13 names that might have made little more than local headlines have become national stories.
CNN – 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 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, 30, Chicago: 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.
Organizing the Black Youth Project 100: ￼ 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.
Umi Selah, 30, Florida: 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.
How Selah watched Ferguson unfold online: ￼ 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.”
￼Opal Tometi 30, New York ￼
Patrisse Cullors 32, Los Angeles ￼
Alicia Garza 34, Oakland
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.”
The night Cullors resolved to go to Ferguson: ￼ 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 30, Baltimore: ￼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 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.” 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 30, Oakland: ￼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.”
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 32, Washington: ￼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: 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.”
(To see photos of the activists visit: www.cnn.com/interactive/2015/08/us/disruptors/)