The Birth of a New Civil Rights Movement

Politico

2014 was an epochal year for social justice. 2015 could be even more dramatic.

By GENE DEMBY
By GENE DEMBY

The shattering events of 2014, beginning with Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, in August, did more than touch off a national debate about police behavior, criminal justice and widening inequality in America. They also gave a new birth of passion and energy to a civil rights movement that had almost faded into history, and which had been in the throes of a slow comeback since the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. That the nation became riveted to the meta-story of Ferguson—and later the videotaped killing of Eric Garner in New York—was due in large part to the work of a loose but increasingly coordinated network of millennial activists who had been beating the drum for the past few years. In 2014, the new social justice movement became a force that the political mainstream had to reckon with.

This re-energized millennial movement, which will make itself felt all the more in 2015, differs from its half-century-old civil rights-era forebear in a number of important ways. One, it is driven far more by social media and hashtags than marches and open-air rallies. Indeed, if you wanted a megaphone for a movement spearheaded by young people of color, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than Twitter, whose users skew younger and browner than the general public, which often has the effect of magnifying that group’s broad priorities and fascinations. It’s not a coincidence that the Twitter-verse helped surface and magnify the stories of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

Two, the new social-justice grass roots reflects a broader agenda that includes LGBTQ (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-questioning) issues and immigration reform. The young grass-roots activists I’ve spoken to have a broad suite of concerns: the school-to-prison pipeline, educational inequality, the over-policing of black and Latino communities. In essence, they’re trying to take on deeply entrenched discrimination that is fueled less by showy bigotry than systemic, implicit biases.

Three, the movement’s renewal has exposed a serious generational rift. It is largely a bottom-up movement being led by young unknowns who have rejected, in some cases angrily, the presumption of leadership thrust on them by veteran celebrities like Al Sharpton. While both the younger and older activists both trace their lineage to the civil rights movement, they seem to align themselves with different parts of that family tree. And in several ways, these contemporary tensions are updates of the disagreements that marked the earlier movement.

Sarah Jackson, a professor at Northeastern University whose research focuses on social movements, said the civil rights establishment embraces the “Martin Luther King-Al Sharpton model”—which emphasizes mobilizing people for rallies and speeches and tends to be centered around a charismatic male leader. But the younger activists are instead inclined to what Jackson called the “Fannie Lou Hamer-Ella Baker model”—an approach that embraces a grass roots and in which agency is widely diffused. Indeed, many of the activists name-checked Baker, a lesser-known but enormously influential strategist of the civil rights era. She helped found Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference but became deeply skeptical of the cult of personality that she felt had formed around him. And she vocally disagreed with the notion that power in the movement should be concentrated among a few leaders, who tended to be men with bases of power that lay in the church. “My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders,” she said.

Baker’s theories on participatory democracy were adopted by later social movements, like Occupy Wall Street, which notably resisted naming leaders or spokespeople. But James Hayes, an organizer with the Ohio Student Association, said that he didn’t think of this new social justice movement as “leaderless” in the Occupy style. “I think of it as leader-ful,” he said.

By December, some of these same uncelebrated community organizers who spent the year leading “die-ins,” voting drives and the thousands-deep rallies around the country would meet privately with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. (“We got a chance to really lay it out—we kept it real,” Hayes told me about the meeting. “We were respectful, but we didn’t pull any punches.”) A few days after that White House meeting, Hillary Clinton, widely assumed to be eying another bid for the presidency in 2016, nodded to them when she dropped one of the mantras of the demonstrators—“black lives matter”—into a speech at a posh awards ceremony in New York City.

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All this new energy comes, ironically, as the country’s appetite for fighting racial inequality—never all that robust in the best of times—appears to be ebbing. The tent-pole policy victories of the civil rights movement are even now in retrenchment: 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, American schools—especially in the South—are rapidly re-segregating; the Voting Rights Act, which turns 50 in 2015, has been effectively gutted; and, despite the passage of the Fair Housing Act, our neighborhoods are as segregated as ever. Once-narrowing racial gaps in life outcomes have again become gaping chasms.

