A headline-making protest that drew enormous crowds to the streets of Boston started with a tweet — and three college students.
After three days of watching protests sweep across the country in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, in Minneapolis, Amel Viaud of Mattapan decided it was time for her community to stand up.
On Thursday, May 28, the 21-year-old tweeted, “boston, i say we unify and go downtown this sunday evening and stand with minneapolis.”
That Sunday, Viaud and two other Black women in their early 20s did just that. Under the name Black Boston 2020, they led tens of thousands of demonstrators from Nubian Square to the State House. They also joined a rising tide of high school and college students taking center stage in protests from Massachusetts to Mississippi.
Young people have the megaphone, and they say they won’t give it up until the country has fully reckoned with the police violence and systemic racism threatening their communities and lives. Increasingly, their elders are following their lead — showing solidarity with young organizers and helping them translate this charged moment into what they hope will be a sustained movement.
Two weeks later, Viaud is still energized by the memory of leading a protest. She’s optimistic that many people her age are determined to effect lasting change. “I think young people today are trying to break generational problems, and systemic issues that are going on in their environment," she said.
Nashville’s largest rally against police brutality was organized by a group of teenage girls. A 15-year-old led a series of Savannah, Ga., demonstrations. Young New Yorkers formed a movement called Strategy for Black Lives. A group of young Mississippians planned a rally in Jackson. Closer to home, 22-year-old Deja McCottrell co-organized a peace rally in Brockton, and Brooklyn Manna, 18, rallied hundreds of her Woburn neighbors.
Students who might normally spend this time of year planning graduation parties, jetting off to internships, or enjoying the first lazy days of summer are instead organizing their classmates and elders. After months spent confined at home due to COVID-19 and years spent watching images of police violence and mass resistance, they are eager to take their energy and talents to the streets.
These young leaders have diverse interests — music, marketing, law, education, politics — but confronted with two crises, they have united under one goal: ending systemic racism.
Toiell Washington studies sociology, education, and women’s and gender studies at Salem State University. As a teen, she used student journalism to educate her peers on issues including colorism and beauty standards.
On the last Sunday in May, the 22-year-old Dorchester woman led the Black Boston 2020 march alongside Viaud. Though she had organized demonstrations on her college campus, she said she was floored by the number of people who rallied behind her and her co-organizers.
“I was very much in shock. I really did not expect that many people to come.”
Washington said young people like her have a responsibility to continue the work of activists who went before them.
“The other generations already had their turn. They already went through it. They already did it,” Washington said. "So not only should we not expect it of them, but we should be starting to expect it ourselves. We should be holding each other accountable.”
“People think that in moments like this, we’re reaching out and waiting for someone to save us, but we are the next generation, so we have to save each other."
Young people organizing for racial justice follow in a long tradition.
“There have been successive waves of youth activism outflanking the traditional African-American and civil rights leadership" dating back to the 1930s, said Kenneth Mack, a Harvard Law School professor who studies the history of race in the law.
He pointed to the example of Representative John Lewis, who as a young man chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights group that both collaborated with and challenged the tactics of established figures like Martin Luther King Jr.
“In that sense, what’s happening right now is very continuous with the past,” Mack said.
To Mack, it is no surprise that today’s young people, and Black youth in particular, are leading a new wave of civil rights protests.
“I think it’s become hard for young people to avoid images of the movement today,” he said. Teens and young adults are steeped in videos of Black people dying at the hands of police officers, political hashtags and slogans, and images of protests — all of which circulate rapidly online.
“We have an entire generation of young people now who have grown up debating these issues," Mack said.
Calogano Chambers is a member of that generation. The Mattapan 19-year-old, who identifies as African-American and Honduran, was in middle school when Trayvon Martin, a Black teen, was killed while walking to his Florida home. Chambers said his youth has been shaped by the Black Lives Matter movement that formed in response to Martin’s death — and that change is overdue.
“Black lives should have mattered with Emmett Till," Chambers said, referring to the 14-year-old lynched in Mississippi in 1955. “Black lives should have mattered with the massacre of Black Wall Street." The 1921 massacre, when white mobs in Tulsa, Okla., attacked Black people and burned down the Black-owned business district, was one of several instances where white supremacists literally sent Black wealth and security up in flames.
