THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Who is Deemed Worthy

How America has delegitimized Black youth activism

by Mia Pattillo

Illustration by Katya Labowe-Stoll

published March 23, 2018


On February 20, nearly a week after the Parkland High School shooting, 100 students from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School stepped off a bus in Tallahassee with sleeping bags, snacks, backpacks, and blankets. They had just traveled six and a half miles to reach the Florida Capitol and were preparing to wake up the next morning to pressure lawmakers and other state leaders to approve stricter gun control laws, including a ban on the sale of military-style semi-automatic firearms such as the AR-15 used by the gunman at their school. Many stayed up past 3 AM on their green cots in the Tallahassee Civic Center, researching state policies, identifying amenable lawmakers, and editing speeches on their laptops to testify.

In the aftermath of the Parkland massacre, the high school students channeled their rage over Florida’s previous legislative paralysis on gun control toward activism—all while wrestling with their grief and trauma. They banded with peers across the country to push state and federal leaders to enact stricter gun control policies by publishing op-eds, giving speeches, organizing rallies, and meeting with politicians. Capitalizing on the power of social media to propagate their message, the leaders prompted a trending national discussion through the hashtag #NeverAgain. They exposed the hypocrisy of pro-gun politicians: in response to Donald Trump’s “prayers and condolences,” a student named Sarah tweeted, “I don't want your condolences, you fucking piece of shit, my friends and teachers were shot… Prayers won’t fix this. But gun control will stop this from happening.” They raised over $3.7 million for future events with the help of contributions from moguls such as Steven Spielberg, George Clooney, and Oprah Winfrey. They organized two major nationwide events: the National School Walkout on March 14 and the March for Our Lives on March 24 as part tribute to their classmates and part protest of the government’s failure to prioritize gun violence as an issue. The media coverage for Parkland within the first two weeks produced some 8,000 stories online, nearly twice that of the already highly-covered Las Vegas and San Bernardino shootings.

Indeed, no shooting in our country’s recent history has so successfully captured public attention and mobilized gun-control focused protests. Three hours north of the affluent, predominantly white enclave of Parkland lies Sanford, the site of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s fatal shooting in 2012. In response to the shooting, the Dream Defenders, a group of student activists who aimed to end police brutality, slept outside of the Florida Capitol for 31 days to demand a repeal of the “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law. This law grants the right for defendants to protect themselves without retreating and was used to acquit Martin’s killer. Governor Rick Scott declined to speak with the activists, and when House Speaker Will Weatherford agreed to call for a legislative panel to review the law, no progress was made. In fact, state legislators have only pushed to expand the law over subsequent years.

When the 100 students of Parkland traveled to Tallahassee to demand policy change this February, they were welcomed in the doors of the Capitol the next morning to meet with nearly 70 lawmakers and state leaders, assured that their concerns were being received. Two days later, Scott, who only five years ago had declined to address “Stand Your Ground,” backed student demands with a new proposal to restrict gun ownership by raising the minimum age to buy a gun.

The outpouring of support for Parkland thus begs the question: Why has America so readily embraced this youth activist movement while failing to support Black youth-led activist movements? The answer may not lie any deeper than the racist ideology at work in this country. In a Tampa Bay Times investigation conducted on Florida police shootings between 2009 to 2014, the majority of victims were Black, even though white people in Florida outnumbered Black people three-to-one. Gun violence has been proven to disproportionately affect communities of color, but the racial makeup of Parkland High School centers the issue of gun violence around a predominantly white community, thus de-racializing the movement.

The media, however, has claimed that the difference in the Parkland case is predicated on a novel form of student activism, seemingly forgetting the work of Black youths who have been actively fighting against unlawful gun violence for years through groups such as the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, Project Orange Tee, and the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center. “Why the Parkland kids might be different,” heads one Washington Post article. “I have covered most mass shootings in America in some capacity, and I have never seen anything like these Parkland kids,” writes a Politico reporter. Even when the media does acknowledge the work of young Black activists, it is often in a negative light. A study conducted in 2014 by Joy Leopold, a graduate student at University of Miami School of Communication, and Myrtle Bell, Professor of Management at the University of Texas at Arlington, called the presence and racialization of the protest paradigm “a pattern of news coverage that expresses disapproval toward protests and dissent,” and other marginalizing techniques in media coverage of Black Lives Matter. Media outlets and politicians have referred to Black youth activists as “terrorists” and “thugs,” dog-whistles which would likely never be directed against the largely white Parkland students.

