When I first spoke with Bennie Williams, a 19-year-old sophomore at Morehouse College from Stockton, California, in July, he’d just finished organizing two protests, one in Stockton and another at the state capitol in Sacramento on the 4th of July. He was lively and spoke definitively about where he thought the movement was headed locally and nationally.
“Right now, it’s either: You are advocating, witnessing, or looking at this, or you’re choosing to ignore it. Those are the two options. There’s no in-between right now,” Williams told me about the movement that was building in the weeks after videos of George Floyd’s killing went public and as more people learned about the police killing of Breonna Taylor. “There’s action right now. There’s conversations. People are talking to each other and teaching each other.”
The tributes to Taylor and Floyd and the demands for justice have flourished into a broader global movement focused on the work of tearing down and restructuring the pervasive aspects of racism that affect the wealth, well-being, and, ultimately, the lives of Black and brown people in the United States. Younger and older activists and community organizers I spoke with over the summer told me that they felt like this was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. This year, a global pandemic has kept people at home and forced many into unemployment. The government's slow-moving efforts have not helped the crisis. People's attention was undivided, and their increased attention on footage of racist incidents created the perfect storm for a mass movement for the country to come to terms with what injustice looks like for many Americans.
“It feels like we’re finally at this moment where this country is going to have to acknowledge and finally admit to all of the wrongdoing and the injustice that it has allowed to take place in Black communities and against Black communities,” Williams told me.
“It’s going to have to look in the mirror at every ugly part of the face of this country — this country is going to have to recognize the genocide of Native Americans; it’s going to have to reconcile with putting children in cages, and with mass incarceration, and profiting off of Black bodies in its prison systems, that it’s stayed silent on the death of trans lives. It’s going to have to reconcile with all of that.”
After a brief pause, Williams added another thought:
“I hope it puts us on a path to liberation.”
Williams’ ardent thoughts about where the movement was headed were reflective of where scores of Black and brown activists stood in the moment — for many, it felt like there was something markedly different in the air in June and July. The large multicultural protests that took over cities across the country, the teach-ins, the push for reform from activist networks, and the “DID YOU KNOW?” Instagram story cards written in an aesthetically pleasing modern typeface all felt like there was a consensus building across the country. In the streets, young activists at the helm of the movements in their cities were demanding that their own communities looked at the ways racism affects things like policing, education funding, and housing. There was a sort of skeptic’s optimism, similar to that charged feeling in the air when the clouds start rolling in and the first cracks of thunder sound off just before a storm. It felt like, for the first time during the modern uprising, the collective of Black Americans who’d been marching, posting, crying, yelling, and prodding the country toward equity had finally been heard and embraced by large parts of the rest of the country. It felt like hope that things would change.
This summer felt different.
“I hope it puts us on a path to liberation.”
And then the focus of the country shifted — viral videos of protesters clashing with militarized police forces and the nearly endless number of posters for listening sessions and rallies gave way to raging wildfires in California, the presidential debates, and the undermining of American institutions like the Postal Service (an issue not divorced from the voter disenfranchisement efforts that have obstructed Black voters for decades).
The waning and waxing of interest in and acceptance of political and civil rights movements is nothing new for Black Americans.
If you’ve checked Twitter in recent years, at a time when the country fixed its attention toward the movement work of Black folks, you’ve seen at least one viral tweet referencing Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorability ratings in 1966 versus those today. Gallup polls conducted in 1966 and 2011 found that 63% of Americans in 1966 viewed King and his work unfavorably while just 4% viewed him unfavorably in 2011. A constant and poignant reminder that movement work and the progress it pushes the country toward is slow-moving at worst and incremental at best.
Polls in the midst of the movements that spread across the country during summer 2020 suggested that there was a fast-moving coalition and consensus building for many Americans. In July, the New York Times reported that between 15 million and 26 million people had participated in protests following the deaths of Floyd and other Black Americans, according to four surveys.
