The final night of the Aspen Ideas Festival’s virtual lineup included a conversation with #BlackLivesMatter co-founder Alicia Garza and a discussion on the newfound attention for the movement and what is different in the world now that has caused it to spread globally.
The conversation was moderated by Washington Post political reporter Eugene Scott and also included Michael Eric Dyson, professor of sociology at Georgetown University.
Garza said while black people have known that black lives matter, more white people are involved in the conversation and protests that broke out after the filming of the May death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis. Black Lives Matter was launched in 2013.
“This is 100% a different moment,” she said.“Seven years later, it is important to see white folks joining this moment. There might be folks who say ‘where have you been?’ but I will say it’s important that you are here now.”
She reflected on how different the session would be if the spread of COVID-19 had not forced the festival to go virtual this year.
“If we were together right now in Aspen we would be having this conversation with an audience that doesn’t look like this panel,” Garza said.
Dyson, who wrote the New York Times bestseller “Tears We Cannot Stop: Sermon to White America,” concurred that the nearly decade-long movement is catching more eyes than ever. He credited the social media-friendly slogan for bringing a new generation on board to fight for racial justice.
“People keep asking me what’s different now. What’s different now is it’s different now,” he said. “White folk are listening and that’s a good thing.”
Garza said early on she was encouraged even by supporters to change the Black Lives Matter slogan to “All Lives Matter” or “Black Lives Matter Too.” She said she is glad they kept the original language, which has now grown into the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation.
Dyson said the work Garza and her co-founders did ended up creating a brand that encompassed the varied civil rights his generation has been fighting for in the last 60 years.
“By ingeniously fostering an environment where a hashtag becomes a statement, a principle, an idea, an aspiration and a moment,” he said.
And he said it is false to think that the rising demand for racial justice is a new trend.
“There is a transition suddenly, but the sudden is not sudden. Black Lives Matter was the wave that crashed against white supremacy for 150 years. They simply named it,” Dyson said.
Garza acknowledged the momentum shift in the country over the last month as Black Lives Matter marches have been held in small rural towns and large urban cities, and polls have shown the phrase being widely supported across the nation. But she said the work is not done.
“While this is an incredible moment of uprising and an incredible moment of reckoning, I long for this to also be a moment for change. There are a lot of rules that have been rigged against the black communities for a very long time,” she said.
Garza is now focused on the worldwide conversation about policing that is beginning, in reaction to the repeated deaths of black people while in law enforcement custody.
“I think it’s important to be grappling with what actually keeps communities safe. And when it comes to black communities in particular, is safety only achieved through punishment?”
She said everyone can start by looking at their own communities, churches, workplaces and social structures, and question who the decision-makers are.
“Don’t think that to be a part of Black Lives Matter all you need to do is slap it on a T-shirt or on a website,” she said. “Policing is just the tip of the iceberg. Rules and practices and policies and culture need to shift in our board rooms, in our suites, in our schools, in our economy, all throughout our society.”
Dyson agreed that an overall cultural shift needs to happen to achieve racial equality, but he said the policing issue needs to come first. If black people are killed by law enforcement, they can’t be there to work on improving other aspects of their community.
He said Floyd’s death, as well as Breonna Taylor’s in Louisville and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, show the danger associated with simply existing as a black person in America.
“We have at this moment the possibility of truly and fundamentally transforming the politics of police,” he said. “We done tried everything else. This is not a policy problem, it’s a philosophical problem and it’s a cultural problem.”
Ideas Festival co-creator Kitty Boone said in the recorded opening to the final night of the conference that sharing conversations such as the Black Lives Matter panel worldwide has been a learning process for the organization, and that the trend will continue moving forward.
“We’ve learned a lot about ways to communicate and come together,” Boone said. “Next year we hope to gather together again, but we also plan to incorporate what we’ve learned as we’ve gathered remotely. We will find more ways to host global conversations.”