In "Their Eyes Were Watching God," author Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” The last decade did much of both for my generation — Black millennials who are determined to live our lives with dignity and shape a new future for ourselves and our communities free of oppression.
But to understand them, you have to understand the years that came before. A generation of us that experienced what may qualify as a war — a war against our communities, our cities and towns, and a war against our imagination. The term millennial was given to us; it was often used as a term to demean and criticize my generation, deemed “unprofessional” and “ungrateful” by those who came before us.
The stark difference between millennials and baby boomers, however, is not our attitude but our inheritance: We inherited their recession, their deindustrialization and their union job drought and their militarized police force, and were given low-wage fast-food industry jobs, unimaginable school debts and an ever growing prison state. Most of our generation couldn’t technically vote against George W. Bush — whether because of age or systematic disenfranchisement — but took to the streets against the war in Iraq, chanting and shouting at anti-war protests and organizing our neighborhoods to rise up against the injustices we were experiencing. Many of us spent our first years of adulthood fighting back against what felt like the worst president in history; little did we know what 2016 would bring.
The almost decade-long reign of the Bush administration created a fire in our bellies that would catalyze many of us to help Barack Obama get into the White House. We desperately needed hope and promise, a vision for America that wasn’t tragic and obsolete. Too much domestic and global disruption was led by the Bush administration; Obama promised he would end the war, that we would be given something akin to universal health care, and that the LGBTQ community would no longer live in the shadows. The Black community especially was grateful for Obama; many of us thought that, finally, we would have a champion in the White House. We understood that white supremacy was one of the most devastating constructs that had happened to Black people and communities of color; it might have been thought of as an issue of the past but it needed to be mitigated in the present.
We were disappointed.
Then, in 2012, the killing of Trayvon Martin, while tragic and disheartening, was also the catalyst for Black millennials to rise up and fight back. We saw out of the ashes of our collective pain and anger the birth of Black organizations and institutions — but most importantly, the birth of a new Black protest movement. We also became witness to a new group of Black leaders largely lead by Black women and femme-identified people: Charlene Caruthers became the national director for BYP 100; Philip Agnew created the Dream Defenders; Daniel Maree created the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice; and Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and I created #BlackLivesMatter. Most of us didn’t know each other well; we were spread out across the country and yet we collectively felt the rage of the war on Black people. This rage set the tone for what would come to be called the Black Lives Matter movement.
I remember watching the Dream Defenders on YouTube during their 31-day takeover of the governor’s mansion in Florida. They used social media to tell a story about why the murder of a young boy was absolutely unacceptable and called for the repeal of Stand Your Ground while doing yoga on the lawn of the living quarters of the head of their state's government. They completely rearranged my understanding of protest. Their sit-in radicalized a generation of youth ready to take back a country that had never been ours.
It is with this protest that many other Black protests and direct action were galvanized.
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By the time George Zimmerman was acquitted of Trayvon Martin’s murder, many of the organizations that had developed were ready to take action. The Black Lives Matter hashtag became a national organization — Black Lives Matter Global Network — and began to organize around the killings of other Black people. BYP 100 developed a political analysis that would birth terms like “unapologetic” and positioned queerness as an asset to the movement instead of a detriment previously, it had been posited that openly LGBTQ people in our movements would turn off older Black voters. The Million Hoodies for Justice Movement organized college students across the country, helping them organize for gun reform. These Black-led institutions developed a generation of leaders who, though they didn't know it, would soon take on the institution of law enforcement and become the key strategists for local, state and national politics.
Mike Brown was murdered in the middle of the day in front of his entire neighborhood in the summer of 2014. His body was left out on the street for four and a half hours during what was one of the hottest summers in Ferguson, Missouri. Many of us bore witness to this tragedy via Twitter and Facebook.
Every generation of Black resistance is launched by an uprising; Ferguson was ours and we are forever indebted to every single Black person (and all the allies) who decided to fight for their dignity, and to challenge one of the smallest police forces in the state of Missouri, expose it for its corruption and collusion with white supremacist officers. The Ferguson Police Department had access to military grade weaponry that was used against the people who were grieving the death of their child, son, brother and friend. The Ferguson uprising gave birth to a Black resistance movement that continues to thrive today.
Our work as the Black Lives Matter Global Network would not exist without the tireless work of Ferguson organizers. In 2014, just 10 days after Mike Brown was murdered, Darnell Moore and I, along with dozens of other organizers across North America, planned a Black Lives Matter Freedom Ride to Ferguson. We had two goals: To support the community inside of Ferguson and St. Louis, and then go back home and organize. We did just that.
From that ride, we birthed chapters across the country, Canada, and eventually the United Kingdom and Brazil. Black Lives Matter became a rallying cry, a call to action and a clarifying demand. It isn’t just a domestic movement; it is a global force that has been used to shape a new understanding of what Black Liberation is.
Abolition has been the central demand of our movement. Despite our naysayers, the idea of abolishing the prison and police state is not an abstract concept: We know it is possible and we know that we all deserve to live in a world that doesn’t rely on punishment and subjugation as a way to handle public safety. We understand that in order to imagine a new world, we have to believe that the inhabitants of that world deserve love, compassion and dignity.
Abolition grounded not just in theory but in a practice that believes human beings deserve a culture of transformation and compassionate accountability. Our movement’s reflection is a desire to heal, transform and ultimately change the power structures that damaged our communities and families. That is what the next 10 years will call for; that is the answer for our future.
More from our decade reflections project:
• THINKing about 2010-2019: Where we started, how we grew and where we might go
• How our phones became our whole lives in just 10 years
• College in the U.S. is at a crossroads. Will it increase social mobility or class stratification?
• The success of the 'me too' movement took a decade of work, not just a hashtag
• The decade in LGBTQ: Pop culture visibility but stalled political progress
• Egg freezing and IVF in the 2010s brought us the next phase in women's lib
• How Netflix, Star Wars and Marvel redefined Hollywood — and how we experience movies
• Opioids, pot and criminal justice reform helped undermine this decade's War on Drugs
• Climate change became a burning issue in the past decade, but also an opportunity
• Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Gaga, Pink and Kesha cleared the way for women in the 2010s
• Celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow made the 2010s the decade of health and wellness misinformation
• White Christian America ended in the 2010s