"We are fighting for our lives”: The little-known youth movement rising against police brutality

While the media focuses elsewhere, a vast, growing network of young organizers fight to show Black lives matter

Published February 25, 2015 7:13PM (EST)

Police in riot gear detain a demonstrator in Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 19, 2014.                (Reuters/Joshua Lott)
Police in riot gear detain a demonstrator in Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 19, 2014. (Reuters/Joshua Lott)

A few months after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, President Obama invited seven activists from Missouri, Ohio, New York and Florida to represent their communities in a discussion about the growing public concern over police violence aimed at communities of color. The activists were affiliated with Young Activists United St. Louis, Millennial Activists United, the Dream Defenders, the Ohio Student Association and Make the Road New York. The groups had been organizing resistance in their communities on issues spanning the prison industrial complex and the school-to-prison pipeline to increasing student debt, unfair housing practices and living incomes for low-wage workers. The determination of this network of young people was only strengthened by the recent national attention given to police and white vigilante killings of unarmed black and brown youth.

José Lopez, the representative from New York, is an organizer with Make the Road New York, a non-profit that seeks to improve the lives of Latino and working-class communities. Lopez said he was baffled that the only response on a national level is to continue pouring resources into the same systems that don’t work, referencing President Obama’s request for $263 million for police body cameras and training. “Public safety is not just about the encounter between a uniformed police officer and the civilian that they stop,” he said. “Public safety is about investing in every aspect of community…We have to talk about investing in people, allowing people to reach their full potential, expressing love to people.”

Lopez said investing in social and cultural institutions within a community would increase public safety more than the local police. Referring to needed investments, Lopez said, “Law enforcement is one of those aspects. But it can’t be the only one we’re talking about here.” Among the desired improvements, Lopez listed living wages, affordable and quality housing, affordable health care and education reform.

Phillip Agnew, the executive director of Dream Defenders and the one representative from Florida at the meeting with President Obama, wrote about his experience for the Guardian. He said the delegates asked the President to invest in community-based alternatives to policing and incarceration and to stop giving federal funding to police departments with documented histories of discrimination.

Lopez said the President did not give a clear-cut response. “The president said that there are lots of issues we need to work on, and that we have to take it step by step,” he said. “I agree with that. I just think that the presidents’ process or the president’s order of what steps we need to take first is wrong.”

Activist groups that existed before Brown’s death have been further politicized. And communities across the country are doing what they can to pick up the pieces and change a system they feel disproportionately targets people of color.

The Chicago-based We Charge Genocide is one of the numerous activist groups that has formed in the wake of the killing of the unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin. In November, eight delegates from the coalition flew to Geneva to present a report to the United Nations Committee Against Torture. The report details alleged abuse by the Chicago Police Department in dealing with young people of color. To afford the trip, members of the coalition hosted fundraising events and crowd-sourced over $20,000 in one month.

Asha Rosa, 20, is a junior at Columbia College and was one of the delegates present. Rosa explained that on the first day of the convention, Nov. 11, delegates presented their report and addressed United States representatives. Rosa said there were many other groups there presenting reports, including accounts of sexual abuse in the military and testimony by the National Center for Lesbian Rights about the practice of conversion therapy. According to Rosa, other advocates against police brutality were also there, including a delegation from Ferguson, Mo., and the parents of Michael Brown.

We Charge Genocide formed last May, partly in response to the death of 23-year-old Dominique Franklin. A Chicago police officer used a Taser while trying to arrest Franklin for retail theft. After Franklin was allegedly tased for a second time, he fell, slamming his head against a light pole. He died in the hospital. “He was my friend,” Ethan Viets-VanLear, a student at the University of Illinois, said of Franklin. “I was disappointed by the lackluster response to his murder.” Viets-VanLear was also one of the eight who traveled to Geneva to present the report.

The report that Rosa and her colleagues presented to the committee details the Chicago Police Department’s use of force against young people of color. Members of the group collected data through news articles, government documents, independent research reports and individual testimonies. According to the report, 92 percent of those tased by Chicago police are black or Latino, including 49 children between the ages of eight and 16; in the first six months of 2014, 27 people were shot by police, 23 of whom were black; and black citizens of Chicago are 10 times more likely than white citizens to be shot by a Chicago police officer.

According to Rosa, there is an etiquette of professionalism — business attire and formal addresses — that delegates adhere to when speaking with and presenting reports to members of the U.N. Committee. “We were not going to participate in the etiquette that the space was asking for,” Rosa said. The delegates from We Charge Genocide wore T-shirts that read, “The Chicago Police Department Killed Dominique Franklin,” and, according to Rosa, they knew their three-day stay would include some form of action: a silent protest or a walk out.

When it was We Charge Genocide’s turn to address the committee on the first day of the convention, Viets-VanLear spoke first, presenting an overview of the group’s report. Then delegate Breanna Champion gave a personal testimony, while the other Chicago delegates stood behind her holding hands in support. “It’s not easy to talk about trauma you’ve experienced,” Rosa said.

