Editor’s note: In the second installment of the four-part series After the Fire, The Root looks at the structure of this current movement, a movement where anyone can be the boss, yet nobody is the boss. After the Fire was reported and written by Associate Editor Danielle C. Belton. Illustration by Jada Prather. Read Part 1.
Who wants to be in charge?
Don’t raise your hand too quickly because it’s a job you might get. It’s a job that comes with few perks, long hours and no pay (unless you’re crooked, and if you’re crooked, please stop now, you aren’t helping). But if you don’t want to be in charge, we can still offer you the same few perks, long hours and no-pay deal as part of the long struggle toward freedom.
It’s the only thing being offered.
But, hey, if you do a good job and we’re all set free, you get freedom! It’s the costliest prize if you’re black in America because the price of freedom, for you, is paid in blood. And white supremacy isn’t picky about which black person’s blood it is. Yours. Your friends. Your family’s. In the past, an entire neighborhood. In the present, an entire neighborhood. (But not as quickly or violently. Instead, a sort of slow death you almost don’t notice until they build a Qdoba Mexican Grill on top of your corpse.)
It’s not fun to be a freedom fighter. It sounds beautiful and romantic—they will write songs about you (after you die horribly young)—but who can do this work for very long without withering and having self-doubt? Who can carry the burden of being the documenter of sorrows and the collector of lamentations? Who can last as the accountant who tabulates the blood price and keeps the list of demands?
Who can live with no perks, long hours, no money and yet stay nourished?
It takes a special kind of person. If it’s you, we need you. And if you’re not perfect, that’s OK. We can’t get too choosy about how we get free.
When Worlds Collide
Oprah Winfrey is looking for a leader, or at least that’s the impression she left when she spoke to People magazine about the Black Lives Matter movement back in January.
According to the Washington Post, she said: “I think it’s wonderful to march and to protest and it’s wonderful to see all across the country, people doing it. But what I’m looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say, ‘This is what we want. This is what we want. This is what has to change, and these are the steps that we need to take to make these changes, and this is what we’re willing to do to get it.’”
It’s not surprising that Winfrey—a leader of her own cable network, corporation and lifestyle-brand—would be looking for a young Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton in the throngs of protesters engaging under the Black Lives Matter mantra. It’s what she knows, is good at and understands.
But that doesn’t necessarily make her right, or wrong—just very limited in her understanding of movement-building. She’s a businesswoman, not an organizer. And movements aren’t corporations. Movements are beautifully messy, and it’s mythology if you think there was ever a time all the black folks were all on the same page, politely marching together toward a common goal. Instead, imagine multiple groups, individuals and organizations with a common goal but an uncommon way of getting there, bumping into one another, arguing with one another, trying to get out of each other’s way as they march in 15,000 different directions toward freedom.
This is what now looks like.
“There has been no one organization or one front-runner or one face for this movement. It is multiple people doing multiple things all at the same time to put pressure on the system,” said Johnetta “Netta” Elzie, a St. Louis-based activist who co-authors This Is the Movement, an online newsletter that tracks social-justice actions.
But this is also what then looked like.
“We’ve always had that problem,” said Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of racial-justice nonprofit Advancement Project. “There’s always been the traditional civil rights movement and the black power movement and they were not working together and we have that today. Imagine that. I just think that there’s some folks who want to just be more explicit and we’ve always had that. I don’t think that the way this is playing out now is any different. This intergenerational strife is no different than what we’ve seen in the past.”
If you think in the 1960s that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Nation of Islam, countless ministers, the NAACP, the multitude of local NAACP branches, the black power movement and their ilk all got along, famously, all the time, happily marching under Martin Luther King Jr.’s banner, you obviously don’t know your history, or at least were too lazy to watch Ava DuVernay’s film Selma.
Different people had different ideas on how to get free. No one really agreed on any one thing other than “Jim Crow has got to go.” How to get that bastard to leave was hard fought, in private and in public.
“We’ve always had different lines of duty, but they found a way in the end to come together,” Sharpton said. “The challenge is the same challenge that we had before my time in the ’60s. We [must] find a way that if we don’t walk together, that we don’t collide.”
And yet, collide we do.
The following is a story of two of those 15,000 different directions running into each other on the way toward freedom.
Old School vs. New School
Netta said it was Erika’s idea to get on the stage.
It was just the sort of surreal thing that had become increasingly common in their lives since the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last August, since the unrest, since the protests, since their lives transitioned from that of everyday minutiae to fighting for monumental change. They’d been in it since the beginning and it had brought them to the White House. Now it was December and they were at a march—the Justice for All March in Washington, D.C.—organized by several civil rights organizations, including Sharpton’s group, the National Action Network. They’d watched speaker after speaker talk about young people while not actually being young people and now they were on the stage, uninvited and unbowed.
