For several months following the tragic deaths of unarmed African-Americans, mostly male, the nation engaged in an uncomfortable but necessary conversation about race and police use of force. And as summer turned into autumn, young Americans of all ethnicities engaged in acts of disobedience that disrupted traffic and closed businesses. They walked out of classrooms and laid down on sidewalks in die-ins. A group of little girls in Oakland, California, became Radical Brownies, earning badges not for learning how to build fires from twigs but for getting fired up about social protest and the beauty of racial diversity. A new generation of civil rights leaders emerged.
But as the cool temperatures arrived and two New York City police officers were gunned down, the national headlines and protests seemed to fade, begging the question, where does their movement go from there? But anyone who believes that it's over would be wrong. Indeed, in some ways, it's just getting started.
"This is obviously a moment of transition. We still see the democratic energy of these young folks. They're still challenging the form of policing in our communities and they're still leveraging social media to do that," says Princeton University professor Eddie Glaude Jr. "I think many of them now are in the process of trying to institutionalize their practice, to build infrastructure, to move beyond mobilizing to organizing, and that takes work."
Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, told BET.com that the young activists anticipated this period of planning and that the national attention would wane. And while they continue to meet regularly to join forces on issues like police brutality, each is also building his or her own organization locally.
"On the one hand, the national attention is what has been able to catapult this conversation and this movement. On the other hand, we all do local work. We're building our organizations to amplify what's happening locally and push that nationally," explained Cullors, who also is the founder and executive director of the Los Angeles-based Dignity and Power Now.
Although she and other leaders were propelled into the spotlight by their responses to the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others, several of them began their fight for equality and civil rights, sometimes for personal reasons.
For Cullors, it was the brutal treatment of her then-19-year-old brother by Los Angeles County sheriffs. "The level of rage and hopelessness I felt pushed me into this work," she told BET.com.
Nelini Stamp is a co-founder of an Atlanta-based group called Rise Up, which aims to "bring social change throughout the communities in Georgia using direct action and civic engagement to address issues that affect women, people of color and the LGBT-identified folks" and focuses on a broad range of issues from criminalization to access to transportation. Stamp and Shabnam Bashiri, the organization's other founder, chose Georgia as their base because they believe the South is critical to changing the political landscape across America.
"As I was doing political work in New York and going down to Florida, I saw that the country can never make change until we put resources — people, money, time — into the South. It's one of those regions that doesn’t get that much attention in regard to progressive organizing work," said Stamp, a Dream Defenders co-founder and veteran of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Stamp says that while the "big showy actions" are taking place at a slower pace, they are still happening in communities around the nation. Georgians have recently re-galvanized by the shooting death by police of a man named Kevin Davis, who was shot by police after he called 911 when his girlfriend was stabbed by their roommate. Davis was charged with his girlfriend's death and died handcuffed to his hospital bed. Rise Up and other groups are currently fighting for justice for Davis and conducting vigils and protests.
"There are still actions that are happening on a day-to-day basis," Stamp said, even if they're not making the front pages of the news. "We know from experience, from history, that we need to build."
Johnetta "Netta" Elize and Deray McKesson emerged as two of the most prominent voices among this new 21st century of leaders in the aftermath of Brown's death. The tragedy shocked them to their cores and they felt as if they had no choice but to become involved. The pair met while learning how to wash tear gas out of their eyes at a medic training session in Ferguson.
McKesson challenges the notion that the movement's momentum has died, arguing instead that the focus has changed.
"The power in protest is disruption, it is confrontation and it is also community building. That's the space we're in at least in [St. Louis and Ferguson]. How do we create groups of people who have a shared vision of what success might look like and then they can target their energy to enact change," he told BET.com. "It's still protest but it isn't the physical confrontation that people are used to when they think about the movement."
Still, he added, physical protests are happening each day around the country and "just because mainstream media isn't covering it doesn't mean it isn't happening."
On Feb. 25, Elize and McKesson were awarded the Howard Zinn Freedom to Write Award by PENN New England, a branch of the world's oldest international literary and human rights organization, for their activism, organizing reporting on events through social media and their newsletter This Is the Movement.
"We wanted there to be a space where people would go and see what was happening and know that it was a true story. The broader question is how can we use technology to build communities? What does community mean when it's not just people who are physically in front of you?" McKesson explained. "We've been trying to leverage technology and social media to connect people in different ways and to empower people across the country."
So, what's next?
Cullors believes that in addition to building their respective organizations, they must also build a broader base beyond their millennial generation.
"This is an intergenerational fight," she said. "I think we also need to bring in unions, reach out to women's organizations and [other] allies. Building a huge united front around this conversation is going to be key."
The next phase also will include getting back out into the streets to pressure local, state and federal elected and other officials — and keeping the heat on President Obama during the time he has left in office. And, engaging those in the halls of power — mayors, congressional and state legislative representatives — and holding them accountable will be key, Cullors says because while "we can't legislate away racism, we can utilize it to move conversations."
"We want to be in this for the long haul and we're not going anywhere. If we look at the civil rights [era] of the '60s and '70s, there were lulls in the movement and then there would be moments of momentum again," she added. "I don't see this as a lull right now. I see it as planning and getting focused and our arrows sharpened."
Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.
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(Photo: MLIVE.COM /Landov)