Since July, I’ve spoken with four Black activists, including Gen Z’ers and young millennials from different parts of the country with different approaches and ideologies — about the work, their lives, the momentum of the summer, their view of the movement, and, particularly, this summer’s place in history.
This moment isn’t a “reckoning” for them — it’s a continuation of a troubling, grander Black American tradition.
Will the legacy of this moment be remembered as a quick jolt to the norm during an unusual time, or a long-lasting adjustment to the way a vast majority of Americans think about race and the racism in this country?
Young Black people have already experienced a lifetime of watching the justice system and, ultimately, the country’s entire political system fail them and pay them lip service in response to protests. They’ve spent their childhoods hearing stories of those systems failing their parents and intentionally mistreating their grandparents and generations down the line, and about the resistance and determination it took to gain even the most basic rights. The circumstances of their lives and futures have been defined by activism: This moment isn’t a “reckoning” for them — it’s a continuation of a troubling, grander Black American tradition. It’s a legacy of resistance passed down from the earliest generations of Black folks on this country’s soil — one that they understand will take time but they hope future generations won’t find necessary.
There’s a frighteningly familiar pattern, for many Black people across the country, when it comes to incidents of publicized police brutality:
The video of a Black body being harmed by the police or harassed by another person for existing in their space goes viral
The reluctant (and often forced) view of the video on social media as it circulates across timelines
The “You good?” and “Don’t check Twitter” texts in group chats
The public backlash to the protests
The militarized police response
The semi-heartfelt check-ins
The name of another Black person who has been killed or unwillingly pushed into the nation’s spotlight fading into the background as the rest of the country moves toward another moment to be outraged by
For Black Gen Z’ers, that pattern — including the social media dimension — started early in their adolescence with the killings of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old boy from Florida who was shot by a George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, while he was walking home from a gas station in 2012, and Michael Brown, an 18-year-old from Ferguson, Missouri, who was fatally shot by police in 2014. How different factions of people across the country reacted in the aftermaths of Martin’s and Brown’s deaths were the catalysts that would shape Black Gen Z’ers’ view of the country, their faith in the political system, and their role in a grander Black tradition in the fight for equality. Everyone I spoke with for this story had experienced the trials and seen the footage of those incidents at formative ages — from early middle schoolers to high schoolers about to start out on their own adult lives at universities across the country.
Clifton Kinnie was just into the first few weeks of his senior year at Lutheran High School North in the St. Louis area. Brown was killed blocks away from his school’s campus — just two summers after Kinnie’s late mother had sat him down to have “the talk” about interactions with police and other people. The lecture had been prompted by the Florida jury reaching a not guilty verdict during Zimmerman’s trial.
For many of the young activists, those cases solidified thoughts that the country wasn’t out to protect citizens who looked like them — an early disillusionment with existing institutions and a swift thrust into the kinds of activism they’d learned about from previous generations.
In the days after Brown’s death, Kinnie, then 17, began organizing with other students from his high school and founded Our Destiny STL, a network of young activists across Missouri who organized statewide and national school walkouts.
“Trayvon was the seed that was planted, and I think that flourished in Ferguson into the Movement for Black Lives after Michael was killed,” Kinnie told me. “I didn’t really want to be a protester — I didn’t want to be an activist. That’s not what I thought I was set out to do. But we were mourning in Ferguson because they left a Black boy dead in the streets for four hours.”
Kinnie recalled seeing photos of Brown’s body on his Instagram feed on the day of the shooting and thinking that it had to be a screenshot from a movie.
“There were nights when I would protest up to 4 a.m., slide to my grandma’s crib to take a shower, and then go to school and then go right back to protesting.”
“I realized that it was around the corner from my school and my grandmother’s house,” he said. He recalled protesting with other Black activists in Ferguson in the days after Brown’s death into the early hours of the morning.
“There were nights when I would protest up to 4 a.m., slide to my grandma’s crib to take a shower, and then go to school and then go right back to protesting,” he recalled. He said that when he would return to school after protesting the night before, he’d hear his teachers calling the people marching in the streets “thugs” and “looters.”
