The Global African: Alicia Garza on BLM & Oprah’s Diamond Controversy

Story Transcript

BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African, we’ll look at Black Lives Matter movement in depth. We’ll also look at the diamond controversy surrounding Oprah Winfrey. That’s today on The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us again. And don’t go anywhere.

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FLETCHER: In the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman back in 2013, Alicia Garza took to her Facebook page, writing a love letter to black folks in an attempt to create solidarity. That love letter contained three words that would go on to become the rallying cry of a social movement: “black lives matter”.

Over the summer, activists received considerable attention when they stormed the stage at the annual progressive conference known as Netroots, as well as when they stormed the stage at an event where Senator Bernie Sanders was speaking. These confrontations raised longstanding issues of class and race and the priorities of progressives. On August 28, the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution supporting Black Lives Matter and its goals.

In response to this resolution, the Black Lives Matter network disavowed the committee’s report, stating, quote, “The Democratic Party, like the Republican and all political parties, have historically attempted to control or contain black people’s efforts to liberate ourselves”, unquote. “True change requires real struggle, and that struggle will be in the streets and led by people, not by a political party”, the statement went on to add.

Cooptation has always been a fear of activists, and rejection of the Democratic Party’s show of support can be seen as a refusal to be coopted. The movement for black lives has undoubtedly played a large role in bringing to attention the tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Natasha McKenna, Freddie Gray, and many others.

With that success comes backlash, as right-wing commentators have stepped up their attacks on the movement. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly went so far as to vow that he would put Black Lives Matter out of business.

How will the movement counter this reactionary assault? More broadly speaking, what is next for the movement for black lives and an organization known as Black Lives Matter?

We’re joined by Alicia Garza, who’s one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, an organization within the larger galaxy of something known as the movement for black lives. Alicia is also a community organizer, has been the recipient of numerous awards for her organizing work, including the Local Hero Award and the Jeanne Gauna Communicate Justice Award (if I pronounced that correctly). She is an outstanding spokesperson for this movement as it has been unfolding over the last couple of years.

Thank you very much for joining us.

ALICIA GARZA: Thanks for having me.

FLETCHER: Our pleasure. So, Alicia, this movement has exploded. And as one could predict, there have been various forms of pushback. And one has been sort of internal to the movement, internal tensions, which I’d like to get to in one second. But the first is that the right wing doesn’t particularly like you.

GARZA: You don’t say.

FLETCHER: I noticed this. So what do you make of these right-wing attacks?

GARZA: Well, I think that what we’re seeing is that Black Lives Matter, both as a movement, right, the broader movement for black lives, and then the activities, of course, of the Black Lives Matter organization, have really penetrated the fabric of this country. And we know that, because we are seeing a backlash from the right wing and from conservative forces who are now attempting to discredit Black Lives Matter as a terrorist group and a hate group. It’s not surprising that these attacks came just a few days before the anniversary of September 11, when many people were killed in an attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the language that’s being used, as incendiary as it is, is really meant to generate images and memories of fear, and also of being at war. And from our perspective, we have often said that there is a war on black people, not just in this country, but around the world. And it’s not surprising to us that the right wing and conservative forces are now adopting that language and instead seeing that white people, right, are under attack.

FLETCHER: There’s been debates regarding the appropriateness of tactics like the Netroots action or the action at the Social Security rally where Senator Bernie Sanders spoke in Seattle. But there’s also been issues that have been raised about whether Black Lives Matter specifically has a program that’s broader than identity. What do you make of this?

GARZA: Well, the first thing I’ll say is that tensions and differences are healthy, and this demonstrates that the movement itself is broadening out and that it’s growing, and that it’s grappling to articulate its purpose, its vision, and its identity. And so in some ways we should see this as a good problem to have.

At the same time, I think we’ve also been made aware of the fact that there are some critiques of the organization in particular. And we think that some of those critiques come from a grounded place and some of them don’t. So, to be fair, Black Lives Matter is an organization that’s two years old, and certainly it was generated and derived from the passions of black people intergenerationally across the globe to have space for black folks to be able to dream together, to vision together, and to be connected in a way that we have not been for quite some time. To that end, there are always going to be differences in terms of approach and strategy. And for us what’s the most important is not just that we hear those critiques, but that we also ground them in current conditions, and not only where people are at, but where people want to go.