At the heart of the matter, this discrepancy between the flood of popular support for Parkland and explicit backlash against the Movement for Black Lives reveals which communities America has deemed worthy of empowerment and safety. Youth leaders of both Parkland and Black Lives Matter employ the same peaceful approaches in tackling unjust gun violence: talking with politicians, planning marches, speaking in front of crowds, writing opinion pieces. However, when these methods are used to confront anti-gun violence in the context of race, mainstream political discourse marginalizes Black Lives Matter as unacceptably radical while embracing the supposedly race-blind #NeverAgain as revolutionary. In reality, the student leaders of Parkland activism do not represent an unprecedented emergence of youth activism, but rather a present example of how this country champions white-washed, mainstream narratives while continuing to systematically delegitimize homologous and long standing efforts of Black activism.

 

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Brother Gary Dantzler, an activist for Black Lives Matter and Pawtucket resident, was first propelled into activism after the police-involved shooting of his unarmed friend, James Wilcox, in 2006. He has since been protesting and talking to government officials about issues such as gun violence and human rights across Rhode Island, New York, Massachusetts, Baltimore, and elsewhere. Following the absence of charges in the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Dantzler led a crowd of people onto Route 95 in Rhode Island. “The goal was to get your attention… to say, Hey, listen, you need to pay attention to these shootings across the nation,” he said.

But Brother Gary told the Independent that getting this attention, especially in Rhode Island, has been extremely challenging. “I get mostly backlash from the white media,” he says, explaining how, for example, he tried to get a radio show in Rhode Island through WPRO, but they refused to even look at a contract or consider him. Over his more than ten years of activism, an award from the Black Heritage Society of Rhode Island has been one of the only forms of recognition that he has received throughout the state.

Brother Gary argues that the voices of Black Lives Matter have also been stifled by the predominantly white feminist groups in Rhode Island. “I’m proud of these white feminist groups, but when [our movement] has around 500 people, how can I compete with an organization of 5,000 white people?” he says, pushing for the need for a stronger Black base in this state, where Black people make up only 5.43 percent of the population. Brother Gary echoes the rising sentiment of being bothered by seeing white-centered movements receive clout and support while garnering comparatively little support for his race-centered activism. “What really bothers me is that I’ve been doing this for a long time,” he told the Indy. “This is very overwhelming and depressing because it shouldn’t be happening today. We’re a part of society, but we’ve been overshadowed.”

The lack of recognition for both Brother Gary’s local movements and more national Black activism can be partially attributed to the fact that, unlike Parkland, where the median annual income is an affluent $128,000, many lower-income communities of color are denied the economic resources to engage with elite news media or hire lobbyists. In the case of Parkland, many of the teenagers already had connections and experiences that made it easier to spread their message: student David Hogg was training in journalism, and student Jaclyn Corin had created a 50-page project about gun control for her AP composition and rhetoric class. In Rhode Island, Brother Gary points out that most Black families have to work and do not have the time for activism. “Organizing is really tough in Rhode Island for minority groups of people, period, because you have the class that has money, and you have the class that doesn’t have money. It’s terrible here,” Brother Gary says. Indeed, the type of activism that involves travelling to state houses costs money, and having the freedom and time to dedicate toward building campaigns rather than watching over children or siblings comes with privilege.

And yet beyond class and social differences, it cannot be denied that there is a fundamental and marked distinction between the white feminist youth leaders and the Black Lives Matter leaders. “With some of these white feminist groups, it’s really aggravating, because imagine the Black women that tried to organize [Black-centered movements] in the state of Rhode Island. Where are they?” Brother Gary said. It is not only the proportionally low number of Black voices and dominating white voices that make it so challenging to gather clout, but also the failure of the media and political legislation to amplify or even address their issues at all.

 

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For decades, Black youth have been on the front lines of the fight for equality, safety, and justice, yet they continue to be suppressed and receive backlash for their activism. On February 1, 1960, four Black college students made the radical gesture of sitting down at Woolworth’s “whites only” lunch counter and ordering coffee, which sparked a larger wave of grassroots activism and led directly to the conception of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). But government organizations of this period did not hesitate to break the law in waging an overt and covert war against young leaders and movements committed to freedom for Black people. Agents of COINTELPRO, the infamous FBI counterintelligence program of the postwar period that was created to neutralize the activities of threatening movements, targeted Black activism in particular, ultimately infiltrating and suppressing the young voices of SNCC.

