A shift has occurred in the year since Michael Brown’s death sparked unrest in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014.
National conversations have arisen around issues affecting the black community in America: police brutality, economic injustice, racial inequality.
Names that might have made little more than local headlines have become national stories: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland.
It didn’t happen on its own. A grass-roots network of activists and allies is mobilizing through social media to shine a national spotlight on the struggles that come with being black in America.
Their rallying cry: Black lives matter. Their slogan: A movement, not a moment.
“They put things on the agenda that people were not talking about before,” says author and UConn history professor Jelani Cobb.
Some critics are skeptical of their means and motives, saying it’s not clear who’s in charge and what they want. But the movement seeks to be intentionally broad to allow everyone to meet specific needs in their communities.
These activists reside outside traditional institutions and power structures. Many are social media influencers, better known by their Twitter handles than their real names, who can start a trending hashtag or a rally in the streets with a single tweet.
They have gotten the attention of many 2016 presidential candidates, though whether any of those candidates can secure the black activist vote remains to be seen. Observers say their next move is to create meaningful change in communities where they live.
Here are the stories of 13 of these “disruptors” who are rallying together and agitating for change.
Charlene Carruthers wants to develop young, black leaders who can help build political power and change laws.
"There will always be a need for young black people to be organized."
Charlene Carruthers was at a meeting of young black activists in Chicago two years ago when word spread that George Zimmerman had been found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin. “Some people cried, some people screamed, some people left, some people were silent,” Carruthers says. So she gathered about 20 people and led a strategy session in a nearby hotel room on how they could respond to the verdict. They decided to attend the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, do a series of digital town halls and release a videotaped statement to the Martin family.
A native of the South Side of Chicago, Carruthers holds a master’s degree in social work and has been an activist and organizer for 12 years. Two years ago, she moved back to Chicago, where she is the national director of the Black Youth Project 100, an organization that focuses on issues affecting black youth. Carruthers has also been a supporter of the #SayHerName campaign, which shines a light on women of color who allegedly have been victims of police brutality. She's participating in the movement to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour with the hashtag #BlackWorkMatters too. Carruthers says she wants to continue to develop young, black leaders who can help build political power and change laws.
White people, what are you doing to end white supremacy?— Charlene Carruthers (@CharleneCac) June 18, 2015
Through Dream Defenders, Umi Selah works to campaign for voting rights and improved education in poor communities.
"People of our generation have a dream of being fulfilled, living a happy life, living in communities where people are fair to each other."
The catalyst for Umi Selah’s involvement in social-justice issues was the controversial death of an unarmed black adolescent in Florida, but not the one you’re thinking of. The year was 2006, and the youth was Martin Lee Anderson, 14, who died after being forced to exercise at a boot camp-style juvenile detention center. Despite being charged with aggravated manslaughter in Anderson’s death, seven guards and one nurse were all acquitted. Selah joined the student government at Florida A&M University, where he co-founded a coalition for justice. His activism continued to grow after college, particularly after the 2012 slaying of Trayvon Martin. Selah was living in North Carolina and working in pharmaceutical sales when he heard of Martin’s death. “It woke me up from my slumber,” says Selah, who recently changed his name from Phillip Agnew. Selah was one of a group of activists who met with President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder in December to discuss police brutality in the wake of the protests that erupted in Ferguson, Missouri.
In 2012, Selah co-founded Dream Defenders, a racial and social justice group based in Miami. The group now has seven full-time staff members, chapters in major Florida cities and an annual operating budget of about $500,000. In 2013, the Dream Defenders held a sit-in at the Florida capitol for 31 days to protest that state’s Stand Your Ground provision. Selah hopes to expand the Dream Defenders throughout Florida to campaign for voting rights, improved education for poor communities and an end to police brutality. Although the goals for the Dream Defenders are varied, Selah says, they all have one aim in common: “the liberation, the true freedom of black people, poor people and marginalized people in this country.”