It’s also important to us that we make it clear that while we have a high level of disappointment and distrust in the status quo and in the system as it functions now, we also understand that in order to break down the system, we can’t just build outside of it, that we have to also look for openings and opportunities to leverage power and influence, to break apart the system that we’re fighting from the inside. And that’s a very tricky line to walk, and we’re going to make a lot of mistakes. But it is important to us to continue to engage, to continue to find allies where we feel like they’re available, to build tactical alliances where necessary, and to look for opportunities to build strategic alliances.

The Black Lives Matter movement and the organization of Black Lives Matter has had a program of demands. That program is changing, because of course we want to make sure that the issues that we’re tackling are not just about police brutality, but are about the totality of black life. And so really we’re looking at questions of jobs and unemployment, we’re looking at questions of education, we’re looking at questions of gender justice, we’re looking at questions of safety and community safety, community investment, economic development, and also the state of our democracy.

So the way that we’re doing that is by engaging folks at the grassroots level. We have not released a policy platform yet for 2016, although there are elements within the movement that already have. For our purposes, we feel that it’s really important to source the demands from the [state (?)], from our communities. And so we’re going through an intentional process to do that.

FLETCHER: Both you and I have been very involved in working-class organizing for years. Besides the obvious, what is the relevance of the movement for black lives, and specifically Black Lives Matter, to the black working class, which is grappling, in addition to police lynchings and racial terror, to the terror of unemployment, the terror of disparate health care and education? What’s the relevance of the movement?

GARZA: Well, let me start by saying that Black Lives Matter is attempting to make an intervention in the phenomenon of anti-black racism and state-sanctioned violence in all of its forms against black people around the world. And so, when we understand Black Lives Matter in that context, then we can more easily answer the question of what is the relevance of Black Lives Matter to the black working class.

So first and foremost we think it’s important to acknowledge and understand that black folks are at the losing end of almost every disparity socially, economically, and politically. Black Lives Matter has talked a lot and actually organizes around issues that are important to the black working class, including issues of school closures and school privatizations, issues that name that black people are more likely to be suspended or expelled from schools than they are to graduate from schools. We look at questions of the economy and black people, one, understanding that black unemployment rates are higher than almost any other ethnic group, and then also understanding that for black folks who are in the economy, we are highly concentrated in the service sector, which is engaged in a race to the bottom, whether that be around wages, whether that be around conditions, or whether that be around regulations.

So, again, when we think about the relationship between the black working class and Black Lives Matter, really what we’re asking is: what’s the relationship of anti-blackness and state sanctioned violence to the economy?

FLETCHER: Let me ask you one other question, Alicia. You mentioned international earlier, and I wondered if you could give us some sense as to what exactly do you mean in terms of Black Lives Matter internationally. What sort of internationalism do you see practicing?

GARZA: Sure. So, for the past year, Black Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter organizers in the organization Black Lives Matter have been doing a series of exchanges with black folks internationally. We participated in a delegation to Palestine late last year, where some of our members and one of our cofounders did an exchange with black Palestinians and tried to understand the connections and relationships, both in conditions, social status, political power, and economic power. We’ve done tours through the U.K. where we’ve built relationships with families who have lost loved ones to police brutality and who also are fighting in the anti-austerity movement, folks who are also suffering under regressive immigration policies that are not unlike the ones that we have here in the United States, the difference being that a large majority of immigrants to some of these countries are immigrants from Africa. We also have been in a relationship and in contact with activists in places like Colombia who are fighting not just police abuse and police violence, but they’re fighting the wholescale takeover of the land that they’ve subsisted on for generations and the natural resources that exist within those lands. We have been in conversations with folks in South Africa who are fighting neoliberalism and fighting anti-black racism years and years after the revolutions that have existed in South Africa. We have also been in contact with activists in Israel who are fighting anti-blackness as it relates to both immigration policy, right, and police abuse and police violence. And the list goes on it on, right? I just returned from Scotland, where a new left party is being formed. And part of what they want to ground themselves in is this conversation around Black Lives Matter.