Chambers — a musician who said he lives by the belief that anything is possible — sees it as his responsibility to educate other young people on the movement and its history. He does that both through organizing rallies and writing music that highlights racial injustice and police brutality, which he performs under the stage name See Four.
“Me doing what I’m doing at the age that I’m doing that, relating back to them and being the same age, there’s a greater meaning to things,” he said. “It’s relatable, and I can honestly connect.”
Mack, the Harvard professor, said the varied forms youth activism take today — through social media and music, as well as direct community organizing — distinguish it from its counterparts in the 1950s and ’60s.
“What is really different today is the decentralized nature of it, the fact that now the next leader can come from anywhere," he said. “That’s what social media does.”
For many young organizers, leadership begins on their college and high school campuses.
Washington and Viaud are both members of activist groups at their universities, Salem State and St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y. Arianna Constant-Patton, a Roxbury organizer and rising high school senior, said attending majority-Black Boston Collegiate Charter School helped spark her activism.
“I started to learn about who I was,” said Constant-Patton, 17, who has one white parent and one Black parent. “I started to begin to learn my place in this movement, and it was never to be silent.”
Constant-Patton had her introduction to organizing during the March for Our Lives movement that high school students from Parkland, Fla., began in 2018 to end gun violence. Since then, she’s relished every opportunity to take a stand on issues that matter to her. She speaks with conviction and self-assurance, two qualities that served her well last week, when she spoke in front of a crowd of thousands at a Franklin Park vigil organized by Black Lives Matter Boston and Violence in Boston Inc.
“Why would I want to sit back and not say anything while the people who look like me are dying?" Constant-Patton asked. “The only thing that kills us is silence.”
Abrigal Forrester, director of The Center for Teen Empowerment, has made encouraging young people to speak up his life’s work. The Roxbury-based nonprofit teaches teens — including both Chambers and Constant-Patton — how to organize in their communities.
“I think what’s on the rest of us is to make sure that we honor, first and foremost, the feelings that young people have," Forrester said. “They’re on the front end of hope and change.”
Forrester also said its important for older people to provide the tools, spaces, and strategies youth need to express themselves safely.
“Critically conscious youth development is about helping young people think about what they’re thinking about so they’re able to disperse their ideas, their thoughts, their energy in a proper manner," he said.
It’s a role young activists welcome older people in their communities to play.
Viaud and Washington said they were grateful to the more experienced Boston activists who helped them plan their march. As more and more people responded to their call to action on social media, the young women worried about how they would lead the crowd.
“It was overwhelming, but I was overwhelmed with joy. Because I was given this power, and I didn’t want to abuse it," Viaud said.
Late that Sunday night, after the official march had ended, some people broke into downtown stores, and Boston police and protesters clashed. The city subsequently called in the National Guard. But the protest itself had been peaceful and hopeful, the co-organizers said, thanks in part to the seasoned organizers who helped recruit safety marshals, plan the march route, and mentor its young leaders.
“I want them to teach us," Viaud said of older community members. “I want them to sit down and share their experiences.”
She also wants them to listen. “The best thing that older people could do is see us. Be there with us out in the streets.”
Even for the youngest organizers, achieving racial justice is an inter-generational fight — one they are prepared to keep fighting and pass onto the next group of young leaders that follow them.
“What’s so dope is that we’re not taking no for an answer," Viaud said. She added that she believes protests will continue until demonstrators’ demands are met with meaningful policy interventions. "What needs to be changed on a piece of paper to protect our lives?”
Young organizers do not see taking to the streets as the only way to advance their cause. They want to use their careers for social justice, too.
Constant-Patton plans to study civic engagement and politics. “I want to be the next AOC,” she said, referring to the progressive Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman to be elected to Congress.
Viaud dreams of opening a Boston school where Black and Latino children can learn about their heritage. She is starting by teaching her young nephew, who is in elementary school, about his own legacy.
Viaud’s nephew, mother, and older sister joined her in marching. After the protest, she told him, “You’re gonna see Black people crying, but you’re always going to see Black people laughing.”