By Stephanie Younger •
Police shootings against Black people initially galvanized me into the work that I do, which eventually led into organizing for the abolition of youth prisons. One week after the Parkland shooting, I first heard about a local March For Our Lives rally in Richmond, Virginia through Richmond Youth Peace Project. At the time, I had been working with them for nearly a year and a half, by performing original spoken-word poetry about police violence against Black people, and working with other Black youth apply non-violent conflict resolution to reduce gun violence. At the local March For Our Lives rally, I spoke in front of over five-thousand people about importance of centering the voices of Black people, queer and trans people, and women. Speaking at the March For Our Lives was the first time I had gotten recognized by the media for my work. I was thrilled to see my name and a quote from my speech in the local news.
“Speakers also emphasized the greater impact gun violence has on the African-American community, tying it to historical acts of violence against minorities.
“How many more black families will be devastated by gun violence – threatened or killed by the people whose job it is to serve and protect?” Stephanie Younger, an activist with the Richmond Youth Peace Project, asked the crowd.
“How many more times do my parents have to give me that talk explaining to me that I’m 10 times more likely to become a victim of gun violence because I am black?””– Irena Schunn and George Copeland Jr., Capital News Service
On my way home from the rally, I saw a viral video of Naomi Wadler’s incredible speech she delivered at the national March For Our Lives rally in Washington D.C., about saying the names of Black girls who had their lives taken by gun violence. I cited her speech in an article I immediately wrote from my heart, about the significance of listening to Black youth, and especially Black girls, in the fight against gun violence. Over a week later, the ACLU of Virginia republished my essay and gave the unforgettable experience of writing more articles for them. As a Black girl, I felt seen, heard, and valued.
The evening after the march, a white student who co-organized it added me to a group chat on Instagram. The group was mostly comprised of white Central Virginia high school students (mainly 17-19-year-olds), who also spoke at the Richmond rally. They invited other student speakers to lead a walkout with them on April 20, 2018, which is the 19th anniversary of the Columbine massacre. 5 days later, many of us met in person, to discuss what would be next for the group and to begin organizing the walkout. At this meeting, I spoke up about leading a chant with 6 marchers, “protect Black students,” at the Richmond rally, and getting awkward silence and stares from other marchers. A white girl said she would’ve chanted with us if she heard us, and the group insisted on having me speak at the walkout.
After 5 more days, there were much fewer people who attended the previous meeting. At this meeting, following an interview with a local news station, the white students gave a very questionable impression during a conversation about the 2016 election, racism in schools, and the recent movements ignited by the Parkland shooting. Two white students suggested that there wouldn’t be racism, sexism or violence, if the country was being led by Hillary Clinton. I spoke up and said that there wouldn’t be, in the sense that Clinton was a white feminist whose politics are at the expense of Black youth and advocate for the carceral state. Hillary Clintons’ response to community violence was to advocate for heavy policing, and referring to Black youth as “super-predators.” When he was the President, Bill Clinton signed the 1994 Crime Bill. I added that violence can be fought without criminalizing Black youth. During a conversation we had about our experiences at school, I spoke about the racism I faced at the predominantly white schools I attended in Henrico County, Virginia throughout most of elementary school, and part of middle school. The schools I attended are racist, without a doubt. A white male, who attended school with some of my former peers, interjected to say, that, “Those were in the past. Maybe they’ve changed. There’s no racism or bullying at my school.”
These white students also had a questionable way of giving Black Lives Matter the same solidarity they have given to the March For Our Lives and Never Again movements. At the time, Black Lives Matter had spent nearly five years fighting anti-Black racism, especially violence at the hands of the state, which includes fighting police shootings, and the violence protestors were met with themselves. Never Again and March For Our Lives were movements comprised of many white students, who suddenly became “activists” within those recent months. When I spoke up about this, the white student said, “It’s not about race. It’s because the students in Parkland protested in a way people are open to.” Ironically, he said this minutes after being interviewed by a local news station about fighting gun violence while honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He implied that Black people wouldn’t be met with negative media depictions and police violence if we were “protesting in a way people are open to,” and the white girl from the previous meeting agreed; which goes against what MLK stood for. This white student’s stance especially contradicts MLK’s statement that “a riot is a language of the unheard,” and embody the white moderate he warned of, “who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.'”
In the group chat, we often exchanged posts about gun violence, and I shared a poster created by Unapologetic Street Series that read, “Police brutality is gun violence. Gun control must hold the state accountable.” I added that police shootings of Black people are not separate from school shootings and must be acknowledged the same way. From the start of the Never Again and the March For Our Lives movements, I have voiced my concerns about their co-optation. At the first meeting, the group members seemingly agreed that it’s important to center the voices of Black youth, but they suggested that combating racism, community violence, police violence, and their intersections “changes the subject of who [they’re] trying to help.” Because those two stances contradict each other, I challenged the intentions of the white group members by asking how they follow through with standing with Black youth, specifically Black girls. In their own words, I “questioned their activism.”
