Last week, Kwyn Townsend Riley received a Facebook invitation to rally with other recent Chicago public school graduates against police brutality. Two days later, the 25 year-old was standing, megaphone in hand, in front of a sea of 10,000 people.
“I could see people crying. I could see the anger, the rage and they were looking back, they were looking at me for direction,” she said. “At first it definitely was surreal, but I think over time I was right where God wanted me to be. It felt like another form of ministry.”
A poet and activist, Ms Riley is one of thousands of twenty-somethings and teens who have taken on a starring role in the mass demonstrations across the US in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other African Americans.
These are members of Generation Z — people born after 1995 — and the age group directly below millennials. The first generation of so-called digital natives, who grew up with the internet as a part of everyday life, they have become leaders of the movement, organising their own spin-off demonstrations and groups, and spreading the word on social media.
The coronavirus pandemic may have played a part, observers believe. The protests have provided an outlet for young people who have been shut-up at home the past few months, many of them out of school or unemployed.
“Instead of the pandemic and the lockdown hampering youth activism, it has surprisingly fuelled it,” says Mark Edelman Boren, a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and author of Student Resistance in the Age of Chaos: Bodies on the Front Lines, Technology, and the Surge of Activism in the 21st century.
The fact that most students and young people were relying so heavily on technology during lockdown meant that most had seen the video of George Floyd’s killing, while the pandemic itself had also added to a sense of urgency, Mr Boren said. “It has shaken many loose from a sense of apathy or the feeling that one can’t change things.”
While Ms Riley has been involved in social activism since her days of attending the University of Dayton — a predominately white college in Ohio — the current protest movement felt different than other moments of public outcry following police shootings.
“People heard about Breonna Taylor. People heard about George Floyd. You could not unsee it because it was on everybody’s time line,” she said.
Dana Fisher, a sociologist and author of the book American Resistance: from the Women’s March to the Blue Wave, said she and a team of researchers had surveyed protests in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and London last weekend and found that half of the crowd were aged 30 or younger — a reflection of the fact that many faced lower health risks from coronavirus. These people were also more comfortable taking the risk of protests turning violent, and had the physical stamina to protest for hours in blazing heat.
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“Youth are organising,” said Danielle Brown, a state co-ordinator for the Black Voters Matters Fund, which seeks to mobilise black voter turnout. “They’re not just getting up and saying this looks like fun today. They’re actually organising. They are organising in homes and on Zoom [and then] moving it to the streets. They’re tired of seeing people their age be killed, tired of [having] their voices not be heard.”
In Charlotte, North Carolina, Kendrick Cunningham, a 23 year-old political activist rapper who goes by the nickname Swank — estimated that 85 per cent of the people at his city’s protest were under the age of 30, the majority of them with no prior involvement in politics. It gave him an opportunity to register more than two dozen first-time voters in the crowd.
In Washington, DC, Breya Johnson, a 23 year-old educator with the youth group BYM100, said coronavirus, and the ensuing economic crisis, had jolted many of her peers and forced them to recognise the continuing inequities in American society for people of colour.
“I think it was a shock for some people who thought they might be more middle class than they actually are and more removed from these problems than they actually are,” she said. “I think we’re in a moment of mass grief, mass debt. That is part of the anguish you see, you feel in the air in these protests.”
The initial police response in DC had also amplified the feelings she and others have about the significance of the movement. “This is the first time I’ve seen police block protesters specifically from going home . . . We’re trying to leave, trying to de-escalate and they’re literally antagonising us. They’re shutting down the road, throwing tear gas . .. ”
Even before the pandemic, young adults were three-times more likely than those over the age of 25 to be unemployed, said Susan Reichle, president of the International Youth Foundation, a global non-profit movement. Coronavirus has amplified the disparity, particularly in the service, retail and tourism industries.
Angelo Best Jr made snacks at Ronald Reagan airport until his team was shut down because of coronavirus. Now out of work, the 21-year old African-American has thrown himself into the George Floyd protests and the cause for equality, joining mass demonstrations in the streets of Washington DC.
“We’re not going to back down from it,” he said. He recalled a moment last year when four police officers pushed him to the ground when he was walking home from work, demanding he show them a gun he did not have.
“Seeing the video was hurtful; it made me want to go for him to get his justice,” said Briana Kelly, 23, who worked with Mr Best at the airport and also lost her job to the virus. The mother of two joined the protests the first weekend they took place in the US capital and was arrested for a minor curfew violation last Monday and held overnight in the police station. She was released with a citation, equivalent to a traffic transgression.
Julie Reuben, a historian at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said there were parallels between the current movement and the protests of the 1960s. In the earlier case, several different movements joined together, such as the anti-Vietnam movement, which was largely led by young white men — and the civil rights movement, which was predominately led by African Americans. In 2020, a similar synthesis appeared to be going on with the protests against police brutality and other protest movements focused on climate change, or the Trump administration more broadly.
“The protests that happened around the time of Trayvon Martin, the burden really felt like it was on black people’s shoulders,” said Ms Riley, the Chicago activist. These protests had brought together a much more diverse group of activists, including white and Hispanic allies. “It really gives me hope.”
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Washington