By Stephanie Younger •
There were good and bad experiences that I had as a young Black organizer between then and now, leading up to where I am today. When I was 15, I was taught to maintain resilience in the face of an empowering, defining moment in my activism, followed by a devastating experience. I highly recommend thoroughly reading this article for the full context.
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, and branched out into other issues, like gun violence prevention as a whole. I first heard about a local March For Our Lives rally in Richmond through Richmond Youth Peace Project. For nearly a year and a half, I had been working with them by performing original spoken-word poetry about police violence against Black people, and helping other young people 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 gun violence, but my primary mission was to talk about the importance of centering the voices of people disproportionately affected by it. I was one of the few speakers who addressed intersectionality. I was very surprised to see my name and a quote from my speech. This was the first time I had gotten recognition by the media for fighting violence against Black people.
“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 in Richmond, VA, 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. About a week later, the ACLU of Virginia offered to republish the essay and also the unforgettable opportunity to write more articles for them.
I was at my happiest. I felt seen and heard, until I faced anti-Blackness by a group, mostly comprised of older white Central Virginia high school students, who also spoke at the Richmond rally. They invited other young speakers to lead a walkout with them on April 20th 2018, the nineteenth anniversary of the Columbine massacre. Days after an older white student added me to a group chat on Instagram, many of us met in person. At the first meeting, we discussed what would be next for us, and began organizing the walkout. I spoke up about leading a chant, “protect Black students,” and getting awkward silence and stares from other marchers. A white girl said she would’ve chanted with us if she heard us. The group insisted on having me speak at the walkout about centering Black youth.
Days later, 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 #NeverAgain movement. Two white students said that “it’s time for a woman president,” and suggested that this country would be better with Hillary Clinton lead the country. Given the facts that her husband, Bill Clinton supported the 1994 Crime Bill, and that Hillary Clinton, herself, addressed community violence by referring to Black youth as “super-predators,” and by calling for heavier policing, I said that Clinton was a white feminist because her politics are at the expense of Black youth and advocated for the carceral state. I added that violence can be fought without criminalizing Black youth. A few minutes later, we began sharing our experiences in schools. 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, and I said that the schools I attended, without a doubt, are racist. A white male, who attended school with some of my former peers, interjected to say,
“Those [your experiences] were in the past. Maybe they’ve changed. There’s no racism or bullying at my school.”
He had a funny way of giving Black Lives Matter the same solidarity they have given to the #NeverAgain movement. At the time, Black Lives Matter had spent nearly five years fighting anti-Black racism, especially violence at the hands of the state, and that included police shootings. #NeverAgain and March For Our Lives were movements comprised of mostly white students, many of which were and still are apathetic towards the fight for Black lives, yet suddenly became “activists” within those recent weeks.
“It’s not about race. It’s because the students in Parkland protested in a way people are open to.”
This is a direct quote from the white male student, who ironically said this minutes after being interviewed about fighting gun violence and 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,” 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.'” The white girl from the previous meeting agreed.
In the group chat, we often exchanged posts about gun violence, and I came across an Instagram post that resonated with what I stand for, by Unapologetic Street Series that read, “Police brutality is gun violence. Gun control must hold the state accountable.” A few hours after the meeting, I shared the post with the group chat. 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 #NeverAgain movement, I have voiced my concerns about their co-optation of the fight to end gun violence. During the conflict, I became even more vocal about the significance of acknowledging intersectionality in gun violence prevention. As a result, 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 and clashes with other people. I was asked to “not make this about race,” and repeatedly told that “this is about gun violence in schools.” At the first meeting, many of them seemingly agreed that it’s important to stand with Black and Brown youth affected by gun violence. Because what they were saying in the group chat contradicted with that, I asked the white group members how they follow through with those actions, and they accused me of “questioning their activism.”
Quite a few of the other group members, including the few other Black and Brown students, agreed and suggested that racism, community gun violence, police violence, and their intersections, were separate issues from what they thought what the fight against gun violence is. The only other Black student in the group was the first to jump to the white students’ defense. However, she rightfully so questioned if I had the standing to call the white students out, and to hold them accountable because of my privileges. Just to name a few, I am light-skinned, I lived in the same neighborhood, and attended the same schools as many of them did. I also was home schooled at the time. If I could say something to that Black student right now, I would let her know that I was never upset with her for holding me accountable to check my privilege, but with her for enabling the white students’ apathy and refusal to center Black youth in a movement that should be for and by Black youth. “We have acknowledged all of the racial inequalities. We are fixing them. You are just complaining. You made this about race. Not everything is about race & not every white person is racist. One problem at a time. Right now, it is gun violence,” she sent to the group chat.
