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Meet the Young Activists Leading New York’s Black Lives Matter Protests

From left, Nia White, Chelsea Miller, and Nialah Edari. Photo: Erin O’Brien

Three weeks ago, Carlos had an internship in finance lined up for the summer and was planning to channel years of social activism, beginning in middle school, into a job in impact investing. But as protesters flooded the streets of New York, the 21-year-old Dartmouth student put his internship offer on hold and headed out to join them.

Many of the people who have led marches across the city during recent weeks have been even younger than Carlos. Some have not yet cast a ballot in an election and many have no activist experience at all. But now, they all have dedicated their lives to building and sustaining a movement that has already sparked monumental changes across the country. Here are just some of the young activists who have spurred thousands of New Yorkers into action.

Nia White leads a protest on Juneteenth. Photo: Erin O’Brien

Chelsea Miller, 23, Nia White, 17, and Nialah Edari, 25, of Freedom March NYC

As they watched stories about looting and violence take over mainstream coverage of New York’s first wave of protests following George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police, Nialah Edari and Chelsea Miller felt they had to find a way to counter the narrative and highlight the core goals of the movement. Within a day, the two friends, both Columbia University graduates, had organized a protest for May 31, marching from Washington Square Park to One Police Plaza, in honor of the 99th anniversary of the burning of Black Wall Street.

Building on the momentum of that first demonstration, they founded Freedom March NYC, a nonviolent-protest movement focused on reforming the criminal-justice system and mobilizing young people in the lead-up to the 2020 election.

Activism and community advocacy are not new to the trio: Miller was one of the youngest interns in the Obama White House, working on criminal-justice reform and urban economic opportunity; Edari was the Midwest regional director for the National Action Network’s Youth Move program; and Nia White worked with the nonprofits WeBelieve and Black Women’s Blueprint from a young age.

Nia grew up in Brooklyn and saw the effects of the very systems and policies Freedom March NYC is arguing against. “I’ve always been surrounded by violence either in the sense of seeing it around my neighborhood or violence in the sense of it being within my own block,” she said. “Police were inside of the schools, and my mother had to take us to schools that were 40 minutes to an hour away in order for us to get the best education.”

Miller sees this moment, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, as ripe for further change.

“We completely reimagine how we go to the grocery store, how we interact with family, how we go to school, how we go to work,” she said of America’s pandemic response. “Similarly, we need to reimagine what it looks like to navigate a system where we address racism as a pandemic and we learn to renavigate and restructure and reallocate resources to tackling this — that starts with anti-racism.”

Haniq. Photo: Erin O’Brien

Ndeh, 23, and Haniq, 23, of Freedom Actualization Tribe

Ndeh and Haniq, who both asked to be identified by their first names, met on May 30 as they marched throughout Brooklyn, eventually finding themselves up front, leading fellow protesters. The day, they said, was remarkable, with hundreds of people walking through the borough for more than ten hours. But when police cracked down, protesters scattered, shattering the sense of solidarity.

The following day, Ndeh and Haniq joined with several other demonstrators to form the Freedom Actualization Tribe, offering a space where activists could come together to share ideas. They decided candlelight vigils would best highlight the mournful, communal nature of the movement. Amid a weekend of violence and looting, they sat down in front of Barclays Center on the night of May 31 and invited passerby to come join them.

“Our demonstrations are very focused on the idea of communalism. We sit in a circle. We light candles. We invite people to enter the circle to be a part of something that feels like a family, like a village, like a tribe,” Ndeh said.

They came back, almost every evening, at 7 p.m. On the night of June 1, a group of demonstrators marched toward them on Atlantic Avenue, yelling at them and calling for violence. His voice never rising above conversational, Ndeh reasoned with the marchers and eventually convinced many of them to join the Tribe.

This was exactly what the group had hoped to accomplish: to bring the conversations that they were having among themselves to the streets and encourage demonstrators to consider different perspectives.

“All the people we talk to, they come from so many different backgrounds,” Haniq said. “I feel like I’ve learned more just from talking to people than I have in a lot of the years I spent in school.”

Night by night, the vigils grew larger and a community cropped up in the space between the subway stop and the police barriers guarding the Barclays Center’s doors. The pavement was decorated with chalk drawings, and drips of wax speckled the sidewalk. Local residents came to recognize members of the group, waving as they passed by. Sensei, a 9-year-old who has become friends with the Tribe, rode his skateboard around the space most of the day, helping them with supplies and logistics.

Members of the group say they do not want to prescribe goals for their organization, as that would be falling into “old ways.” “I think we can agree that what we want to do is encourage evolution. And there is no way that you can define evolution,” Haniq said. “We see life as a big canvas. And we know that our lives will only contribute to that canvas, potentially in a very minuscule way. But we want everyone to realize that you can contribute, you should contribute, and you should be free to contribute.”