Black people are 15% of the population and 44% of unarmed people killed by police in Florida.— umi selah (@Umiselah) June 27, 2015
Black Lives Matter has grown to 26 chapters in the United States and one in Toronto.
"So many of us have been forced to be the advocates and freedom fighters we are."
The date is burned into Alicia Garza’s memory: July 13, 2013, a page on the calendar that means pain. “When George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin, I felt like I'd gotten punched in the stomach,” she says. In response, Garza posted a message to the black community on Facebook. It included the phrase “black lives matter.” Those words filled protest signs in the days that followed and became the namesake of the organization Garza would co-found with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi.
The women’s paths crossed after years of advocacy work on their own. Cullors started in high school with the Black Student Union and a group that offered support for LGBT students. Tometi, a child of Nigerian immigrants raised in Arizona, fought for immigrant rights and led discussions for female survivors of sexual violence. Middle school marked the start of Garza’s involvement with the reproductive justice movement. Garza and Cullors met at a national conference for community organizers in Providence, Rhode Island. They met Tometi at the leadership training program Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity. Social media kept the women connected until they formed #BlackLivesMatter after the Zimmerman verdict.
#BlackLivesMatter’s online presence swelled as violent incidents involving law enforcement rippled across the country. The movement grew on the ground as well; Cullors organized Freedom Rides to Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown, with the help of Darnell Moore of MicNews. About 500 people from 18 cities converged on Ferguson to support the protests, by her count. The outpouring was a signal that the organization needed a sustainable national presence. “After our time in Ferguson, many were transformed by the experience but also knew that Ferguson was everywhere,” Tometi says. “That brutality, poverty and racism was also back in their respective home towns and cities.”
Cullors took the lead, organizing local chapters. The three women traveled to support the groups, establishing 26 chapters in the United States and another in Toronto. The presence of local leaders has allowed Cullors, Garza and Tometi to continue working with other social justice groups while ensuring that each chapter has resources to address local issues. Cullors works for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and founded Dignity and Power Now, a group that advocates for incarcerated people and their families in Los Angeles. Garza is the special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Tometi serves as the executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. Despite their work outside of #BlackLivesMatter, the founders remain true to its mission. They helped organize the first “Movement for Black Lives Convening” in Cleveland in July.
“Our intentions from the beginning with #BlackLivesMatter was to connect Black people together to take action together in defense of our lives and in defense of our world,” Garza says. “Those intentions are still true today.”
DeRay Mckesson believes social media highlights stories that otherwise would go unnoticed.
“We can live in a world where police do not kill people. That is a real expectation, a valid expectation, and we can actually create a world where that is true.”
Before August 9, DeRay Mckesson was making a decent living as a senior administrator for the Minneapolis Public Schools. A week after seeing images of Michael Brown’s body flooding his Twitter feed, he jumped in his car to make the nine-hour drive to Ferguson, Missouri. The next night he was tear-gassed by police on West Florissant Avenue. “I thought, ‘this is not the America I know,’ ” he says. “ ‘This is not what America should be.’ ” Mckesson became a full-time protester after quitting his day job in March and is now one of the most prominent voices of the movement, someone who can set off a trending hashtag with one resonant tweet. He appears regularly on TV news shows (including on CNN) and pens op-eds for national media outlets. He sat next to presidential candidate Rick Santorum at a memorial for the victims of the Charleston church massacre and was among the VIP guests invited to the launch of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. His profile also has made him a regular target of online trolls, death threats and critics such as Fox News anchor Sean Hannity, who called him a "professional protester" who is just out "to get paid," and Montel Williams, who says, “he’s no MLK.” In response, the King Center has called Mckesson “a man of consciousness whose life is threatened daily because of his activism.”
