Editor’s note: In the four-part series After the Fire, The Root looks at the growing social-justice movement, from traditional players to #BlackLivesMatter, examining where the movement has been, where it is now and where it’s going. After the Fire was reported and written by Associate Editor Danielle C. Belton. Illustration by Jada Prather.
Something every week now. That’s how it seems. As if there is something every week that scares you, chills you, makes you lose faith.
An overly aggressive officer tossing around a teenage girl at a pool party. Nine churchgoers massacred during a Bible study by a white supremacist. A woman, ready to start a new career, arrested and jailed after a routine traffic stop and found dead three days later. Authorities said she committed suicide in jail, but many think she should never have been arrested in the first place. A man shot and killed by a police officer at a traffic stop in Cincinnati, and an officer who is now being charged with his murder.
Violations, both large and larger upon the black body, taking a toll. They keep coming, as they’ve always come, and things keep happening, as they always have, but now there is more awareness, more attention. More of CNN running the mug shot of the victim and the beauty shot of the perp. More of people in the streets protesting, shouting that “black lives matter.”
To quote the popular saying: It’s not a moment; it’s a movement. And it’s been growing for years, especially in the last three, since the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. After talking to nearly 40 people, many pivotal figures in this current social-justice movement, The Root, in a four-part series, is taking a look at where we’ve been, where we think we’re going and where we are.
And where we are is searing.
If the movement were a person, that person’s temperature would be hot and rising, yet he or she would not be ill. The fire would be in that individual’s touch. From Baltimore to Ferguson, Mo., it’s all a bright blaze. The boiling of the blood to the fever of the flesh.
The social-justice movement, particularly the movement for black lives, is hot. But it’s society, not the body, that must feel the burn. If the movement’s passion is fire, then the opposition—systemic racism and white supremacy—is a long-tried, fireproof house of stone, one that has weathered slave revolts, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement, the election of President Barack Obama, and countless uprisings and revolutions and has remained stubbornly pristine. It is a house carefully maintained by hands, at times not even aware that they are tending the gardens of bigotry or repainting the walls of hate. Invisible hands that care for it and are not touched or moved by the black blood spilled on this house’s steps. Just another thing for those invisible hands of polite society to quickly paint over and move on.
But what if we didn’t move on? What if we finally had the tools to keep a fire burning, nonstop, with a 24-hour news camera that couldn’t turn away and an endless stream of user-generated social media, of tweets and posts, created by eyewitnesses and witnesses to the eyewitnesses, a perfect loop of feedback? Inexhaustible.
We’re all complicit. But we are not all aware. And awareness, for some, is a choice. So those with fire in their blood “stay woke.” Those with the fever that can’t be remedied with aspirin and bed rest stay restless. They plot and plan how to burn a fireproof house down.
Success depends on whether or not you think they can do it. In this movement, the power is in the people; communities lead the way, not modern messiahs; and the movement for black lives is only as strong as the black people it seeks to protect. It’s going to take everyone. Are you down?
In the Beginning …
Tara Thompson remembers not feeling welcome.
Born and raised in St. Louis, she attended college at Xavier in New Orleans. It was there that she got her first taste of activism, working with impoverished kids. After she finished school, she returned to Louisiana in 2007 to the town of Jena to help out six students (Robert Bailey, Mychal Bell, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, Jesse Ray Beard and Theo Shaw) facing attempted-murder charges after a schoolyard brawl. It was cited as an example of the school-to-prison pipeline, in which black and brown students are often disciplined much more harshly than their white counterparts. In Jena, white students who had also been in fights around the same time were charged as juveniles, while then-16-year-old Mychal, one of the “Jena Six,” as they became known, was charged as an adult.
Jena, a small town of fewer than 4,000 people, was not enthusiastic about the protesters and young people who’d come to town to show their support for the Jena Six. Thompson remembers slurs being hurled at her, and she remembers signs in stores flipping from “Open” to “Closed” like a scene from an old movie. She remembers a small tense town resisting the organizing black bodies descending upon it.
“Racism, it manifests itself in a lot of ways, but, like, Louisiana racism is, like, sundown-town racism. Like, ‘Don’t be in certain parts of Jefferson Parish by yourself at dusk’-type [racism], you know?” said Thompson, who honed her organizing skills in Jena. “I remember us, like, rolling into Jena and, like, shops actually closing. Like, nah, we’re not serving no food to all these black people.”