Rosa had two minutes to address the United States representatives, after which the representatives has a chance to speak to the delegates’ concerns. “Only, the United States is not there to address citizens’ concerns, they are there to defend themselves,” Rosa said. Representatives from the Department of Justice responded to claims of a lack of police accountability by citing 330 officers who have been prosecuted over the last five years. According to Rosa, the Chicago delegates knew this was the moment to walk out, which they proceeded to do. “Three-hundred and thirty three is the number of people tased and injured in Chicago in one year,” Rosa said. “Is that supposed to make us feel like there’s real police accountability?”

The second day of the convention marked success for the Chicago delegates when Essadia Belmir, a committee member from Morocco, directly referred to Dominique Franklin’s case. Belmir went on to ask the U.S. representatives why it is that black people and people of color don’t experience the same rights as everyone else in the United States. According to Rosa, Belmir said that giving military-grade weaponry to law enforcement seems like an act of civil war against black people. Rosa said she and her fellow delegates were typing furiously, trying to take notes, while also crying and grabbing one another’s hands.  “It was just really powerful to hear the highest form of international court push up our story,” Viets-VanLear said.

In seeking official comment from the United Nations Committee Against Torture, We Charge Genocide is making an ambitious argument that extends far beyond mainstream American beliefs. Situating itself within a radical American tradition, the name of the coalition is a reference to an eponymous document the Civil Right Congress sent to the United Nations in 1951, which detailed 153 racially-motivated killings. The Civil Right Congress argued that the United States government was tolerating, even condoning black genocide. The petition gained little traction for various reasons, including the Civil Right Congress’ alleged Communist party ties and the fact that the African-American population was increasing in the United States at the time.

However, after Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary black nationalist and socialist organization, showed renewed interest in using “black genocide” to describe the African-American plight, the document was republished in 1970. It continued gaining notoriety and was again referenced by the National Black United Front when members petitioned the U.N. in 1996. Over the years, activists have cited the disproportionate effects of crack cocaine, HIV/AIDS, mass incarceration, and now police brutality, to allege black genocide.

On the third and final day of the convention, We Charge Genocide delegates stood in a silent protest holding up pictures of Franklin as the U.S. representatives responded to the committee’s questions by citing policies and procedures. The delegates decided to silently hold their hands in the air for another 30 minutes, representing the amount of time 22-year-old Rekia Boyd lay in the street after being shot in the head by an off-duty Chicago cop last year. “It was only possible for us hold our hands up that long because we all held each other up,” Rosa said. 

According to Rosa, violence against black people was one of the issues most discussed that day by committee members. “It was incredible and surprising,” she said. Viets-VanLear said that while American and European mainstream news outlets barely covered We Charge Genocide’s trip, the Chicago community understood the triumph. “Coming home and seeing my brothers and sisters and people on the street coming up to me and saying thank you,” he said, “I feel the movement going on.”

Viets-VanLear, the delegate with We Charge Genocide, also stipulated a need for alternatives to policing. “I want to see a space or spaces created that don’t rely on policing and instead rely on the communities to address harm that are built on love instead of fear,” he said.

While some are taking action by addressing the United Nations committee or President Obama, other young activists are speaking out against police brutality in different ways.

Shakille J. Cordice, 21, is a member of the Philadelphia-based group In Defense of Black Bodies. Members of the group created a film called "The Blood Bucket Challenge," a play on the somewhat contentious ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, to bring awareness in a visceral way to police brutality and injustices committed against communities of color. Cordice said the members of the group also wanted to highlight the fact that young people are invested in creating positive change within the communities they belong to. “People say we don’t care and clearly that’s not the case,” she said. “We wanted to put action to it.”

The film is set to Nina Simone's cover of “Strange Fruit,” which was popularized by Billie Holiday in the 1940s and protests the lynching of African Americans. She sings “Southern trees, bearing strange fruit” as the United Nation’s definition of genocide — which can be summarized as the systemic destruction of all or a significant part of an ethnic, racial, religious or national group — appears on a black screen. The next frame features a young black man wearing a white-ribbed cotton undershirt. As Simone intones “Blood on the leaves” a large bucket of fake blood is dumped on the man’s head. When Simone’s cries “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” buckets of fake blood are poured over the heads of a series of young black men and women. A statement describing injustices black communities face accompanies each bucket dump. For example: “The forced sterilization of incarcerated black women.”

The video ends with the line “We Charge Genocide.”

Cordice said the film demands that the audience stop and think about the disproportionate violence communities of color endure. “We’re so desensitized to violence and crime and death that we don’t focus on it,” she said. “We see it and move onto the next thing. And it’s going to continue to happen unless we do something about it.”

