In the months following the shooting death of Michael Brown, Tony Rice quit his job to lead nightly protests in Ferguson, Mo. But after a grand jury decided in November not to indict the officer who shot Brown, Rice said, “we just woke up one morning and no one was out there protesting.”
That hasn’t deterred Rice. As the nation’s attention has turned elsewhere, he and fellow activists have switched up their tactics, slowing down and digging in, trying to nurture a nascent civil rights movement by shifting to local issues and a broader critique of American society.
The deadly confrontations in Ferguson; in Cleveland, where police shot and killed a 12-year-old boy who was playing with a pellet gun; and in New York, where police choked and killed a man who was selling loose cigarettes on the sidewalk, prompted young people to take to social media and the streets to express outrage and demand change.
The unrest generated by the deaths of Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland and Eric Garner in Staten Island may eventually become the first scene in a stirring saga of how a moment builds into a movement. Or it could end up as a cautionary tale about how a righteous activism born of traumatic incidents fizzles, the energy of dozens of new activist groups sapped by quotidian realities and the shortened attention spans of a society that expresses its political passions in Likes and tweets.
“To go from protesting to power, you need demonstrations, legislation and litigation,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the veteran civil rights leader who has acted in recent months as an informal adviser and cheerleader for several new groups. “Sprinters burn out real fast. These young people need to be in it for the long run. And it must be an intergenerational coalition. A movement that’s mature requires clergy and lawyers and legislators. The struggle is never a one-string guitar.”
The new activists are still trying to tune their instrument. They are still figuring out whether to hew to local issues or go national. For the most part, the young protesters haven’t connected with elders such as Jackson or the Rev. Al Sharpton. They have uneasy relationships not only with civil rights fighters of generations past, but also with the black mayors and police chiefs who owe their own positions to the successes of that earlier activism.
All that adds up to a fractured puzzle composed of idealistic young activists who believe ordinary people can band together to make black lives matter more, but who haven’t yet figured out how to boost their generation into action.
In Ferguson, some activists moved from street actions to events such as “Books and Breakfast,” a giveaway featuring books such as “The New Jim Crow” and “I Love My Hair!” and free yogurt parfaits. One recent day, only a few dozen people stopped by, mostly familiar faces of hard-core activists.
Nonetheless, they talked about marching at a local high school where white students had said disparaging things about black protesters. The meeting ended with pleas from organizers to hug someone in the room and take another look at the books, half of which were left unclaimed.
Two days before the book event in Ferguson, the roads were slick in Cleveland, with heavy snow falling, as about a dozen activists gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Society in Cleveland Heights — a racially and economically mixed suburb up the hill from downtown.
The meeting, called by a local activist group called Puncture the Silence, was an effort to press beyond the squabbles and rivalries that have plagued the protest groups that emerged after the Rice shooting. Although protests have continued almost weekly in Cleveland through a harsh winter, the wait to hear whether the officers involved in the shooting will face criminal charges has left many activists frustrated, splintered by arguments over strategy, objectives and media posture.
Some want more marches, sit-ins and disruptive protests. Others propose to stage a tribunal, rendering an extrajudicial verdict in several cases of police use of force. Still others want a focus on policy, but what should they demand? Body cameras? Special prosecutors? Police training? Collective bargaining?
“We need to keep the direct pressure on elected officials, but we also need to stay active in the streets,” Rachelle Smith, 31, who has been a key player among Cleveland’s young protest groups since the Rice shooting, told the group.
The next move after expressing anger in the street is often the hard part for new civil rights groups. Do they seek changes in the law? Push to elect sympathetic candidates? Focus on winning over those who aren’t yet on their side? Or pull back from the moment and get radical, pressing for wholesale social change?
In Ferguson, many of the more than a dozen organizations that formed in the tear-gas clouds of August fragmented over the course of the fall. Conflicts flared over organizers who spent much of their time honing their profile on Twitter and attending an endless series of conferences on activism. Members of some new groups grumbled about leaders who seemed more interested in scoring airtime with Don Lemon on CNN or winning donations from wealthy celebrities than about recruiting poor people to their cause.
On the night of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the Brown shooting, Tory Russell and other members of a new civil rights group called Hands Up United knew one thing they had to do: Race to their office to fend off vandals and prevent violence.
Today, six buildings across from the group’s original office remain boarded up. The Metro PCS shop is a blackened heap; a steel bar bears a slogan written in rust: “America Wake Up!”
