Die-in in Shaw. (Photo: Reginald Cunningham)

The Year in Preview

How I Became an Activist

Five leaders of protests against police violence tell what drove them from speech to action in 2015.
Dec 14, 2015· 7 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Samuel Dubose, Tony Robinson, the Charleston Nine—it’s a list of tragedy and heartbreak. To many, their deaths were a message: To some folks in America, black lives don’t matter.

Their names lived on, however. They became trending topics hashtagged on Twitter or memed on Facebook and Snapchat, much like those of Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice, their predecessors over the past few years. And like those victims, 2015’s inspired marches and protests and sparked a heated debate over race and policing in America.

But this year saw a shift in the movement: Protesters were no longer just bodies with signs shutting down busy streets. Instead, they demanded (and got) meetings with presidential candidates. They released multi-point platforms with federal, state, and local recommendations to reform law enforcement. And they expanded their efforts to bring about meaningful change beyond racial justice, including in wage equality, LGBT rights, and gender equality.

FULL COVERAGE: How 2015 Changed the Future

This year, the five activists below brought their energy and commitment from the realm of social media and protest marches to organizing for political change. As they’ll tell you, progress requires more than a protest sign. In 2016 and beyond, we’ll see where it takes them.

Rhys Caraway. (Photo: Instagram)

Rhys Caraway, 24, Houston

I kept my eye on Ferguson, I kept my eye on Baltimore, and the hashtags on social media. But it wasn’t until I went to Selma in March for the 50th anniversary and heard those stories and heard the president, and heard John Lewis say that we have so much further to go—that really made me want to come back home and do something.

After Sandra Bland’s death I saw a hashtag on Twitter—#WhatHappenedToSandraBland? I was once a student at [Prairie View A&M University, where Bland was on her way to begin a job when she was arrested], and I’ve been through Waller County [in whose jail she died]. I was like, something is not right about this. So I was sitting outside in my car after Bible study, and I was like, we need to do something.

Protest in Ferguson. (Photo: Reginald Cunningham)

So we went and got a canvas, wrote “What Happened to Sandra Bland?” on the front, and that’s what started the vigil at the Waller County jail.

I was there for 25 days. I felt like my job was to hold the space until the students got back to campus. Once they did, I knew it was time for me to move on, because there is so much in Houston to work on. My pastor said something that really resonated with me. He said, “This is a fight, but this is not the fight.” I’m a queer man, a man of faith, and then a black man. With my three intersections—there’s a lot of work to be done with all three.

I really felt a pull to do more community-involved projects. I’m starting a project called Young Black Voices, and I’ve been doing a smaller series of workshops. I did one last month, and I’m doing one in December, and it’s going to be called “Connecting Our Voices: Intersectionality of the Movement.”

I also want to start a nonprofit called The Landon Project—named after a friend of mine who was killed four or five years ago in Houston. It would focus on the things that he embodied while he was alive, you know, helping people, feeding the homeless, and doing workshops about self-worth and antibullying.

Rachel Field (right). (Photo: Courtesy Rachel Field)

Rachel Field, 23, Brooklyn, New York

After Mike Brown got shot, I was out protesting every single day. I got deeper and deeper into organizing to the point that now organizing is my life, and I spend at least 30 hours a week organizing. I spend most of my hours doing work for a group called ANSWER—Act Now to Stop War and End Racism—and trying to build a sustainable, long-term movement.

At protests you see the need for organization. Being on the street, people are running everywhere. I still go to all the marches for Palestine or Black Lives Matter, but you have to build the community from the ground up. You can’t just put a call out on Twitter and expect thousands of people to show up. There were activists who were just doing things on Twitter, and now they’ve lost their base because all they do is social media. And there are people in the grass roots who don’t use it, and they’re not necessarily plugged into that whole community.

The reality of racism and why I care—I’m Filipina—is that my people are oppressed by imperialism. The media portrays Asian folks as disengaged from politics, [but] the immigrant community is often not involved because of language barriers. Asian folks experience discrimination and oppression in America, but also very severely in our home countries. We have everything to gain from a movement like this. Black Lives Matter is not my struggle, but the solidarity is necessary. We have to stand together.

