When I hear someone say, “Black Lives Matter,” I wonder: Really? Or is it just something you say without thinking? When a Black person gets shot by a cop, many people of color talk about it—but only for a day or two.
I want to do more than say that Black lives matter: I want to show it by working for equality.
Black Lives Matter formed in response to the shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. His killer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted, and activists started using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter in protest. BLM began to protest whenever someone, especially a police officer, shot a Black person and there was no punishment. I heard about this when I was 10 and wondered what this new group was going to do about these injustices.
But it wasn’t until Michael Brown was killed by cops in Ferguson, Missouri, and the media showed footage of him stealing something earlier, that I got angry and got involved. I noticed that Black victims of police killings were often portrayed as “thugs” or “dangerous,” as if that justified their murders.
After Brown’s death, and then again when Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police, people on my Facebook posted about the shootings, but after two days, it was like it never happened. A senior in my high school, Academy for Young Writers, noticed that too, so she went to Facebook and wrote that she wanted to start a BLM group in our school and asked who’d be interested. I jumped on this opportunity to change things and to be an example. I wanted to inspire my friends that you can do more than rant on social media. I want to be seen as a committed activist.
Forming the Group
For the first meeting, about 30 kids crammed into the principal’s office. I didn’t see many other 10th graders at the meeting. The big turnout surprised me.
The first question my principal asked was, “Why do you guys want this group?”
Sapphire, the senior who had the idea to create the group, said, “So many people on Facebook talk about these issues, then forget about it. How are we helping the Black community if we are not keeping attention on these injustices and fighting against them? The goal is to keep the things that are going on in the Black community relevant and to work to make change.”
As I looked around the room I could tell that she’d said what we were all thinking. After setting up a regular meeting room and a teacher to monitor the meetings, the Black Lives Matter group of the Academy for Young Writers was born.
The group met twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We started meetings by discussing news about police brutality, protests, and any publicized instances of discrimination against people of color. Or we’d speak about topics such as cultural appropriation, systemic racism, beauty standards in the Black community, or Black scholars who needed recognition.
Learning About Systemic Racism
One topic that sparked an amazing conversation was how racism is ingrained into institutions. How in most low-income communities where minorities live, the schools are much worse. We also talked about the school-to-prison pipeline for children of color from low-income families. Some teachers give up on students of color because they see them as trouble, not as kids who need help and support. This decreases opportunities for Black children.
Racism is also built into the court system—Black people get more time than Whites for the same crimes. One example we talked about in our group was Marissa Alexander, a woman who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for shooting a warning shot at her abusive husband, who she said was about to attack her. We compared this to George Zimmerman facing no repercussions for killing Trayvon Martin, who wasn’t threatening anyone.
I looked up the number of arrests for one petty crime—jumping the turnstiles of the subway, which people mostly do because they don’t have the fare. According to the New York Daily News, 92% of the people arrested for fare evasion in 2015 were people of color, though only half of New Yorkers are Black and Hispanic. Whether this disparity is caused by the pressures of poverty or police profiling, it is related to systemic racism.
Then we would go over roles in the group, talk about how to help the group get involved in the school community, and plan events. We struggled with things like funding for school trips, how to get people to come and speak at our school, and getting a teacher to help facilitate the group. Our principal told us that without an adult to handle things like reimbursements and trips, the group could not continue. People in the group disagreed over how to handle these issues, and that held back the progression of the group as a whole.
For the Group, Not the Glory
I wanted to inspire the group by pointing out that all great activist organizations overcame obstacles; that’s what made them great. I wanted to say to the group that we are part of a long tradition and that we have to think outside of the norms, including what people expect of teens, to make a change. If members of the civil rights movement gave up because of all the oppression and negativity they faced, where would America be today? Now, in the 21st century, it is our job to become as strong as those in the civil rights movement.
I wanted more power and authority in the group, but I was one of three 10th graders. The rest were juniors and seniors and it seemed like a lot of the junior girls did most of the talking.
I found myself going only once a week or some weeks not going at all because I got tired of just sitting and listening. I felt like my suggestions were ignored. So I drifted away and once again became a Facebook activist rather than actually doing something for my community.
My best friend Nathaniel, who was also a sophomore, saw that I went less and pulled me back into the group. He told me, “Demetria, in the group we work collectively. Keep doing things that you think can help the group and even if you’re not getting specific recognition for it, at least you yourself can know that you’ve done something positive.” I stopped worrying about not getting praised and wanting the group to make fast improvements and began to think about doing this for a long time.
And if I was going to be a lasting part of the BLM movement, I had to focus on principles, not just the process. The Black Lives Matter organization has 13 direct principles that it organizes its platform around. All of them were inspiring to me, but a few stood out and made me think.
One is globalism. Although this group started in the U.S., they are not only looking for the equality and elimination of racial oppression of Black people here. They want Black lives to matter everywhere. Black people get oppressed and denied equal rights all over the world, so I think it’s good to branch out.
As a person who cares a lot about the rights of Black women, I like that BLM says on their website they “build a space that affirms Black women and is free from sexism, misogyny, and male-centered environments.”
It is important that Black women can enjoy an environment where they won’t be discriminated against as women. I like that in BLM, women are just as important as men (in fact, three women started Black Lives Matter).
Keeping the Group Alive
Since I got more involved again, I’ve promoted the group and helped it prosper. I asked workers at museums like the Whitney, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met), and the Studio Museum if they have any programs that my school could participate in.
At a teen workshop at the Met museum, two of us from the BLM group spoke to people from the Asase Yaa Cultural Arts Foundation, which is focused on arts in the African-American community. I asked them if our BLM group could collaborate with them to create an event at their office. This resulted in my school getting 100 free tickets to come to their center and watch a show that promoted African-American arts.
I’ve also worked with a friend to try to get a collaborative art piece from my school featured in an art exhibit shown at the Met Museum. Our piece would be a large mural made entirely out of Post-it notes in the shape of the letters BLM. On each Post-It, people could write something positive about the Black community—a name, a statement, or a quote.
It’s a challenge to keep the group alive and to keep teens interested in the Black Lives Matter movement. Most of the group members are going into senior year, and since I will be one of the three juniors in the group, it will be on us to get the group to stay around after the seniors graduate.
To keep the group alive, other members and I are coming up with ideas for our school. We are trying to get local Black activists in our area, like Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Crystal Valentine, New York City’s Youth Poet Laureate, to come to our school and speak to our group. Maybe we’ll host an assembly where teens can listen, then ask them questions.
Although we want people to come in and speak about the work they do within the community, we also thought of having a workshop during advisory periods or after school that would teach young minorities how to act when they are approached by a cop. We would also teach students their rights as citizens to help keep them from being wrongly arrested or falsely convicted.
Since this movement is partly about empowering and bringing dignity to minorities, we also want to keep giving information about programs teens can get involved in centered on the African-American community. We also want to distribute information about colleges for teens. To keep people interested and coming to meetings consistently, we plan to incorporate opportunities to make and experience music, dance, and spoken word.
As a young Black female I am discriminated against three different ways. The Black Lives Matter movement inspires me to use what I have and who I am to make change. In BLM, I can channel my anger and frustration about the horrible things that happen to African-Americans into action and education that can bring about change and inspire others.
Join The Movement
Learn more about Black Lives Matter at: blacklivesmatter.com