“How could they do such a thing?” he remembered one teacher saying.
Kinnie walked out of the classroom. I don’t know how they could say any of those things when there was literally a revolution happening around the corner, he remembered thinking. Over the course of the day, nearly 50 people from his school also walked out; they showed up at his grandmother’s house to vent and organize.
Kinnie has a look of weary sincerity in his deep-set eyes. Often interviewed after Ferguson, Kinnie has been photographed staring directly into the camera, his fist pushed toward the sky like scores of photos of Black activists from the decades that preceded his own work. Kinnie graduated from Howard University, where he supported students who created movements at predominantly white universities, like Mizzou, to protest the racism they were facing on campus.
He’s quick to say that he loves to be a teacher in the St. Louis area and that he's both nervous and proud that his own students are telling him about the protests they’re attending and organizing in their community. He’s also quick to tell you that he’s a student of the Black radical tradition and that he centers his activism in knowledge he’s gained from studying past civil rights movements and revolts from enslaved people.
“Black radicalism is not just this image of Black fists held high. It’s a part of it but not the totality of it,” Kinnie told me. “Black radicalism is about our means of resisting racial capitalism and the oppression from racial capitalism. Our movements have always been about that. Black people used to escape and found marronage communities during slavery; that was their means of resisting. And today we see folks out in the streets, walking out of schools. You see the unrest that’s happening due to the lack of concern from our political leaders.”
Kinnie sees those early days of protest in Ferguson as foundational to various youth-led organizing efforts that have taken over the country in the past four years. He pointed to the interconnectedness of movements like March for Our Lives, which he has worked with, and Black Lives Matter as different fronts working toward the same goal. Both movements, he said, pushed the country toward a moment when mass protests after Floyd’s death popped up across the country.
“We built a coalition,” Kinnie said. “We realized that we were building true youth power, but we didn’t realize that we were building the blueprint for newer movements to be inspired by.”
In the years since he led protests in Ferguson and contributed to efforts at his alma mater in Washington, DC, Kinnie has also caught the attention of politicians like former president Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who have sat with him to talk about Black Lives Matter and the anti–gun violence movement. In July, when we first spoke after he’d attended protests in St. Louis, Kinnie said he saw the movement’s success at that moment as a response to the government’s inaction to citizens’ conditions. He warned that if things didn’t get better, they would see more mass action. When we spoke again in the fall after months of sustained protest, Kinnie was weary but issued the same warning.
“It’s been over a hundred days since the first protests began. Portland is still going up. Louisville is still going up,” Kinnie told me. “The last time I remember the movement being this sustained was back in Ferguson, when we were in the streets for more than 300 days.”
“I don’t want people to confuse seeing thousands of young people out in the streets with enthusiasm for either of the political parties.”
Over the course of the summer, Kinnie told me, he’d been watching the growing momentum of the movement that found its footing on the streets of Missouri in 2014. Since then, he feels, other groups whose struggles have largely been shrugged off by politicians, have also embraced the means; out of that avoidance, the broader movements have continued to pour out into the streets to demand action and to be seen in recent years.
“I don’t want people to confuse seeing thousands of young people out in the streets with enthusiasm for either of the political parties,” he said. “No one is truly speaking to the concerns of young people in general and specifically to the concerns of young people in poor and Black and brown communities.”
Kinnie said that while he’s grateful for the work that has persisted and flourished since Ferguson and about the broader embrace of the movement this year, he hopes the reason people went out on the streets in the first place doesn’t become diluted.
“This is personal for me after practically growing up with this movement and watching it grow and shape cultures, birth other movements, and rearrange politics after Ferguson,” he told me. “It’s personal because I see folks trying to steer us in a direction that isn’t actually going to ultimately benefit the people.”
“We need to make sure that our principles and values are aligned with the people and why we went out to the streets in the first place.”
