If you’ve taken even a passing glance at the news in recent weeks, you’ve seen images reminiscent of a war zone. Tanks rolling down suburban streets; guns pointed at protestors by authorities in flak jackets. These weren’t stories from Afghanistan or Palestine. They were the live accounts of what has happened in Ferguson, MO following the death of Michael Brown at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
Viewing these images encourages any number of emotions: sadness, anger, helplessness. Were you inspired to action? The people of Ferguson were. Communities around the country were also. We saw pockets of people gather together to organize protests, marches, strategy meetings, and boycotts – all to call for justice for Michael Brown and all those whose stories of violence and death at the hands of law enforcement are becoming far too frequent. Another response emerged as well: online. Social media continues to house rallying cries. No doubt, “hashtag activism” appears here to stay. What’s the next move? Where will we take this?
One thing that many of the above actions have in common is initiation by young people, mostly 40 and under. From grassroots organizing to outreach from national groups, response has been swift in calls for justice for Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, and now Michael Brown. What will we do to move forward from these tragedies? What now?
The young professionals and college students stepping up today are leading the charge right now. From the Dream Defenders to Million Hoodies, the “youngins” have accepted the call and are on the ground, hard at work in their own communities and nationwide. They are providing educational resources in their neighborhoods, training each other to be leaders in government, non profits and corporations, and they are mobilizing when tragedy slaps us in the face and reminds us that there is much more work to be done.
To be clear, the under 40 population leading the movement for justice is nothing new. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were each just 39 years old at the times of their assassinations. Rosa Parks was 30 years old when she joined the Montgomery, Alabama chapter of the NAACP and served as the chapter youth leader, long before that fateful bus ride. And Stokely Carmichael was just 19 years old when he participated in the Freedom Rides in 1961.
As was the case at the height of the civil rights movement, we still have much work to do and a segment of our population who won’t be asking for a seat at the table to figure out what to do. They are pulling up chairs and making themselves comfortable at the forefront; building their own foundations if necessary. I’ve heard commentary that we have no leaders in the black community; I say we have plenty. It’s time to help advance those who are already putting in the work. That happens when we collaborate.
In the past year and in the immediate aftermath to the death of Michael Brown, I’ve seen our voices carry together. The National Urban League Young Professionals used their network of chapters across the country to support their fellow St. Louis members in a time of crisis, as well as continue to craft a long-term response to the issue of police brutality. Howard University students joined together for a powerful #dontshoot image that quickly went viral to show their solidarity and landed their Student Association president, Leighton Watson on CNN. Actor Jesse Williams, 33, was deemed the heir to Harry Belafonte’s advocacy legacy by the Washington Post as he speaks out on issues of justice and civil rights, as he has been known to do for quite some time now.
We are not at a loss for leaders if you’re paying attention. There are many voices and they don’t all agree on how to respond, but they are definitely mobilized and engaged. There is no one among us who can find the solutions in a day; the work will require commitment and expansion to involve more individuals, but change is possible.
We are tweeting and hash tagging to raise awareness. We are gathering for peaceful protests and marches to show our solidarity. We are organizing boycotts to gain attention through economic impact. We are working with our elected officials to change the laws that shield abuse by law enforcement. We are scheduling trainings to keep our youth protected as the realities of their safety remain worrisome.
Don’t worry about what activities on that list you do not agree with or think won’t work- figure out how you will respond. Get to work. Make sure this is a movement, not a moment. Don’t wait for another tragedy to cross your newsfeed, because whether you take action or not, the abuse will continue. The only question is what will we do together to prevent it from continuing indefinitely?
Charis A. Goff is the President of Thursday Network-Greater Washington Urban League Young Professionals.