Synead Nichols couldn’t sleep. The 23-year-old was staying at a friend’s apartment in Harlem the night a grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri. Earlier that night she had put her head in her hands and cried in the middle of Union Square. She didn’t want to believe the news.
“Where is the justice? Where is the justice?” she remembers thinking. Her own brother, just 21 at the time, lived near Baltimore. What if he was the next Mike Brown? As she protested with a crowd moving north, her distress turned to passion. “I thought, ‘What can I do?’ I didn’t know what to do, but I knew something had to be done.”
As soon as she got to a computer, Synead furiously fired off messages to anyone she could think of that knew how to organize, plan, and stage a protest. Sometime after midnight, she created a Facebook event that would come to be called “Millions March NYC.” Her friend designed a poster. Synead tweeted and promoted the event on Twitter and Instagram too. She focused on people she knew, individuals, she said, not organizations.
And it worked.
“People were just spreading this everywhere, faster and faster,” Nichols said. “And it was growing daily.”
Justice League NYC, a police reform nonprofit with celebrity connections, tweeted the poster. Then hip-hop magnate Russell Simmons tweeted the poster to his 3.5 million followers. And multi-platinum rapper Nas followed suit. Eventually Miley Cyrus reposted it to her nearly 20 million followers.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators filled Manhattan’s streets two weeks later, with Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson holding a parallel rally in Washington, DC.
As a performance artist, Synead Nichols had called herself a singer-songwriter, a dancer and an actor—but now people were giving her new titles: a leader, an activist, even a “history maker.”
Demonstrations have broken out all over the country in the past year in response to police killings of unarmed black men. While long-time civil rights groups have called for rallies and marches, the real organizers of these protests have been previously-unknown youth leaders, calling for action in the streets via social media. This has led to some friction between the young activists and legacy civil rights groups.
The movement, propelled by the free flow of cell phone videos, photos and live reports on Twitter, is based more on principles and a set of demands for police reform, which may differ from city to city, advocates explain. This is expressed in slogans like “Black Lives Matter,” commonly collected in the hashtag, “#blacklivesmatter.”
“That particular call is almost a movement in itself,” says Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, or NAACP-LDF. “A hashtag is a reflection of a larger set of demands, a larger set of politics, a larger set of issues.”
"One of the criticisms of ‘hastag activism’ is that people sit behind their computers and mouth off on Twitter and don't do much of anything else,” says Vince Warren, executive director for the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). But activists, including Nichols, have used it “to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people around the county into action,” Warren says. “And that's a new phenomenon—particularly it's new coming from young black leadership."
“They are definitely a new generation and that’s something we have been praying for,” says Akinwole-Bandele. “What you are seeing is young people around the country saying, ‘No more. That’s it.’”
But as a veteran activist with decades of experience, Akinwole-Bandele takes a longer view of the impact these young activists are having.
“The work that’s been happening here in the last year is part of a long strategy that was mapped out decades ago,” he says. “It’s part of a continuum of work that’s been calling for police accountability,” he says, pausing in thought. “Forever.”
Hundreds of lawsuits, countless hours of research and seminal studies have paved the way for young activists like Synead Nichols and scores of other local organizers from Ferguson to Baltimore, Akinwole-Bandele believes. “The language has been provided, the narrative was laid out. So people stepped in and were able to use some of the tools that were there.”
And while reformers new and old confirm that they share an important symbiotic relationship, there is tension between them.
During Al Sharpton’s rally in Washington, DC, young activists from Ferguson, Missouri demanded the microphone. According to multiple news reports, the crowd chanted, “Let them speak” until Johnetta Elzie, a protest organizer from St. Louis, was given the podium. “This movement was started by the young people. We started this,” she yelled. Those in her faction complained that the demonstration had been co-opted by Sharpton and lacked the more dramatic tactics needed. “I thought there was going to be actions, not a show. This is a show,” Elzie said.
Despite this high-profile incident, a public relations spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform (CPR) bristled at the idea of an “old guard” and a “new guard” in the movement, calling that characterization “inaccurate and contrived.” CPR represents a broad coalition of organizations in New York, including NAACP-LDF and CCR.
"The young folks were saying to the old-timers, 'You don't speak for us anymore. The tactics that you have laid out over the last thirty or forty years still have us in a situation where we're being indiscriminately shot. So, we're going to take this over and take this in a different direction,’” Vince Warren explains. But Warren doesn’t find this division to be a threat to the cause. “I think that's very healthy for the movement. I think it keeps civil rights groups and religious organizations on their toes. And it really shifts the narrative."
"This leadership is not coming from the black church, it’s not coming from traditional civil rights groups and NGOs, its coming from people in affected communities,” Warren explains.
Warren says there is friction between this new wave of activists and traditional civil rights groups. “Primarily over questions of turf, over questions of how quickly this change should be happening, the question of what the demands should be.”
Young protesters have shown a willingness to go toe-to-toe with police, risk arrest and even injuries in ways that has not been common on this scale for decades. That’s led some to question the tactics and leadership of those taking to the streets, particularly how some demonstrations have devolved into rioting. There is consensus, however, that what is unique about the current crop of young activists in New York and across the country is a new sense of boldness or fearlessness that is fueling what could become a second wave of the civil rights movement.
“People are just going to be out in the streets,” Nichols said. “People are going to say, ‘Hey this is not good. We're going to handle this right now.’ People are more proactive now."
This generation of activists “are willing to sacrifice to make sure that progress is made,” Akinwole-Bandele says. “People are tired, people are frustrated, people are no longer being constrained by fear.”
While these activists are unsure of what the next year will hold in terms of concrete political changes or reforms in New York, they all agree there will be many more protests to come.