Jzabelle. Photo: Erin O’Brien

Onni, 20, Jzabelle, 20, and Leyla, 20, of NYC Revolutionaries

Demonstrators of all stripes have followed NYC Revolutionaries — thousands of them. Megaphones in hand, shouting chants and doling out encouragement, the group runs marches like a well-oiled machine. Walking slowly, keeping media and bikes to the front of the crowd, the group often marches up Fifth Avenue (good acoustics) from Washington Square Park (great gathering place), stopping in Bryant Park (center of midtown Manhattan).

Those following the group might be surprised to learn it formed just a few weeks ago. After checking out a demonstration in Foley Square, Onni made a group chat with her friends Jzabelle and Leyla, who all asked not to be identified with their last names, and some other people she’d met protesting. As the group picked up more members, its leaders decided to form NYC Revolutionaries. Now the organization — which has a full-time staff of seven — leads protests three times a week and has raised thousands of dollars for supplies and logistics.

Onni is a professional roller-skater, and Jzabelle recently graduated from college with a degree in fashion marketing. Both women grew up in New York and were primed for this movement by witnessing the violence and disenfranchisement experienced by communities of color throughout their childhoods. Jzabelle recalls encountering a protest over the death of Eric Garner at the hands of an NYPD officer while walking with her family in Manhattan in the summer of 2014. “I remember thinking, Wow, this is so cool,” she said, “People in my generation are actually attempting to make a difference, like the people that we read about in history books.”

Leyla is from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and moved to New York four years ago with her mother for a fresh start. She’s now studying applied social sciences at St. John’s University and plans to work with youth communities.
Growing up, she felt her community was deprived of many of the resources afforded to wealthier neighborhoods in the area. She and her friends wanted to make music, but there was nowhere to record. They wanted to practice sports, but there were no facilities. Leyla herself wanted tutoring and places to study, but she didn’t have access to those, either.

“I kind of realized that if I want to see the change, I might as well try to make it myself,” she said.

From left: Elon Reid, Ashanti Clarke, an unidentified protester, Nacala Spiegler-Frederick, Dequane Nealy, an unidentified protester, and Obrian Rosario at Borough Hall on June 8. Photo: Emmy Freedman

Lucas Kluger, 17, Ashanti Clarke, 18, Dequane Nealy, 17, Nacala Spiegler-Frederick, 18, and Elon Reid, 17, of NYCStudents4Justice

Scrolling through Instagram on Tuesday, June 2, Lucas Kluger’s eyes jumped from one black square to the next. Clearly, young people were willing to hop on a social-media trend, but how could they be held accountable for their support of Black Lives Matter in real life? Thinking of the youth leaders behind the climate-change walkouts, Lucas had an idea. Soon, he and a few fellow seniors at Brooklyn Technical High School had set up an Instagram page called @nycstudents4justice, announcing a march the following Monday from Fort Greene Park to Borough Hall.

“One thing we definitely established when we were putting it together was that people who are non-POCs — people in my position — should take a step back and facilitate,” Lucas said.

He reached out to several friends whom he thought could organize and lead the protest, including Ashanti Clarke. The morning of June 8, Clarke assembled bags filled with necessities — a water bottle, a granola bar, gauze, and a slip of paper with a bail-fund number — that she could hand out to protesters.

“I see in the media a lot of these protests have turned out violent because of the cops antagonizing and stuff like that, and even peaceful protesters getting arrested,” Clarke said. “So I was nervous, especially because there were many Black teens present … but luckily nothing of that sort happened and it turned out well.”

In the early afternoon on June 8, students began to gather at Fort Greene Park holding signs and water bottles, grouped together with classmates that they hadn’t seen in person in months, since the coronavirus pandemic moved classes online. More than 1,000 people of all ages showed up, including some teachers.

Dequane Nealy doesn’t usually like big crowds, but watching hundreds of people file into the park ready to march for justice, he knew he’d have to use his voice to help give people direction.

“Having a lot of people looking directly at me … listening to every word I say, it’s definitely nerve-wracking,” Dequane said. “But being in the moment and knowing that this was something I really wanted to fight for and believe in, it all kind of washed away.”

Knowing that white and Asian students make up a large proportion of Brooklyn Tech’s population, Nacala Spiegler-Frederick thought it was important that she get involved with organizing the demonstration; she felt a protest for Black lives should be powered by Black students such as herself. She’s also mindful of ensuring that the entire spectrum of the Black community is represented in the broader Black Lives Matter movement.

“Even though we can all recognize that George Floyd was Black and he was part of the Black community, he was a cisgender male,” Spiegler-Frederick said. “A lot of women and a lot of trans people and a lot of queer people that are being killed, unfortunately, by the police and by others — they’re all hate crimes. I think people are limiting themselves and just thinking about race. There are so many intersections.”

During the protest, a helicopter circled overhead snapping photos. When Elon Reid saw one of the shots hours later, she was shocked at how successful the group had been at mobilizing their peers.

