On Feb. 26, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot to death while on his way back to the house he was visiting in a gated community in Sanford, Fla.
Over a year later on July 13, 2013, George Zimmerman—a volunteer neighborhood watch commander who saw Trayvon walking in his neighborhood, decided he might be a threat, followed him, confronted him and, after a brief scuffle, ultimately killed him—was acquitted on charges of second degree murder and manslaughter.
Appalled by the verdict, Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi took action.
"The one thing I remember from that evening, other than crying myself to sleep that night, was the way in which as a black person, I felt incredibly vulnerable, incredibly exposed and incredibly enraged," Garza, then the special projects director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance in Oakland, Calif., said in recalling the day she saw the Zimmerman verdict pop up on Facebook. She was in a local bar with her husband, and they were surrounded by people disheartened by the news.
She told The Guardian in 2015, "Seeing these black people leaving the bar, and it was like we couldn't look at each other. We were carrying this burden around with us every day, of racism and white supremacy. It was a verdict that said: black people are not safe in America."
Garza went home and posted on Facebook, writing, "I continue to be surprised at how little black lives matter." She concluded with, "Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter."
Cullors, an artist, teacher and prison reform activist from Los Angeles, reposted Garza's message, adding the hashtag "#blacklivesmatter."
The next day Garza and Cullors—friends for 10 years since meeting at a conference for activists—talked about what they could do to actually effect change, to wake the rest of the world up to the fact that what happened to Trayvon Martin wasn't some sort of freak occurrence, but that his death and countless others were linked, all part of the pattern of racism embedded in this nation's very fabric.
Opal Tometi, who was executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration in New York City, saw the hashtag online and called Garza. "I felt a sense of urgency about the next steps we could take together to change the story," Tometi recalled to Glamour in 2016, when the trio were honored at the magazine's Women of the Year banquet.
She explained to Cosmopolitan in 2016, "It was really my younger brother who [is in his late teens] who inspired me to get involved in this kind of work. I've learned a lot from him and his life, and when Trayvon Martin was murdered and George Zimmerman was acquitted, he was the first person who came to my mind. This movement and the new tools that we're using allows for new generations to get involved and see themselves as part of the change that's possible in our country."
So after connecting with Garza and Cullors, whom she was meeting for the first time, Tometi bought the domain name and built their digital platform, including social media accounts where they encouraged people to tell their stories, using the tag #blacklivesmatter.
During demonstrations protesting the Zimmerman verdict, the first planned BLM demonstration was organized in Los Angeles with a march to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. "It's deliberate. We've done that from the beginning," Melina Abdullah, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Los Angeles chapter, told The American Prospect. "The day George Zimmerman was acquitted, we all went to Leimert Park. I had a debate with another organizer who wanted to march south down Crenshaw Boulevard. I was holding a bullhorn, and I yelled into it, 'Go north!' If you go south into black neighborhoods, nobody cares what you do. If you go north into whiter, more affluent neighborhoods, they do."
The phrase made the rounds. They were hardly the only group that formed in the wake of Martin's death, but they were the ones to most effectively harness the power of social media. But, as Tometi recalled to The New Yorker recently, "we began more as a platform and a space to develop community and share analysis."
In 2014, hearing about the events surrounding Brown's death in Missouri, Cullors, Garza and Tometi organized a Black Lives Matter Freedom Ride to Ferguson that more than 500 people signed up for from all over the country.
But by then, the phrase had taken on a life of its own: it was on the lips of protesters far and wide, people whom the founders had never interacted with before; the hashtag punctuated countless posts online; and it quickly became a part of the cultural lexicon, eventually invoked by President Obama, by Beyoncé, by athletes, by Law & Order: SVU.
In January 2015, the American Dialect Center selected #blacklivesmatter as its word of the year. In 2016, Garza was California Rep. Barbara Lee's guest at Obama's final State of the Union address. In 2017, they received the Sydney Peace Prize, Australia's leading honor for global peacemakers.
"From my youngest brother to immigrant women to black queer folks, those are the people who keep me going," Tometi told Glamour. "When I think about their various acts of courage, it reminds me that I am not alone and that we can do even more and we deserve more, so we have to keep going... We have built a sisterhood, a community. Friends and people who'd look out for you, who have your back, who inspire you but also challenge you. And you can rise together."
Source: E! Online