It was 2007, and Twitter was still in its infancy, but the Internet was there, in all its democratizing glory, and it was proving to be a useful tool in bringing people together and organizing. It was blog posts, emails, radio and text messages that got the Jena Six story in the New York Times and on CNN. The people made it happen. And the people marched peacefully, more than 15,000 strong, through the streets of that small Louisiana town, in one of the largest civil rights gatherings in the South in decades.
“People were surprised at this new energy that was emerging,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange.org.
Robinson said that ColorOfChange.org “cut its teeth” as an organization in Jena. Born out of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, ColorOfChange.org was unique in that it was a civil rights organization forged in the digital age, led by a community of subscribers and donors who set the pace, leading the organization to the issues they deemed important instead of the other way around.
“Really, ColorOfChange, more than any other group, foreshadowed the rise of a kind of digital activism for the new century,” said ColorOfChange.org founder Van Jones. “You could see early pioneering in ColorOfChange, the whole future in terms of ecological and social-justice problems and crowdsourcing black response online. Not waiting for one person to give a speech, not waiting for one great leader, but building one great list, one great email list that can commit multiple campaigns.”
People are empowered in different ways to not wait for a straight male messiah to come and tell them where the next rally will be.
Robinson called Jena, a now mostly forgotten flashpoint, a precursor of what he describes as the “participation age”—the age when anyone, at any time, can be part of the movement thanks to a YouTube or Twitter account. Unlike during the civil rights movement, when it was television that showed America what racial oppression and white supremacy really looked like, now it’s cellphone cameras and video uploads, status updates and Periscope.
“Everyday people can be their own spokesperson,” Robinson said. “People are empowered in different ways to not wait for a straight male messiah to come and tell them where the next rally will be. People are building more collective power. Technology allows people to speak clearly with their own voice.”
Still, Jena doesn’t come up much in conversations about this digital age and using social media to fight against injustice, even though most of the tactics deployed in Jena popped up again for those organizing online. Perhaps the forgetting of Jena can be blamed on the rapid churn of the 24-hour news cycle, in which stories burn hot and bright, then flame out instantaneously to make room for the next big thing. Thompson thinks that people simply forgot because “this trauma is real.” In the participation age, there’s always a new injustice, a new tragedy pushing the last sad story of systemic racism run amok off the page.
Our Lives Matter
Although there would be other, smaller mobilizations around issues online, the kind of fervor that there was over Jena wouldn’t be seen again until 2012, when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman claimed self-defense after he stalked Trayvon—having assumed that he was a criminal—as the teen walked home from a convenience store. Zimmerman was later acquitted and now lives a life of infamy, racking up random encounters with the law.
But something amazing happened after Trayvon. People realized that it wasn’t just about Trayvon; that in fact, they had Trayvons of their own in their own towns. They had their own stories of young black men and women gunned down, and not just by “vigilantes” but by police officers, and it had been going on for decades, at a rate 21 times higher than that of white men. And people realized that not holding those officers and individuals accountable had been going on for even longer, since Emmett Till—since before Emmett Till, since forever—and a light switch was flipped, and the hand unseen was revealed, and new activists emerged on- and offline, while those with years in the game all pointed and shouted so that everyone would hear: This trauma is real.
Groups like Dream Defenders and Million Hoodies for Justice emerged in the shadow of Trayvon’s death, leading marches and sit-ins and pushing hard on social media. Dream Defenders staged a sit-in at Florida’s Capitol that lasted 31 days. A Million Hoodie March was held in New York City that drew hundreds. Both utilized strong communications campaigns using digital media in an effort to change the narrative that wearing a hooded sweatshirt was an indictment of character if the wearer was black.
“Our strategic communications is really core to the work that we do in order to not only challenge hegemonic frameworks around the criminalization of black people but also to counter the mainstream media’s narrative about how black people are deemed criminal,” said Dante Berry, executive director of the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice. “Million Hoodies helps to counter and challenge these hegemonic frameworks in order to not only humanize black people and other communities of color but to also heighten and reframe this conversation about what it means to be [part of these communities].”
Also emerging out of tragedy was another communications strategy: a mantra-meets-movement that started online and continues to dominate the social-justice landscape today.