Hands Up United has moved to a new location but isn’t going away, said Russell, a burly man with a thick beard who wears his devotion to the movement on a T-shirt emblazoned with the first names of young African Americans whose deaths have fueled this fight — Trayvon, Mike, Eric . . .
By the time Brown was killed, Russell, 30, had already dropped his plan to become a teacher — a dream he traces to his days in the library at Sumner High School in St. Louis, alma mater of Chuck Berry and Tina Turner. Today, Russell views his old school as dominated more by in-school suspension than reading books, so he has focused his political work on distributing books on black history and radical politics.
He sees a surer path to change at the neighborhood level than in any effort to win nationwide notice. “And now the real work begins,” Russell said. “You can complain about the system being bad and how it affects the community. But if your room is dirty, you’re going to have to pick up the clothes and wash the dishes. And that’s what we’re doing.”
Hands Up’s leaders haven’t lost sight of the issue of police brutality: “We still believe the ultimate piece of the narrative is that unarmed people are being killed by police,” said Tef Poe, 27, a rapper from St. Louis who started the group with Russell.
But since the TV cameras left town, the heady camaraderie of those first weeks has given way to infighting and a struggle for attention.
Poe joined other organizers on a trip to the Palestinian territories last year and he recently returned from the Sundance Film Festival — decisions that have raised questions among some activists about how groups are spending the hundreds of thousands of dollars that have come in from foundations and ordinary people who hit “donate” buttons online.
Poe and Russell said they are not getting paid by Hands Up. Neither was sure of the exact size of the organization’s budget. Hands Up United — which like many of the new groups has not established nonprofit status of its own — has received organizational help from a group connected with the California antiwar nonprofit known as Code Pink.
Russell said Hands Up United, unlike other groups that flared on TV and Twitter and then disappeared, is in it for the long run. “For some people, when it wasn’t sexy anymore, when CNN left, it died down for them,” he said. “What we’re doing is not hashtag activism, this is actually community organizing. I’ve never seen hashtags change my community.”
Athousand miles away, Hands Up United’s shift in focus from civil disobedience to community development — from leading rallies to giving out books — sounds familiar to Phillip Agnew.
The group he founded in 2012 — after a former neighborhood watch volunteer shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old in Sanford, Fla. — had a two-year head start on those that have emerged in Ferguson and Cleveland. Agnew’s Dream Defenders have been through it all: the rush of the marches, a 31-day sit-in in the state capitol, confrontations with the powerful, promises that they would be listened to, frustration when nothing changed.
Now, on the same day that Hands Up United gives out books in Ferguson, Agnew’s Dream Defenders stage a multicultural festival in front of a sprawling, brightly colored mural of Haitian village life in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. The attractions includesalsa dancing and African drumming; speeches in English, Spanish and Creole; testimonials from farmworkers and college students — all spiced with gentle reminders of the need to do something about the number of young people from Miami’s crazy quilt of impoverished communities who drop out of school, land in prison, or subsist without career or much hope of one.
The Dream Defenders — the name refers to the effort to build on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy — started out demanding the repeal of Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which allows people to use deadly force if they feel threatened by another person. But after their sit-in failed to persuade Gov. Rick Scott (R) to call a special session of the legislature to reconsider the law, Agnew and his fellow Defenders concluded that they needed to move on to “the next phase.”
What that would look like took many months to decide. Agnew — at 29, he is thoughtful yet blunt, insisting on talking about fomenting revolution even when his older advisers counsel more moderate rhetoric — said he was initially distracted by the celebrity that came with being a prominent activist.
“It was very easy to accept invitations all over the country,” he said. “It’s very, very, very alluring and seductive to have folks know you and to go to conferences and workshops every week. I was in Time magazine, on television all the time — it does begin to create some kind of friction within the organization. And then you look up and feel like we haven’t gotten anywhere. We had to pump the brakes.”
Some other groups that formed after Martin was killed have left Florida and are trying to find traction on a nationwide scale. The Million Hoodies Movement for Justice was started by a young Floridian, but its leaders are now spread around the country, active mainly through video and social media.
“Nobody’s going to have their political beliefs changed on Facebook, but it is a way for us to connect,” said Peter Haviland-Eduah, the group’s spokesman, who lives in Michigan, where he is in graduate school. “We want to build coalitions across the country, and we have to find small, tangible wins. The civil rights movement in the ’60s was about changing laws and they had tangible goals, like getting more folks to register to vote. We’re about changing the consensus, changing beliefs, and that’s much more difficult.”
