Peaceful, student-led protests have been a powerful force for change throughout American history.
In 1925, for example, students at Fisk University staged a 10-week protest to speak out against the school’s president, who didn’t want students starting a chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. In 1940, almost 2,000 students protested after New York University decided to pull a black player from its football roster to accommodate the University of Missouri’s segregationists.
And campus-based protests, including against racism, were a major lever of social change in the 1960s.
But during one of the largest protest movements of our generation, campuses nationwide have been shut down due to COVID-19.
So what does student activism look like today? It’s happening online and in the streets; with art and tech skills. NPR Ed spoke to five high school and college students fighting in different ways for black lives, an end to police brutality and structural racism.
Julian Dowell, 20, Washington, D.C.
When he was growing up, Julian Dowell says, his mom was a big advocate for reading up on racism in American history. “In the eighth grade I was reading Cornel West. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow had just come out,” he says. “So when Trayvon Martin occurred, I was actually kind of in my school mobilizing people around me, like, yo, we’re gonna do a day where we’re all going to wear our hood up.”
Today Dowell is a junior Georgetown University, studying African-American studies and thinking about adding economics. But his biggest interest is understanding augmented reality technology — and finding a way to use it as a tool to protest and speak out.
“Even in this moment, you see a lot of rallying cries behind George Floyd. But mind you, Breonna Taylor’s death was, what, three months ago? So it was really important for me as a black man to say how can I amplify this quotable of, ‘say her name,’ ” he says. “More often than not, black women don’t don’t receive that opportunity.”
Before he visited the newly named Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C., he created an app that allowed people in the plaza to use their phone to find a mural of Breonna Taylor, shot by police in her home in Louisville, Ky. When you click on the image, you hear Taylor’s mother speaking about her.
“I wanted people to say her name. I wanted people to hear her mother’s voice,” he says. “I didn’t want to dehumanize her in the way that her death had. I want to humanize or I want to memorialize her.”
At the same time Dowell is wrestling with the idea of what it means to be a student activist, he’s also asking himself: “What are the limits of the virtual world?”
There have been instances of social media influencers using the Black Lives Matter protest movement as a photo opportunity. There are posts of influencers posting in front of looted stores or coming to a march with hair and makeup done only to take a picture. Social capital, he says, is a real thing and many people want to be on the right side of history.
The solution, he says, is nuanced and complicated and won’t be solved in just talking about the issue of systemic racism and performative activism. Another thing Dowell is fighting for when he protests is making sure the right people have access.
“Lean into technology companies. Give black and brown communities access to resources. Give them access to free Code Academy. Send them links to free code camps. Make sure there’s pipelines for opportunities for students,” he says, to find access to workshops that teach people computer coding and developing apps.
Aaron Narraph Fernando, 19, New York City
Aaron Narraph Fernando, born and raised in Queens, New York, is a rising junior at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, where he studies law and society. He’s also running unopposed for a local Democratic Party position called County Committee. And in his spare time he’s been making waves in New York City politics armed with just a Google Doc and a Twitter account.
“A few weeks ago, even before the George Floyd protests started, I started looking into fundraising numbers for state-level candidates. I was curious to see how challengers were doing against their incumbents in terms of fundraising. And I started noticing that a lot of these so-called progressive Democrats were taking a lot of money from these very conservative police unions and other law enforcement things like correction officers’ unions and the court officer unions. So I started making a list of all the different law enforcement unions and also how much money they had given to different New York City Democrats this cycle.”
While contributions from unions to Democratic politicians might have raised few eyebrows in the past, Fernando and other activists saw this money, and the influence it brings, as standing in the way of measures like the recently passed repeal of Section 50-a, a law shielding the personnel records of police officers. He started making a list of law enforcement unions’ political contributions to New York City Democrats.
“And I wasn’t really sure what to do with the list until the George Floyd protest really started. And we started seeing more and more people be aware of the very aggressive role that police take in our communities. And a lot of people started to ask me how they could take action if they couldn’t go out and protest in the streets.”
“I tweeted out, I asked people if this is a good time to drop my spreadsheet showing which New York City officials are taking money from law enforcement. And I got like 800 ‘likes’ in like an hour. So I was like, OK. People really care about this. They’re really engaged right now. They really want to get involved and know how they can make a difference. So I posted my spreadsheet.”
Then, something surprising happened. Politicians started responding to public pressure.
“Aravella Simotas, an assembly member in Astoria [donated her law enforcement contributions to racial justice organizations] under pressure from her primary challenger. Then all the dominoes fell…Today we’ve had 19 different elected officials in New York City say they’re going to donate their money to anti-racist causes. And so far, we’ve had almost $60,000 in law enforcement contributions donated to anti-racist causes. And I think we’ll see more and more in the coming weeks.”
Fernando is quick to say that he thinks direct action in the streets is the most powerful way to make change, and to downplay his own contribution.
“I’m not the first person to talk about the power that this money can have. People in criminal justice spaces have known about this for a long time. I’m just somebody who compiled that data to an easily accessible spreadsheet.” And sometimes that is all you need.