The film was screened last October in Brooklyn at an event called #NYCStandsWithFerguson. Annis (Rachel) Sands, a recent graduate of Dartmouth College, planned the showcase at Mayday, a space for social justice organizing and creative expression, as a way to bring artists and activists together to raise money for two youth organizations, Lost Voices and Millennial Activists United, operating in Ferguson, Mo.

Cordice said there is not one member of In Defense of Black Bodies who has not experienced an unfortunate run-in with the police. She remembers being in middle school, as young as eight or nine, when she and her fair-skinned, blonde-haired friend were in the hallway unattended. A police officer, who was patrolling the school, screamed at her to get up against the wall, while letting her friend return to class with a gentle warning.

Sands, who organized the showcase, said she hopes to contribute to raising awareness by amplifying the voices of young artists, helping them connect to one another. “Having creative outlets is a way of building unity,” she said. “Art can be a useful and a powerful tool to open up the perspective of things.”

The #NYCStandsWithFerguson showcase featured spoken-word performances, film screenings and musical acts centered on police brutality against communities of color, as well as systemic racial inequality and violence. The showcase included the work of mostly young black men and women. It was also the first time Cordice watched her film in front of a live audience. She says it filled her with a sense of humility. “This is why I do it,” she said. “We’re making a difference and bringing awareness to the situation.”

Rosa, the delegate with We Charge Genocide, who also performed at the showcase, said many young people were disappointed by the lack of action following the verdict of George Zimmerman’s trial. Last year, Zimmerman, a neighborhood-watch coordinator in Florida, was charged with and then acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old, unarmed black teenager. “After Trayvon was killed, we saw a lot of mourning and vigils, but not a lot of change,” Rosa said.

Cordice too felt the reaction to Zimmerman’s acquittal was not strong enough. She said a lot of older people around her said she should have expected the acquittal. “That tore me apart for a while, and then I got up and said if no one else will do something, I will,” she said. “When Trayvon Martin died, I was 18 and I broke. We can’t sit on our hands anymore. We can’t expect someone else to fight for us.”

While young black activists begin to find their voice and speak out, they are having trouble being heard over older civil rights leaders like Rev. Al Sharpton. Cordice said that while she knows that people like Sharpton and Rev. Jessie Jackson are trying to help, they are actually silencing those most affected by police brutality.

“People listen to [Sharpton] because they think he has the best intentions and knows what he’s talking about,” Cordice said. “It’s expected of him at this point, but he should step back and let people who are actually dealing with it first-hand speak because it is their fight. He can’t speak for us.”

Sands, who organized the #NYCStandsWithFerguson showcase, also co-hosted a hashtag conversation about generational divides in social movements. “I said it’s disgraceful how older civil rights people only know how to show up when the TV camera is around,” she said. “Help amplify the young peoples’ voices, don’t shut us down by saying you were a part of the civil rights movement.”

Rosa said she was disappointed that young people were not able to speak at the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary hosted by the NAACP. Agnew, 29 the executive director of Dream Defenders, was scheduled to speak in front of an audience of tens of thousands to commemorate the anniversary. He said he saw his name on the teleprompter as the next speaker, and as he made his way to the podium, he saw Sharpton step up and begin speaking. Agnew said he was told his speech was scratched due to time concerns.

Agnew decided to use his own platform capable of reaching tens of thousands of people: he made a video of his speech and posted it online. In the video Agnew urges viewers to make their own videos, to let their voices be heard.

“The America of today we inherited, but the America of tomorrow is ours,” he said. “So please record your two minutes.” Agnew encourages viewers to use the hashtag #OurMarch.

While young activists around the country have not yet organized behind one set of demands, they have lofty goals and ambitions to dramatically transform conceptions of safety in black and other marginalized communities. Organizations like the Justice League NYC demand changes to police training and policies, like broken windows, the appointment of special prosecutors in all cases involving police use of force, and passage of the Right to Know Act. While others, like Ferguson Action, have called for ambitious changes, like ending the prison industrial complex and the school-to-prison pipeline and creating full employment and decent housing for all Americans. As Jose Lopez, the organizer with Make the Road NY who met with President Obama, said, police brutality is merely one manifestation of a larger systemic issue.

Still, young activists have begun to successfully mobilize and gather support, which may be the first step in a larger, sustained movement. In Agnew’s 2014 State of the Youth address, which was also screened at the #NYCStandsWithFerguson showcase, he says, “We must be about the business of building power, person by person, corner by corner, block by block. It’s up to us.”

As national mainstream attention eventually turns its head away from Ferguson, young and older activists alike may have to work harder and speak louder to penetrate our national consciousness and catalyze tangible change.

Viets-VanLear from We Charge Genocide doesn't think this will be a problem. “This is only the beginning,” he said. “We are going to keep mobilizing because we are fighting for our lives.”

By Arianna Skibell

MORE FROM Arianna Skibell

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Activism Al Sharpton Barack Obama Ferguson George Zimmerman Jesse Jackson Police Police Brutality Prison Race