The Dream Defenders concluded that the only way forward is to embed themselves in local issues. “It’s a big mistake for these groups in Ferguson and other places to go national,” said Sherika Shaw, 26, the group’s South Florida coordinator, who left a graduate program in art education after learning about Dream Defenders on Instagram. “The people are here, where you are. It’s not about changing policy; you can’t use the master’s tools to destroy the master’s house. We don’t want to be the people the TV networks call; we want to be who the people call instead of the police when there’s a domestic dispute.”
Shaw spends her days trying to establish Dream Defenders groups in local high schools, appealing to teens to speak out against having uniformed security officers on their campuses.
The group’s core members lived for a time in a borrowed house in the lush suburb of Miami Lakes — the dream house, they called it — allowing them to talk and plan around the clock. They lived on Agnew’s credit card and his savings from four years he spent selling erectile-dysfunction and anti-depression drugs for a pharmaceutical company in North Carolina.
They studied past movements, read history and made two defining decisions: Unlike many other new groups, they would stay local, rooting themselves in Florida’s problems and people. And they would get radical, spurning elective politics and emphasizing their belief that the persistent poverty and social immobility in many black communities result not from specific policies but from the very nature of capitalism and racism.
On one morning in early February, Agnew arrived at work angry because he woke up to a flat tire on his car. “This system of capitalism creates a lot of stress around money,” he said. He put on his black “People Over Money” T-shirt and began another day of trying to convince blacks and Hispanics that the problem they see as police brutality is really far deeper.
“A community that just lost someone to a police shooting may not be ready to hear that,” he said. “They may not have that language. But if we talk to them about what they experience — being ignored, being invisible, the contempt for black people, the contempt for poor people — they begin to see that this is much larger.”
At the street festival, which draws about 150 people over the course of the afternoon, Shamile Louis, the 23-year-old daughter of Haitian immigrants, tries to get that message across. Louis, who has worked with Dream Defenders since her junior year in college, recalls watching George Zimmerman’s trial in Martin’s shooting on TV every day; when he was acquitted, “my soul was shattered,” she said. She spent 27 days at the sit-in at the capitol in Tallahassee. But although she’s still committed to the cause, the realities of surviving are pulling her away from full-time activism.
“I’m going to have to find work,” she said. “The movement is really struggling. We were really amped up at the capitol. The reality now is people have real lives and have to work.”
She spent part of the afternoon at the Dream Defenders table in the center of the courtyard. By day’s end, only six people have signed cards expressing interest in the group’s work.
Jesse Jackson came to Tallahassee to join the Dream Defenders in their sit-in. Sharpton shuttled into Ferguson to lead marches and rustle up media attention. Black clergy and leaders of traditional civil rights groups reached out to the new groups, offering advice and organizational support.
And in December, Agnew and six other leaders of new groups met at the White House with President Obama, who told them he would set up a task force to address the “simmering distrust” between police and African Americans. Agnew came away from the meeting convinced that protest groups must become more radical because change will not come from those already in power.
“The concessions won by the civil rights movement in the ’60s are our biggest obstacle,” he said. “We have black Fortune 500 CEOs, an African American president, African American mayors and chiefs of police, and still the lot of black people, Latino people, has not risen.”
Dream Defenders, which has a minimally paid staff of seven, works largely off a $200,000 grant from the Tides Center, a San Francisco-based foundation that supports groups seeking social change. Agnew said he expects the Tides money to dry up eventually “because in the end, we’re going to be too radical for them.”
In Cleveland, the mayor, police chief and much of the City Council are black, as are many influential pastors. But some young black activists say their fight puts them squarely at odds with the city’s black power structure.
“As an African American guy trying to make a difference, I am fighting the white establishment, and I’m also fighting the black establishment,” said Alonzo Mitchell, an organizer who hosts a local radio show and is a regular at council meetings.
When Mitchell, 33, approached a city official to seek backing for a mentorship program for future political leaders, he says he was told: “No one is going to teach you. Power is never given, it’s taken.”
On the city’s west side, below the modest Guide to Kulchur bookstore, an expansive basement meeting room has become the headquarters of an activist collective determined to change how Cleveland police operate.
In the basement one recent afternoon, activists peppered half a dozen council members with demands, insisting that each official complete a report card, answering yes or no to statements such as “The officer who killed Rice should be immediately indicted.” All but one of the council members in attendance said they favored an indictment.