As I became more passionate about intersectionality in this movement and vocal on social media about the significance of centering Black girls’ voices, the white students labeled me with stereotypes that are often linked with Black women and girls — rude, disrespectful, inconsiderate and hypocritical; complains, throws shade, exchanges opinions violently, antagonizes people, and clashes with other people. I was asked to “not make this about race,” and that “this is about gun violence in schools.” The only other Black girl in the group agreed with them, was the first to defend them. However, she rightfully questioned if I had the standing to seek accountability from those white students because of my privileges. I am a light-skinned Black girl who lived in the same area, and attended the same schools as many of the white students. Light-skinned Black girls and middle-class Black girls must hold each other accountable to speak up against classism and colorism. On top of erasing Black voices, these white liberals were dismissing an important conversation about intersectionality, so they can “mediate” what they saw as a “fight” between two Black girls.
Before the argument in the group chat, I stated that I wanted to talk about intersectionality at an upcoming town hall. After the argument, another white male 12th grade student told me to “speak about the importance of voting,” and the white girl told me that they “wanted more Black representation.” The online harassment lasted throughout spring break, and nothing was done about it. I was not okay. I was inconsolable, and taking care of myself was my first priority, even when that meant saying “no” to speaking at the town hall. However, I stated that I was still open to working things out and participating in the walkout.
For what I hoped would have been the students’ “respectful and beneficial” attempt at conflict resolution, I was asked to Skype with them, only to be interrupted when I would share my perspective. One of the white “mediators” said, “I’m sorry you felt attacked. We agree with you, but say it in a way we are open to.” An white male 12th grader who attended the meeting agreed, and began by addressing himself as “the most progressive person you will ever meet.” He lectured me on how gun violence “is an issue that affects all lives, American lives, and not Black lives.” He continued, “If you’re going to be talking about race, attacking us online, and fighting with other people, maybe you shouldn’t be working with us. The constitution and this country was made up of compromise. If you don’t like this country, get out.”
Even after the one-sided conversation, I hoped we had moved on, and reached out to the students to say that I was more open to working with them, and asked what I can do to help. They assigned me a task to call delegates for another upcoming town hall. Then, the group excluded me from attending their final meeting before the walkout, while everyone else who was assigned a task was included. I dealt with it and put on a brave face until then. Monday, April 20, 2020, will have marked two years since I arrived to the Virginia National School Walkout Protest on Brown’s Island in Richmond, VA to learn that I wasn’t speaking, even though the group guaranteed weeks earlier that I would speak. The white student who told me to “speak about the importance of voting” walked away when I said “hi” to him. I approached him again to ask if I was speaking, turned me away, claiming, that they’re “full.”
According to WTVR CBS 6 News‘ coverage of the walkout, the group organized this with the Richmond Police Department, which has inflicted violence on Black people, including against those who protest police brutality. Based on more documentation of the event, many speakers focused on gun violence in schools, holding politicians accountable to advocate for “common sense gun laws,” and urging their peers to vote. The group included Black youth as speakers, some who briefly addressed the impact gun violence has on Black people, yet whose main focus was school shootings. During his speech, one of the white “mediator” briefly stated that gun violence disproportionately affects “particular communities.” In his speech, white student who turned me away compared the Virginia National School Walkout Protest to demonstrations organized by Black youth, (like Barbara Johns) during the Civil Rights Movement. While some Black students were included, the group who organized the Virginia National School Walkout Protest used Black trauma and protests as talking points, while suppressing the voices of Black youth, specifically Black girls. They excluded several Black students who were speaking out against racism and policing; specifically excluding me because of my message and because I was speaking up about the misogynoir I was experiencing within that group. I was devastated. Their misogynoir didn’t stop me from walking out, but I had to do that on my own.
Since it was so obvious that my voice as a Black girl wasn’t wanted, I texted the group that evening to let them know that I couldn’t work with them anymore. They were appalled, and demanded an explanation. As soon as I left the group chat, this enormous weight was lifted from my shoulders. Organizing with that group was a devastating experience that burned me out, and to this day, I am thankful for the individual people, some who saw what happened at the walkout, and some who were already aware of what I was going through for being supportive.
The group didn’t last any longer than a month after the walkout. I spent the day after, well into the next following weeks publicizing the ways they erased Black voices, they de-platformed themselves. A few group members got defensive and insisted that they weren’t responsible for silencing Black voices. I spent the next several months sharing my story, to speaking at town halls, open mics, youth summits, and writing articles. When I was 15, I was taught to maintain resilience during a devastating experience, and several people stood with me after I shared my story. This experienced taught me that I am not without privilege, as a Black girl who is light-skinned, middle-class, cis, and that holding myself accountable is and always should be my first priority. My message to Black girls who have and are going through this, is to value those who genuinely support and uplift you, and to never let anyone bully you out of standing by what you believe in.
Stephanie Younger is a 17-year-old student activist and writer who advocates for womanism and the abolition of youth prisons.