New Generation of Black Activism

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By Mychal Denzel Smith
AUGUST 27, 2014
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How Trayvon
Martin’s Death
Launched a New
Generation of
Black Activism
A host of new groups are reviving
the grassroots fight for racial
O n July
13, 2013,
was found
not guilty in
the murder
of Trayvon
Martin, an unarmed African-American 17-yearold
walking home from a 7-Eleven. What The
Washington Post and other media outlets had
dubbed “the trial of the century” was over, with
a deeply unsettling verdict. In the fifteen
months between Trayvon’s death and the
beginning of the trial, people across the
country had taken to the streets, as well as to
newspapers, television and social media, to
decry the disregard for young black lives in
America. For them—for us—this verdict was
A group of 100 black activists, ranging in age
from 18 to 35, had gathered in Chicago that
same weekend. They had come together at the
invitation of Cathy J. Cohen, a professor of
political science at the University of Chicago
and the author of Democracy Remixed: Black
Youth and the Future of American Politics, and
her organization, the Black Youth Project.
Launched in 2004, the group was born as a
research project to study African-American
youth; in the decade since then, Cohen has
turned the BYP into an activist organization.
The plan for this meeting was to discuss
movement building beyond electoral politics.
Young black voters turned out in record
numbers in the 2008 and ‘12 elections: 55
percent of black 18-to-24-year-olds voted in
2008, an 8 percent increase from 2004, and
while a somewhat smaller number—49 percent
—voted in 2012, they still outpaced their white
counterparts. But how would young black
voters hold those they had put in office
accountable? And what were their demands?
This group, coming together under the banner
Black Youth Project 100 (“BYP100” for short),
was tasked with figuring that out. As with any
large gathering, people disagreed, cliques were
formed, and tensions began to mount. The
organizers struggled to build consensus within
this diverse group of academics, artists and
activists. And then George Zimmerman was
acquitted. The energy in the room changed.
“A moment of trauma can oftentimes present
you with an opportunity to do something
about the situation to prevent that trauma
from happening again,” said Charlene
Carruthers, one the activists at the conference.
Carruthers, a Chicago native, has been an
organizer for more than ten years, starting as a
student at Wesleyan University. She has led
grassroots and digital campaigns for, among
others, the Women’s Media Center, National
People’s Action and She
heard all types of sounds emanating from the
people in the room that day, from crying to
screaming. “I don’t believe the pain was a
result, necessarily, of shock because
Zimmerman was found not guilty,” Carruthers
said, “but of yet another example…of an
injustice being validated by the state—
something that black people were used to.”
Some members of BYP100 went into the
streets of downtown Chicago and led a rally.
Others stayed behind and drafted the group’s
first collective statement. Addressed to “the
Family of Brother Trayvon Martin and to the
Black Community,” it read in part: “When we
heard ‘not guilty,’ our hearts broke collectively.
In that moment, it was clear that Black life had
no value. Emotions poured out—emotions that
are real, natural and normal, as we grieved for
Trayvon and his stolen humanity. Black
The group recorded a reading of the letter and
released the video on July 14, one day after the
verdict. “That was the catalyst,” Carruthers
said, “that cemented [the idea] that the people
in that room had to do something collectively
moving forward.”
* * *
The police department in Sanford, Florida, was
slow to act in the aftermath of Trayvon
Martin’s killing. It took forty-five days for the
police to arrest George Zimmerman; although
he had admitted to killing Trayvon and had
been brought in for questioning the night of
the shooting, the police appeared to have
accepted his word that he’d shot Trayvon in
self-defense and failed to charge him. As the
weeks passed, thousands of people took to the
streets in frustration. One of them was Phillip
Agnew, who worked at the time as a
pharmaceutical sales representative. Along
with a couple of friends, he organized a group
of college students and recent graduates from
across Florida for a three-day, forty-mile
march from Daytona Beach to Sanford to
demand justice for Trayvon. When the
marchers arrived, Agnew said, the police sat
down with some members of the group, who
demanded that they arrest George
Zimmerman and form a blue-ribbon
commission to investigate the shooting. The
department’s response was to shut the police
station down for the day. “That march
solidified our bonds,” Agnew said. Shortly
thereafter, he organized a conference call with
nearly 200 other activists to discuss how to
pressure the police to arrest Zimmerman. This
was the start of the Dream Defenders.
The day the verdict was announced, Agnew
was in Miami, having dinner at a neighbor’s
house. Like so many others, he had followed
the trial intently. Agnew got back home just as
the verdict came in. “I saw George
Zimmerman celebrating, and I remember just
feeling a huge, huge, huge… collapse,” he said.