By late July, Omer Reshid had already attended 13 protests that had been organized in his community to address different issues. He was planning to attend another community-planning meeting to talk with elected officials about how city funds could be used if they moved forward with a plan to cut funding for the city’s police department. He’d also begun working with the city council to push a bill to enforce police accountability and ban officers from using chokeholds.
The recent high school graduate from Baltimore County, Maryland, believes Gen Z’s climate change activism is built on the youth-led movement models that emerged after the Ferguson protests. Reshid, who also serves as the student representative for the local school board, participated in protests and has lobbied for climate change bills in Baltimore County. His work then, organizing around the climate crisis and planning protests to hold officials accountable, was fundamental in helping him hit the ground running when he found it imperative to protest after Floyd’s death.
“When the George Floyd incident happened, a lot of my friends from that movement were like, ‘Hey, now is the time that we need to stand up,’” he said. “It was this sense of ‘Oh wow, this just happened again.’”
Through organizing and his work on the school board as the student representative, Reshid and his friends, he said, eventually pushed school board members to adopt a Black Lives Matter resolution — with commitments. Reshid, who proposed the resolution, said he wanted the resolution to include commitments to hire more Black teachers and principals to reflect the city’s population, adapt history curriculums to teach a fuller picture of American history, and increase funding for African American studies.
After a drawn-out process that Reshid believed was an attempt to water down the resolution, the school board committed to “proactively invest in diversity, equity, and inclusion at all levels” and said it believes it has the “special responsibility [to] understand and intentionally work to undermine racism and other forms of injustice in our curricula, our policies, our classroom culture.”
“We just feel so powerful in this moment as 15-,16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds who are just doing what we can in this moment to hold people accountable until we can become the adults who are in charge,” Reshid added. “I don’t see this movement dying down anytime soon, even though the Instagram feeds and Twitter are getting back to normal. We’re still out here marching and we’re still protesting.”
Reshid, who emigrated from Ethiopia three years ago, has gotten involved in many civic organizations since starting high school in the United States. In addition to his seat on the school board, Reshid has done work with his student government, climate organizations, and has represented the young people of his county on equitable policing and youth climate advisory boards.
“I was used to being surrounded by Black people — and after some time, I began to realize that I wasn’t the only person of color who was feeling left out and that things were unfair.”
“Advocacy and student leadership for me started after having a pretty big shift from coming from Ethiopia,” Reshid said. “I was always confused by the fact that I was one of the only people of color in my classes — I was used to being surrounded by Black people — and after some time, I began to realize that I wasn’t the only person of color who was feeling left out and that things were unfair.”
When I spoke with him in the immediate aftermath of the deaths of Floyd and Taylor, he was pushing the city council officials to address and adopt bills that would reform policing in Baltimore County. Since then, the school board adopted his resolution after a hard-fought session. Baltimore County has since passed a bill that issued police reforms and banned chokeholds.
He’s also started his first year at George Washington University. He’d always thought he’d been on a premed track; he said his parents still believed that was where he was headed when we spoke again in the fall, but he had been considering a shift to political science and focusing on community organizing after participating in this summer’s protests.
In October, Reshid — whose civic engagement in his community seemed central to his views in July — explained that while he still believed working in step with politicians to change the circumstances for Black people was the way forward, he didn’t have faith in the system overall to do that work willingly and without demands.
“I do see it as being crucial,” he told me. “As much as we yell, as much as we march, as much as we protest, if our representatives and policymakers and the people who are supposed to be doing what’s best for us don’t listen to us, there isn’t much that’s going to be done. I still believe in the power of policy change and the people who are representing us.”
Like many, he thinks there isn’t one singular moment of exponential change. Reshid is focused on individuals: He said it’s up to representatives to actually listen, and he stressed the importance of voting people out of office if they don’t represent the public’s demands. And he hopes that many of the people who protested this summer will return.
“It’s up to us to make them listen,” he added.
