Alicia Garza was on edge. She was with her husband and two organizer friends on a Saturday night in Oakland — July 13, 2013 — at a crowded cocktail bar near Lake Merritt, drinking tequila.* They’d been tracking the trial of George Zimmerman, who’d been charged with shooting and killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida; the jury had been deliberating for more than 16 hours. Garza and her friends were checking their phones compulsively, as were many others around them, and learned of the decision on Facebook. “When we heard the verdict, the whole bar went quiet,” Garza remembers. She’d been expecting a conviction, for manslaughter if not murder, but Zimmerman was acquitted. “It felt like a gut punch, you know?” Garza immediately began texting with friends and scrolling through Facebook. “Relatively quickly, people went back to their lives,” she says. “What I was seeing on social media were a lot of statements about ‘We knew he was never going to be convicted of killing a black child,’ and ‘What did you expect?’”
Garza didn’t see it that way. “I was sad, I was angry, I was rageful,” she says. “I have a brother who’s 25, and he’s 6 feet tall and lives in a majority-white community. It could have been him.” Still in the bar, Garza posted what she describes as a “love letter to black folks” on Facebook. She wrote that their murder should always come as a shock, and she would not let the state numb that for her. She ended with this: “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.”
Three hundred miles up Interstate 5, Patrisse Cullors sat in a motel room near the state prison in Susanville. An anti-incarceration activist, Cullors had recently started a prison-reform organization called Dignity and Power Now. She had known Garza, then the executive director of the San Francisco–based advocacy organization People Organized to Win Employment Rights, since 2003. “There’s a long story to tell about that,” Garza says, “but the best part is that basically we danced together all night long, until 4 in the morning. I thought, ‘Wow, this is my soul mate right here.’” Both were black, queer (Garza’s husband is transgender), California-born organizers working in communities near where they’d grown up. They took to calling each other “twin.”
Cullors had also been watching Facebook for news of the Zimmerman verdict. When she learned of his acquittal, she says, “The first thing I did was literally drop my jaw. And then I felt intense amounts of heat in my chest.” She started crying and, like Garza, posting on Facebook. “I start loving on black people, saying, ‘I hope y’all are loving on yourselves today.’” Cullors was moved by Garza’s post and, on a whim, decided to hashtag her sentiments “#blacklivesmatter.” She began hashtagging the phrase onto the walls of close friends and allies, some of whom also began using it. Before long, she and Garza were on the phone commiserating, and, by the next day, Cullors wrote on Garza’s wall with a proposition: “twin, #blacklivesmatter campaign? can we discuss this? i have ideas. i am thinking we can do a whole social media/all out in the streets organizing effort. let me know.”
Soon they’d looped in Opal Tometi, another organizer they knew, who works as executive director of an immigrant-rights group in New York called Black Alliance for Just Immigration. “[Black Lives Matter] was created out of a profound sense of black love,” says Tometi, who grew up the daughter of Nigerian immigrants in Phoenix. “We wanted to affirm to our people that we love one another, and that no matter how many times we hear about the extrajudicial killing of a community member, we would mourn, and affirm the value of their life.”
Garza, Cullors, and Tometi began by setting up Tumblr and Twitter accounts and encouraging supporters to share stories of why #blacklivesmatter. They also brought the slogan into their work as organizers. The day after the verdict, Garza met another black activist in Oakland named Robbie Clark at a local shoe store, SoleSpace, whose owners had created room in their windows for protest signs. Garza and Clark made posters with red, green, and black block letters spelling out black lives matter. Later that week, Cullors led a march down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, supplying protesters with a banner that read #blacklivesmatter. She also used the hashtag to publicize a report her organization published with UCLA’s Law and Human Rights Project about racial disparities in diagnoses of mental illness within Los Angeles County jails.
One Sunday last August, Garza was at her apartment in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, smoking a cigarette out her kitchen window and on the phone with Cullors. A couple of days earlier, a white man in Michigan named Theodore Wafer had been found guilty of shooting and killing Renisha McBride, a 19-year-old black woman who had come onto his porch seeking help after a traffic accident. Garza and Cullors were talking about their discomfort with #blacklivesmatter being used to celebrate incarceration when, out of the corner of her eye, Garza caught a glimpse of her TV. On it, she saw images of protesters clashing with police in riot gear. Garza didn’t know it, but the afternoon before, in Ferguson, Missouri, 18-year-old Michael Brown had been shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a police officer.
This was a turning point for #blacklivesmatter. In the following weeks, as the slogan trended on Twitter and Facebook, it became synonymous with the protests taking place across the country, as close as the disparate movement came to a clarion call. “In organizing, we talk a lot about social transformation and how it’s a long-term process,” Garza says. “It may not be something we see in our lifetimes. … But you never know when the balance will tip.”
When Garza, who was now working for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, showed up in Ferguson to help train local organizers, she was amazed to see her words mirrored back at her on signs she hadn’t written and hear them chanted at rallies she hadn’t set up. Cullors and Tometi soon joined her via a Black Lives Matter freedom ride that Cullors organized with Brooklyn-based activist Darnell L. Moore: 600 black people from more than 18 different cities, traveling via bus and van and car to join the protests in Ferguson.
Cullors and Garza spent the fall going back and forth between California and Missouri. On Black Friday, four days after a grand jury declined to charge Wilson in Brown’s death, protesters shut down the St. Louis Galleria with chants of “Black lives matter.” Kanye West eventually tweeted the phrase, and Hillary Clinton invoked it at a New York City human-rights gala. It popped up in an episode of Law and Order: SVU, and the American Dialect Society voted #blacklivesmatter its word of the year for 2014.
One of the ironies of organizing, however, is that as movements grow, they can become messier, their messaging less uniform. Garza, Cullors, and Tometi learned this late last year as they watched the phrase they’d created and nurtured slip beyond their control. In a segment about #blacklivesmatter on her MSNBC show, Melissa Harris-Perry didn’t mention the slogan’s origins or interview its creators. “To feel like something gets taken from you, used, and you’re completely erased from the conversation is infuriating,” Garza says. An African American labor-advocacy organization began selling T-shirts emblazoned with black lives matter but declined to share the proceeds with on-the-ground activist groups. A national nonprofit used the slogan in a way that seemed to condone incarceration, which horrified Cullors. Well-intentioned groups tried to adapt the message — Brown Lives Matter, All Lives Matter — in ways that frustrated the three women, who had worked hard to convince the black community “to name blackness as part of a broader conversation about racialized violence,” Cullors says. “This post-racial Obama era has sort of bamboozled a lot of us into thinking that we’ve come much further than we actually have. … Obviously we haven’t had enough both talk and practice around what it means to save black lives, because we keep dying. We need to stop being fearful of talking about ourselves.”
But now that the phrase has cemented itself in the American lexicon, the question remains of what to do with it. “There’s this thing that happens in movements in the U.S. right now that feels like ‘movement tourism,’” says Garza. “It’s like a flocking to things that take off and are popular, but not a real set of reflections around the ‘for what’ question.” So Garza, Cullors, and Tometi met up with Moore, the activist who helped lead the freedom ride to Ferguson, in Los Angeles at the end of the year. Over two days at Mercado La Paloma, a nonprofit housing and food cooperative in South L.A., they began to plan next steps for a movement that now claims 26 local chapters in places as far-flung as Toronto and Ghana. “It’s in more people’s hands now,” Garza says. “But we’re trying to be mindful. We don’t want this to be a fad.”
*The original version of this story misstated the beverage Alicia Garza was drinking.