At the same time, the new movement’s emergence has caused friction with the traditional civil rights establishment that identifies with those earlier, historic victories. At a recent march put together by Sharpton’s National Action Network in Washington, D.C.—meant to protest the recent decisions not to indict the officers in several high-profile police-involved killings and push for changes in the protocol from prosecutors—younger activists from St. Louis County were upset at what they saw as a lineup of older speakers on the podium who were not on the ground marching in Ferguson. So they climbed onto the stage and took the mic. “It should be nothing but young people up here!” a woman named Johnetta Elzie yelled into the microphone. “We started this!” Some people cheered them. Others called for them to get off the stage. After a few minutes, the organizers cut off their mics. (In the crowd, someone held up a neon-green sign making their discontent with the march’s organizers plain: “WE, THE YOUTH, DID NOT ELECT AL SHARPTON OUR SPOKESPERSON. HAVE A SEAT.”)

A few days later, Elzie downplayed the incident and told me that the disagreement was simply about “someone who doesn’t want to give up the reins and who has a huge platform.”

Other activists were more pointed. Tory Russell, a St. Louis-area native and a founder of a group called Hands Up United, wasn’t at the Washington march—“I don’t have to travel that far to go to a circus,” he told me—but he bristled at the idea that Sharpton was headlining it. “It was people like me who came out [to march in Ferguson],” he said. “I didn’t see no suits, I didn’t see no NAACP or National Action Network. It was people like me—poor black people—out there.”

Why is this movement’s moment coming right now? It’s hard to say whether there are more cases like those of Mike Brown or Eric Garner, since there’s no comprehensive database on police use of force or accurate tallies of how many people are killed in encounters with the police each year, or if it seems like there are more because more people are paying attention. But one factor might be the growing disconnect in the way different generations of Americans think about crime and violence. While violent crime has plummeted to record lows over the last 15 years, our posture toward it hasn’t kept pace. Florida’s stand-your-ground self-defense law was the first of its kind in the nation when it passed in 2005; nearly two dozen other states have passed similar statutes since. And for many police departments, the broken windows theory of policing—which holds that cracking down on petty offenses prevents more serious crimes from happening—is still an organizing principle. Americans continue to gird themselves for an outbreak that has long since waned.

Millennial who have come of age in this much less violent country don’t necessarily nurture those same animating neuroses toward punishing violent criminals. But young people—and especially young people of color—often find themselves on the business end of those anxieties.

A quick scan of the names that have become hashtags or been invoked in chants at the past  year’s many protests reveals a grim litany of non-crime and misdemeanors. Trayvon Martin was killed in a confrontation with a local who wrongly assumed him to be planning a burglary. Ramarley Graham was shot at point-blank range in his bathroom by a police officer who thought he was carrying a gun; Graham was apparently flushing weed down the toilet. Police confronted Eric Garner and put him in a choke hold over suspicion that he was selling loose, untaxed cigarettes on the street. John Crawford was shot and killed by the police at a Wal-Mart while absent-minded chatting on the phone and holding an air rifle sold in the store. Akai Gurley was walking up the stairwell of the housing project where he lived; the officer who shot him was patrolling that same dark stairwell with his gun drawn. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was sitting in a playground with a toy gun when he, too, was shot by the police. Tanisha Anderson, a schizophrenic, died after a police officer slammed her to the pavement; her family had called 911 to have officers take her to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. And, depending on which version of events you believe, the precipitating event of Michael Brown’s fatal encounter with a police officer in Ferguson was either his alleged theft of cigarillos from a convenience store or his alleged jaywalking.

Had any of them lived long enough to be arrested, it’s unlikely that any of the people on this list would have faced jail time. As it stands, none of the people who killed them will have to, either.

What we’ve been seeing over the past year might be best understood as the collision of some fundamentally opposed generational orthodoxies: one set of people see the police as a necessary bulwark against random violence; another, younger group sees them as the proximate causes of it. And if you’re a young person from one of the many minority communities in our country where contact with the police is a given, it’s harder to see these stories as mere abstractions.

