A little over three months after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown we learned of the grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer responsible, Darren Wilson.
The announcement came the week of Thanksgiving, a time to celebrate family and fellowship, instead, many of us could not help but think of the pain felt by those who would have a son, father, or daughter missing from their table. Adding to the pain, something else that’s missing is sense of justice for these families.
Time after time, the people responsible for cutting Black lives short continue to go free. On the day the decision about officer Wilson was revealed, a little over one thousand people gathered in Union Square to protest and to remind the world that #BlackLivesMatter.
Twenty-three-year-old Synead Nichols co-creator of Millions March NYC was among them. “My heart sank and I just started to cry. Here I was again putting my faith in a system that obviously continues to fail us. It was hard.”
Nichols marched with the group all the way to Times Square, shutting down several streets along the way. Still, Nichols had a strong feeling that she needed to do something more.
“We were really hoping that this would pan out but it didn’t. I thought about doing shows, a web series, short plays, an art exhibit, installation pieces, everything I could possibly think of to get the message out,” she passionately explained to MadameNoire as she reflected on the moment in her Harlem apartment.
“When I got home all of sudden I was sitting by the computer and I was like you know what I am going to do something. Let’s make a Facebook event. If people can [take action in] Arab Springs all the way out in Egypt why can’t we do that here? So I made the page and I texted Umaara,” she continued.
Umaara Elliott is the 19-year-old co-organizer of Millions March NYC. Funny enough, the two ladies say their friendship began virtually on Facebook and became a real friendship through their art; Elliott is a dancer, while Nichols has a background in dance and also sings. Together, these young women organized one of the largest protests the #BlackLivesMatter movement has seen to date.
After creating the Facebook event page, the news about the march took on a life of its own. After the girls invited everyone they knew to the page, they noticed that celebrities and high profile groups began sharing it and soon the RSVPs went viral. On December 13, 2014 it’s estimated that somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 protesters took to the streets. The families of Ramarley Graham, Kimani Gray and Jordan Davis were among those present at the march.
“The power of social media, the power of people’s emotions. People were tired, people were sad. People were hurt because this could be Umaara’s little brother, this could be my little brother, this could be me, this could be Umaara,” Nichols explained when explaining to us why she believes so many people came out to march that day.
Many of our great leaders often say that leadership is an action not a position. Martin Luther King Jr. once said:
“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
Nichols and Elliott are two young artists from New York City. They never organized a protest before. Yet, using the tools provided by social media and the power of their desire to see things change for the better, they took action.
But they haven’t stopped there. Just last week there was a half-day session of workshops called The Gathering for those wanting to get more involved in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. And there’s more.
MadameNoire: What’s been the response to people learning about your story?
Synead Nichols: [People] didn’t know it was us who did it at first. They thought it was another organization. They couldn’t believe two young girls, two young black girls at that, initiated this whole thing.
MN: What do you feel is the significance of you two ladies being at the forefront of organizing something like this?
Umaara Elliott: I think it’s super important to put a face to something and that we are pretty young and that we weren’t seasoned activists or organizers. We are two regular girls who work with children and work in the arts and we had been avid protestors for months and we wanted to organize something and it just happened to be massive. I think its super important because it inspires people. Someone tagged their daughter or friend and she was like “you can do it too.” Anybody can do it. You don’t have to have a degree to be an activist, to be an organizer. You don’t have to have a degree to organize a protest, or a march.
SN: If you feel compelled then why not? Just because we were dancers or artists or performers, that didn’t stop us from protesting. We were still out there, we were still getting manhandled by cops. I still got bruised up. Everyone’s out there and again being a seasoned activist doesn’t mean anything. You have an experience.
UE: The thing is about the movement or any movement, you want to bring in as many people, its not an exclusive club it shouldn’t be an exclusive — “Oh you’re not apart of this organization.” We are all trying to reach the same thing so it doesn’t matter we are just doing it different ways.
MN: Did any of you have negative interactions with the police during the Millions March in December?
SN: No, and we are extremely happy for that. We wanted to show people we are here, we exist. There were so many different kinds of people there and they were all supporting Black lives. That was the most important part. You had your few people that were like, “All lives matter.” We know all lives mater. But understand it’s the Black lives that aren’t being counted… Being very adamant about that fact was very empowering.
MN: What was your original goal? How has your goal evolved or become strengthened since then?
SN: When it first popped into my head I wanted to be heard. I wanted people to be heard. They’re screaming and crying and yelling that they’re killing our community and no one hears it. Then it was getting those feelings into actual and specific actions. Getting a bill passed. Getting some law amended. Along with an overhaul of society and a system.
MN: During the march, after all the anticipation and planning, what did it feel like actually being there?
UE: I was excited. With a lot of these protests, “we” [people of color] were outnumbered. So at Millions March, I was happy because we had so many Black people on the front lines, aside from just the families. I was so grateful to see so many young Black people and not like young white kids who go to NYU.
MN: What do you think stood out about this one march that motivated so many people to come out?
UE: With a lot of protests, like after we hard the verdicts, they were spontaneous and a lot of people weren’t able to be part of it. So the Millions March, we announced it a little over two weeks before the date.
SN: Literally about two and a half weeks. It felt like everything was riding on this. I didn’t realize how much was riding on this until the night before.
MN: You mentioned that awareness of issues like police profiling was one of your goals. After awareness, what is next?
SN: After awareness, conversation, continuous implementation of this knowledge. You know now so what are you going to do with it? Talk to someone educate someone, go to panels, go to conferences, speak, write. You have to be proactive. Nothing ever comes to you, you have to go out for it.
MN: How is social media playing a role in this “new civil rights movement”?
UE: Well we were just talking about how the actual media is not covering anything. We didn’t know about the NAACP bombing until Twitter.
SN: People didn’t even know about Millions. My friend said she came to the protest and when she got home said there was no news coverage whatsoever. The thing about social media that I can appreciate is that it’s starting to [catch] people in their lies. [For example, what happened with] Antonio Martin, people were on the scene in seconds, phones out.
UE: I woke up and went on Twitter to find out Antonio Martin was shot. The media didn’t cover it until noon or hours later but they had changed the story so much. I’m seeing what the protesters were actually out there saying so to see what these newscasters were saying I was like, “No, you’re wrong.”
SN: I really love citizen journalism… because it allows you to get a wider picture. You see everything.
MN: There’s also a lot of discussion around “social media activists” and whether or not sending a tweet is actually effective. Too often, people are feeling accomplished by just sending a tweet rather than taking action in the real world.
UE: My only issue is people who are only online. Well, you could be online and have a blog about the movement. That’s great, that’s different. But I’m talking about people who just retweet stuff on Twitter. They don’t join Twitter town halls or chats. They’re just critical of the movement… like why are you guys only marching, why are you only doing this… not realizing that this is a multi-faceted movement. People aren’t just marching. People are in meetings. If you actually went to these things you would know.
MadameNoire: Did you see the movie Selma? Did you take any lessons from it?
UE: I thought it was so important to see WHY they were marching. It’s not just about marching and going out in the streets. It’s very strategic and very organized. I thought it was important to see the role that allies play in this. The only reason Martin Luther King had the allies is because he knew that if the media sees White people out there protesting with these Black people and they’re getting beaten up then the media becomes sensitive.
MN: What would you say to people who have not protested before but maybe want to?
UE: Go out there and remember what you’re fighting for. Are you going to wait on someone else to do it? You can do it!
MN: What would you say to women who maybe feel they are overlooked or ignored by the movement?
SN: You are not overlooked, we see you. We know you exist. We are fighting for you.