Erika Totten grabbed the microphone and passed it to Johnetta “Netta” Elzie, who spoke briefly until they cut the sound off.
“Why did we have to take the mic to be heard?” Elzie asked, reflecting on that December day. “The night before we were talking about this march and I didn’t want to go.” But after some discussion they decided “we can go and have an open mind.”
If Elzie and her friends Totten and Leon Kemp (known as WyzeChef on Twitter) were wary of the march, they had their reasons. While they were on the frontlines of this new movement, they weren’t the activists of old who thought one needed to dress or behave a certain way to be heard. That was “respectability politics.” That way of thinking was dead to them—believing an outfit and some proper English could save you, make you more worthy of being heard. They saw through that illusion. Instead, they spoke in the vernacular of our times and didn’t try to be anything but themselves.
Kemp was especially disinterested in becoming a joiner—belonging to any specific group or social-justice nonprofit. He’s happy to work with his friends—“a group that’s not a group”—DeRay Mckesson, Elzie and others. But he doesn’t believe being down for the cause means being a card-carrying member of “name your org.”
Some of it is because he’s not a joiner. Some of it is because he doesn’t even consider himself an activist. (“I just do s—t. I just feel like when you’re compelled to do something, you should do it, and I was compelled to be involved and that’s just what I do.”) Some of it’s because he’s disappointed in his elders, the ones he long admired, the ones he watched come out after things got hot in Ferguson last August. When he was looking for some guidance for himself and his friends, Kemp said he got criticism.
“No training. No advice. No nothing. They just sat and they watched and were critical,” Kemp said, later adding, “I’m sure that NAN does good work. I’m sure that Jesse Jackson’s folks do good work. But being in proximity to them? It wasn’t great.”
Up close it looked like not being included, it looked like not being heard, and now it seemed to be happening again, at a march in Washington.
Things started off OK. The friends liked seeing so many different people out to support the common fight against the police shootings, the injustices, but things turned when the walking ended and Elzie sat on the sidewalk.
“These guys in suits with dress shoes came over and were like ‘Do you have a VIP pass to be sitting down here?’ and it was, literally, like the sidewalk,” she said. “I kept asking him, ‘Why do I need a VIP pass to sit on a sidewalk if I’m tired?’ He couldn’t give a real answer.”
Then, as the speeches started, the frustration of Elzie, Totten and Kemp grew.
“It’s really frustrating because the youth, the people that you’re talking about are here. You’re talking about us versus letting us speak for ourselves,” Elzie said, adding that this smacked of patriarchy and respectability politics, two things the current movement is working against.
“Sexism. Misogyny. We experienced all of those things,” she said. “And we’re just hearing all the constant talk about young people. It didn’t feel authentic to what we know and were doing. It didn’t resemble what the movement looks like. Nothing was authentic. … It seemed like if you’re not in a suit and tie, skirt and heels, you didn’t matter. They’re talking to [us] and we’re treated like we didn’t matter. Our crowd of people didn’t matter. And that was hard.”
But the youth at the rally felt they could speak for themselves. “We can and will,” said Elzie. So they did. Kemp said they “got in a lot of trouble” and were accused of “being disrespectful.” But politeness was not going to get the point across that they needed to be heard.
It was an unintentional clash of the leaders. An unwanted battle on both sides between Sharpton, who’d adopted the Martin Luther King model of movement work versus a movement where everyone is a leader, everyone has a voice and a chance to participate. Both sides would prefer being allies—Kemp once wanted guidance (although now he admits he’s over wanting that), Elzie and Totten wanted to hear youth speaking for themselves and Sharpton wants whatever differences they may have to be dealt with in a way that doesn’t distract from the real goal: fighting racism, police brutality and injustice.
He’s worried about people pitting them against each other, agitators—racists, anarchists, duplicitous instigators on the left and the right—who want to see them both fail.
“How do we not get along with our parents, getting agitated by folks we don’t know?” Sharpton said in reference to the tension between young and old. “We’ve all got to respect each other to achieve something because, other than that, they’re just playing everybody against each other.”
Sharpton bristles at the thought that he was trying to silence anyone back in December, saying that young people did speak despite some early confusion over whether or not they should be onstage at all.
“When I got there, some youngsters from Ferguson had jumped on the stage and wanted to be heard. So I said, ‘Why didn’t y’all let them speak?’ and they said, ‘Well, we didn’t know what they were going to say,’” recalled Sharpton. “I said, ‘They can speak as long as they aren’t going to get up there and incite violence.’ We got 30, 40 thousand people out there. I called them over. … [They said,] ‘Y’all won’t let us speak.’ [I said,] ‘Who is y’all? You’re talking to me now.’ [They said,] ‘You’ll let us speak?’ Yeah, I put them up. They spoke and marched with me. I’m in touch with some of them now. And I said, ‘I’m not your enemy.’
