Commentary: The Young New Face of Black Leadership

Keith Boykin

Commentary: The Young New Face of Black Leadership

Millennials are setting their own rules for a movement for change.

Published December 19, 2014

Late one night last month, after a St. Louis County grand jury decided not to indict the officer who killed Michael Brown, I rode the subway to Times Square, where the TV news told me hundreds of protesters had gathered. By the time I arrived, only a few dozen sign-holding protesters remained, but they were still able to block off all vehicle traffic into the thoroughfare.

When I asked one of the protesters where the rest of the crowd had gone, he pointed north and told me to go that way. Using posts from my Twitter feed and the sound of police helicopters buzzing above as a navigation guide, I jogged from 48th Street to 59th Street, but by the time I arrived in Columbus Circle, there was no one left but a few stray police officers.

Again, I opened up Twitter and followed the progress of the march as I ran up Broadway, turned on 66th and finally connected with the demonstrators just as police were directing them onto West End Avenue at 72nd Street. It seemed to be over, until a few marchers in the front, veered off the road, ran across Riverside Park, jumped over the highway divider and darted out onto the West Side Highway. Hundreds of other protesters followed, and moments later, demonstrators had managed to shut down one of the busiest roads in Manhattan.

It was a spontaneous action that couldn't have been accomplished, and wouldn't have been attempted, by traditional civil rights leaders in business suits, and yet the young people who marched that night drew national and international news attention to their cause.

The leaders of this new movement aren't waiting for approval from the old guard before they act. They're not bound by "respectability politics" of the past or dress codes of the civil rights movement. The "Black Lives Matter" movement is a 21st century invention.

I first noticed this in Ferguson last August, as I watched protesters in T-shirts and jeans walking up and down West Florissant Avenue chanting, "We young! We strong! We marching all night long!" They weren't trying to impress white society with their grammar or their clothing. Some marched with bandanas over their faces. Some wore tattered shorts. Some wore baggy jeans. And some young men stood around shirtless in the humid St. Louis summer heat.

Such a protest would never have taken place in Dr. King's time, but he lived in a different era when African-Americans were more constrained, and even then his actions were considered "too radical" for some. Yet King still praised what he called a "marvelous new militancy" that others condemned.

The Black Lives Matter movement represents today's new militancy, finally unleashed from the old rules and not beholden to the leaders of the past. It's a group that booed the Rev. Jesse Jackson when he asked for donations and told Black Panther Party leader Malik Shabazz to "go home" when he tried to rally demonstrators one night on his bullhorn.

They've openly criticized President Obama for his response to the Michael Brown and Eric Garner grand jury decisions, questioned CNN anchor Don Lemon's attachment to "respectability politics" and complained about Rev. Al Sharpton's admittedly non-revolutionary march on Washington last weekend.

The new leaders aren't just breaking the rules, they're setting their own. The organizers have selected no national spokesman to represent them, and they're not waiting for the NAACP, the National Action Network or any other group to lead them. Instead, they're marching through the streets, organizing on Twitter, writing provocative articles, circulating blog posts on Tumblr and live streaming protests that mainstream media don't, won't or can't cover.

When Phillip Agnew and the Dream Defenders held a sit-in at the Florida State Capitol for Trayvon Martin, when a crowd of demonstrators in Washington demanded to allow Erika Totten and Johnetta Elzie to speak at the Justice for All march, when St. Louis Alderman Antonio French began live tweeting his meetings on the streets in Ferguson, when Shaun King reported on a racist witness who testified to the Darren Wilson grand jury, they were making their own rules.

Similarly, young mainstream journalists like Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and Yamiche Alcindor of USA Today have used Twitter to deliver impressive live reporting from the scene even while they're putting together their stories for their publications.

And that's what this movement represents. For Twitter, for Black Twitter, for the families of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, for all the people who've ever posted a tweet, raised a fist, held a sign or protested against police brutality, a new generation of leaders has arrived.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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Written by Keith Boykin


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