A New Generation of Black Activism

On July 13, 2013, George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American 17-year-old 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 confirmation.

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 ColorofChange.org. 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 people, WE LOVE AND SEE YOU."

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-year-olds 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 self-appointed 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.

    • Mychal Denzel Smith
    • Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and blogger for TheNation.com. As a freelance writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate, his work has been seen online in outlets such as the Atlantic, Salon, Al Jazeera English, Gawker, the Guardian, Huffington Post, the Root, the Grio, and GOOD.<...

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