A group of organizers is engaging more young people in the Black Lives Matter movement through art, music and love. It’s been two years since Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors introduced the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter — on the night George Zimmerman was acquitted for Trayvon Martin’s murder — and eventually gave birth to a movement with co-founder Opal Tometi.
Since then, it has grown through social media, connecting a new generation of organizers. Three of them put on the first annual Black Love Festival in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point on July 18.
The idea of Black Love is more complex and less hippie-dippie than you might think. It’s a celebration of love as a form of liberation, resistance and unity — three themes that run deep in African-American culture. Amir “Keez” Shabazz is among the 400 or so black folks — mostly students, young professionals, and creative types — who came to enjoy an afternoon of arts and culture at Heron’s Head Park.
Shabazz explains what black love means to him. “‘I’m here, I got your back and I love what you’re doing’ is black love,” he says.
The organizers chose Bayview-Hunters Point for the festival because they wanted young people to help reclaim San Francisco’s historically African-American neighborhood and come together in a positive environment focused on self-care, self-healing and respect. Organizer China Pharr says everyone has a part to play in this movement.
“You don’t have to be a leader or some politician,” she says. “You don’t have to be any of that. If you can draw, if you can write, if you can act, if you can sing, if you can clean houses, it doesn’t matter.”
Pharr and her fellow organizers, Etecia Brown and Leigh Davenport, met through the network of Black Lives Matter organizers, on Facebook. The idea for the Black Love Festival came from two problems they frequently encountered.
First, there are few black people left in San Francisco, where Leigh Davenport lives. She says, “It’s palpable, it’s really palpable, the dwindling population,” which is down to about 5 percent, half of what it was 20 years ago.
Second, not everyone feels comfortable demonstrating in the streets. “We’ve had about five different events, and we’ve found that there wasn’t enough young people attending,” Brown says. “We were looking for people between the ages of 13 and 30.”
So they tried a new strategy: They would get young black people to network and come to San Francisco for an arts and culture festival that was part creativity and part activism.
“A big thing that’s happened in the black community in America is we have become ashamed of ourselves,” Pharr says. “I think when you see all this criminalization in the media, and you see all these representations of us, that we’re kind of afraid to be ourselves and celebrate ourselves.”
All three of the women sit barefoot at a table in Brown’s mother’s apartment, not too far from where the festival took place. They’ve spent months trying to figure out the best way make this festival happen. The message of Black Love isn’t to shame people for not being at protests. Instead, it’s to help a new generation heal.
The media are loaded with videos and stories of young people of color who are killed by the police. Pharr points to the July 13 death of Sandra Bland, who was pulled over for not putting on her turn signal while driving in Texas.
“She was found hanging in a jail cell, and she was a college graduate just like me,” she says. “Moved to find a new job, just like me.”
It becomes overwhelming, she adds: “You kind of feel like there’s no end in sight sometimes. You kind of feel like, is it ever going to end? Are we ever going to stop being murdered? … Some days I’m so happy that I was born with this beautiful melanin, and then some days I feel like it’s a blessing and a curse.”
These feelings certainly aren’t new, says Oba T’Shaka, who has participated in various forms of resistance, starting with the civil rights movement in San Francisco in the ’60s.
“A lot of our youth are experiencing what we experienced, which is anger and disturbance at seeing our people oppressed,” he says. In the ’60s it was social and economic oppression. Today it’s police oppression, he says.
“The ’60s produced a restructuring of the black mind, not for all blacks,” T’Shaka says. “In fact, our movements failed to systematize that.”
The restructuring of the black mind is hard to put into words, but it’s happening with Black Lives Matter, he says. It’s an awakening process similar to when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. Once people become critically aware of the oppression around them, they start an awakening process and seek to heal from race-based trauma.
“People realize that they have been hoodwinked. Some who had been involved in gangster behavior, gang-banging, realize that they’ve been gang-banging against the people who they’re supposed to be engaged in the struggle to liberate,” T’Shaka says. “And others who may have been involved in middle-class behavior and escapism, they begin to think about the collective and about the whole.”
It’s the moment Spike Lee alludes to in his films, like in the infamous “Wake Up” scene at the end of “School Daze,” when Laurence Fishburne’s character, Dap, screams, “WAAAAAAAAKE UP!” as dreamy music builds and his fellow classmates gather in front of him. He’s calling on his fellow classmates to wake up and undergo the awakening process.
The point, says T’Shaka, is that for self-love to happen, black Americans have always needed to embrace their African and African-American roots, sparking a deep transformation that builds collective “leaderful” movements like Black Lives Matter and Black Love.