A year ago, a small, predominantly black city was preparing to declare war over an 18-year-old’s death at the hands of white cop.
They say they are fighting a system that still does not recognize their humanity.
“This is life or death,” Kayla Reed, a 25-year-old St. Louis native and field organizer for the Organization for Black Struggle, said. “You’re racing against a clock that at the beginning of your time, your people are getting taken out.”
Brown was just two days away from starting college when he was shot dead and left to bake in his own blood for four hours on the scorching pavement while his community in Ferguson watched, paralyzed with horror and utter disbelief.
For most black millennials growing up in the struggling St. Louis suburb, Brown’s death was personal and they wanted answers. As more details of the shooting emerged, young people nationwide joined the frontline of a movement demanding justice and a federal commitment to a “better forever” for black lives.
“This is not your traditional civil rights movement, if we’re trying to tackle social justice, we can’t just do that on the ground, we gotta take it from the ground and put it on the cloud.”
Like so many others who feel unsafe being young and black, Reed’s involvement in the movement is an example of how life changed after August 9, 2014.
Before Ferguson became what most know it to represent today, Reed was a pharmacy technician. Shortly after Brown’s death, she left her job and became a prominent organizing force behind actions like “Occupy SLU.” She co-chaired this weekend’s commemoration in St. Louis, #UnitedWeFight, where she and other activists remembered Brown’s life and other black lives lost to police violence.
Reed, who identifies as a straight black woman, said it was important for her to learn to be intentionally intersectional in planning actions. She said in doing so, the movement becomes “leaderful” instead of leaderless.
“When you look at all black lives matter, it encompasses many things that I am not, but it also needs to be represented at the table,” Reed said. “I had to learn as a straight, black woman what my privilege was and how I needed to advocate for my queer sisters and brothers as well.”
For young activists like Reed, organizing after Ferguson is more than an occupation, but a lifestyle centered on survival. It is a form of resistance unknowingly birthed from a legacy of black resiliency.
“Our ancestors had no idea we can even do this much,” she said. “At our core, we are people who care about our culture and our people and we just want to fight for that while we have the ability and the ableness to be in the streets and be in the meetings where we can go 16 hours without sleeping.”
The revolution will be digitized
Ferguson foot soldiers, the majority of them black and brown millenials, shifted the operation from the streets to the digital space early on. Twitter hashtags like #OccupySLU, #HandsUpDontShoot and of course #MikeBrown accelerated the mission and made it global.
Youth activists from Hands Up United, a local community organization in Ferguson, created the Roy Clay Sr. Workshop, a six-week intensive web development program that teaches students to build and strengthen web presence of black owned businesses in Ferguson. The workshop has produced 10 websites so far and is part of a tech impact initiative to boycott corporations and reinvest in black and brown companies.
"A lot of people talk about the ballot and voting, but for where we are right now in Black America, a brick being thrown through a window did a hell of a lot more in my community, than a ballot did."
25-year-old Ned Alexander, a student in the workshop who went from “protesting to programming”, said the movement is driven by social media. “If it were not for that outlet, we wouldn’t have what we have now,” Alexander said.
Hands Up United recently launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds to keep this effort going.
“This is not your traditional civil rights movement,” 30-year-old Idalin "Abby" Bobé, who is a mentor in the program, said. “If we’re trying to tackle social justice, we can’t just do that on the ground, we gotta take it from the ground and put it on the cloud.”
In the aftermath of Brown’s death, the NAACP has met with groups like Hands Up United to ensure that their voices and values are heard and included in the movement. In a previous demonstration sponsored in part by NAACP, a young crowd heckled the group’s national president.
22-year-old John Gaskin III, one of the youngest members of the NAACP National Board, told NBCBLK the civil rights organization is now making more of an effort to bring young folks into the fold to avoid exacerbating a disconnect.
“One of the things we have seen and learned from younger activists is that this agenda is bigger than Michael Brown,” Gaskin said. “It’s bigger than Sandra Bland. It is a multi-faceted political agenda that has to be moved forward in order for us to see any progress.”
Still, the organizing strategies among younger activists and the NAACP have a generational strain.
While the NAACP is focused on agitating the federal government for relief, young activists like Tef Poe, a hip-hop artist from St. Louis and co-founder of Hands Up United, prefer a more hands-on approached. Poe said the moment of disruption should be embraced.
“I don’t know where we would have been today if it were not for the fighters of Ferguson and Baltimore,” Poe said. “A lot of people talk about the ballot and voting, but for where we are right now in Black America, a brick being thrown through a window did a hell of a lot more in my community, than a ballot did. That type of respectability doesn’t move anything and if it does move anything, we don’t necessarily care because it moves it at a pace that does not necessarily affect our lives.”
"Hashtag of the day"
As the number of unarmed men and women of color lost to police violence increase and their stories are televised, the impact on youth mental health grows more severe.
Dr. Marva Robinson, clinical psychologist and president of the St. Louis Association of Black Psychologists, works with black men and women, including those who identify as LGBT, at her St. Louis practice. Robinson said her patients are directly affected by deaths like Brown’s and other black lives which become what she calls a "hashtag of the day."
"The nightmares, the flashbacks, the hyper vigilance every time they see police officers—these are going to be symptoms that can last for decades, especially if they don't seek treatment."
Robinson said these blows are traumatic and young activists especially need to take steps to adapt skills in self-care because the consequence are long lasting.
"What we don't realize is that the psychological hits that these young individuals are taking at this time are going to have impact for decades," Robinson said. "This is not something that they will be able to move past or get over in a year or two or five. The nightmares, the flashbacks, the hyper vigilance every time they see police officers—these are going to be symptoms that can last for decades, especially if they don't seek treatment."
While young people may hold the torch in propelling the movement for black lives today, Reed told NBCBLK it won’t be that way for long.
“This movement is being built on the backs of young people, but young people that know that one day they’ll be older,” Reed said. “They need to grow enough for the next generation so that we are passing tools unto our children and their children to make sure that this continuum of struggle actually stops at some point.”