Despite the bills that have passed and the work he’s done with local politicians through youth organizations, Reshid said he has noticed the momentum that he felt this summer has begun to slow down but he’s hopeful about the incremental work of the collective movement.
“I wouldn’t say that I’m as optimistic about the system. I know that the system itself isn’t really designed to support underrepresented people and African American people. It wasn’t designed that way — I believe that,” Reshid said. “For me, it’s who’s in office and how much they’re willing to change rather than the system itself.”
The voice of Crime Mob’s Diamond loudly rapping her (objectively iconic) verse on “Knuck If You Buck” blared through the speakers of my phone when I clicked into Candace Livingston’s Instagram story. The verses of the woman rapping dropped a few notches every now and then to give way to the crackle of a megaphone and a young Black woman yelling affirmations to Black people on the street and demands to degentrify downtown Charleston, South Carolina, and to defund the city’s police department. Two young Black women led a caravan of protesters through the streets of downtown Charleston — past where Black residents have been priced out of neighborhoods for student housing, past high-end boutiques less than a mile from sites like the markets where enslaved people were bought and sold. Past bricks that bear the fingerprints of the enslaved people who were forced to make them. In the city where a white supremacist shot nine parishioners at Mother Emanuel AME and just miles from the site where police killed Walter Scott, an unarmed Black man.
“ALL power to the people!”
“I see you, Black man! I love you! We see you!”
“I see you, Black woman! Keep your head up! We love you!”
“Black trans lives matter!”
“Black lives matter! Today. Tomorrow. Yesterday. And forever!”
“The protest came about because Black women were fed up. That was the basis of it.”
Livingston, a doctoral student and former history teacher from Georgetown, South Carolina, who’d been organizing with a largely women-led coalition of Black activists in the area, said the caravan protest was long coming; tension between activists and city officials has laid buried under a facade of Southern charm and gentility presented to tourists, despite the murders of the “Emanuel 9” and the clashes between business owners and protesters. For years, activists felt that the city was trying to quell any concerns about racism and tensions reached a high point as business owners condemned protesters after some of the storefronts on King Street were destroyed over the summer.
“The protest came about because Black women were fed up. That was the basis of it,” Livingston told me about the protest calling on people to boycott downtown Charleston. “A group of us were fed up with how Charleston was responding to the racial violence across the nation,” she said. “They were trying to minimize uprisings by doing little small things or by saying that this commission was going to happen.”
“They were trying to calm folks without actually dedicating themselves to systemic change.”
That June protest led to a Zoom call between demonstrators and Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, during which they discussed the group’s demands and the issues it had raised against the city. Activists said they still felt patronized by the invitation of Charlamagne tha God, cohost of the Breakfast Club radio show and a South Carolina native by city officials. One of those demands was the removal statue of John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina native and former US vice president (and adamant defender of slavery) that towered in Marion Square, a large park in downtown Charleston.
“The Calhoun statue came down as a result of Black women and LGBTQ folks rallying and being consistent with our demands and staying on the politicians’ heads — so that was one small win. One symbolic win. There are still folks who are organizing there for more change,” Livingston said.
This isn’t part of a newfound motivation for activism in the moment — I’ve covered many of the organizing efforts that Livingston has participated in and planned since we were both students at Winthrop University, a small college outside of Charlotte, North Carolina.
One of the first times I interviewed Livingston was during a protest on the university’s campus, where a group of students occupied Tillman Hall — named after Benjamin Tillman, a white supremacist and former US senator — to demand that the university communicate with the state legislature that it wanted to change the name of the building after holding a die-in.
In a 2017 interview for USA Today, Livingston told me how off-putting it was for Black and brown students to visit the building named after a man who “could care less about our bodies." That occupation was held in conjunction with a die-in on campus after Charlotte police officers killed Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old Black man.
Those moments were followed by work with environmental justice groups and activist networks in Charlotte and Charleston that focused on issues like prison abolition, removing police officers from schools, gentrification, and tearing down Confederate monuments.