Black Lives Matter was created by organizers Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi. When Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013, Tometi, the executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, was leaving a film screening; Garza, an organizer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, was at a bar; and Cullors, who is currently with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights but has been doing organizing work for more than 15 years, had just visited a mentee in prison and was in a motel room. All of them received the news of the Zimmerman verdict differently—in a text message or by looking at a Facebook feed—but all of them felt the same mixture of disbelief, anger and grief.
“[I was] just floored that this man could get away with murdering a child while I visited someone [in prison] who had not killed anybody,” said Cullors, adding, “And I think I was enraged. I was disturbed. I was hurt, deeply hurt. But I was also [thinking], ‘This is exactly what they do. This is exactly how white racism works. This is how white supremacy works.’”
Cullors remembers going on social media, viciously typing about the verdict and searching for what other black people were saying. (“I just wanted to be with black people,” she said.) And so Cullors went to her friend Garza’s Facebook page to see what her response would be and found Garza’s heartfelt post.
Garza’s post pushed back against those who mocked the anguish that many black people expressed and the victim-blaming “respectability politics” arguments that many were pushing, which claimed that if black people would simply dress or behave in a manner more acceptable to whites, shootings like this wouldn’t happen.
“We didn’t create these conditions; therefore we should stop blaming each other for them,” Garza said of what she wrote, referring to it as “a call to ‘let’s love on each other,’ take some action together … to fight for our lives and our dignity and our humanity. It’s a response to anti-black racism and a call to action.”
Garza ended her impassioned post with, “We matter. Our lives matter. Black lives matter.” The words immediately resonated with Cullors, who turned the last sentence into a hashtag: #blacklivesmatter.
Described by Tometi as both an “affirmation” and “a love note” to black people, Black Lives Matter quickly caught fire, leading Garza, Tometi and Cullors to start an online and offline organizing campaign under its banner, with Tometi creating the campaign’s communications infrastructure.
We are having conversations about race in a way this country hasn’t had in probably 40 or 50 years.
Today Black Lives Matter has 24 U.S.-based chapters and two international chapters. Participants in the campaign have blocked highways and taken down the Confederate flag in South Carolina, marched on Wal-Marts and shut down the Mall of America. It’s become both a movement and a social media rallying cry. Just this past week, the hashtag reached as many as 22 million Twitter users, showing up on stories and discussions around race, discussions that were a long time coming, according to Garza.
“We are having conversations about race in a way this country hasn’t had in probably 40 or 50 years,” Garza said. “That’s important because the state of black people in the United States, and certainly internationally, I think we can quite simply describe as ‘the best of times and the worst of times.’
“There are more elected black officials than ever before. There are more opportunities for black people than there have ever been,” she continued. “And yet at the same time, we have 1 million black people locked in jails and prisons in this country, and black women are the fastest-growing prison population.
“I think what we’re seeing right now, black folks are certainly being left behind and in a lot of ways [have] been largely displaced from the economy, and also largely displaced from society and democracy,” Garza added. “And so Black Lives Matter has said that black folks deserve a place in this country and that we deserve humanity. I mean, quite frankly, we’ve moved the conversation from black folks need a seat at the table to black folks deserve to have their humanity respected in all forms.”
But respect is difficult to come by in America, where black people are told they must be twice as good in order to not just succeed but also survive. You can’t be yourself, in all your “It’s complicated” glory. Anything can relegate you to devaluation. Your clothing. Your speech. Your address. All used to cut down those who have already been cut down, leaving their corpses vulnerable and exposed.
It happened to Michael Brown.
Tweets Are Watching
In a city like St. Louis, protests and outpourings of rage are rare. While Midwestern in location, St. Louis is Southern in nature—major protests, let alone uprisings, don’t happen there.
“Grassroots organizing hasn’t been nurtured; it’s not a reality that’s occurred here,” said Montague Simmons, with the St. Louis-based Organization for Black Struggle. “Racial-justice work has always been at the margins for more than a generation.”
St. Louis is the place where Dred Scott was told he was still a slave, even though Missouri wasn’t technically a slave state. It is where schemes like the Team Four Plan, a plot to redline housing in North St. Louis City, are labeled as wild conspiracies, even though the evidence of that plot’s activation is in everything. Where the Delmar Divide separates the richest of the rich from the poorest of the poor. Where the city is majority black but has produced only two black mayors in its history.
