the changing face of black activism
To coincide with Black History Month, we take a look at how a new generation of young black men and women are engaging with social activism to defend their rights.
This February marks the 40th Black History Month in the United States, and the eighth and final celebration during Barack Obama's tenure as President. Unfortunately, the sense of forward progression and racial unity that many had hoped would come with Obama's presidency never quite came to pass - racism didn't end with a black president. In the last four years, the high-profile deaths of Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Sandra Bland, among dozens of others, became the subject of wide scale protests against police brutality in the United States.
Statistics show that black people are more likely to be killed, arrested and imprisoned, on both sides of the Atlantic, and continue to face disproportionate levels of unemployment and poverty. Yet a new wave of politically minded and socially active young people are using social media and new technology as catalysts for change, carrying the torch for vital black activism into the 21st century.
"When society is structured to keep you at a disadvantage, it's hard not to be angry about it", says Femi* (name has been changed), an activist who was among the 76 arrested at a Eric Garner protest in Shepherds Bush in 2014. "Black people are being killed by police officers and in police custody on both sides of the Atlantic, and it didn't feel like something we could shrug at anymore," he continues, "It wasn't enough for us to be angry and hold the poison in, we needed to let the people know."
It is this desire to let people know of the continued aggressions against black people that has spawned a new wave of black activists. Through a combination of traditional protest and online discussion, thousands of socially engaged black people and allies are building on the foundations of historical black activists to try and bring about social change.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement is at the forefront of this new movement. Since its inception in 2013 as a protest against the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter has grown from a Twitter hashtag to a collection of 23 chapters worldwide, boasting thousands of activists. Steered by a core group of civil rights activists including Deray Mckesson and Johnetta 'Netta' Elzie, the Black Lives Matters movement and affiliated protest websites such as We the Protestors and Campaign Zero, mean activists now have greater opportunity to campaign against state violence, challenge issues around wider racial inequality, and make their voices heard.
Social media has allowed this generation of activists to not only form networks and connections, but also steal the media spotlight, get their message out, and become part of the debate in the way that previous generations weren't able too. "Instantaneous communication is vital when the media is an unreliable source of reporting on racial issues," says Zoe Samudzi, an Oakland-based activist who uses Twitter as a platform that allows her academic work to educate others. "Twitter has been an incredible asset to black organising, and it's been incredible in constantly broadening my social and political horizons by exposing me to different and evolving understandings of race, gender and sexuality that I might not encounter otherwise".
This isn't to say that all activism takes places online. Jesse Bernard, based in North London, takes his politics to young people in schools. "I run workshops for black males where we discuss race, sexuality, gender and identity and the aim of those is to spark discussion that we normally wouldn't have." For Jesse it's important black people are made more conscious of the world around them, and learn to not accept the many micro-aggressions they face on a daily basis. "If activism is speaking up when they want you to be silent, then I've been doing that for years".
More and more black people are finding their own forms of activist work to articulate their ideas about the black experience. For Adam Cooper, it was during his time as a youth worker volunteer in Nottingham that he found his voice. "Through my work in this African Caribbean neighbourhood, I realised that lots of the policies I was studying [Adam is a former politics student, now studying for a PhD at Oxford University] did little to alleviate the miseducation, underemployment, police violence, poor housing and other social ill suffered by the people I worked with." Adam has since taken his learning to activist publications such as Ceasefire, as well as debating issues both in the NUS, the BBC and Channel 4.
More so than ever, the era of 'respectability politics' looks to be a thing of the past as more black people learn that they are not alone in their discrimination. It was fitting that Martin Luther King Day saw Deray Mckesson appeared on The Stephen Colbert Show.
The appearance of a young, passionate black voice on a mainstream show, explaining to a predominately white, moderate audience how they might better address their white privilege and contribute to the cause felt like a banner moment. Yet despite the work done by Black Lives Matter, the fight is ongoing and there is much work still to be done. For every success, from the Missouri University student protest, there is disappointment, like the statue of Cecil Rhodes remaining in place at Oxford University. More and more, people are grouping together with the shared goal of ending oppression in any form it takes. As Deray said on Twitter: "Everybody has a role to play in the fight for social justice. Tactical diversity is our strength -- we won't all play the same role."
For many young black people. staying silent is simply no longer an option. Finding a sense of community through like-minded individuals on the internet, they are bringing the issues faces the black community to our Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook feeds and to our cities and demanding justice be served and while we disappointingly have a long way to go to a fair and equal society, thanks in part to these young black activists, the conversation is forging forward and they won't stop until the battle has been won.
Text Carl Anka
Photography The All-Nite Images