“[I asked,] ‘What do you want to speak on?’ [They said,] ‘Well, you know young people did Ferguson,’” Sharpton said. “I said, ‘First of all, no, you didn’t. This is Michael Brown’s mother who started it. We did the funeral and all that. … Y’all started the daily thing [protesting] and y’all ought to be saluted. I ain’t your problem. I went to Ferguson because there was nothing happening. They called me. And we ended up working together, and the people who jumped on this stage was y’all’s age. I wasn’t even there. I hadn’t got there yet.
“‘Don’t let them play us against each other. [The press is saying] young people rebelled against Sharpton. Didn’t happen. They want the conflict because that’s the way they play.’”
Sharpton said that he and those who organize under Black Lives Matter are on the same side, fighting the same battle, simply with different strategies. He even understands why some young people may criticize him, comparing it to when Kwame Turé, then called Stokely Carmichael, goaded Martin Luther King Jr. when both had similar goals back in the 1960s.
“As I got older, I was always determined that no matter what, even if I was the object of attacks, I was not going to respond,” Sharpton said. “You have to be big enough to absorb confusion and try to come out with a coherent message because otherwise you’re just as insincere and insecure as the insecurity you’re being played on.”
Still, same side or not, first impressions are lasting ones and the hurt was real, especially for Kemp at the time.
“There’s always going to be like clashes between different generations, between the old guard and the people out here now, but I’m kind of over it,” Kemp said. “For a while, it did bother me because it hurt my feelings. Yeah, it hurt my feelings for a long time. … For all intents and purposes, they abandoned us. We’re their kids. They left us out there butt-ass naked. Then, when it picked up steam, [they] had something to say.”
There’s a responsibility that comes with being a leader. And there’s the reality of dealing with a leader. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, leaders fail you. Even if you’re on the same side. Even if on most things you may agree. It’s sort of like how they say you should never meet your idols because those you admire from a distance turn out to be all too human. Maybe they’re weird or aloof. Maybe they’re guarded and quiet. Maybe they’re rude and haughty. Maybe you simply built them up too much in your head, into something they never were.
Or maybe it’s not about leaders. Maybe it’s really about individuals and the roles they have to play—both big and small.
“We don’t need spokespeople; we need a space where folks can have their dreams and their visions realized,” said Jitu Brown, national director of Journey for Justice Alliance, a network of community-based organizations. “Charismatic leadership has its place. People want to be inspired, they want to look up to that figure, but that model of leadership also lends itself to corruption. It also lends itself to if something happens to that individual the work not continuing because people were following that individual instead of following their core values. So I think it’s important that we recognize that inside all of us, there are great leaders. I believe that with all my heart. Every person has divine purpose, but there are no divine people. There’s nobody here that brings more than anyone else.
“We all may have different skills whether it’s someone who is vocal in speech, whether it is someone who is an excellent behind-the-scenes organizer, whether it’s someone that’s a magnificent cook and can feed 100 people with $50. … Everybody has different gifts and skills that they bring to the table,” Brown continued. “So I think that we have to stop looking at the person that may be on the mic as the leader. That’s their role.”
It’s Advancement Project’s Browne-Dianis who says that the current social-justice movement, with its myriad organizations, individuals and groups is not a “leaderless” movement but a “leader-ful” one, rich in the Ella Baker school of organizing, in which ego is supposed to get out of the way and let communities lead. It’s a sentiment echoed by a lot of organizers, from Black Lives Matter founder Patrisse Cullors (who currently works with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights) to Million Hoodies for Justice Executive Director Dante Berry.
Baker was a civil rights activist who was a crucial adviser to SNCC. She is best-known for her tireless work with young organizers, believing that a movement’s strongest assets are found in its youth and communities.
“Ella Baker believed that ordinary people are leaders,” said Browne-Dianis. “Too often things get brushed aside and not thought about because ‘someone else has the answer.’ In the Ella Baker school it’s the people who are impacted who have the answer. I like the leader-ful way because it opens up opportunities for people to engage and find their voice and their place in our struggle.”
This model is the polar opposite of the centralized leadership model, the King model that Sharpton has invested in, where you have a prophetic voice speaking on behalf of the people, drawing attention to issues on a national scale. Both models have their pluses and drawbacks. By letting the people dictate the messages, those who follow the community-led model believe that you get better ideas, better actions and better solutions to problems.