“I’ll never forget that moment…because we
didn’t even expect that verdict to come down
that night, and definitely didn’t expect for it to
be not guilty.”
The injustice of the acquittal shook the Dream
Defenders, and on Sunday morning, members
of the group convened in Tallahassee, where
they occupied the state capitol building. “We
thought of the tactic before we even thought
of what we were going to demand,” Agnew
said. Initially, that didn’t matter: their mere
presence in the capitol was enough to garner
national media attention. Civil-rights legends
like Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte and Julian
Bond joined them, as well as hip-hop artist
Talib Kweli.
“We were going on the fly a lot during that
time,” Agnew said. “But we knew we had to go
to a seat of power and confront a person or a
body of people that could give us what we
wanted.” Over the course of the monthlong
protest, the Dream Defenders crafted
“Trayvon’s Law,” an ambitious package of bills
calling for an end to the school-to-prison
pipeline and racial profiling, as well as the
repeal of “Stand Your Ground,” the self-defense
law that had come under scrutiny after
Trayvon’s death. While the bills were not
introduced, the Dream Defenders met with
several supportive legislators to discuss them.
* * *
As a nation, we find ourselves celebrating the
fiftieth anniversary of many of the
achievements of the civil-rights generation,
which won major legal victories against
institutionalized American racism. We have
commemorated (or will soon) the March on
Washington, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and
the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Civil-rights
leaders of the 1950s and ’60s have become the
African-American version of the Greatest
Generation: throughout my childhood, I was
taught to revere them. Each generation of
African-Americans born after this period owes
its opportunities for success to the brave men
and women who organized on the front lines
of violent racism and oppression to secure
even a semblance of freedom.
But as I got older, the message became less
about respecting our elders for their sacrifices
and more about chastising my generation for
not doing more. We were selfish and apathetic.
Why hadn’t we lived up to the standard set by
our civil-rights-era forebears?
Despite its undeniable impact, the civil-rights
movement didn’t solve the issue of racial
injustice. The world that young black people
have inherited is one rife with race-based
disparities. By the age of 23, almost half of the
black men in this country have been arrested
at least once, 30 percent by the age of 18. The
unemployment rate for black 16-to-24-yearolds
is around 25 percent. Twelve percent of
black girls face out-of-school suspension, a
higher rate than for all other girls and most
boys. Black women are incarcerated at a rate
nearly three times that of white women. While
black people make up 14.6 percent of total
regular drug users, they are 31.2 percent of
those arrested on drug charges and are likely
to receive longer sentences. According to a
report issued by the Malcolm X Grassroots
Movement, which used police data as well as
newspaper reports, in 2012, a black person lost
his or her life in an extrajudicial killing at the
hands of a police officer, security guard or selfappointed
vigilante like George Zimmerman
every twenty-eight hours.
Carruthers and Agnew, both 29, are members
of that post-civil-rights generation, as am I. We
millennials are charged with continuing the
fight against the system of racism that has
been the defining component of the black
American experience for centuries. We come
after civil rights, after Black Power and after
the hip-hop generation. And the perception
that millennials are apathetic isn’t entirely fair.
We protested the war in Iraq. We volunteered
our time in clean-up efforts after Hurricane
Katrina. We took to the streets in support of
the Jena Six. And we’ve joined organizations
fighting for progressive causes. But this work
had been taking place in isolated pockets.
What millennials had yet to achieve was the
formation of a sustainable national movement.
Then Trayvon Martin was killed. Protests
sprang up all across the country, and his name
became a rallying cry. Trayvon’s death ignited
something durable in a considerable number
of black youth. Whatever apathy had existed
before was replaced by the urge to act, to
organize and to fight. Millennials were ready
to build their movement.
* * *
The demise of the Black Panther Party in the
mid-1970s left a void in black political
organizing. The Panthers weren’t without
problems (the sexist nature of their leadership
was a big one), but they represented the last
gasps of a national black organizing that
combined radical political education, direct
action, youth engagement and community
services. In the years since, racial-justice
groups have struggled to effect change as
profound as they managed to achieve during
the heyday of the civil-rights and Black Power
movements. The Rev. Al Sharpton’s National
Action Network is mostly visible to the extent
that Sharpton is able to leverage his own
platform and personality for the causes he
cares about. The same is true of the Rev. Jesse
Jackson and his Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
Until Benjamin Jealous took over as president
in 2008, the NAACP—the nation’s oldest civilrights
organization—was battling perceptions
of irrelevance. Under Jealous’s leadership, the
NAACP changed course, but the question
lingered as to whether it was equipped to fight
the new challenges faced by black America.
