Black Protest Leaders To White Allies: 'It's Our Turn To Lead Our Own Fight'

Sep 22, 2020
Originally published on September 23, 2020 1:00 pm

On a street in Rochester, N.Y., earlier this month, police and demonstrators clashed violently, with marchers shouting and coughing as officers in riot gear fired pepper balls at the crowd.

As tear gas fogged the intersection, a Black protest leader urged white demonstrators forward.

"If you're a white person, you're getting to the perimeter, you're putting your body on the f****** line right now!" she shouted to a group of protesters wearing goggles, filter masks and bicycle helmets.

They responded by hustling forward, forming a line with homemade shields.

This dynamic is playing out on streets across the U.S. Protests are massive and diverse, with more Americans embracing the Black Lives Matter movement. But in many cities, the leadership is overwhelmingly Black.

"It's our turn to lead our own fight, to frame our own conversations," said Benjamin O'Keefe, a Black political organizer in Brooklyn where protests have continued since late May after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis.

O'Keefe, who also worked on Sen. Elizabeth Warren's presidential campaign, said it's a hopeful sign for Black leaders that so many white people are turning out for marches.

But it has also meant a complicated conversation with white activists who often haven't grappled with their own attitudes about race.

"We exist in a white supremacy culture in which even people who want to do good do not necessarily want to be led by a Black person," the 26-year-old said.

This conversation among activists is happening at a moment when some Black leaders are pushing ideas about criminal justice reform that once seemed far outside the political mainstream, such as defunding police and abolishing prisons.

O'Keefe said many Black leaders are uncertain whether white supporters are committed to that kind of systemic change.

"Are you really in this? Do you really understand the stakes?" he asks. "Are you here for an Instagram picture? Or are you here because you understand when I walk out the door every day, I have a much higher chance of not returning home because of the color of my skin?"

One street movement fueled by very different lives

A study from Harvard shows that Black Americans are roughly three times more likely to be killed during an encounter with police compared with white people. Black adults are also five times more likely to say they've been unfairly stopped by police because of their race, according to the Pew Research Center.

Black activists say white demonstrators haven't shared this experience, so they often turn up at protests with different assumptions about about what reform should look like and what tactics should be used in the streets.

"White people often come to these protests and they want to lead them and they want to be screaming the loudest and they want to throw things at police," O'Keefe said.

Across the country, many Black organizers are working to address this tension head-on.

"White folks, allies, accomplices, I'm talking to you all," Christopher Coles, an activist and poet in Rochester, said to a crowd of marchers in early September through a bullhorn.

"This is not a video game. For some of you all that come here, you come because it's an elective. We come because it's survival."

Poet and activist Christopher Coles addresses a crowd in Rochester, N.Y. His message to white protesters is a reminder: "For some of you all that come here, you come because it's an elective. We come because it's survival."
Brian Mann / NPR

Just one block from where the 39-year-old Coles spoke, a mentally ill Black man was arrested and held down by police last March with a spit hood over his head.

Daniel Prude asphyxiated and later died. Disturbing video of his arrest was released in August, sparking weeks of demonstrations.

Addressing a crowd made up in large part of young white activists, many marching for the first time, Coles voiced a concern shared by many Black leaders. They worry white allies will march and carry signs but then go back to their lives, even if nothing changes to make Black people safer.

"You get to be an ally one day and just white the next. You get to live and lean on your privilege. But if you've got privilege, start motherf****** spending it," Coles said.

Progress on civil rights has long depended on Black leadership

This tension isn't new. During the civil rights era of the 1960s, Black leaders were often leery of white supporters, questioning their commitment and their willingness to be led.

"We were concerned they would assume responsibilities for things we wanted young Black people to assume," recalled Charlie Cobb, who was an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi during the 1960s.

Cobb said he worried when white college students began arriving on buses from the North in 1964.

"Such a large number of whites coming down, I thought they'd overwhelm the still fragile roots of the grassroots movement we were trying to build."

He believes Black leaders back then did find ways to organize and lead white activists, forming an alliance that won significant gains on civil rights. He thinks that's possible again now, as white people take to the streets in much larger numbers.

"I think the leadership should be Black but I don't think that excludes the participation of whites or even search for white allies, as we did with respective to the 1964 Mississippi summer project," Cobb said.

For white allies, listening and "standing alongside"

White activists interviewed by NPR said they're broadly comfortable with this power structure within the Black Lives Matter movement.

Back in Rochester, Kendall Devour was one of thousands of young white people across the U.S. who marched this summer for the first time.

"I just think being a white ally means listening a lot and sometimes that means you're going to make mistakes," said Devour, a graduate student at Rochester Institute of Technology. "But you can't get sad and cry about it; you just have to register that there's work to be done."