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 older white male high school student tried to talk me into “speaking about the importance of voting,” and the white girl told me they “wanted more Black representation.” After I blocked two students, (including the white male who said that racism didn’t exist in Henrico County Public Schools), they messaged me from their alternative Instagram accounts, and new accounts they created, to further harass me in the group chat. The backlash lasted throughout spring break, and nothing was done about it. I was not okay. I was extremely inconsolable. 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 willing to work things out and participate in the walkout. All of the white students deflected an important conversation about white co-optation of anti-violence into a fight between two Black girls. Both the white male who added me to the group chat, and the white girl posed as “mediators,” as while picking and choosing which Black people can challenge their intentions with the rest of the white group members.
For what I thought was the students’ “respectful and beneficial” attempt to solve the conflict, I was asked to Skype with them, only to be interrupted each time I would share my perspective. The white girl who posed as a mediator told me, “I’m sorry you felt attacked. We agree with you, but say it in a way we are open to.” The older white male teenager, who I blocked on Instagram, agreed and began by addressing himself as “the most progressive person you will ever meet,” and proceeded to lecture 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 it, get out.”
Even after the one-sided conversation, I hoped we had moved on, and I 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. Soon, I learned that absolutely no one in the group, included me in the last meeting before the walkout. Seemingly, everyone else who was assigned a task separate from the walkout was included. As upset as I was, I tried to deal 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, only to learn that I wasn’t speaking, and to be turned away by the same white male who asked me to “speak about the importance of voting.” When I said ”hi” to him, he ignored me and walked away. I approached him again, and I asked if I was speaking. Even though the group guaranteed weeks earlier that I was going to speak, he said, “we’re full.”
According to WTVR CBS 6 News‘ coverage of the walkout, the students organized with the Richmond Police Department, who enacts violence against people protesting police brutality. In addition to protest chants like, “enough is enough,” and “books, not bullets,” they co-opted “hands up, don’t shoot,” a rallying cry from the 2014 uprisings in Ferguson, in light of the murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Based on more documentation of the event, the group included Black and Brown students as speakers, but the main focus of most of their speeches was school shootings, and they briefly addressed the impact gun violence has on Black and Brown people. The other Black student from the group suggested that Black people should stand against “Black-on-Black crime” if we stand for Black Lives Matter. White student speakers focused on gun violence in schools, holding politicians accountable to advocate for “common sense gun laws” and urging their peers to vote. The white male “mediator” briefly (and vaguely) stated that gun violence disproportionately affects “particular communities.” In his speech, the older white male group member who turned me away compared the walkout to pivotal events in the Civil Rights Movement led by Black students like Barbara Johns.
While they included some Black students, they excluded several Black students for fighting racism and policing, and they specifically excluded me without a heads-up because of my message and the conflict. I was devastated and infuriated. The fact that the group excluded me from leading the walkout with them was the last straw. Their racism didn’t stop me from walking out, but I had to do that on my own.
Since it was so obvious that my voice wasn’t wanted, I texted the group that evening to let them know that I couldn’t work with them anymore, and they were appalled, infuriated, and they demanded an explanation. As soon as I left the group chat, this enormous weight was lifted from my shoulders. I immediately realized that the stereotyping, racism, and cyber-bullying that I faced caused physical distress, in addition to emotional distress to my well-being. I’m 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 so supportive.
The group didn’t last any longer than a month after the walkout. I spent the day after, well into the following weeks publicly sharing my story–much to the anger of the older white male “mediator.” When I publicized it, he got very defensive and I reiterated what I told him a month earlier. The “mediator” chose to protect the people who were harassing me despite what I told him before the walkout. He and another white male group member insisted that they weren’t responsible for the exclusion of Black students, and tried to justify it by saying that they did so because of a “time limit.” I spent the next several months sharing my story, to speaking at town halls, open mics and youth summits, and writing articles. I saw a light at the end of a very dark tunnel when several organizations and individual people stood with me and gave me a platform. What I experienced taught me a valuable lesson that I am not without privilege, as a Black girl who is light-skinned, cishet, and benefits from classism, and that holding myself accountable should be my first priority. My message to everyone who is 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, organizer and writer who advocates for womanism, diversity in S.T.E.A.M, the abolition of youth prisons and gun violence prevention.