From a hashtag to a worldwide organization, how Black Lives Matter continues to call for change

Alexis Horton watches as breakdancers perform at the corner of 50th Street and University Avenue
Alexis Horton watches as breakdancers perform at the corner of 50th Street and University Avenue as a caravan of Black Lives Matter protesters drives along the thoroughfare on June 6, 2020 in San Diego, California.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Black Lives Matter Global Network has chapters across the world, including in San Diego


Black lives matter.

Over the last several weeks, those three words have been included in speeches, repeated in chants and printed on signs at protests across the county.

The phrase is an affirmation, a rallying cry, a demand for equality, inspiration to the newest wave of a centuries-long social justice movement in the United States, and an organization represented in cities across the world — including San Diego.

Although the expression isn’t new, it’s more mainstream than ever, evolving from a hashtag to a movement to a global, chapter-based civil rights organization. Those words have long been harnessed by activists combatting racial profiling and police violence, and, now, it’s painted in bright yellow on a road near the White House.

Despite its momentum — shaped by the growing consensus that racial disparities exist in policing and every-day life — the phrase still prompts push back. Some claim the organization is anti-police or anti-white, responding to the phrase with one of their own: All Lives Matter.

But Black Lives Matter has never meant that Black lives matter more than other lives, social organizers in San Diego say. It means Black lives, all Black lives, should matter just as much to society as others’ lives do. And that’s a cause worth fighting for.

When 29-year-old Kovu, a founding member and leader within the local Black Lives Matter chapter, first heard those words, it reminded him of a time when he didn’t feel like he mattered at all. He asked that his last name not be published because he fears retaliation for his organizing work.

As a kid, Kovu didn’t see himself represented in history books or pop culture. The few times he watched characters in films who might be Black, they were portrayed as the villain. While learning about Mesopotamia in school, images of ancient Egyptians always had light skin.

“I remember just saying to the teacher, ‘Damn, have we contributed nothing in the world? Have we contributed nothing at all?’ ” he said.

Kovu was about 17 years old when he first got involved in social activism. He went to several different high schools in Milwaukee, and after experiencing and witnessing the way schools treated students of color, he began asking questions about teacher accountability and about the presence of police officers on campuses.

“There’s power in hearing that you matter,” the San Diego resident said. “There’s power in hearing others scream it and not only say that you matter, but follow through with actions that show that you matter, because so much of everything growing up tells you that you don’t fit in with the coding of the things.”

The birth of a movement

Black Lives Matter was founded in 2013 by three Black women — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi — after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black boy, as he was walking home in 2012.

The group propelled to prominence during protests in Ferguson, Mo., after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man. Soon after, the Black Lives Matter Global Network was born, with organizers in more than a dozen cities creating local chapters, the first being established in Los Angeles.

The organization aims “to eradicate White supremacy” while empowering communities to combat and counteract violence against Black people — violence that is committed by state actors, like police officer, and vigilantes.

It is a movement that aims to support all members of the Black community, including those with criminal records, people who identify as queer or transgender and individuals who are undocumented. Decentralized Black leadership is also integral to the organization.

These tenets helped shape the San Diego chapter, which formed in the wake of a local flashpoint — the death of Alfred Olango. The 38-year-old Ugandan refugee was shot and killed by El Cajon Officer Richard Gonsalves, one of two officers who responded after Olango’s sister called for help because he wasn’t “acting like himself.”

The officers, one of whom had his gun drawn, the other had a Taser, approached Olango in a parking lot behind a taco shop in a strip mall. Police said after the shooting that Gonsalves fired because he believed Olango had a weapon in his hands, possibly a gun. It was a vaping device.

The District Attorney’s Office ruled the shooting was justified.

“There is a legacy in San Diego of Black people being brutalized, murdered, tormented by police in prisons, detention centers and jails...” said Christina Griffin-Jones, another founding member and leader within the San Diego chapter. “But we’re also part of a legacy of Black resistance to all those things.”

Recently, and in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, the organization put together a car caravan protest. The event — held on June 6 and attended by thousands of people in vehicles that spanned miles — traversed the county, marking more than a dozen spots where past violence occurred or that were representative of present disparities.

Vehicles gathered near the La Jolla Village Crossroads, a sprawling University City apartment complex where Monique Clark, a 35-year-old Black woman, was shot dead by a White man at a pool party in 2017.