The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement has
existed since 1993 without much fanfare; the
National Hip-Hop Political Convention,
started in 2004, fizzled. “The times we live in,”
Carruthers said, “call for a resurgence of
national black-liberation organizing.”
This past May, I traveled to Chicago for the
“Freedom Dreams, Freedom Now!”
conference, hosted by a number of
organizations, including BYP100, on the
campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The conference was intended as an
“intergenerational, interactive gathering” of
scholars, artists and activists commemorating
the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer
and discussing contemporary social-justice
organizing. The opening plenary featured a
keynote address by Julian Bond, a co-founder
of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee and former board chair of the
NAACP. He presented a history of Freedom
Summer, the SNCC-led movement to register
voters and get black people to the polls in
Mississippi, before a premiere screening of the
PBS documentary Freedom Summer, directed
by Stanley Nelson.
But the aim of the conference wasn’t just to
reminisce. It was a precursor to Freedom Side,
a collective that includes members of BYP100,
the Dream Defenders and United We Dream,
an immigrant-youth-led organization, as well
as more established groups like the NAACP
and AFL-CIO. Before the conference, as part
of the Freedom Summer celebration, the
Dream Defenders hosted “freedom schools”
throughout Florida, talking to young people
about criminalization, mass incarceration and
the school-to-prison pipeline. Voter
registration drives were also held across the
The day after the conference ended, BYP100
hosted an organizer-training event at the
University of Chicago. Early on, the attendees
were split into two groups, and the two sides
engaged each other in a call-and-response
chant that referenced historical greats like Nat
Turner, Angela Davis, Ida B. Wells, Mumia
Abu-Jamal and Fred Hampton. But even as
they paid homage to their history in song,
these young activists had their eyes on the
future. Members led sessions on personal
narratives in organizing, how to handle
interactions with police officers, and building
political power.
* * *
“I think we’re seeing different types of
organizing [taking] shape, and I think we’re
going to continue to see that—especially with
the evolution of social media and technology,”
said Dante Barry, deputy director of the
Million Hoodies Movement for Justice. The
group, founded in 2012 by Daniel Maree,
drummed up attention for a
petition, created by Howard University Law
School alum Kevin Cunningham, calling for a
criminal investigation into Trayvon Martin’s
death. It collected over 2 million signatures—at
the time, the fastest-growing petition ever on
the Internet. Barry, 26, joined the Million
Hoodies Movement in October 2013. He points
out that if not for social media, Trayvon
Martin’s death could have languished in
While the audiences for these new groups may
not be larger than the older ones’—the Dream
Defenders has more than 27,000 Twitter
followers; the NAACP has over 74,000—the
newer groups use Twitter to hear from, not
just talk to, their members. The Dream
Defenders hosts Twitter discussions about its
key issues, including gun violence, the
criminalization of black youth and the prisonindustrial
complex. Community cultivation is
vital as these organizations take on the
challenge of long-term movement building. In
February, Agnew and others put together a
Tumblr called “Blacked Out History,” featuring
members’ artwork. “We were born out of [the
Trayvon Martin] murder, but that didn’t
become our focus,” Agnew said.
Trayvon Martin’s killing deserved all of the
attention it eventually received, but elevating
Trayvon as a singular martyr risks portraying
the struggle of this new generation of activists
as the exclusive domain of black men. That
would repeat the missteps of past generations.
While black women were often responsible for
most of the practical work involved in
organizing, they were poorly represented in
leadership positions, and their concerns were
all too frequently sidelined.
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Carruthers sees this dynamic playing out
today. “A lot of people rallied across the
country in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin,”
she observed. “Not as many rallied around the
killing of Renisha McBride.” McBride, age 19,
was killed on November 2, 2013, in Dearborn
Heights, Michigan. Looking for help after
being injured in a car crash, she appeared on
the porch of 54-year-old Theodore Wafer, who
opened his front door and shot her. Wafer is
white; his defense team argued that he
believed McBride was breaking into his house.
A rally was held that weekend, with local
residents calling for Wafer’s arrest, but the
level of outrage and media attention didn’t
come close to what it was for Trayvon Martin.
“That’s a reality,” Carruthers said, “and as an
organization invested in freedom and justice
for all black people, we are equally as
committed to elevating the stories of black
(Illustration by Ryan Inzana)
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