McKinney, Texas. 7/6/15. There were "too many black" kids at a party. Officers arrive. America. [TW] pic.twitter.com/jiE3fLW5I7— deray mckesson (@deray) June 7, 2015
Mckesson uses social media to share news related to police-involved deaths, from photos and videos to police reports and court records. He believes social media can “highlight stories that otherwise would have gotten no visibility” and allows the movement to speak with more “immediacy and regularity” than previous civil rights struggles. As soon as Mckesson arrived in Ferguson, he began using Instagram and Twitter to share images of protests, information about rallies and resources for protesters. He also started the Ferguson Protest Newsletter to share news about campaigns, demonstrations, petitions and updates on Officer Darren Wilson's case. The newsletter eventually shifted focus to police-involved deaths and actions nationwide, growing into We The Protesters, a hub that includes activist toolkits and stats related to police violence. Mckesson has returned to Ferguson for other protests and has visited Baltimore, Charleston and New York to document rallies and assist in organizing. “Either the story is never told,” he says, “or it’s told by everybody but us.”
Ashley Yates is working to build a network of people and organizations dedicated to ending structural racism on various fronts.
“Black people have been resisting since the first slave ships arrived. We have been resisting from day one, since we were brought over here.”
Ashley Yates became politicized as a teenager, when her aunt introduced her to the writings of James Baldwin, Sonia Sanchez and Assata Shakur. She honed her organizing skills as political chairwoman of the University of Missouri’s Legion of Black Collegians, where she was inspired by a meeting with activist Fred Hampton Jr. And she protested in the streets after Trayvon Martin was slain in 2012. But her full-time activism wasn’t triggered until Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri, which occurred just a few miles from her home. “It was Trayvon on my street. All of the rage and pain and trauma was right at my doorstep. I was fully committed, and I was all in."
"How can someone be racist if they have friends who are Black?" The same way serial killers can have friends who are alive.— BrownBlaze (@brownblaze) February 20, 2015
Yates heard about Brown’s death via Twitter and headed almost immediately to Ferguson, where she joined a group of activists outside the police department, demanding answers. Within a month, Yates had quit her merchandising job to focus on mobilizing others around issues of police violence and racial equality. During protests across St. Louis, she joined Brittany Ferrell and Alexis Templeton to create Millennial Activists United, a grass-roots group that seeks to empower young women and people of color. Yates helped organize “Ferguson October: Weekend of Resistance” and was one of a group of activists who met with President Obama at the White House in December. More recently, she’s been planning events across the country to protest police killings of black women (#SayHerName), including a May demonstration in which a group of bare-breasted black women stopped traffic in San Francisco. Yates is working to build a network of people and organizations, in cooperation with more experienced leaders, dedicated to ending structural racism in law enforcement, education, the prison system and elsewhere.
Erika Totten sees her role in the movement as an “emotional emancipator,” breaking down the constant stress she says black people live under.
“No one has ever gotten liberation by following rules that the oppressor puts in place.”
You might recognize Erika Totten’s handiwork even if you don’t know her name. A head of the local Washington, Virginia and Maryland chapter of Black Lives Matter, Totten once led a partial shutdown of the highway that runs through the capital and had the lights thrown on during a screening of “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” a piece of “white supremacist propaganda,” as she called it. Her “team” interrupted an event at the Netroots Nation conference featuring Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley in July. The 32-year-old mother says she uses these radical tactics to break down barriers, heal hearts and change the system to ensure a better future for her children.
The genesis of Totten’s activist work was the death of Trayvon Martin, an event that sent her into a deep depression. “I would look at black boys and girls and my children and husband and know that there would be no justice for them if anything were to happen,” she says. When she saw the uprising in Ferguson blowing up her social media feed, she got in a car and drove 16 hours to join the cause. Totten now sees her main role in the movement as an “emotional emancipator,” breaking down the constant stress she says black people live under. Totten spoke to CNN on a Sunday, an hour before heading to a “safe space” gathering that she helped organize at a park in Washington, a recent tradition born out of the Charleston massacre and bred by the hashtag #IfWeAintSafeInChurch. At the gatherings, Totten says, friends and strangers meet to picnic, pray and sing, and to "restore our spirits for the next week."
“I think a lot of black people feel heavy and have heavy hearts just from being black in this country.”
