From Ferguson To New York, Women Are Leading Protests
Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, during a die-in on the spot where her father died. Photograph: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Erica Garner – the brave daughter of Eric Garner, who died this July when police officer Daniel Pantaleo restrained him in an illegal chokehold –staged a “die-in” last week outside the storefront where her father said his last words: “I can’t breathe.” The phrase, which Eric Garner repeated 11 times as Pantaleo refused to release his grip, has become an international rallying cry for protesters, celebrities and students alike.
And Erica Garner has, like a lot of women have, been at the forefront of much of the New York-based protest movement advocating for changes in system or law and order – and how we as a society view black lives. She is, like a lot of women are, supported by organizers working to keep momentum going for tangible, systemic change, even in the wake of such collective, ongoing pain.
Saturday afternoon in New York, a diverse crowd of over 50,000 people marched through the city expressing frustration with a system that continues to let black die people without justice. The Millions March NYC, characterized as much by deep affirmation of black life as collective outrage over that injustice, brought together people of all backgrounds to protest ongoing state violence.
But the latest successful moment of the post-Ferguson movement wasn’t the work of an established civil rights organization or well-funded non-profit: like the protests and organizing in Missouri and beyond, it was driven chiefly by the efforts of young black women and brought to fruition by a coalition of young multi-racial activists. Umaara Elliott and Synead Nichols, the lead organizers of Saturday’s march noted that they are part of a new generation of activists “willing to take up the torch” and “demand that action be taken at every level of government to ensure that these racist killings by the police cease.”
Like the young women of Ferguson, women like Elliott and Nichols are on the front lines of the fight against racist state violence. It is young black women being teargassed, providing jail support for comrades arrested during protests, and holding up signs that assert our shared humanity alongside male comrades. “NYPD ARE THE BROKEN WINDOWS” read one sign I passed as I marched with fellow young – and female – organizers, a nod to the discriminatory policing policy that erroneously suggests taking a harshly punitive stance on “quality of life” crimes will somehow reduce the rates of violent offenses.
The most recent dynamic leadership of black women on thefront lines in Ferguson and cities across the US reflects what black women understand intuitively by virtue of our own experiences: the radical power of black women-led activism lies not in token representation for the sake of optics, but in deep, meaningful attention to intersecting oppressions and the solutions that emerge from understanding them. It maintains that we are all affected differently by injustice and must address its multiple iterations simultaneously– that “nobody’s free until everybody’s free”.
A commitment to understanding the overlapping vulnerabilities that different black people face – that is what’s behind our common quest to defend all black lives. When humanity is defined not solely by proximity to whiteness ormanhood, all black people are closer to freedom and justice.
“The dream is to be able to exist in this space with everyone else and push our entire community forward as black women,” Brittany Ferrell, co-founder of Ferguson’s Millennial Activists United, tells me. The grassroots organization, formed in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting death at the hands of officer Darren Wilson, is led largely by young black women.
The names and stories of black women and girls who lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement often fall out of the public narrative, underscoring the need for black women’s leadership in movements dedicated to ending state violence against black bodies. Uplifting and supporting activism from the margins is what enables us to keep saying these women’s names as we protest the injustice in the names of our Erics, our Michaels, our Tamirs. It is what honors Rekia, Aiyana, Deshawnda, Nizah, Tanisha, Gabriella, and countless other black women killed by the police.
For instance, one of the most visible groups in the Ferguson-based protests was Black Lives Matter – “an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise” – and it was formed by three black women. Its inaugural project in Ferguson, a national call for organizers from around the country to ride down and quite literally show up in solidarity with residents, was organized by queer black leaders Patrisse Cullors and Darnell Moore.
“What feels different now is that who’s at the forefront of the conversation is no longer the old vanguard of primarily cisgender, heterosexual black men,” Cullors told me. “There is a qualitative difference in whose leadership is being visibilized, and black women are forcing ourselves into the forefront.”
As we all grapple with racist state violence in the context of a deeply patriarchal society, black women organizers continue to put their bodies on the line to bring forth justice where it has yet to take root. They are supported by the men who stand in solidarity and community, like Moore, Deray McKesson of Ferguson and countless others who are amplifying their work. We are in this thing together, and our resistance will flourish as we envision a world where both our collaborative work and unique contributions are celebrated.
“I hope these protesters accomplish a lot,” Erica Garner said in an interview last week. “I hope it shows people that we’re very passionate about this and that we are not going to stop until we get justice.”