After all, you’re taking in more ideas democratically and discussing them. You’re more likely to have an ear to the ground and know what’s going on in the interior lives of the people you are serving. It can also take longer—considering multiple points of view means a lot of meetings, a lot of talking and, at times, not a lot of consensus. Wrangling idealists; passionate and, at times, frustrated young activists; and community members can be like herding cats. It’s not easy, and not everyone can do it.
Problems with the one messiah-like leader also abound. Sure, you get that great top-down, “I’m in charge, the buck stops with me” style of management. Sure, you can get President Barack Obama on the phone. But then the institution is only as strong as the head, and it can all come crumbling down.
It’s problems like this that make Berry think the charismatic-figure model is a dead one for today’s generation. The current environment has made the movement a democracy, not an autocracy.
“I don’t think that that model has proven useful, and I think that model has also been rejected,” he said. “If you go to Ferguson, if you go to other communities, that model has actively been rejected,” Berry said. “People want to be more community-minded, recognizing that, yeah, we can have all these national conversations and, yeah, this affects us nationally … but the problem exists on a local level.”
But why not both? Sharpton points out that King met with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, he orchestrated national campaigns and he marched, all while the Freedom Riders rode buses. King never rode those buses, he points out.
Sharpton chose the King model for himself, but he doesn’t think he should be alone out there.
“We all have different roles, and I think that is the ultimate level of insecurity to say that people have to stick to your quote-unquote perception of what it is to be relevant,” Sharpton said. “There’s relevance expressed in many different ways in every generation as long as it’s sincerely towards the goal.”
Sharpton points out that when he first was offered his show on MSNBC, dissenters said, “‘Oh, he ain’t gonna march anymore.’ But [the Rev. Jesse Jackson] was the envoy to President Clinton and had a show on CNN. If you study our history, we ain’t on nothing new, but if we let others tell our history … we get confused.”
Deciding to Be Down
“For those folks looking for leaders, they’ll find a leader, right?” said Umi Selah (formerly Phil Agnew) of the group Dream Defenders. “If you’re looking for it, you’ll find it.”
Selah, who has been honored, awarded and held up as an example of leadership in this movement, doesn’t want to be its boss. He’s of the movement and works within the movement; he even has leadership qualities he uses in the movement—but lead? Lead all of it?
Not a lot of upside there.
“As a leader you get blamed for everything and you get credit for everything, and neither one of those are really that great,” said Selah. “If you’re self-aware, you know you don’t deserve credit for everything, and it sucks to get blamed for everything, too. But yeah, it’s burdensome, but it’s something that I asked for. This is something that I want. I wanted to be part of this movement. I wanted to be a revolutionary. I am a revolutionary. That is what I’ve chosen, so I can’t cry too much about any burdens.”
And while he has no problem with others seeking a leader elsewhere, he thinks all sides should be realistic.
“[Leaders] will have a great deal of pressure put on them to be what those followers want them to be, and either those followers will be disappointed or that leader will be disappointed,” Selah said. “But that’s not where I wanted to be, and that’s not where I want to be. … [It] doesn’t mean I’m going to shrink away and not use my skills and my gifts in the service of the movement, but doesn’t mean I’m going to be what everybody wants me to be.”
Selah said this in late July as he took a break in the Cleveland State University student center, where he was attending a convening for the Movement for Black Lives. He attended as a participant. He didn’t lead a workshop. He wasn’t a featured speaker. He was just there, like everyone else, for fellowship, to listen and learn, and he was happier that way. As he walked through the center, he was greeted over and over by friends he’d met, fellow activists and organizers, who’d had just as hectic a three years as he had had. Now, wanting to focus more on writing and music, Selah is building a studio space where people can learn both movement building and practice art.
He knows that the movement needs everyone, so the work must be accessible to everyone, even those who may think they don’t fit in.
“Everyone is not a ‘rah-rah’ type of a person,” said Selah. “Everyone is not an orator. Everyone is not a sign holder. Everyone can’t get arrested. And so if those are the only doorways by which people see their participation being valued in the movement, then that cuts people off, a lot of people, from even trying.”
In a leader-ful movement, anyone can be the leader. But what if you don’t want to be a leader—big or small? What if you just want to make art, play music or write? Where do you fit in? Where do you belong? These are the things Selah is thinking about as he finds his own path, a path that doesn’t involve others putting on him what he should be doing.
Forget who wants to be the leader. Who just wants to be down?
“We want to democratize that entire process and show a different way,” said Selah, who smiles when he adds, “It’s nothing new. People been doing it, but we want to do it, too.”
Editor’s note: In the third installment of After the Fire, we take a look at what influence #BlackLivesMatter and the larger social justice movement could have on politics and policy.