“America never loved us. Remember?”
Phillip Agnew, executive director of the Dream Defenders, a youth-fueled civil rights organization formed in response to the 2012 slaying of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, spoke those powerful words Jan. 28 during the 2014 State of the Youth.
And the Year of the Protester began.
Agnew’s heart-wrenching declaration—equal parts call to action and expression of grief—went viral the next month after a judge declared a mistrial in the case of 45-year-old Michael Dunn, the man who fatally shot 17-year-old Jordan Davis in 2012 because he was playing loud music in an SUV at a gas station in Jacksonville, Fla.
Dunn would eventually be found guilty of first-degree murder in October after a second trial, but by then a new movement had been set in motion—one that would be reactivated by a succession of police killings of unarmed black men around the country. On July 17, Officer Daniel Pantaleo of the New York City Police Department used a banned choke hold that took the life of Eric Garner, 43, on a street in Staten Island; on Aug. 5, police fatally shot John Crawford III, 22, in a Wal-Mart in Beavercreek, Ohio; and, on Aug. 11, an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department killed Ezell Ford, 25, near 65th and Broadway in South Los Angeles.
Fury over police killings would reach a tipping point, however, on Aug. 9, two days before Ford’s death, on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Mo. It was there that now-former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson gunned down unarmed Michael Brown, 18, as Brown reportedly begged for his life in the middle of the street.
It was there that Brown’s bullet-riddled body would be left to lie uncovered for four hours as his mother’s wails of rage and grief pierced the air. It was there that protesters stood unbowed before a militarized police force armed with tear gas, dogs, sonic grenades, armored personnel carriers and rubber bullets.
And it was there that the justifiable rage and resentment would explode in a firestorm after a grand jury announced on Nov. 24 that Wilson would not be indicted in Brown’s killing. Democratic Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon had declared a state of emergency the previous week to pre-emptively intimidate protesters into submission—it didn’t work. The revolution was live-streamed, and images of law-enforcement officers engaging protesters as if they were enemy combatants flooded social media.
The #Ferguson hashtag became the cyber headquarters of the Twitter arm of the movement, and everyone gathered to get information that the mainstream media would not provide. As tensions fueled by anti-protester sentiment continued to escalate, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. weighed in with what has become his go-to response in these miscarriages of justice: reiterating that the Justice Department’s civil rights investigation would be “thorough.”
President Obama eventually joined the chorus of voices appealing for the protests to remain calm, but his words did not sway the Ferguson protesters. For 139 days and counting, they have continued despite naysayers who doubted their dedication and miscalculated the depth of their commitment. They continue to stand in solidarity, refusing to prioritize peace over justice, while boldly chanting the words of Assata Shakur: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
On Dec. 3, nine days after the Wilson decision, a grand jury in New York City declined to indict Garner’s killer. The psychological and emotional trauma inflicted with that vicious one-two combination of blows caused tens of thousands of people to stage protests and “die-ins” around the world. Politicians such as former and current New York mayors Rudy Giuliani and Bill de Blasio have tried to suppress protesters’ voices in the wake of the recent shooting deaths of two NYPD officers, but they have remained steadfast in their refusal to allow them to reframe black love as anti-cop hate.