Livingston told me she was pushed into civic work from a young age and after noticing the shift in the national conversation after the deaths of Martin and Brown, just before she started college that she was motivated to start protesting and organizing in her community.
“It wasn’t that it was the sole thing that politicized us or radicalized us, but it was something that pushed our minds and actions to shift at a young age,” she said.
Despite that work, she said she doesn’t feel like she’s lost any part of her adolescence to activism and community organizing.
“I’m not an ahistorical person; looking at the history of Africans and Black Americans on this soil, I can’t disconnect that from Black adolescence. Ever since we’ve been here during that period and during our lives, there’s been resistance. We’ve had to resist and fight for something. We’ve had to reach and grab and crawl toward some sort of freedom while also trying to maintain some sort of innocence and adolescence and being able to juggle all of it at once,” Livingston said. “The only way that I would feel that way is if I compared my adolescence to the white experience. That’s not something I do.”
“I’m not an ahistorical person; looking at the history of Africans and Black Americans on this soil, I can’t disconnect that from Black adolescence.”
In the early days of her activism, after the deaths of Brown, Walter Scott, and Keith Lamont Scott, Livingston had focused on making policy changes: advocating for bills around policing reform like the use of body cameras and a ban on chokeholds. But as those measures were enacted and police shootings and brutality continued, she started to look closer at solutions like prison abolition and defunding police departments.
“There was a shift happening from placing all of our anger and rage on the murderers to an acknowledgment of that rage but adding an aspect of ‘what is next, and how can we prevent a next?’” Livingston said of police reform over the past several years. “A lot of us had this reformist thinking in that moment, and we were shifting toward more decisions that would be made politically. We were pushing ideas like body cams and citizen review boards or police accountability and bias training, and now we’ve arrived at abolition.”
“I’m able to see the progression from Trayvon Martin to Walter Scott and Mike Brown and Eric Garner and Rekia Boyd to now, where a lot of our thinking is — now where we’re looking at abolition,” she added.
Livingston told me that watching the justice system continually fail Black people alongside her work with grassroots organizations to hold the politicians who’d made empty promises accountable had pushed her into a political space where she valued collective action over transactional politics.
“This moment has shaped my politics in a way that has increased my faith in the people and those doing the work on the ground and not the people who are in political roles,” she said. “I feel like collective effort is necessary and worthwhile, and it’s how we need to move and not center our hope around one person or politician or one political party. It’s created an aversion to traditional politics.”
At the start of the summer, Livingston said she was optimistic about the movement's future. The success of the organizing efforts in Charleston are small wins in the grander scheme, but she felt that framing the current moment in the country as a “racial reckoning” was skewed.
“I really don’t mean to laugh, because this is a serious issue,” she said while letting a few chuckles fly. “But who exactly was this a reckoning for?”
“Not for me. The way that this has been covered by some parts of the media and talked about by others online has been very white-centered. It’s upsetting to me and other activists because it’s like the work that you were doing before didn’t matter, and it only matters because look who's talking about it,” she added.
While she said that she’s noticed that some of the attention and momentum has dissipated, she’s grounded herself by looking back at the movements that Black civil rights leaders have led before her and by studying their work in conjunction with her own organizing efforts.
“I’m able to...not necessarily mimic or replicate what they were doing, because we’re in a different time, but I’m able to learn how strategize, how to reevaluate, and be deliberate,” Livingston said about looking back at figures from the civil rights movement. “I’m also about to take some form of delight and refuge in knowing that movements take time. It alters my expectations and brings me back to reality. I mean, we all want things to happen quickly, but studying movements and studying history tells us that things take time and that the slow work and the daily work are what allows movements to push forward.”
When Bennie Williams picked up the phone for our last interview in September, his tone had changed drastically. He’d been interning with his local district attorney’s office on community-listening sessions and was doing research for a project while learning the ins and outs of the judicial system to share with the youth organizers he’d marched with during the summer.