Michelle Taylor started the hashgtag #YouOkSis to shed light on daily incidents of street harassment women experience.
"People feel like they are being institutionally oppressed, and institutional oppression is costing us lives."
After Michael Brown was killed last summer, New York-based social worker and writer Michelle Taylor saw a few people tweeting about wanting to hold a vigil in Brown’s memory. But the date, a summer Sunday in New York City when many people might be delayed by subway construction or out of town, worried Taylor. So she started the hashtag #NMOS14, or National Moment of Silence, and began using that to encourage others across the country via Twitter to hold vigils that Thursday night instead. The plan worked and within eight hours, Taylor says, she had “25 people in 25 cities agreeing to put something together.” Within four days Taylor counted 119 vigils around the country. “The majority of the people who organized the vigils had never done anything like this before.”
JUST BECAUSE YOU DON'T EXPERIENCE SOMETHING IT DOESN'T MEAN IT DOESN'T HAPPEN— #EndReplyAll2015 (@FeministaJones) June 27, 2015
Taylor, who goes by Feminista Jones online and calls herself a “post modern sex-positive, Black feminist woman,” wants to use her training and voice to advance the notion that black lives matter. “I just want to help people,” says Taylor, who has a master’s degree in organization leadership and management as well as public administration. “I can implement a vision and I can motivate people to implement that vision.” She hosts a podcast, was a weekly columnist for Ebony.com and is on the editorial board of BlogHer.com. In July 2014, Taylor started the hashgtag #YouOkSis, which was meant to shed light on the daily incidents of street harassment women face. The hashtag became a viral sensation and a place where women could tell their stories of having been harassed and share intervention tactics. In 2014, Taylor won a Black Weblog Award for “Outstanding Achievement in Online Activism.”
President Obama appointed Brittany Packnett last year to a task force on the problem of police violence.
“Our humanity is non-negotiable.”
Born in St. Louis, Brittany Packnett was raised with an activist mindset and recalls going to protests and marches at a young age. She taught third grade and worked for her congressman Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr. (D-Missouri) for several years before moving back home to become executive director of the St. Louis chapter of Teach for America, which encourages professionals to spend several years teaching at inner-city schools. Packnett joined the protests in Ferguson the day after Michael Brown’s death, where her high profile and prolific social media posts quickly earned her national recognition. Packnett says Brown’s death wasn’t “a change so much as a reminder, a reminder that being continuously uncomfortable is necessary in this work.”
Packnett’s main goals are reducing police violence and inequities in the criminal justice system and improving the lives of young people through education and social empowerment. “Change, real change, is a continual process,” she says. President Obama appointed her last year to a task force on the problem of police violence; she and her colleagues issued a report with policy recommendations in April. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon appointed Packnett to the Ferguson Commission, which is looking into broad issues affecting the St. Louis area. Despite these establishment roles, she remains an active protester and has not moderated her impassioned statements on social media. Still, she says, the constant drumbeat of police violence, death and racial conflict can be emotionally draining. “It’s honestly really sad to me that we have so many names that have become hashtags,” she says, “and yet, it’s important for people to not forget the names.”
Johnetta Elzie believes social media has allowed black people to control the narrative by telling their own stories.
“Having national attention on issues that affect the black community is something that’s never happened in my generation, and it would not have happened without social media.”
After Trayvon Martin was fatally shot in 2012, Johnetta Elzie donned a hoodie and marched with other protesters in her hometown of St. Louis. After the rally, though, she was at a loss for ways to help save black people in her community from a similar fate. Three years later, the 26-year-old is traveling the country to talk at conferences and workshops about police accountability and organizing on social media. Michael Brown’s death “radicalized” her into action, says Elzie, who has also lost a friend to a deadly encounter with police. “Every black person knows someone who has been harmed by police violence.” She was in Ferguson hours after Brown’s death and was stunned by what she witnessed: children who described seeing his body lying in the street; adults running from police dogs. “Our babies shouldn’t know that this is the norm,” she says. “They shouldn’t have to experience this kind of trauma.”