When protesters planned a march after the Rice shooting, Police Chief Calvin Williams volunteered to shut down parts of a highway. Commuters griped about the protests impeding traffic, but Mayor Frank Jackson said “that’s the inconvenience of freedom.” Cleveland police officers working at demonstrations conversed and joked with protesters, a strikingly different approach from officers in St. Louis, who met similar protests with riot gear, tear gas and rubber-coated bullets.
Despite such efforts at cooperation, pressing for change is harder in cities with black elected officials, some veteran civil rights leaders say.
“It is more difficult to organize against a black power structure,” said Lawrence Hamm, 61, who formed the People’s Organization for Progress in Newark in 1983 after a police shooting of an unarmed black man. “You might be marching against a popular black mayor, and it’s going to be harder for you to get people to join you.”
The new groups need help from the old-line black civil rights groups they sometimes view as having sold out, Hamm said: “The black radical organizations — the people who want more fundamental change — are not going to be strong enough to get there on their own.”
Although Hamm’s group still agitates for police overhauls, its founder long ago realized he needed to work both with elected officials and with older, mainstream organizations.
“We formed our group because we felt the traditional civil rights groups were not aggressive enough,” said Hamm. “But now, I belong to three branches of the NAACP.”
Three decades after Hamm set out to be more in-your-face than the black organizations of his parents’ generation, Ciara Taylor, the 25-year-old political director of Dream Defenders, found her way to a more radical path by volunteering in Obama’s 2008 campaign.
Knocking on doors in Vero Beach, Fla., she was called the n-word and confronted with the reality that a black senator’s candidacy for president “does not make race go away,” she said. “There was a great hope within my generation and within me that we could be free of racial identification, but we realized that race does not go away.”
But it took a one-two punch three years later to propel her into full-time activism: In her senior year at Florida A&M University, the school proposed to eliminate her major, Spanish language; she switched her concentration to political science and joined a campaign to reverse the cutbacks. A few months after that, when Martin was killed, Taylor, daughter of a corporate manager and a career Navy officer, felt jolted from her middle-class trajectory.
“Being a young person, you’re impatient,” she said. “You see these trigger moments happen and you automatically want to fight the big beast that our parents tried to protect us from.”
Now, two years into her life as an organizer, Taylor bristles at the notion, expressed by some veterans of the 1960s movement, that the new activism is dissipating. “A lot of the older generation looks at movement work as physically being at a protest,” she said. “That’s important, but a more radical expression of social engagement is simply choosing to love yourself in a society that tells you you look like a thug or your nose is too big.”
When Taylor sees new groups fading away, she doesn’t take that as a defeat, but as a sign that people are “caring for themselves. The fact that a lot of movements are disintegrating comes from the inability to care for oneself, especially mothers with families.”
Ferguson remains a hive of activism. For the first time, the Organization for Black Struggle, which grew out of the Black Power movement of the 1970s and ’80s, has enough money to pay six staff members, thanks to support from individuals and progressive groups such as the Center for Popular Democracy, Color of Change and the Open Society Foundations, which was founded by liberal billionaire investor George Soros.
Seven months ago, Charles Wade was adjusting scarves and trimming hems for Hollywood stars. Now he’s in St. Louis, where the former image consultant to Solange Knowles, Beyoncé’s sister, is alone, in black sweats, scrubbing the floor of a townhouse that is part of a transitional housing program he has set up through his new organization, Operation Help or Hush.
It’s been a trying few days. His asthma was acting up. A protester he’s been housing lost Wade’s credit card while out buying supplies. And on Twitter, he’s dealing with a protester who questioned his funding, his newfound fame as an activist and his devotion to the cause.
“It’s really demoralizing that you have to fight so hard just to do something decent for people,” Wade said.
Immediately after the Brown shooting, Wade, a native of Bowie, Md., started raising money on Twitter to provide food, housing and even expense money for protesters who paused their lives to go into the streets. He raised $25,000 in one week. On one occasion, after putting out a call on Twitter for help for protesters who needed gas money, Wade stood in the parking lot of Andy Wurm Tire & Wheel handing out $20 bills.
Since grand jurors decided not to indict Wilson, many activists have scattered. Wade stayed. He still expects to house 27 new activists by April, and he’s raising money through Twitter and from friends and family.
He’s determined to keep going, he said; there’s so much more to do: “There’s very little we’ve actually gotten for Ferguson except for it to be known nationally.”
Fisher reported from Miami, Somashekhar from Ferguson and Lowery from Cleveland. Eddy Palanzo in Washington contributed to this report.