Before George Floyd quit begging for the air under the knee of a police officer, 19-year-old Weidmayer Pierre planned to work at Wal-Mart during his summer vacation from Palm Beach State College.
Now his days look very different. Pierre has quit his retail job to focus on organizing Black Lives Matter protests every few days in Florida, determined to channel the source of energy around the world into meaningful reforms in his hometown.
“Every time someone is killed by police brutality, we protest once or twice and it’s done,” said Pierre, who wants to help the police improve the system from the inside out. “This time I have no intention of stopping until we have a change.”
Pierre is part of a grassroots, decentralized wave of young organizers in the United States who help fuel the outburst of protest against racism and police brutality in cities and towns across the country.
Many are new to organizing, but have seen how they have been videotaped by police brutality since childhood. Social media is second nature to many and they show how small groups can quickly translate online information into real-life action.
Now in big cities and small towns, both liberal and conservative, they take matters into their own hands and bring hundreds of thousands of people together to push for change.
The early organizers’ visions for the future are different, but they all hope their voices help create a historic turning point in dismantling racism and inequality.
Tiffany Medrano Martinez had just graduated from eighth grade when she decided to stage a peaceful demonstration in her hometown of Redwood City, California. The 14-year-old had seen protests flooding the country after Floyd’s death, some accompanied by unrest in the form of broken windows, stolen goods, and burnt buildings.
She said she understands the roots of anger, but wanted to keep the focus on reform. So she put together an online flyer that hosted the June 2 event and wrote, “Don’t take anger at small businesses.”
Within an hour someone had changed the folder, so the opposite was said. When the word spread online, local leaders were concerned. So she and her friends called the mayor and the police to assure them they didn’t want any material damage.
The event came together as she intended, with nearly 3,000 protesters in the city center. The sea of peaceful protesters brought her to tears.
“When I know my opinion, it is usually not heard. It was crazy that people actually heard it once, “she said. “As a youth, we have a much bigger voice than we expect.”
She wants more police training and more officer candidate testing to banish those who may become violent. And like many others, she also wants more tax money to be spent on social programs instead of police militaristic equipment – an effort that is often debunked by the police.
Midway through the country in Detroit, 16-year-old Stefan Perez said his only real public speaking experience was on his school’s debating team before the beginning of June when he handed over a megaphone asking him to help lead a protest at the city’s police station .
That night he also entered the no man’s land between the rows of protesters and police, putting his hands behind his back in a silent call for calm.
“Ultimately, I wanted people to get home safely,” he said. “The people who are with me and watch are the voice of Detroit.”
Protesters are demographically younger, with a median age of 30 or younger, skewed at several major demonstrations since Floyd’s death, said Dana R. Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and author of the book “American Resistance.”
Many older adults stay at home because of their increased risk of the coronavirus, and the pandemic has given young people more free time by forcing the cancellation of everything from internships to beach plans.
“These are young people who are trapped inside, which increases anxiety and increases social isolation,” said Fisher. “This call for solidarity has really worked out for them.”
Most of the protesters she interviewed hear about the gatherings of decentralized sources, such as their family, friends, or the social media platform Instagram, which is popular with young people.
In Oakland, California, a flyer posted on Instagram by two 19-year-olds for a George Floyd Solidarity March drew 15,000 people.
One of them, Xavier Brown, said he was determined to turn social media attention into real-life action. “I was tired of seeing every police violence case turned into a hashtag.”
In the small town of Wimberley, Texas, two high school friends spent a day creating and posting flyers on Facebook and Instagram for a Black Lives Matter demonstration that brought 100 people to the town square.
“I was a little concerned about any kind of backlash, as we’ll still be in this city,” said co-organizer Jasmine Racine Belleau, 17. “But in the end, we felt it was really important.”
Belleau, who is black, and her Spanish co-organizing friend Isabella Perez, 16, said they had heard racist comments from children they grew up with, including ‘we hate Mexicans’ and ‘go back to the cotton fields.’
The comments started around the time of the election of President Donald Trump and Perez and Belleau thought their classmates were encouraged by Trump, who called immigrants “animals” and “criminals.”
The Wimberley protest also attracted a few young opponents, who laughed at them and posted videos online.
But Perez said it was realizing and satisfying to realize that within a few hours, she and Belleau could attract a lot more like-minded people to protest in public.
“There are many loving people in our community who will support us,” she said.
While many of the newly minted organizers across the country are first-time protesters, others have led similar efforts for years. Eva Maria Lewis, 21, is an activist in Chicago who speaks out since she was 16.
Now she runs a network of people who help deliver groceries and household goods to people in Chicago’s south and west neighborhoods, where access has become more difficult during protests and the associated police presence during the corona virus pandemic.
“It is also a deck moment. I’ve never seen or heard anything like this in my entire life, ”she said.
Lewis has a comprehensive vision for the future, where everyone has access to food, health care and quality education.
“When we create space to have a conversation, we create space to transform,” she said. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have enough experience. It is not that difficult to start, you just have to do it. ‘
Detroit Associate Press writer Corey Williams contributed to this report.
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