FLETCHER: Well, Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter and an outstanding spokesperson for racial justice on a global scale, I want to thank you very much for joining us on The Global African.

GARZA: Thank you so much for having me.

FLETCHER: And thank you for joining us for this segment of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll be back in a moment, so don’t go anywhere.

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FLETCHER: In May of this year, Oprah Winfrey appeared on a cover of her magazine, O magazine, to celebrate its 15th anniversary. On it, she wore a pair of diamond earrings that were stunning but extremely controversial. The pieces of jewelry were created by Lev Leviev, a man commonly referred to as the king of diamonds.

However, while Leviev is known for his ability to acquire some of the world’s most impressive diamonds, he has also become known as a very questionable businessman to many human rights activists. It is said that Lev Leviev is profiting off of human rights violations in Angola. Security companies employed by Lev Leviev in Angolan diamond mining communities have been accused of committing brutal human rights abuses towards diamond diggers. And in addition to these allegations, footage of the terrible conditions have surfaced onto the internet. Furthermore, Leviev is also under fire for building thousands of Israeli settlement homes on Palestinian land, which stands in violation of international law.

Activists have been urging Oprah Winfrey to publicly sever ties with Leviev. And Adalah-NY, a New York group, campaigning for Palestinian human rights, sent her a letter to educate her on just who she was doing business with.

Patrick Connors of Adalah-NY joins us today to give us more insight on this subject and to explain just what happened with this letter his organization sent to Oprah and to her team.

We’re joined now by Patrick Connors, who is with the New York-based group Adalah-NY | The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel.

So welcome to The Global African. We really appreciate your taking the time to join us today.

Let me just start with this–you know, cut to the chase. What is the actual story behind the Oprah Winfrey diamond scandal?

CONNORS: Well, Oprah Winfrey was photographed on the cover of O magazine wearing Leviev diamonds. And this was a 15th anniversary issue of The Oprah Magazine. The fact that she was wearing diamonds was highlighted I think three times in the magazine. It was picked up online by E! Online, by Huffington Post.

But Leviev’s companies, including his diamond companies, have been involved in terrible human rights abuses in Angola in the diamond industry and in the occupied Palestinian territories, where they built illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.

And as far as I can tell from researching, Oprah appears to be the first major celebrity to have worn Leviev diamonds and to be effectively endorsing his diamonds and his companies since 2008. So it’s a bit of a surprise that somebody who has a reputation for supporting social justice in the U.S. and in South Africa and other places and being a role model would be promoting a company of a human rights abuser.

FLETCHER: Who is Lev Leviev? What is his involvement in this entire diamonds issue?

CONNORS: So Lev Leviev is an Uzbek-born Israeli billionaire, and he’s one of the wealthiest businessmen in Israel. A lot of his wealth has come from his work in the diamond industry, where he was–originally worked for the De Beers company in South Africa and then became–in apartheid South Africa, I should say, and then became known as the man who broke the De Beers cartel and became a major player, perhaps the major player in Angola’s diamond industry.

So diamonds have been a major part of his wealth, but he has expanded to a lot of different kinds of businesses and is the major shareholder of a company called Africa Israel, which is an Israeli company involved in construction and other businesses. And in the construction area, they’re involved in the construction–building Israeli settlements over the last 12 years or so. He’s also involved in a number of other industries, but those are two of his major ones.

And he seems like he’s a bit of a right-winger, given his support for Israeli settlements. He also has donated to settlement causes. And, actually, practically all of his businesses, you can cite some kinds of unethical business practices, and in specific cases really terrible human rights abuses, both in Palestine and Angola. So his record for business ethics is really bad.

FLETCHER: Leviev–what are his–this Lev Leviev, what are his ties with Angola and the diamonds issue in Angola?

