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In 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a young woman in California named Alicia Garza wrote an emotional Facebook post that ended with the words “Our Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter.” Her friend, Patrisse Cullors, turned that into a hashtag.

“I was devastated,” Cullors says. “Honestly I think it was my naivete, but I really believed that George Zimmerman was going to be found guilty of something.” She turned to social media to try to understand what was happening, and found Garza’s “love note to black people.” The three words ‘Black Lives Matter’ “hit me in the gut,” she remembers. “I put a hashtag on it because it just felt so necessary to archive it.” That developed into street protests and online organizing. As Cullors told her friend they should use it “to develop a new narrative around what it means to believe and fight for black life in this moment.”

“Black Lives Matter reminds people that black people are human, but more importantly, it reminds black people that we are human,” she says.

On becoming an activist

By the time I was 23, my brother and my father that raised me had spent most of their life in prison or jail because of the war on drugs. And I knew that the system didn’t actually care to rehabilitate black communities, but rather the use of jail was really what Michelle Alexander calls it: “The New Jim Crow.” So for me, I had no choice but to be an organizer. I had no choice but to be an activist. It was the only way I could feel some resolve. For me, the choice is about either turning my eyes towards the violence happening in my community, turning my eyes away from it, or dealing with it head on. And people who know me well know that I deal with issues head on. And so that’s why I say I didn’t have a choice.

Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter

And Michel Martin will be heading to Los Angeles on June 24 to learn more about policing and communities. Join her there, or on Twitter using #StreetsAndBeats.