This article originally appeared in Sesi’s Spring 2015 issue. Subscribe here to stay up on our current editions.
In the eight months since Ferguson, a grand jury chose not to indict the police officer who killed the unarmed teen, and the Department of Justice decided not to file civil rights charges, either. This may have you wondering, “Now what?” Read on to find out how your generation is joining the fight for racial equality and let it inspire you to help make a difference in your own community.
FOR NINTH GRADER Tyreke Grayson of Cleveland, Texas, the shooting of Michael Brown was an incident that sounded hauntingly familiar. “[One evening], when I was [hanging out] with one of my friends, a cop pulled up, saw us, and pulled a gun out — no hesitation or anything,” he explains. “He thought we were doing something bad, but we were just walking to the park.” It wasn’t until after a group of neighbors walked by, noticed what was happening, and convinced the police officer that Tyreke and his friend weren’t doing anything wrong that the officer finally decided to leave. If those neighbors hadn’t walked by? “I probably would’ve been shot,” Tyreke admits.
It’s scary to know that racial profiling still exists in 2015 — that ladies still clutch their purses when they pass a Black man on the street, that salespeople still follow you around the store as you shop, that people still make ridiculous assumptions about you simply based on the color of your skin, that people kill people who look like you and get away with it. “We’ve had too many of these cases involving African-American males — and sometimes females — who are dying at the hands of the police,” says Dr. JeffriAnne Wilder, associate professor of sociology at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Florida. “You know, the everyday biases that people hold toward each other that are sometimes conscious and subconscious … things play themselves out sometimes in daily interactions that can have deadly consequences.”
While Michael Brown wasn’t the first unarmed Black teen to be murdered at the hands of the police, this particular incident seemed to spark a revolution. Why? Well, nearly eight months have passed and people are still fired up about what went down in Ferguson. “I think it’s different this time around because there was more evidence,” says Awura Barnie-Duah, an 18-year-old freshman at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. “People are bringing up the topic of how [Black people are viewed] in America and how police officers are just shooting to kill instead of shooting to wound. These incidents are starting to become the norm, and people are starting to catch on to the fact that something is not right.”
From Trayvon Martin to Jordan Davis to Rekia Boyd to Renisha McBride to Eric Garner to Michael Brown and more recently, Tamir Rice, how many more deaths will it take for others to realize that #BlackLivesMatter, too? While we can’t exactly answer that question, we can give mad props to the young people out there, just like you, who are not willing to stay silent and who are willing to stand up for what they know is right.
ALMOST IMMEDIATELY after hearing about Michael Brown’s death, hundreds of people from across the country made their way to the streets of Ferguson to show support. Adrienne Ayers, a 22-year-old senior at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan was one of them. She traveled all the way from Michigan to Missouri last October to participate in Ferguson Action, previously known as Ferguson October. This four-day event was packed with peaceful protests, marches, workshops, and panels and attracted approximately 1,000 activists. “It just felt like an obligation. It wasn’t a think twice type of thing,” Adrienne says. “It was just like, ‘You’re needed here” because in my mind, I’m like, ‘This is what has gotten people’s attention finally. It shouldn’t have had to come to this, but this is where it is and this is where it’s happening.” Aside from nonstop protests and marches, Adrienne also had to deal with the thick tension between the city’s residents and its police officers. “[When I was in Ferguson], there [were] SWAT teams everywhere like a scene from 300.” Adrienne says. “They kept trying to block us off from peacefully protesting … If you got caught without your ID down there, you were automatically going to jail. It was just too much.”
“[My parents were] like, ‘Don’t risk your life,’ but [I’m] risking it every day just by living, just by being,” Adrienne says. “If I don’t stop this now, my life and so many other lives are going to be at risk. It’s bigger than me.”
Many people see Ferguson as a jump off of the new Civil Rights movement. “This Ferguson situation is an opportunity for young people to step up, grab a hold of their futures by their own hands and say, ‘My life will be different, my life will be better,’” says Dr. Michelle Deering, a psychologist, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EDMR) therapist, and sports and educational consultant at Curative Connections, LLC., a consulting and mental health practice in Watchung, New Jersey. “As a Black community, we have to realize that we come from resilience and we cannot lose sight of that.”