CONNORS: He became involved in the Angolan diamond industry I believe around 1999, 2000, coming in with another Israeli oligarch who had ties to Angola and to the dos Santos regime. Together they got involved in the diamond industry. And Leviev has remained since then, and actually got into a business conflict with the other Israeli businessman over that. And as I said, he’s been a central player in the Angolan diamond industry, with close ties to the dos Santos regime, even to Isabel dos Santos in one of his partnerships. They were copartners. So he’s very much linked with a very repressive and corrupt government in Angola. And so that’s continued from, I believe, about the early 2000s to present, where he still has a major role in Angola’s diamond industry.

FLETCHER: Now, my understanding is that there’s a direct tie-in between Leviev and his company and the settlements or supporting settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

CONNORS: So Leviev, all of his businesses fall under what they call the Leviev Group of Companies, both the diamond businesses and the companies that are involved in building Israeli settlements. So his wealth is kind of integrated and you can’t separate the money that he’s earning, the large amounts of money that he’s learning from diamonds from the other businesses and the settlement enterprise.

So as early as around the early 1990s, he became involved with another smaller company. He’s a co-owner of something called Leader Management and Development that is building settlements on the land of the Palestinian village of Jayyous in the West Bank and taking away its vital farmland and really basically impoverishing that agricultural town of Jayyous. After that, he became, as I mentioned, the owner of Africa Israel, and that company began building settlements as well in a number of different communities, Palestinian communities in the West Bank.

And all of those Israeli settlements are built on Palestinian land, take away Palestinian farmland. They isolate Palestinian communities into isolated enclaves that are a little bit analogous to bantustans. People can’t move around freely. They lose income from the land that’s taken over from the settlements. So the settlements are destroying the West Bank, really. And Leviev, his companies, two of them, Africa Israel and Leader Management and Development, are two that have played a role in building thousands of settlement homes since about the early 2000s until now.

I should just add that Africa Israel has been under a lot of pressure, partly because of the campaign that we’re involved in and that many other people around the world are involved in, and different governments have broken relations with Leviev and his companies over this. Charities, nonprofits have done so as well.

And so late last fall, an Israeli media outlet reported that Africa Israel had stated that it will no longer build in occupied Palestinian territories, no longer build settlements. But there’s been no confirmation of that. Africa Israel itself has not affirmed that that’s the case. There’s no clear record that they’ve–that they’re currently building settlements, but there’s also no clear commitment that they’ve agreed to stop building settlements.

Leader Management and Development also, which is the company that develops the settlement of Zufim on the land of the village of Jayyous, has been in existence since the early 1990s. And in the last year, a court case by Israeli settlers revealed that Leviev’s attorney is claiming that he’s actually sold that company to some unnamed other people. But there’s no way to confirm, again, if this is true, if it’s a lie. The records are unclear. In fact, the Israeli government records show that he still actually is the co-owner of Leader Management and Development, which is involved in settlements in Zufim. So there are some, again, murky media reports that perhaps he’s sold the company, but no proof that.

FLETCHER: And one final question. What is your organization, Adalah-NY, what are they planning on doing as a follow-up on this controversial situation with Oprah Winfrey?

CONNORS: Well, we’ve been actually involved in campaigning against the human rights abuses committed by Leviev’s companies since 2007 and calling on governments and organizations and people to boycott his companies, to break relationships with him. So that’s an ongoing campaign. It will continue.

With respect to Oprah Winfrey and the fact that she wore Leviev diamonds, we right now have an online letter to her. We originally sent–we sent an initial letter with 34 signatories, individual signatories, and I think nine organizational signatories to her. When she didn’t respond after about a month, we put it online and called for more people to sign. Right now we have about 5,500 signatories. And each time people sign online, a letter is sent to executives at the Oprah Winfrey Network and at O magazine. So we’re continuing to send messages to her, calling on her to renounce her relationship, her endorsement, essentially, of Leviev’s companies, and we’re looking at other ways to try to be in touch with her. She’s not accepted our–sorry. Her representatives have not accepted our phone calls and emails over the last month.

So we’re looking at options of ways to continue to encourage her to do the right thing.

FLETCHER: Patrick Connors, thank you very much for joining us for The Global African. We appreciate you taking this time. Thank you.

CONNORS: Thank you.

FLETCHER: And thank you for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll see you next time. Hope you enjoyed the show.

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