capres willow turner is an activist for the new generation
Using the power of social media, Capres Willow Turner organized a Black Lives Matter protest that brought central London to a standstill. Here, the teen trailblazer discusses the politics of race.
At 18 years old, Capres Willow Turner had never even been to a protest before, let alone staged one. "What do you mean you don't know how many people you're expecting?" gasped a Metropolitan policeman on the phone with her, "you're organizing a protest!" "The whole thing happened so quickly," Capres confesses of the Black Lives Matter march she instigated in London after witnessing a viral video of the horrific murder of Philando Castile by a Minnesota police officer. "I had no clue what was going to happen."
Such is the power of social media that a hyperlink can turn a simple idea into a full-blown revolution. When Capres created the event's initial Facebook group on July 6, 2016, she thought only 30 people would show up. When the police reached out to her on July 7, she thought maybe 300 people would show up. By 10am on Sunday, July 9, there were over 3000 people gathered at London's Oxford Circus ready to protest in the name of Black Lives Matter, the global movement against police brutality and violence towards black people, which began in the US, thanks to the efforts of Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi, after the 2013 killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin. "After I saw the video on Facebook of Philando Castile being shot I realized I had to do something," Capres explains. "People in London were tweeting about how angry they were, but no one was actually doing anything. I thought, 'what the fuck is going on, does no one care?!' So I decided to organize a protest."
On the morning of the march, Capres waved goodbye to her dad and set off for central London, her boyfriend and younger sister in tow. She was half an hour late and she'd forgotten to bring a megaphone. "I didn't know I needed one," she confesses. In fact, all she had was a makeshift sign saying 'Black Lives Matters' with an extra 's' on the end of it, which she'd added by mistake. "It sounds weird but I don't really remember what happened next," she says, "I was so overwhelmed, I wanted to burst into tears. It was an incredible feeling, I just couldn't believe how many people there were." In the days following the protest, Capres was inundated with messages of support and requests from journalists looking to hear from this heroic young activist who had managed to shut down all of Oxford Circus.
Things, however, soon turned nasty and for every positive message, there was a negative one. Trolls came out of the woodwork to criticize Capres on everything from her looks to her ability to lead a protest. "I got messages from total strangers saying, 'Who do you think you are, you're not even fully black. What would you know about anything?' It was really hurtful." With dual heritage parents, Capres has been navigating her way through the politics of race her entire life. Growing up in the suburban town of Waltham Abbey, she often found herself questioning why she looked so different to the other kids at school. "I used to straighten my hair when I was younger. Then when I eventually stopped, kids would grab my hair in the school corridor or ask to touch it all the time. The teachers would ask me if I felt bullied, but I didn't actually have a negative experience. It just became a point of difference."
After her mother died when she was nine years old, Capres and her younger sister went to live with their dad. At secondary school the gulf between "the white kids" and "the black kids" widened, which further complicated her sense of identity. "I don't want to define myself as black or white," she says. "I'm not going to turn my back on one side or the other. It was hard growing up, because at secondary school there was no overlap. I used to hang out with the white girls, but then I became friends with a group of black girls. There were certain things that both sides would say which I couldn't really relate to. Even choosing where to sit at lunchtime was a thing. It shouldn't be like that." It wasn't until she moved to Epping Forest College that she began to investigate the politics of race further, and ultimately learned the necessary tools to challenge the norms she had hitherto accepted without question. This led to her applying for a degree in Anthropology and Sociology at Goldsmiths where she is currently in her first year.
"After the protest, I felt like people were expecting a lot from me," she reflects, "but all I did was something I felt was right at the time. I learned so much, but there's still so much more to learn. Black Lives Matter is not just about black people being shot by police in America. It's about how black people are treated across the world, whether they're stopped and searched in the street, how they're represented in the media." So what does she propose? "Nothing is going to change over night," she sighs, "especially when something is so ingrained within our culture. We have to reform the police and the governments. On an immediate level we need to go back to our local communities, to our schools, and teach kids that they don't have to wear a weave or straighten their hair to fit in, and inspire them to love the color of their skin. We need to encourage young people to stand up for what they believe in and remain true to who they are."
It's been four months since the protest and it's already changed Capres's life. A far cry from the bewildered 18-year-old girl with a misspelt sign and missing megaphone, Capres is a little older, a lot wiser, and much more determined to make the world a better place. So, what does the future hold for the protester who started a revolution from her living room? "I want to see where my studies take me and go with the flow," she says humbly. "All I know is that I want to have a positive impact on people's lives, in whatever way I can."
Text Tish Weinstock
Photography Claire Shilland