St. Louis City and St. Louis County are places where black people are supposed to suck up their pain and move on. And yet that is not what happened in Ferguson in 2014. That is not what happened at all. On social media and YouTube, people posted videos of Brown’s body lying in the street, and news spread quickly on Twitter about what was happening in the Canfield Green Apartments area of Ferguson. People came out of their homes in rage and grief.
“One narrative kept coming to my mind: This is happening here. This is happening now in St. Louis. We’d seen these killings before. This happened and we’re seeing more energy around police oppression than we’d ever seen,” Simmons said. “It really became surreal.”
Again, as with Jena and Trayvon Martin, black people on social media, on blogs, on Twitter and Facebook, were the ones who pushed the narrative, who put pressure on CNN to turn its cameras to St. Louis.
“Each city has its own organizing going on Twitter, and social media in general has allowed us the space to organize on a national level as well, and to keep activists in touch with one another, across state lines,” said Leon Kemp, a St. Louis-based activist who works with We The Protesters and goes by the name WyzeChef on Twitter.
“[Social media organizing] will continue to grow,” he continued. “It will continue to become so much more solid … it will continue to allow us to tell our own story. We won’t need that middleman. We can give you the facts, give you what’s happening on the ground as it’s happening. … People are so hungry for what’s real. Social media and Twitter in particular are really valuable in this space. We can run a counternarrative to whatever the news is putting out.”
We can give you the facts, give you what’s happening on the ground as it’s happening. People are so hungry for what’s real.
“I think of it as a tool that has allowed voices and work to be amplified on levels that we haven’t seen before,” said Charlene Carruthers of Black Youth Project 100. “I think that it allows people to report what they see firsthand. It doesn’t tear down the power of mainstream media—I don’t see it as superseding completely the power of mainstream media—but I do think it has provided a chance to amplify what’s happening, even given notice to things that are happening and have happened, and connect people in different ways.”
A year has passed since Ferguson. In that time, hundreds more have died around the country after being shot by police or while in police custody—at least 570 people so far, including Freddie Gray in Baltimore, whose death after a rumored “rough ride” set off unrest in that city that lasted for days. Even though justice for Gray may come—Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby seems much more intent on competently trying the officers involved than St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch ever seemed to be regarding now-former Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson—it doesn’t end. They may have put out the fire in the CVS, but the world still burns.
Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. John Crawford. Rekia Boyd. The Charleston Nine in South Carolina. The McKinney, Texas, pool party. Walter Scott. Sandra Bland. Sam Dubose. It’s all still on fire. Everything is on fire except the house that racism built. The only real solution is to take down the house, brick by brick. Action by action. Legislation by legislation. Even tweet by tweet.
But with each successful campaign comes a much stronger resistance. Tara Thompson, who organizes with Hands Up United, points out that eight years ago in Jena, it was just a few state troopers watching the thousands. While the problems are the same—mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, police brutality, racial profiling—the response almost a decade later is much different.
“Just [recently] at a protest in front of the Police Department [in St. Louis],” Thompson said, “there were maybe, and I’m being generous, 40 people, and … 40 not even all protesting. A lot were media, a lot [were] spectators, and there were probably close to 100 police there. Uniformed police, bike police, plainclothes police, police in unmarked cars. Like, that response for this number of protesters.
“And I just remember thinking back to [Jena],” she continued. “There were definitely state troopers present, but the presence there, based on the number of people, it was totally unmatched. Like, the ratio was completely off base on the way the state responds to protest now. If we bring 10,000 people to St. Louis right now, there’s going to be helicopters … the presence of police is going to be unreal.”
Thompson laughs at an absurdity that she knows isn’t funny, then adds, “It’s just crazy when you compare the situations and you draw the parallels in the situations and then you compare the responses. It’s blatantly obvious that everything is going in the wrong direction. Like the fact that these things are still happening and the response is not, like, let’s change any of this, education or any of these economic disparities. Let’s not change any of these things. The only thing that you can see that has changed is the response from the state and the militarization from the state.”
Editor’s note: In the second installment of After the Fire, we take a look at the structure of this current movement, a movement where anyone can be the boss, yet no one is the boss.