Elzie was a fixture in Ferguson leading up to a grand jury’s decision in November not to indict Officer Darren Wilson. She and DeRay Mckesson came up with a messaging system that alerted more than 50,000 people to news of the decision. Since then, she has worked with Mckesson to campaign for police accountability. Her main projects include Mapping Police Violence, which collects data on police killings, and Check the Police, a growing database of police union contracts and other law enforcement-related documents.
“Police violence is national conversation.” Social media has allowed black people to control the narrative by telling their own stories, Elzie says, cutting out the need for mainstream media to inform the public. “People are getting information quicker and holding folks in power accountable.”
Shaun King mobilizes activists through his writings and is on the board of Justice Together, a new group dedicated to fighting police brutality.
“A tweet is fast. But everything about policy change is very slow. And a lot of us are impatient.”
Shaun King's passion for activism was kindled in high school in rural Kentucky, when he says he was severely injured after being assaulted by a group of white students. King, who is mixed-race, missed 18 months of school while recovering from spinal surgeries, he says, but the ordeal led him to become an advocate for social justice: “It changed the trajectory of my life.” Since graduating from Morehouse College, King has worked as a teacher, a counselor, a pastor, an author and a motivational speaker. Since last fall, he’s been a staff writer at the liberal blog Daily Kos, covering issues around race and police brutality. He did not visit Ferguson or Baltimore, although he has written extensively about the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and others.
Dear Mike. We will not stop fighting for you brother. pic.twitter.com/ZhhqPRFFT8— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) November 25, 2014
King mobilizes activists through his writings and is on the board of Justice Together, a new group dedicated to fighting police brutality. He also uses Twitter and Facebook daily to post news, essays, articles and provocations about racism and police brutality. “I see my role as sort of an informed outsider. I try to talk about it from outside the storm instead of being in the eye of the storm.” He sees no evidence that police brutality toward minorities in the U.S. has decreased in the past year, which he finds “deeply discouraging.” King would like to see more black police officers and prosecutors, as well as greater transparency about police interactions with the people they arrest. In the meantime, he remains convinced that Americans are becoming more informed and engaged about the issue. “I’m convinced we’re on the brink of some change. But it’s not happening yet.”
Kayla Reed became an activist overnight. "A door kind of opened for me."
“People think that we do this just because we hate the police, and that’s not the issue. We love our people enough to fight for them, to make sure that police are accountable.”
A year ago, Kayla Reed was a pharmacy technician with a second job at a furniture store. Reed was at that second job on August 9, 2014, when a woman told her a police officer had just shot a young man outside the Canfield Green Apartments in nearby Ferguson. When she finished work, Reed joined the crowd gathered at the scene of Michael Brown’s death, where confusion and outrage were brewing. As more police arrived, by her account heavily armed and aggressive, a group of community members formed to demand answers. Reed became an activist overnight. “A door kind of opened for me,” says the lifelong St. Louis resident. “There was this sense of community. I had never seen anything like that before.” Despite the chaos and the tear gas, Reed returned to Ferguson day after day to bear witness and push for change. “I just felt like I had to come out every day to make sure the people I knew were okay.”
The preservation of ALL life is necessary but there is ONLY a systematic genocide against people of color. Which is why #BlackLivesMatter— KayRay (@RE_invent_ED) December 11, 2014
Reed now works full-time with the Organization for Black Struggle, an activist group that trains young people, engages in protest and pushes for policy change. Reed also sees her role as an occasional citizen journalist. She contends that law enforcement has grown unnecessarily violent and aggressive since August 2014, and she regularly uses Twitter to draw attention to alleged police misconduct. A year out from the initial uprising in Ferguson, Reed thinks it’s time for the protest movement to engage in self-reflection and spread a message fundamentally centered on the concept of love.
By: Brandon Griggs, Emanuella Grinberg, Katia Hetter, Wyatt Massey, Melonyce McAfee, David Shortell, Tanzina Vega and Eli Watkins. Videos by Brenna Williams.