“I guess the trauma that comes with being born after 9/11 and having to live through Sandy Hook and just a lot of things that have happened makes you feel like your voice is not going to be heard by people in D.C., and people just don’t care what you have to say — that’s obviously not true,” Elon said.

Elon said she wants to warn fellow students about the importance of voting the upcoming presidential election and hopes more young people will move beyond the performative activism taking place on social media.

NYCStudents4Justice has continued organizing demonstrations, with its most recent event held on July 18. The group members — all of whom are recent high-school graduates — encouraged attendees to wear their caps and gowns or prom attire to pay tribute to the Black students, such as Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin, who were killed at the hands of police before they were able to graduate.

Yahshiyah Vines. Photo: Emmy Freedman

Treon Cort, 19, and Yahshiyah Vines, 20, of the United Races

Treon Cort and Yahshiyah Vines both became activists at an early age: Cort’s older sister encouraged him to join her at a protest against school shootings in D.C. several years ago, and Vines began demonstrating after losing a loved one on July 4, 2016. “The main reason why I feel so affected by this is because my cousin was killed by an off-duty police officer, so I felt the need to go out and protest and be out on the ground,” Vines said.

Vines had received positive feedback after speaking at rallies in the past, so when people began protesting the killing of George Floyd, he and Cort decided to plan a demonstration of their own.

“This younger generation is the one that’s really gonna be affected by what’s going on right now, so we were like, ‘Let’s show the world how the youth does it,’” Vines said.

The two friends set to work creating a poster that shed light on the funding discrepancies between the NYPD and city schools and called on others to join their march for unity and justice on June 6. It was shared by the Instagram page @justiceforgeorgenyc, which currently has more than 230,000 followers. On the day of the protest, they weren’t sure what to expect; 25,000 people showed up to Grand Army Plaza and marched over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Leading protesters through Brooklyn, Corey and Vines called on people to text a number that would send a message to lawmakers asking them to repeal 50-a, a statute that has shielded police misconduct records from public view for 44 years. Just three days later, New York lawmakers finally voted to repeal it. The young men say its repeal is one of their proudest moments, indicating that protests such as theirs can, in fact, have an impact.

“Take action, be on the right side of history,” Vines advised his friends, who are now organizing protests of their own. “You want to tell your kids you were fighting for justice, you were fighting for equality, you were fighting to change the world.”

Jace Valentine. Photo: Dulce Michelle Marquez

Jace Valentine, 18, of IntegrateNYC

Jace Valentine started identifying as an activist when she was a sophomore at Brooklyn’s New Utrecht High School; after graduating in 2019, she continued to advocate on behalf of students and work to replace NYPD officers stationed in schools.

“Instead of having law enforcement with guns on their hips, have a counselor who’s there to support students when they see something is happening,” Valentine said. “Also [focus on] prevention, so that these things will never escalate to this point where there will need to be a fight or some form of aggression.”

Now she’s making sure her message on education equity is heard at protests. She’s been speaking regularly at public events, including a rally in Washington Square Park on June 6 that attracted 15,000 people. She also offers support to younger people who may be speaking before a large crowd for the first time.

“I just want to ensure that this is not just a hashtag that fades off in a few weeks,” Valentine said. “I remember when it was Trayvon Martin, it was such a big movement, and then after it sort of died down. I want to ensure that we keep the pressure on and keep pushing.”

Carlos. Photo: Erin O’Brien

Carlos, 21, Unaffiliated

Carlos, a 21-year-old Dartmouth student who asked to be identified by his first name, finished his last final on Monday, June 1, as he was simultaneously coordinating rallies in New York. Teaming with other organizers, he began to wonder how established groups could be integrated into the movement.

“How can we pull in the nonprofits and the organizations in the community that have been doing work in housing for years?” Carlos said. “How can we pull in folks that have been doing food insecurity for years? And how can we bring all of these different groups together to really mobilize as one?”

In the past three weeks, Carlos and his collaborators (the network remains intentionally unnamed) have organized marches, helped demonstrators get supplies, publicized events, and done what they can to keep the marches they attend safe and orderly. They encourage disobedience, but not violence.

While speaking at marches, Carlos will often ask demonstrators to turn to one another and acknowledge those around them. This interconnectedness, he argues, is the strength of the movement, and what will ensure its continuity.

“The core belief that black lives matter, and of this movement — it’s an inherent belief in each other. It’s an inherent belief that the world can and must be better. And that’s so powerful,” he said. “It’s so hard to hold on to this belief, despite routinely being beaten and killed and murdered and lynched. As you’re protesting police brutality, you experience more of it, and you still continue to have this faith and conviction that the world can be better for everyone.”

Update: A previous version of this piece said Carlos declined his internship offer. After several weeks of protesting, he decided to start his summer internship after all, concluding that change is also needed in other environments, like the workplace.

Meet the Young Leaders of NYC’s Black Lives Matter Protests