The Purpose of Power: How we come together when we fall apart

Alicia Garza is co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter and of the Black Lives Matter Global Network. In her book, The Purpose of Power, she critically reviews the movement’s genesis. Garza’s main message to her readers is that a hashtag doesn’t usually start a movement. Behind movements stand people, and sometimes years or decades of dedication to a political cause, as she describes in detail in nearly 400 pages. But a hashtag can give it greater, even global, visibility.

The book is divided into three sections. It begins with a self-positioning, which is linked to an explanation of the U.S. political context. The classification of U.S. presidents and their policies from Garza’s Black perspective was fascinating, and quite different from what is communicated by German media. Ronald Reagan, who held the presidency from 1981-1989, comes off worst. Reagan might have offered jobs to conservative Black politicians, but beyond that he did Black people no favours, and cut social welfare and support programmes for the structurally disadvantaged. As a German reader, I find Garza’s classification very helpful for a better understanding of the political structures that perpetuate racism in the U.S. and that did not disappear with the election of a Black president in 2009.

The second part of the book explains Garza’s professional career, which is relevant because she ran campaigns for NGOs, for which she always had to mobilize people to join. Only with the help of this experience could Black Lives Matter become a movement. Garza’s development moves slowly up to the point of the founding of Black Lives Matter, – and the passages about her first struggle, as she calls this chapter, seem to drag on a bit. In order to illustrate how slow mobilization can be, i.e., kick-starting a movement, she discusses quite extensively her advocacy against the gentrification of certain Black neighbourhoods in San Francisco. Here, I was sometimes overwhelmed by the details and the specific context, which is relatively unfamiliar to me. But I did grasp that this work represented Garza’s politicization, and described the germination and steady growth of her active advocacy for the rights of discriminated groups. Her political work allowed Garza to network with other activists across the United States. She became aware of the extent of police violence against Black people, citing the murders of Kenneth Wade Harding, Oscar Grant, and Trayvon Martin as examples. Her anger was amplified by then-President Obama – himself on the receiving end of racism – calling for peace and quiet, and this eventually gave rise to Black Lives Matter. Garza vented her anger on social media under the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and for many people in the Black community, this seemed a perfect articulation for their struggles and desires. From the beginning, they supported Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors. Black Lives Matter evolved as a vehicle for activism, community organizing, and a means of analysis.

The third part was the most exciting for me personally, as Garza finally shares her thoughts on future movements that are less specific to the U.S. context, but well worth considering for all political movements here in Germany or elsewhere. Garza does not offer solutions, but points out aspects that should be considered: for example, intersectionality – the different dimensions and intersections of forms of discrimination that can affect people very differently. Another example she raises is identity politics conflicts, pointing to the challenges entailed by standing in solidarity with other discriminated groups, and by taking care of oneself in political struggles. It’s a book that has a lot in it. I would love to see similar volumes published that focus on other contexts – including Germany.