“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.
They have forced this nation to reckon with the fact that it was forged in protest and that Americans—yes, even black Americans—have the right to dismantle systems of oppression that destroy the lives of our people. Sparked by the Ferguson uprising, a generation of protesters from around the country—including in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Miami and Houston; Oakland, Calif.; Birmingham, Ala.; Washington, D.C.; and Berkeley, Calif.—have been baptized in radical fire, refusing to sell out or buy into a corrupt system that allows police officers to kill with impunity.
The involvement of the National Basketball Association, inspired by Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, and hip-hop luminaries such as J. Cole, Talib Kweli and Q-Tip expanded the movement’s exposure, but 2014 belonged to the foot soldier. It has been sustained by a new generation of protesters and community activists, including Deray McKesson, Johnetta Elzie, Tef Poe and Erika Totten; groups such as the Black Youth Project 100 and DCFerguson; and the millions of people they have inspired.
It belongs to the youths who refuse to romanticize the presence of an African-American president who has positioned the relentless killing of black people as a manifestation of the mistrust between communities and law enforcement, instead of the continuation of this country’s legacy of lynching black bodies who are perceived as dangerous when not in shackles.
Legendary poet and activist Amiri Baraka taught us that if we ever find ourselves surrounded by enemies who won’t let us speak our own language, who ban our oom boom ba boom, then we’re in trouble so deep that it will probably take us several hundreds of years to get out.
This is a generation of activists who recognize that we’re in deep trouble.
Unconcerned by the cold, unrelenting gaze of white supremacy, they are the reason that the last moments and words of Michael Brown’s and Eric Garner’s lives—“Hands up, don’t shoot!” and “I can’t breathe,” respectively—are being chanted around the world from Tokyo to Paris to Melbourne, Australia. They are marching to the drumbeat of a revolution born of love for black people—oom boom ba boom; oom boom ba boom; oom boom ba boom—and ignoring the barely sheathed hatred of those who have attempted to silence them.
There have been those who have described this as the latest iteration of the civil rights movement, but as Malcolm X taught us, there can be no civil rights until we first have human rights. These protesters understand that the expectation of subdued civility in the face of the continued dehumanization of black life is evidence of the racism that this country was founded upon. They have challenged this nation’s love affair with itself by exposing the rotten core of its so-called democracy.
They continue to speak hard truths to morally bankrupt power—bravely, consistently and unapologetically—and we are in their debt.
The Root proudly salutes our person of the year: the Protester.
Also on The Root: “Change Agents of 2014: Black Women on Social Media”