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As it goes with all histories, the catalyzing moment in this social-justice revolution is hard to pin down. One academic I spoke with pegged it to the death of 19-year-old Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, early on New Year’s Day in 2009. And you can see a now-familiar trajectory in how that story played out: Grant was shot in the back by a transit police officer as he lay face down and handcuffed on a train platform, and the footage of the Grant’s shooting was captured on witnesses’ cellphones. Demonstrations and civil unrest broke out in Oakland in the days that followed, and the story became national news.

Elzie, the young activist from Ferguson who grabbed the mic at the Sharpton event, told me that her personal moment came during the lead-up to the execution of Troy Davis, a black Georgia man who was eventually put to death in 2011 for killing a police officer despite the fact that several of the eyewitnesses in his murder trial later recanted their testimony. (That story, too, took root on social media before it became national news.) “That hurt me,” Elzie said. “That was the first time I’d ever been hurt by something happening to a stranger.”

But for many, the tipping point came in February 2012, when George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. That case, too, churned on Twitter for weeks. When it finally bubbled into the mainstream, it exploded. There were rallies in cities and campuses across the country. In solidarity, people shared photos of themselves in hoodies like the one Martin was wearing when he was killed. The longer Zimmerman went uncharged, the louder the protests became. Obama eventually waded into the conversation, saying at a news conference that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon. The president’s comments summed up the anxieties that many black parents felt. It also made the story unavoidable, and it effectively polarized the case along party lines.

“I think that Trayvon really woke a lot of people up, and a lot of people came of age politically,” said James Hayes. Hayes, who had been active in the Occupy movement, had helped start a grass-roots group called the Ohio Students Association just weeks before the shooting. His new group had its cause.

In the six weeks that passed between the shooting and when Zimmerman was charged, new grass-roots organizations, like Million Hoodies and the Dream Defenders, started sprouting up around the country. They called for a federal investigation into the handling of the case and protested the stand-your-ground self-defense laws that had become part of the conversation around it.

Zimmerman’s acquittal in the summer of 2013 was another seminal moment—a devastating emotional setback for many new activists that nonetheless spurred a new round of direct action and organizing. The Dream Defenders staged a month long sit-in in the Florida Capitol building to press Gov. Rick Scott to call a special session on the state’s stand-your-ground law. (Scott agreed to meet with them but didn’t budge.) New groups, like Black Lives Matter and The Black Youth Project 100, who would later play a large role in the organizing that followed the Michael Brown shooting, came into being in direct response to the Zimmerman verdict.

By 2014, the new social-justice grass-roots groups had grown more assured and more coordinated, and their activism reflected millennial sensibilities in both substance and execution. Many of the organizations pointedly centered LGBTQ issues and experiences on their agenda—Black Lives Matter, notably, was founded by queer women—and while they didn’t have the resources of the legacy outfits, they could be more nimble. In July, dozens of young activists of color from different organizations launched a collective called Freedom Side, inspired by the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer and the young activists who participated in it. The Freedom Side groups lent each other organizational support and boosted the signals for each others causes, like ending mass deportations, reining in college costs and protecting voting rights.

“We’ve all been trying to build a network of young-people-of-color organizations,” Hayes said. “The groundwork was already in place.”

And then Michael Brown as shot, and the Twitter-verse exploded again. Protesters and news outlets headed to Ferguson. Jackson, the professor from Northeastern, worked with other researchers to map the routes that the hashtags for those stories took on Twitter, via re-tweets and favorites, to reach the broader public. “What we saw was the first people who hash-tagged Mike Brown’s name were young people who lived in Ferguson and who saw his body laying in the street,” Jackson said. “The people driving the Michael Brown story and Ferguson—and this is also true of the Trayvon Martin case—were young and had some connection to the victim. It was young folks from those communities who don’t necessarily tweet about political things or even have many followers.”

The hashtags in those stories were picked up by an ever-widening spiral of Twitter users: friends of the hashtag originators, friends of their friends, then local grass-roots groups who are plugged into the community begin tweeting about it. Eventually—but always last, Jackson said—those conversations land on the radars of national civil rights groups and elite media.

But the researchers noted an important change in the way that happened this summer after the Brown shooting: that timeline is becoming more and more condensed. “It’s happening way faster,” Jackson said. The Trayvon Martin shooting churned on social media for weeks before it was getting national coverage. By the time of the Ferguson incident, Jackson said the lag time was “hours, at most.”

