December 31, 2014
The shattering events of 2014, beginning with Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, in August, did more than touch off a national debate about police behavior, criminal justice and widening inequality in America. They also gave a new birth of passion and energy to a civil rights movement that had almost faded into history, and which had been in the throes of a slow comeback since the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. That the nation became riveted to the meta-story of Ferguson—and later the videotaped killing of Eric Garner in New York—was due in large part to the work of a loose but increasingly coordinated network of millennial activists who had been beating the drum for the past few years. In 2014, the new social justice movement became a force that the political mainstream had to reckon with.
This re-energized millennial movement, which will make itself felt all the more in 2015, differs from its half-century-old civil rights-era forebear in a number of important ways. One, it is driven far more by social media and hashtags than marches and open-air rallies. Indeed, if you wanted a megaphone for a movement spearheaded by young people of color, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than Twitter, whose users skew younger and browner than the general public, which often has the effect of magnifying that group’s broad priorities and fascinations. It’s not a coincidence that the Twitterverse helped surface and magnify the stories of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and Michael Brown.
Two, the new social-justice grass roots reflects a broader agenda that includes LGBTQ (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-questioning) issues and immigration reform. The young grass-roots activists I’ve spoken to have a broad suite of concerns: the school-to-prison pipeline, educational inequality, the over-policing of black and Latino communities. In essence, they’re trying to take on deeply entrenched discrimination that is fueled less by showy bigotry than systemic, implicit biases.
Three, the movement’s renewal has exposed a serious generational rift. It is largely a bottom-up movement being led by young unknowns who have rejected, in some cases angrily, the presumption of leadership thrust on them by veteran celebrities like Al Sharpton. While both the younger and older activists both trace their lineage to the civil rights movement, they seem to align themselves with different parts of that family tree. And in several ways, these contemporary tensions are updates of the disagreements that marked the earlier movement.
Sarah Jackson, a professor at Northeastern University whose research focuses on social movements, said the civil rights establishment embraces the “Martin Luther King-Al Sharpton model”—which emphasizes mobilizing people for rallies and speeches and tends to be centered around a charismatic male leader. But the younger activists are instead inclined to what Jackson called the “Fannie Lou Hamer-Ella Baker model”—an approach that embraces a grass roots and in which agency is widely diffused. Indeed, many of the activists name-checked Baker, a lesser-known but enormously influential strategist of the civil rights era. She helped found Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference but became deeply skeptical of the cult of personality that she felt had formed around him. And she vocally disagreed with the notion that power in the movement should be concentrated among a few leaders, who tended to be men with bases of power that lay in the church. “My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders,” she said.
Baker’s theories on participatory democracy were adopted by later social movements, like Occupy Wall Street, which notably resisted naming leaders or spokespeople. But James Hayes, an organizer with the Ohio Student Association, said that he didn’t think of this new social justice movement as “leaderless” in the Occupy style. “I think of it as leader-ful,” he said.
By December, some of these same uncelebrated community organizers who spent the year leading “die-ins,” voting drives and the thousands-deep rallies around the country would meet privately with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. (“We got a chance to really lay it out—we kept it real,” Hayes told me about the meeting. “We were respectful, but we didn’t pull any punches.”) A few days after that White House meeting, Hillary Clinton, widely assumed to be eyeing another bid for the presidency in 2016, nodded to them when she dropped one of the mantras of the demonstrators—“black lives matter”—into a speech at a posh awards ceremony in New York City.
All this new energy comes, ironically, as the country’s appetite for fighting racial inequality—never all that robust in the best of times—appears to be ebbing. The tent-pole policy victories of the civil rights movement are even now in retrenchment: 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, American schools—especially in the South—are rapidly resegregating; the Voting Rights Act, which turns 50 in 2015, has been effectively gutted; and, despite the passage of the Fair Housing Act, our neighborhoods are as segregated as ever. Once-narrowing racial gaps in life outcomes have again become gaping chasms.
At the same time, the new movement’s emergence has caused friction with the traditional civil rights establishment that identifies with those earlier, historic victories. At a recent march put together by Sharpton’s National Action Network in Washington, D.C.—meant to protest the recent decisions not to indict the officers in several high-profile police-involved killings and push for changes in the protocol from prosecutors—younger activists from St. Louis County were upset at what they saw as a lineup of older speakers on the podium who were not on the ground marching in Ferguson. So they climbed onto the stage and took the mic. “It should be nothing but young people up here!” a woman named Johnetta Elzie yelled into the microphone. “We started this!” Some people cheered them. Others called for them to get off the stage. After a few minutes, the organizers cut off their mics. (In the crowd, someone held up a neon-green sign making their discontent with the march’s organizers plain: “WE, THE YOUTH, DID NOT ELECT AL SHARPTON OUR SPOKESPERSON. HAVE A SEAT.”)
A few days later, Elzie downplayed the incident and told me that the disagreement was simply about “someone who doesn’t want to give up the reins and who has a huge platform.”