Today’s Activism: Spontaneous, Leaderless, but Not Without Aim

MINNEAPOLIS — In the sea of hundreds of protesters who gathered one evening this week near the intersection where George Floyd was killed, a lone voice rose from the crowd.

“Everybody sit down,” it urgently ordered.

Others chimed in — “Sit down! Sit down!” — scolding those, even journalists, who were slow to comply.

A few minutes later, Tony Clark, wearing a black face mask and an earring with the inscription “Not today Satan,” bounded toward the center of the circle of seated bodies and took the megaphone.

“Everybody stand up,” he commanded, contradicting the earlier speaker’s instructions.

The crowd rose.

“The moment y’all sit down, the moment they’re going to step on y’all,” Mr. Clark, 27, said to rousing applause. But a half-hour later, he reversed his stance and told everyone to sit down again.

“Stop barking orders,” said Davi Young, a Marine veteran, twisting his face. “You’re not the police.”

Welcome to 21st-century activism, where spontaneous and leaderless movements have been defined by their organic births and guided on the fly by people whose preferences, motivations and ideas may not always align.

But the absence of organized leadership does not mean the movements — from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter — are rudderless.

Leveraging technology that was unavailable to earlier generations, the activists of today have a digital playbook. Often, it begins with an injustice captured on video and posted to social media. Demonstrations are hastily arranged, hashtags are created and before long, thousands have joined the cause.

At the core is an egalitarian spirit, a belief that everyone has a voice, and that everyone’s voice matters.

“This is much more than an organization. This is much more than an individual,” said Nejah Ibrahim, 26, sitting on the pavement at the intersection where Mr. Floyd was arrested, sporadically leading chants or delivering messages from a megaphone.

“This is collective people who came together,” he continued, “to stand against a systematic oppression that we have endured for so long.”

But leaderless movements have their challenges.

It can be difficult to keep protests from spilling out of control, and difficult to maintain a clear and focused message. Disputes over the best strategies can easily emerge.

“I think it is detrimental that we lack that kind of structure, organization,” said Dame Jasmine Hughes, 33, standing at a makeshift memorial for Mr. Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer pinned Mr. Floyd’s neck to the ground with his left knee for nearly nine minutes.

The officer, Derek Chauvin, was fired from the Minneapolis Police Department and charged with second-degree murder. Three other officers at the scene were charged on Wednesday with aiding and abetting the killing.

“Organizations show power,” Ms. Hughes continued. “There’s power in clarity. There’s power in structure, especially when people are hurting.”

Though organized structure might be loose, traditional civil rights groups, churches and newly minted activist organizations have provided guidance and tactical and practical support to activists around the country.

Carmen Means, a pastor who has led a mostly online congregation since 2015 and is the director of the Central Area Neighborhood Development Organization in Minneapolis, said her congregants helped set up a memorial for Mr. Floyd. They have received food donations and they turned a nearby building into a food bank, where there was recently a long line of residents.

And she has led discussions outside Cup Foods — the corner store near where the fatal encounter between Mr. Floyd and the police took place — where people talked about how Mr. Floyd’s death has affected them.

“They were weeping,” she said. “You could see the trauma that was in their eyes.”

More than emotional support, Pastor Means and her fellow activists also try to help strategize the demonstrators’ next moves.

She said she has convened daily meetings for “strategic thinking, planning because we understand that this is not a sprint. This is a marathon, right?”

Part of that strategy is figuring out how to channel the energy of young activists who are not affiliated with official organizations. They may have raw rage, she said, and need guidance in finding productive ways to express it.

“We do tell them that it is their right to protest and be angry. That’s something courageous,” said Shanene Herbert, a member of Pastor Means’s congregation who helps youth in the community.

“But we want them to understand what their rights are,” added Keeya Allen, another congregant. “Understand that they have a life to live. So it’s not about, are you going to die for the cause? Or are you going to live for the cause every day?”

These days, social media is the strongest, most prominent leader. Young activists announce the location of an action or protest on Twitter or Instagram, and within an hour, scores of people are there.

“I think it kind of does make it hard to manage because you don’t know who’s coming,” said Maryan Farasle, a 17-year-old high school senior who lives in the Minneapolis suburbs and is an activist organizer. “You don’t know the people showing up and what their intentions are.”

But at the same time, she added, “I think it is a way to get a lot of people together quickly.”

The young generation of activists also uses social media to police one another and help keep everyone safe. On Thursday night, after protesters set fire to the Third Police Precinct headquarters in Minneapolis, one Twitter user warned people to leave the area.

Tensions on the streets in Minneapolis and elsewhere have simmered in recent days, amid a tough law enforcement crackdown and passionate pleas from Mr. Floyd’s family to keep the peace.

But today’s young activists also avoid singular leaders. “We’ve seen what happens to people in the past when they’re the lead of anything,” Ms. Farasle said, referring to civil rights leaders who have been slain.

Tay Anderson, a 21-year-old organizer in Denver, has found himself facing that danger — and walking a tightrope.

As the protests in Denver tipped into violence and vandalism, he spoke out against looting and rioting while police officers shot projectiles and launched tear gas at the crowd. He once helped negotiate a stand-down with officers to defuse tensions, and some activists accused him of working with the police, he said.

After days of speaking through a megaphone to sign-waving crowds about police killings and systemic racism, Mr. Anderson said that chilling online messages forced him to pull back from the crowds on Monday.

He was doing online searches of his name to fact-check news articles that quoted him when Google’s “related searches” showed a disturbing list: “Tay Anderson shot.” “Tay Anderson shot in head.” “Tay Anderson shot in back of head.”

“They can try to silence me but I’m not going to let anybody put a muzzle on me,” he said.

Despite the dangers, some lean into the prospect of being a leader.

“I am a leader,” Mr. Clark said this week as he stood among scores of people at the vigil site for Mr. Floyd on Minneapolis’s South Side.

Moments later, commotion broke out on the edges of the gathering, an apparent dispute between some of the protesters. Some began to scatter.

“Why are we running?” a man with dreadlocks shouted. “Stand your ground,” a woman with a white cap yelled. Others exhorted: “Stay here! Stay here!”

Things eventually calmed down, until police lights appeared in the distance and protesters rushed toward a makeshift wooden fence they had erected as a barrier to protect their vigil site. “Be peaceful!” protesters shouted. “Don’t instigate!”

Mr. Clark sprang into action and urged everyone to stay disciplined.

It turned out to be a false alarm. The police turned around, but Mr. Clark worked his way back to the center of the crowd and spoke into the megaphone like a general readying his troops for battle.

Is anyone going home tonight, he asked.


And when the tear gas and rubber bullets come, he said, they would need to stand pat.

“Our ancestors have been through worse,” said Mr. Clark, a barber who is struggling to find work because of the coronavirus pandemic. “We’re going to beat this by being in peace tonight.”

Jack Healy contributed reporting from Denver.

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