Horns blared as vehicles passed El Cajon, where Olango was shot, and La Mesa, the site of Amaurie Johnson’s controversial arrest. Video shows an officer pushing 23-year-old Johnson several times before detaining him on suspicion of resisting arrest and assaulting an officer.

The arrest on May 27 prompted the region’s first large protest demanding justice for both Johnson and Floyd in La Mesa on May 30. Later, the La Mesa Police Department announced it wouldn’t seek prosecution in Johnson’s case.

There was also a stop in Hillcrest to acknowledge the violence that too often befalls members of the black transgender and queer community.

“It’s about people knowing that it’s happening here and we have the power as a community to get active and to inform ourselves,” Griffin-Jones said.

The local chapter has worked with a number of social justice organizations over the years, including March for Black Womxn San Diego. Among the organizations they won’t collaborate with: the police.

The decision is about ensuring that community members — many of whom distrust the police — feel safe and heard, Kovu said.

“If the communities are going to trust us, their trust must be our priority,” he said. “So you can’t always work with something that has embedded distrust and pain within the community.”

While the phrase and organization are relatively new, Black Lives Matter is the continuation of a long history of social activism in the United States, said Antwanisha Alameen-Shavers. She is an Africana studies associate professor at San Diego State University.

Similar to the Civil Rights-era protest signs printed with the words “I am a man,” the phrase “Black lives matter” is meant to communicate that Black communities deserve to be treated equally, fairly and justly.

“The Black Lives Matter movement has been Black people talking to White people in positions of authority or White people in our actual, regular lives, having these very deep discussions about their behavior and how it has been anti-Black and anti-human,” Alameen-Shavers said.

The statement is sometimes met with the rebuttal that “all lives matter” or “blue lives matter,” a refrain specific to police officers.

Alameen-Shavers believes this reaction stems from the discomfort some White people experience when asked to examine the way they and their families have perpetuated or benefitted from racism.

“Every time Black people have attempted to try to make curriculum more diverse, who has stopped us? White people,” she said. “They don’t want diverse curriculum because that will mean that they will have to push their brains around information about people other than themselves.”

Fighting for change

Over the years, the Black Lives Matter movement has called for many changes, including equity within the criminal justice system, both in police interactions and the way cases are prosecuted.

The recent uprisings sparked by the killing of Floyd have resulted in a new demand: to defund police departments across the country. It’s a demand supported by the local Black Lives Matter chapter, as well. Advocates say money shifted from the criminal justice system should be used to support social services programs instead.

Last week, the San Diego City Council received 4,400 calls and emails that called for the San Diego Police Department budget to be reduced. Community members asked the money be used to fund rent relief, mental health resources and on other services that will boost minority communities. Despite the outpouring of requests, the budget passed with an 8-1 vote, increasing police funding by $27 million.

After the budget passed, members of the local Black Lives Matter chapter went to San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s house to protest the decision. They chanted “Defund the police” and “Listen to the people, not the police.”

Griffin-Jones was among those protestors. The 31-year-old was born and raised in San Diego and first got involved in social justice issues when she learned that the city planned to cut the funding for the Logan Heights Memorial Park pool where her swim team practiced.

“That was one of the first times I was like, ‘Oh, this is how racism works,’ ” Griffin-Jones said. “White folks are allowed to have time to practice and perfect their craft and show up for the competition ready, while folks in black communities, we’re not allowed to practice, not allowed to do any of that. But we still have to show up ready to win.”

She and other members of her swim team — predominately Black and Brown kids — went to the City Council. They asked that the pool be kept open. She was 15 years old.

“They thanked all of us, kind of tapping us on our heads, but they said that they would close the pool anyway,” Griffin-Jones said. “My introduction to this work really was a loss, but also the type of re-charge and grounding that loss can give you, and also the hunger to win and be victorious for your community.”

When asked about the philosophy of the Black Lives Matter movement, Griffin-Jones said it’s about the self-determination of Black communities. The San Diego chapter and chapters across the world center on blackness, as well as those who have too often found themselves on the periphery of movements including those who identify as queer, transgender and women.

“We believe our community knows what we need in order to be safe, successful and happy, and that is why we are definitely a part of that movement for black lives and other black lives matter chapters calling for the defunding of the police,” she said. “We know where those dollars need to go to in our community.”

There are more actions from the local chapter coming, but the details of those demonstrations will be announced once all steps have been taken to ensure safety for those in attendance, the organizers said.