“I think it is important for us to … recognize that the agents of history are not so much the leaders and the spokespeople, but rather the masses of people who develop a collective imagination regarding the possibility for a new future.”
—Angela Davis, January 20, 2020
You have probably seen the photos, first shared by Washington, D.C., mayor Muriel Bowser: on June 5, just north of the White House, “BLACK LIVES MATTER” had been painted on the pavement of Sixteenth Street NW, now known as Black Lives Matter Plaza. In fifty-foot-tall, bright yellow letters, the statement is so large, it can be seen from space.
One Saturday morning, at the top of the “I” in “LIVES,” the Procter-Harley family had set up carts and coolers filled with snacks and refreshments for famished protesters. They were led by Niesha, a real estate agent, artist, and D.C. native who felt protesting was “completely necessary.”
“Thousands of people are out here. Random people,” Niesha said. “This wasn’t even planned. People just wanted to come. The unity is incredible, to see so many people, all over the country, all over the world, out here fighting.”
Niesha, her family, and tens of thousands of others were demonstrating on June 6 to demand justice for victims of excessive use of force by police, defunding or abolishing police departments, and a reckoning with systemic racism. People packed the blocks between the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, and the White House. Marchers flowed like lava along the National Mall, molten with shared verve, rage, and hope. Passing the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the march bristled with raised fists. Defying any grandiloquent title, June 6 was simply “Big Saturday.”
Parallel protests were happening throughout the United States and in London, Tokyo, Dakar, Brisbane, and many other cities. Black Lives Matter had become the “broadest” protest in U.S. history.
Someone scouring the news for a single leader or organization behind this worldwide outcry would come up short. The protest organizers are overwhelmingly local activist groups, sharing “Black Lives Matter” as a call to action, but differing in their approaches and goals. Guided by grassroots principles and at odds with towering central figures dictating terms and making demands, the movement has been fertile soil for a crop of homegrown leaders.
“I think there’s been a generational shift away from figureheads,” said Sophia M., an experienced activist but first-time organizer. “Leaders got taken out—boom, boom, boom—and their movements collapsed. Plus, when there’s one leader, there’s usually an ego problem, and anything that comes out about that leader can damage the whole movement. Today we’ve seen how previous generations organized, and we’ve learned those from those lessons.”
“Things have definitely changed,” agreed Carter W., a friend of Sophia’s with similar experience. “From what I’ve seen today, what we did today as a few friends coming together, I think there are dozens—no, hundreds—of leaders.”
Some of these leaders have been demonstrating and advocating against police violence for years. Black Lives Matter D.C. has been organizing against “systems and institutions of white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism” since 2015. Others organization have just started. Drawn in by the gravity of 2020’s massive protests, Sophia, Carter, and several of their friends from Northwest D.C. formed NW 4 Black Justice to raise awareness in their community.
“We wanted to emphasize that we need to stand together as Washingtonians,” Carter said. “This is a human rights issue, and people need to step up in all corners of the city. Northwest has been particularly quiet.”
NW 4 Black Justice’s first march was on June 4, traveling from the very edge of the district to the Washington National Cathedral. After a series of speakers and singers, Sophia and Carter beseeched the crowd, “Do not let this be where it ends. Do not let this be your last protest,” before summoning everyone to an event at the Lincoln Memorial on June 6, Big Saturday.
Different organizations were holding events all around D.C. that day, some promoted more than others. The demonstration at the base of the Lincoln Memorial (the monument itself was fenced off and guarded by heavily armed officers) drew hundreds, despite the fact that no information about it was published online. Thousands showed up for a march sponsored and promoted by Freedom Fighters DC. Moechella, a roving go-go show put on by LongLiveGoGo, gave the rallies a distinctly D.C. soundtrack.
Echoing the local tone of the protests was the list of demands issued that day by Black Lives Matter D.C., which is topped with the names now chanted around the world—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Dreasjon Reed—plus those of Jeffrey Price, D’Quan Young, Marqueese Alston, Terrence Sterling and Raphael Briscoe, five young black men shot and killed by the D.C. police in the last ten years.
Black Lives Matter D.C. and other organizations have capitalized on an eruption of support for their causes by putting forward policy proposals at a time when local legislators cannot ignore them. Ideas that might have seemed drastic just weeks earlier, like police abolition, are now being seriously considered around the country. More moderate laws have already been passed in many cities.
But the people in the street are not there for the organizations. Many who came out were inspired by their neighbors, friends, or family members who had become engaged in activism, or themselves been victims of police violence. “Am I next?” was a question posed on many handmade signs.
One of these protesters was Yasmeen, a high school student, marching for the first time with her mother and younger sister. She said the movement has inspired her to study and work in civil rights in college.
A protester in her twenties said she was “looking up to the people who are just on the street and speaking their mind. Videos of people doing that go viral, and when others hear those messages, they really resonate. They get you thinking, ‘Well, I have to go out and do something.’” This protester, who asked that her name not be used, found hope in hearing “normal people” speaking out.
“It shows you that there are people in my community that feel the same way I do,” she said.
Aja, protesting on H Street NW, described the movement as “for the people, by the people.” To her, Black Lives Matter is “a group of regular people coming together for a common cause,” making it more inclusive, relatable, and powerful than the hierarchical organizations of the past.
Ace Ono, a D.C. singer who had been leaving protesters in tears with her performances of gospel and soul classics at rallies also drew a comparison to the past.
“I can follow an MLK, a Malcolm X—those people are great,” she said. “But I want to know who’s in my community. I want to follow someone like Tony Lewis Junior, like Jamila Lyn, or The Spice Suite. There are so many people in our own community to follow.”
As the sun went down on Big Saturday, Niesha was calling out, “Free food! Free water!” on a bullhorn while her cousins handed out snacks and refreshments to famished protesters.
“The stuff I brought here today—I didn’t buy this stuff,” she explained. “People from my neighborhood, people from school, people who don’t even know me sent money so I could bring all this out here.” Niesha herself had led her family in solving a problem they knew they would find at the protests.
I asked Niesha who had inspired her to get involved. She invoked her grandmother, who was a member of the Black Panthers in Buffalo, New York.
I asked Niesha’s cousin Jordan who had inspired him. He smiled and pointed at Niesha.
“For me, it’s this one right here.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has succeeded in engaging massive support from local communities across demographics to confront racism rooted in the systems that regulate daily life. Local problems are met by local organizations with local reforms. City by city, a new national culture is taking root.
Harry Frey is an intern at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He studied religious studies and anthropology at New York University and worked with NGOs supporting refugees and migrants in Greece and Bosnia-Herzegovina.