Williams told me that the story of another man who’d been shot by police in his community was starting to gain traction and that adults in the community had begun reaching out to youth activists for advice on how they should go about protesting and move forward with demands.
“As far as protesting goes, it’s been difficult with the air quality where I’m at right now,” he said, referencing the wildfires that have been raging across California. “Today is only the second day that I’ve seen a blue sky in about a month.”
“Today is only the second day that I’ve seen a blue sky in about a month.”
It’s a line that’s stayed with me since I spoke to him during the last days of the summer; it’s indicative of the simultaneous crises that have fallen on the shoulders of people who have been fighting for justice in middle of a global pandemic that’s disproportionately damaged their communities as wildfires have raged in their backyard because of an environmental and climate crisis that’s also proven to show up more often in their communities.
The simultaneous battles and responsibilities that people face push and pull their attention away from doing the frontline work of protesting in the streets, but the momentum of the grander movement rolls along.
“Folks have obligations that they have to tend to because of capitalism. The momentum is still here, but it’s shifting, and it’s going to look a little different because people are doing the work from where they are,” Livingston told me.
Over the course of the protests that have happened over the past few months — as footage of demonstrations showed police and military forces clashing with protesters, observers, and reporters; a grand jury made a decision in Taylor’s case; and the country’s focus shifted, I turned back to the books, magazines, and newspapers from the 1950s and ’60s, like many of the activists I interviewed for this story have done.
The pages of Jet magazine, Newsweek, and others from those decades offer a view of the incremental work it took to gain even the most basic rights to be guaranteed for a generation of Black Americans and of the simultaneous traumas, joys, and mundaneness they enjoyed.
The decades-long history of the pages of those magazines document the battle toward justice and of tragedies and crises that happened simultaneously: the disappearance of Emmett Till, teenagers integrating the pews of their Catholic church in Louisiana only to be met with opposition, the Montgomery boycotts, quips about Lena Horne throwing an ashtray and dishes at a man’s head who made racists remarks while she was at a dinner with her husband, the attacks on the Freedom Riders, the ’50s-era Red Scare, old NAACP announcements about plans to rid the country of segregation by 1963, the Mississippi Operation, and later of the opposition to the Vietnam War. Throughout the decades, opposition to police brutality was a mainstay, as were stories about police-involved shootings — through it all, the incremental work of the movement trudged on.
When I followed up with Williams and the other activists I spoke with for this story this fall, they were keen to mention the small victories that had been won in the months since they’d taken to the streets for another summer. They were also keen on pointing back to similar moments in history that had grounded them in their fights this summer and the leaders whose work and reflections had guided them — from revolts of enslaved people in the early days of this country to the work of activists like Septima Clark, who had been decentered in the 30,000-foot view of the civil rights movement, to the protests in Ferguson and the woman-led creation of the Black Lives Matter movement, which the organizers were now contributing to in its current moment.
It didn’t matter if the Instagram posts had faded and that the news cameras, which had shown the world the brutality they faced on the streets, had refocused on new horrors. It didn’t matter that some of the allies whom the movement had picked up in the summer months had faded away as the temperatures grew colder and the work wasn’t as visible.
For the activists on the ground, what mattered were the small battles won: the removal of statues, the conversations about abolition and removing police from schools, about what a new form of justice that shifted away from policing altogether could look like.
If Williams, Kinnie, Reshid, and Livingston could begin to turn the tide in their own communities, they felt like the incremental work of the movement at large was well on its way on the arc toward justice.
“We’re not going to be able to fix everything now and make things specifically better for my generation, but to be able to end it here is the goal,” Reshid told me at the end of the summer. “No matter what, I know that not everything is going to be perfect for me in the next 20 years, but for the next generations and the generations after us, like my kids, I don’t want them to have to protest in the streets at 17, 18, 19, or 20 years old.
“This fight didn’t start with us,” he added, “but it sure as hell is going to end with us.” ●