Another reason Ferguson became such a huge story, then, might be explained by the worlds of activism and media, both new and legacy, becoming so much better at mobilizing around cases like these. And, of course, the size of the universe of these thematically similar calamities has provided them with plenty of opportunities to practice.

The microphone incident at the National Action Network in December offered a good example of how influence has remained concentrated among the legacy civil rights groups. Later, Sharpton’s group released a letter from Emerald Snipes-Garner, Eric Garner’s daughter, that chided Elzie and some of the younger marchers. The letter also noted that after Garner’s death, the Garner family reached out to Sharpton and his people. Because when these things happen, Sharpton is who the traumatized families call.

While Sharpton wasn’t present for the kerfuffle on the stage, he dismissed the criticism in an interview with the Root. “I have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to make sure that we can continue this movement and National Action Network for the next 30 to 40 years when I am gone,” he said. “Leadership cannot be willed. I can’t pass the torch. I can only keep the flame lit.”

But the ambivalence many younger activists feel toward Sharpton—and the civil rights establishment more broadly—isn’t just some inter-generational beef between old-heads and young bucks. Some of it is tactical. Tory Russell of Hands Up United thought that Sharpton’s proximity to the families of Michael Brown and Eric Garner was, in part, a way to shield himself from criticism. “When Al Sharpton comes to St. Louis, he don’t come out unless he’s with the parents,” Russell said. “It’s a cloak. He can say ‘you’re attacking the family!’”

But Hayes said that there was a financial and socioeconomic divide, too. “Organizers, a lot of times, have advanced degrees and worry about things like proper email etiquette,” he said with some sarcasm in his voice. “The nonproliferation of social movements has led to their professionalization.”

He said that the existence of a professional civil rights class has made it harder for people with less education or money to participate, and those older, more established groups often soak up resources and donations that the newer organizers need. “If the only way we can get [financial] help is to be a 501(c)(3)”—the tax designation for nonprofits—then something’s wrong,” Russell said.

There is also a struggle for the ear of the powerful. Sharpton, for instance, is known to be confidant of Obama. But Ashley Yates of Millennial Activists United, one of the organizers who met with Obama in the White House in December, said the president seemed open about who to listen to. “He didn’t come from a place of the highest authority in the land,” she said. “He came from a place of—‘let’s have a conversation about it.’” Their meeting with the president ran long.

I asked Yates about the seeming contradiction of being a grass-roots activist who also is listened to by the White House. She said she didn’t think of those positions as necessarily in tension. “You have to [have an] inside game and you have to [have] an outside game,” she said. She and other organizers met with other White House officials while they were there. (Sharpton was also present for part of those sessions, Yates said. “He spoke about the importance of young people on the ground [protesting], but he didn’t know any of our names.”)

She said the officials touted some of the administration’s post-Ferguson initiatives, like funding body cameras for police departments, and asked the young activists if the initiatives addressed their demands. “They seemed like they were trying to quell the streets,” Yates said.

The White House officials also pointed to new guidelines for the the 1033 program, the federal plan that allows local police departments to procure military equipment from the Defense Department for ostensible use in cracking down on drug trafficking and terrorism. The obscure program became closely scrutinized during the unrest in Ferguson in August, after the city’s startlingly well-armed police used equipment from that program—like armored personnel carriers and smoke bombs—to crack down on protesters.

Yates and other organizers had wanted for the program to be scuttled completely, but she said that federal oversight was a start.

“The idealists in us hoped that they’d wake up and and said, ‘you know, this program isn’t working. Let’s get rid of it!’” she said. “But the realists in us knew that it wasn’t how it works. It’s a step—I definitely wouldn’t call it a win, but it’s definitely a result of this movement.”

She put the meeting with the president in historical perspective. “The day we met with the president was Dec. 1—it was the 59th anniversary of Rosa Parks not getting up from her seat,” she pointed out. The die-ins and demonstrations of the past year were part of a long tradition of intentionally polarizing civil disobedience, she said. “We definitely realize that we’re standing on the shoulders of the people who came before us.”