More recently, shootings have sparked the conception of various Black youth-led organizations that specifically fight against gun violence. The 2009 shooting of Nakisha Allen in Newark led to the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, Project Orange Tee resulted from the killing of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton in 2013, and only last June, seventh graders from Launch Expeditionary Learning Charter School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn walked out of school to push for an end to the frequent gun violence in their area. These organizations only represent a few examples of a massive anti-gun violence network led by Black youth that scarcely gets noticed by mainstream media, politicians, and scholars.

Oprah Winfrey’s $500,000 donation to the March for Our Lives gun control rally was accompanied by a tweet: “These inspiring young people remind me of the Freedom Riders of the ’60s, who also said we’ve had ENOUGH and our voices will be heard.” This reaction stands as a stark contrast to her 2015 comments on #BlackLivesMatter, when she accused the movement of “lacking leadership” and “clear objectives,” insinuating that it failed to champion for Black rights through an appropriate and effective method. But the Black Lives Matter movement used pointed and well-organized political action that aligned with the actions of Parkland students. Black Lives Matter activists met multiple times with President Obama, the Millions March protest of 2014 against police killings drew the largest post-Ferguson crowd to New York City, and four teenage girls organized a 1,000-person silent sit-in in Chicago’s Millennium Park in response to two police shootings. Despite being analogous to Parkland in their tactics, their reception differed immensely. In fact, as the Movement for Black Lives, which represents a collaboration of organizations including the Dream Defenders, Black Lives Matter, and the Black Youth Project 100, grew, so did the backlash.

“All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” stand as two well-known examples of erasure of movements for racial equality, calling for colorblindness or implying that there is a war on cops. But even beyond erasure, targeting from the government that echoes COINTELPRO’s war on Black activists continues. Last October, a new category created by the FBI’s counterterrorism division designated “Black Identity Extremists” went public. The 12-page leaked internal FBI report states that “It is very likely that Black Identity Extremist (B.I.E.) perception of police brutality against African-Americans spurred an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement and will very likely serve as justification for such violence.” Though this serves as an overt example of the current FBI’s targeting of Black activists, the report has garnered little of mainstream America’s attention. According to reports from Foreign Policy, the FBI has already prosecuted one individual suspected of being a B.I.E.: Christopher Daniels, who was arrested in Dallas, Texas last December for unlawful possession of a firearm. Prior to his arrest, Daniels had been monitored by the FBI unknowingly for two years because of his anti-police rhetoric on social media and at rallies. Even today, peaceful Black activists fear for their civil liberties if they are deemed part of B.I.E. under an already threatening and blatantly racist administration.

In response to Oprah’s tweet, Charlene Carruthers, national director of Black Youth Project 100, one of the groups that was conceived in 2014 after the shooting of teenager Michael Brown, expressed her frustration at the difference in reception between Parkland and Black youth led movements. “I'm happy for these young people. I just know how so many young people have put their lives on the line over the past five years,” she tweeted. “We're rarely compared to Freedom Riders and recipients of such public support. I shouldn't be bothered, but I am.”

 

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As stories from Parkland continue to dominate airwaves, Josh Williams, one of the youngest and most involved Ferguson activists protesting the police shooting of Michael Brown, is still serving eight years in prison for his activism while Brown’s shooter Darren Wilson remains free. As harmful and unfounded narratives of violence and criminality surround Black activist movements, the Parkland students have found a ready advocate in mainstream media. Counterintelligence programs that indicate fearful hostility toward Black populations and more covert methods of suppression only contribute to keeping Black populations poor and disenfranchised, while political attention continues to works in favor of those who fit mainstream definitions of an American.

The country’s recent rush to support Parkland students exemplifies what every youth movement deserves. But it also provides irrefutable evidence of the consistent and violent denial of attention to Black narratives. People only support a movement when they believe in what it stands for, and today, much of America has sided with a white community against gun violence while it still has failed to do so for a Black one.

 

MIA PATTILLO B’20 thinks enough is enough.