed twelve year old child playing alone in a park, would still have a job.

Black people, Black resistance and Black organizing has changed the landscape of what is politically possible. Whether or not you call it Black Lives Matter, whether or not you put a hashtag in front of it, whether or not you call it the Movement for Black Lives is somewhat irrelevant, because there was resistance before Black Lives Matter and there will be resistance after it.

What is most important is the acknowledgement that Black people today are determined to make the impossible possible, and that work cannot be credited to either major political party.

When we say “no more business as usual” it is an indicator that we aim to transform this democracy into something that supports all of us, not just some of us.

Black people have been at the center of the fight to force this country to live up to the values and ideals it espouses—the very values that underpin our version of democracy. From Nat Turner’s revolts to Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” speech to white suffragettes to Fannie Lou Hamer being sick and tired of being sick and tired and calling for independent Black political power, Black resistance and Black organizing have consistently shaped the way that we understand and experience civic participation.

Black people have consistently been denied access to the rights and privileges of citizenship that so many of us take for granted—and that is why so many of us are no longer content with private meetings and negotiations that happen behind the scenes which leave out too many people whose lives depend on the ability to participate in the decisions that impact them. So many of us are no longer content with the same old tactics devoid of a larger strategy that stares transformation directly in the face.

What is possible in policy and politics has been facilitated in large part by Black organizing and Black resistance. It is a resistance that challenges the notion of going along to get along, a resistance that is in dynamic tension with the notion that only policy change will get us to where we are trying to go, and that calls us all to the mat to live the values that we espouse. It is a resistance that says that no, we are not happy with the lesser of two evils, we are not satisfied with the process as it stands. This generation of Black resistance says that we are not satisfied with the crumbs that may fall from the table of power, and we are not satisfied with merely sitting at the tables of power.

This generation of Black resistance, of Black organizing, says that we aim to completely transform the way that power is distributed, the way that power functions, and that we aim for a new kind of power that is in collaboration rather than competition.

Our generation of Black organizing and Black resistance says that we aim to exercise power with, rather than power over.

Our generation of Black organizing and Black resistance understands that to enact meaningful policy change, we must equally value the role that culture change plays. Said more simply, the battle to win hearts and minds does not happen at the policy table—it is the work that is necessary to ready the ground for new agreements about how we interact with one another.

The last few years has given us much to consider, particularly as it relates to the assumptions that we hold about how change happens, what type of change we seek, and what gets in the way of us obtaining the type of change we seek. To be clear, this movement is not just engaged in an external struggle, but also an internal one as it seeks to clarify what it stands for and what it stands against.  We too are navigating the tension between allowing a thousand flowers to bloom while at the same time distinguishing between what are flowers and what are in fact, weeds that threaten to consume the entire ecosystem.

From my perspective, there are three critical lessons that we have learned about how social change happens.

The first lesson is that organizing works, and we must remain clear that organizing and protest are not synonymous with one another. Protest is an important tactic that raises the stakes—but protest alone will not accomplish all that we seek. The hard work of building a base that is in ongoing dialogue with one another cannot and must not be underestimated. It is the work of building relationships across difference for the sake of our collective liberation. It is the work of placing sustained and escalating pressure upon those who refuse us access to the decisions that impact our lives. It is the work of aligning ourselves deliberately with others in motion to create a more coherent whole.

The work of organizing has been somewhat distorted in the age of social media.  Yet while it is possible to move thousands of people online to accomplish a task, it is not, unfortunately, what is sufficient or required for long term movement building.  Our online presence is not the totality of who we are—it is the way that we want to project ourselves. And our careful curated projections are no match for the nuance and hard work that movement building requires.  A three dimensional organizing model is what’s needed—knowing that each of us exist at the intersections of many different experiences, and that it is those experiences that can help us unlock the potential of what a new world can and should look like.

At the same time, those of us who seek to upset the table of power cannot continue to assert that disruption is somehow destructive to the aims that we seek.

Frederick Douglass expressed this in a speech he delivered in 1857:

“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.”

Disruption is the new world order. It is the way in which those denied power assert power. And in the context of a larger strategy for how to contend for power, disruption is an important way to surface new possibilities.

The final lesson here is one of foreshadowing—it is the reminder that movements are not reserved solely for those of us on the left. For more than thirty years, many of us have been contending with a powerful movement that has left a lasting impression on every aspect of our society. That movement has worked diligently to unravel many of the gains that my ancestors, my family, and my community have fought so hard for. It is a movement that aims to rewrite the narrative of history in order to determine the future, a movement that has had incredible implications for the lives of many. That movement has offered us valuable lessons about what it means to maintain coalitions and alliances of groups of people who do not agree on how to get where we’re going, but certainly agree on where they’d like to end up. They’ve taught us valuable lessons about the kinds of power that are necessary to re-shape society—that narrative power, disruptive power, political power, economic power in coordination with one another matter.

And yet that same movement is facing its own disruption from within, much like the disruption that I am experiencing in the movement that I see myself a part of.  

I will be honest with you that I am terrified about the current and eventual impacts of that movement. It is a movement that seeks to deny some of us our fundamental humanity.

What we know today is that a new way of organizing, of connecting across difference, of articulating our values and what we stand for and what we absolutely will no longer stand for is imperative if we are to survive. This is no longer about ideology or worse yet, political parties. We know this because neither Democrats nor Republicans have been able to stop the tide of frustration and disillusionment and hatred that is washing across this country.

It is up to us to take seriously the task of moving differently. We can no longer afford to congratulate ourselves, especially those of us who self-identify as progressives, when there is a backlash against us and we are largely non responsive, or are responding in ways that are ineffective and dangerous. You cannot tell communities who experience the brunt of racist violence in this country to vote for the Democratic party, and you cannot tell us that the Republican party is the only party buoyed by racism. It is unfair, it is untrue, and it is disingenuous.

Today’s Black power is transforming democracy—but we cannot do it alone.  We need the best and the brightest thinkers, strategists, coders, surveillance experts, tech geeks and disruptors to utilize all of the tools we have available to us to build the world that we want to see.  A world where Black lives matter.  A world where all lives matter.  A world where we can finally say:

We dared to dream.

We dared to struggle.

And because we dared, we won.

Copyright 2016 Alicia Garza (All rights reserved)