Reginald Cunningham. (Photos: Tamara Walker)

Reginald Cunningham, 31, St. Louis

In the past, as black men, women, and children have been killed by police brutality, there’s been a protest, and then there’s nothing. I think that what has been very important in 2015 has been the move toward working on and being involved in other areas, such as the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage for Missouri. That has been a way that I have moved from that protest space.

That’s what’s made the movement go toward things that are actually going to make systemic change. My shift in activism wasn’t a kind of thing where we were at a protest and I said, "This ain’t it. We need to move on to something else." The people I’ve surrounded myself with have always had that idea of sustainability in mind. We’ve always had that idea of, OK, this is great, but what do we need to do from here?

I came up with the design for the "100% Black" T-shirt in May. The design was pure happenstance—I was like, what would be some things to put on here to celebrate blackness, especially considering the state of blackness as it stands in the world in 2015?

As for 2016, we’re not going away. This is not a fight that we’re prepared to give up on anytime soon—not until there has been systemic change in, number one, the way communities are policed, and two, the way black people are viewed and treated in this country.

Desmera Gatewood. (Photo: Courtesy Desmera Gatewood)

Desmera Gatewood, 25, Durham, North Carolina

Growing up, my father was the president of the Durham NAACP, starting when I was five years old. I just thought that was life—I didn’t realize that it was a movement or that we were doing anything beyond what people would normally do. He would protest and get arrested, and we would go to antiwar protests, police brutality protests. In some ways that made me take for granted what it meant to really be immersed in this life.

But in 2015, what really sunk it for me is when I saw Tamir Rice’s mom on television talking about the experience of sending her son to the park and then getting a phone call that he’d been killed by police. I’m a mother also. My daughter is three, and so I imagined what would happen if I sent my daughter to the park and this is what has happened and no one has any explanation as to why.

I’m working full-time as an organizer now. I started working with an initiative called Ignite Durham, which is a project that we just launched in September. It’s a project that’s an annex of Ignite NC.

I have also been organizing with the Durham Solidarity Center, who we organize all of our rallies through. Ignite Durham is more of an electoral initiative. We’re trying to get local folks engaged in electing leaders that are conscious, that are aware, that are responsible, that are accountable.

We sent a survey out to every candidate that was running in city elections. We asked questions like "Do you think $81 million in the budget for a new police station is a necessary expense when there are other pressing issues in Durham?" or "Do you think it’s a fair that there’s a bus that passes by the historically black college in the city and [only] stops at the white university, even though it’s on the same route?” We got about an 80 percent response. Based on their answers, we assigned an endorsement. We printed out 5,000 voter guides and distributed them throughout campuses in Durham. We had young people working with us. We had a campaign of college students taking selfies and tagging themselves on social media with the hashtag #IVoted, and you could win a prize. It was cool to see black kids in a contest for voting.

We endorsed a young black queer activist by the name of Jillian Johnson who just won a City Council seat in the election. She missed out on a lot of major endorsements that people who win in the city usually get. But we mobilized and organized and it was a totally grassroots thing. She was really instrumental in helping us organize a lot of the Black Lives Matter rallies that we had, and so for her to get elected was just a really wonderful shift in the political narrative as we know it in the South.

Zellie Thomas. (Photo: ZellieImani/Twitter)

Zellie Imani, 25, Paterson, New Jersey

With my presence on Twitter I realized that a lot of people were looking toward me for insight, and looking toward me for advice and to get plugged into the movement. You have to remember: It’s only like a year since this movement exploded, and a lot of these organizations in the movement are not even a year old. When I go to different colleges across the country, I speak, but I also try to do workshops and organizing for them so that they can have the tools to be empowered and be the leaders that they are looking for.

I have been really focused on empowering the youth and empowering college students, and that’s how the N.J. Shut It Down demonstrations came about. After the non-indictment of the officers who killed Eric Garner, there was obviously a huge eruption across the United States. I initiated a statewide conference call, and a lot of the colleges from New Jersey were on there, and so we strategized and we picked a day, and we had seven or eight colleges in a simultaneous shutdown of a highway that was next to them.

We’re really now starting to focus not only on empowering students on campus but also reaching out into the community wherever that campus is situated. That’s the next step of our organizing.