Don’t think that just because you’re only 13, 15, 19, whatever, that you can’t make a difference in the world around you — it’s just not true. You most definitely can. “I just want people to ask themselves, ‘Where am I needed? What is my role?” says Adrienne. “And that doesn’t mean that you always have to be protesting or marching, but there is something that we all can do … Just do it in whatever way you can. It doesn’t mean it has to look like anyone else’s way of action.”
For Awura, joining Haraya, the Black Student Union at St. John’s University, has been her way of giving back. “I’ve learned a lot since coming to college in the fall [and joining Haraya] about not just police brutality, but other issues that plague people of color, such as beauty standards and cultural appropriation.”
So, how can you join the movement for racial justice? It can be as simple as doing what you do every day on social media. You already spend time keeping up with your favorite celebs, posting your #OOTDs on IG, and sharing funny memes with your friends on Twitter, but you also know how to use those tools to spread news, create calls to action, and speak on the things that don’t sit well with you. Some people like to hate on social media and say that it doesn’t have an impact on what’s really going on and that it can’t actually help make a change, but on the real, social media is more powerful than ever because it gives you the opportunity to become more knowledgeable about situations, and it gives you the platform to express your thoughts and opinions in real time the moment these types of incidents occur. “People of color have used social media to be really consistent with today’s sit-ins,” says Dr. Wilder. “It’s [our] way to voice [our] opinion about things that are happening that we aren’t comfortable with.” Your movement can be seen as modern-day sit-ins? Now that’s deep.
If you’re passionate about what’s going on in Ferguson and other issues surrounding racial equality, just know that you’re never too young to get involved. Lending your voice to a great cause can be a positive, rewarding, and possibly life-changing experience. “Even if you can’t go out and do something, you can always say something,” Awura says. “Your voice is the biggest weapon against injustice.”
WHERE DO WE GO from here? Real talk, the answer isn’t that simple. But one thing’s for sure: Unarmed Black teens dying at the hands of the police is not OK, and it must stop. One solution? Having open and honest conversations about race — no matter how difficult and uncomfortable they may be — with people of different ethnicities and cultures. In Tyreke’s case, he has several white friends at school with whom he feels comfortable enough to discuss Ferguson. “They feel the same way I do,” he says. “They agree that it’s not right and [the officer] should go to jail [for what he did].”
Following a New York grand jury’s decision last December not to indict a white police officer in the death of on another unarmed Black man, Eric Garner, who was allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes, Twitter got in on the action again, setting off a discussion with the hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite. It focused on white privilege with thousands of white people confessing to crimes they got away with — and obviously lived to tell. Even though the hashtag solidified what many of us already knew, it was the first time people from all over the world could witness real conversations like that transpiring between Blacks and whites in real time. “It takes people to let their guard down and get to a place of vulnerability,” Dr. Wilder says. “If people can start seeing Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, and Michael Brown as not just Black people, but as American citizens who lost their lives unfairly, that’s a start.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done since a big part of racial profiling is based on stereotypes. “I was at a forum … and there was a police officer who said, ‘Maybe if people stop walking around sagging their pants and wearing hoodies, we wouldn’t have a reason to stop you,’” says Adrienne. “To me, that’s equivalent to telling me as a woman I need to change how I dress so I’m not raped. I think we focus too much on trying to change those who are oppressed instead of trying to change the oppressor.”
All it takes is one encounter with the wrong person who deems you as suspicious and decides to take the law into his or her own hands to ignite a violent and potentially deadly situation. The only real way to put an end to stereotypes is by interacting with people from all walks of life. In reality, we’re more alike than we are different.
#Truth: We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long road ahead of us. Yes, it’s sad that we still have to have these conversations in 2015, but these discussions can bring about hope and change, and they cannot end until all Black lives are valued, too.