Kinsale Hueston, 20, Los Angeles
After organizing on campus for two years, Kinsale Hueston has had to get creative. As a student at Yale University, her approach to amplifying marginalized voices is generally through art — she’s a nationally recognized poet. And as COVID-19 took hold in the Navajo Nation, she found that her Instagram posts and reposts were getting a lot of attention: “It’s made me really happy to see friends of mine who have never really shared anything about native issues — or anything like that before — amplifying what I’ve been sharing.”
Hueston is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation who mostly grew up in California. In high school, protest movements around the missing and murdered indigenous women’s movement as well as the Dakota Access Pipeline, “helped [her] get involved at the local level, especially with the urban native community in L.A.”
She started using social media back then to educate and raise awareness on these issues, but she says this time is different: “Usually what I face is like not a lot of reposts, not a lot of response. But now because people have been kicked off campus and they have to go online in this specific scenario, they’re looking for these opportunities to learn.”
And her approach is working. She’s gained almost 12,000 Instagram followers in the past 30 days. She posts primarily about the high rates of COVID-19 on the Navajo reservation, but she recognizes that there is another huge movement rippling through the country right now. Both, she says, focused on the same thing: “You can’t put one issue over the other because that’s what, you know, the white state wants us to do. They want us to fight like this. And instead we have to be good relatives to each other and listen to each other and address the needs of all of our communities right now.”
She had one final message: Don’t forget the artists.
“There are so many incredible black singers, visual artists, writers who are making such incredible work to bring joy right now. And I think that’s also such an important part of movements, is the healing and the beauty that can come out of it. I think art is so important because it allows us to see the future that we want to manifest and work towards.”
Amiri Nash, 18, Washington, D.C.
Amiri Nash, who will be starting as a freshman at Brown University, has been watching people “perform Internet activism.” They’ll re-post something, comment or change their profile picture to a black screen, but “have a false sense of engagement with the cause and the movement and the idea.”
So Nash and a friend, Lexi Brown, started a project called Sign of Justice, an organization that creates signs with scan codes, to post in public places that are predominantly white. (One sign, for example, says, “A man was lynched by police. What are you doing about it? Text ‘Floyd’ to 55156. Use your privilege for good.”)
“It brings conversations to communities and it really gets you out of your house and doing something,” Nash said. One of the best parts: “You can do it while social distancing.”
The signs have QR codes with resources, including a link to donate to the Black Lives Matter movement. Before the police involved with George Floyd’s murder had been charged, a sign displayed a number that you could text that would automatically sign a petition to get them charged. The signs are traveling across the world — through England, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada.
The signs are another way to fight for change and an acknowledgment that protesting could be a luxury during a pandemic. “There are still some people that have immunocompromised systems that aren’t able to protest, or people that just have COVID fears in general, which is completely valid,” he says.
Millions of people around the world — from New Zealand to Iran — have taken to the streets, and while Nash is positive about the visibility of these demonstrations, he says it’s too soon to celebrate.
“Right now, I’m hopeful because I’ve seen so many people get involved. I’ve been seeing so many people go to protests and hang signs and spread awareness. But also I don’t want the hope to block the very real reality that none of this really matters unless we hold everyone accountable, unless we get real systemic change, unless the police officers who murdered George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are actually convicted and spend time in jail.”
Ayesha Chaudhry, 16, Mason, Ohio
As an immigrant from Pakistan, Ayesha Chaudhry has a unique perspective on America’s racial divisions.
“I’m so, so, so grateful for the life that America has provided me. But it’s because I’m so grateful for that life that I’m willing to fight for America and willing to fight for American citizens’ liberties and making sure that they’re, you know, living in a place that they love.”
After George Floyd’s death, she teamed up with some of her best friends — all teenage girls who met in AP government class — to organize the Black Lives Matter march in the Republican-leaning Cincinnati suburb of Mason, Ohio. The peaceful protest was four blocks long, and honored other victims of police killings, as well as the recent murder of a black transgender woman, Riah Milton, in nearby Liberty Township during an attempted robbery.
Chaudhry said the turnout, and all aspects of the day, left her feeling full of gratitude.
“A lot of people doubted the organizers. We are all young girls. I kept telling people that I know Mason [residents] had it in them. And I was just — I was really grateful to be proven right.”
In her spare time, Chaudhry runs a nonprofit media company that presents makeup looks for all skin tones, and she does makeovers and photo shoots for underrepresented people, such as gay couples. She has an Instagram feed, a Youtube channel, and a podcast, too, all under the name “Your local brown girl media.” But her dream job, she says, is to be a lawyer for the ACLU.
She says there’s something big that people get wrong about this current wave of youth and student activists — that they’re somehow anti-America.
“I think the teenagers of today, despite how aggressive their rhetoric is, love this country. I know I do. And they love it to the point of invention. They love it to the point of inventing a new system that works for the country that they love so much.”