Brae Adams, a white pastor in Rochester, volunteered this summer for a Black-organized group that offers counseling and pastoral care to protesters.

"We're just standing alongside, we are allies only," she said. "We don't claim any of this as our own. All we're trying to do is be a support and stand and say, 'Yes, indeed your life does matter.' "

Marchers gather outside Rochester City Hall earlier this month. Some Black protest leaders worry white allies will march and carry signs but then go back to their lives, even if nothing changes to make Black people safer.
Brian Mann / NPR

Some cities and state legislatures have responded to these protests with modest police reforms. But Black organizers and many of their white supporters say it's not enough.

They plan to keep marching and demonstrating together, demanding change as long as Black people keep dying in police custody.

This means this conversation about race will also continue within the movement. It's playing out mostly among young people, Black and white, at a time of huge stress as they're exhausted after weeks of confrontation with police.

But Salomé Chimuku, a 29-year-old organizer in Portland, Ore., says the relationship between Black leaders and white allies is mostly working. She's seen friendships forming in the streets that wouldn't have existed without the protest movement.

"Whether or not it's always pretty, having these conversations is moving things forward," Chimuku said. "I think it's going well, the fact that we're still talking about it, the fact that these protest are still going on past 100 days shows that it's successful."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The racial justice movement kicked off by the death of George Floyd is now nearly four months on, and it continues. Within that movement, activists are debating who should get to lead. Many Black activists are asking - in some cases demanding - that white supporters follow their leadership and strategy. And as NPR's Brian Mann reports, some Black leaders are challenging white protesters to see the fight through long past this current moment.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: On a street in Rochester, N.Y., earlier this month, police in body armor pressed forward, firing pepper balls at demonstrators. One of the protest's Black leaders shouted orders, directing white marchers to the front.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: You're a white person; you're getting to the perimeter. You're putting your body on the [expletive] line right now. Thank you.

MANN: This dynamic is happening on streets across the U.S. Protests are diverse. But in many cities, the leadership is overwhelmingly Black. Benjamin O'Keefe is a Black political organizer in Brooklyn, where protests have continued since early June. He says it's good far more white people are embracing the Black Lives Matter movement, but it's also meant a complicated tension with white allies who he says often haven't questioned their own attitudes about race.

BENJAMIN O'KEEFE: We exist in white supremacy culture in which even people who want to do good do not want to be necessarily led by a Black person.

MANN: Black leaders are pushing ideas about criminal justice reform that once seemed far outside the political mainstream, like defunding police and abolishing prisons. O'Keefe says it's unclear whether white supporters are committed to that kind of change.

O'KEEFE: Are you really in this? Do you really understand the stakes? Are you here for an Instagram picture, or are you here because you understand that when I walk outside every day, I have a much higher risk of not returning home because of the color of my skin?

MANN: Studies show Black Americans are roughly three times more likely to be killed during an encounter with police compared with white people. Black adults are also five times more likely to say they've been unfairly stopped by police because of their race. This is an experience white demonstrators don't share. So across the country, many Black organizers are addressing this tension, this different experience, head-on.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

CHRISTOPHER COLES: White folks, allies, accomplices, I'm talking to y'all.

MANN: Christopher Coles, an activist in Rochester, talked to marchers through a bullhorn while a police drone hovered overhead.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

COLES: This is not a video game. For some of y'all that come here, you come here because it's an elective. We come here because it's survival.

MANN: Just one block from here, a mentally ill Black man named Daniel Prude was held down by police last March with a spit hood over his head. He asphyxiated and later died. That sparked weeks of demonstrations. Coles voiced a concern you hear a lot among Black leaders - that white allies will march and carry signs and then go back to their lives even if nothing changes to make Black people safer.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

COLES: You get to be an ally one day and just white the next. You get to live and lean on your privilege. But if you got privilege, start [expletive] spending it.

MANN: This tension isn't new. During the civil rights era, Black leaders like Charlie Cobb were often leery of white supporters, questioning their commitment and their willingness to be led.

CHARLIE COBB: We were concerned they would assume responsibilities for things we wanted young Black people to assume.

MANN: Cobb was an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi during the 1960s. He says it worried him when white college students began arriving on buses.

COBB: Such a large number of whites coming down - thought they'd overwhelm the still-fragile roots of the grassroots movement we were trying to build.

MANN: But Cobb says Black leaders then did find ways to lead white activists, making big gains on civil rights. He thinks it's happening again now as white people take to the streets in much larger numbers.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Chanting) Say his name.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Daniel Prude.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Chanting) Say his name.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Daniel Prude.

MANN: Back in Rochester, Kendall Devour is one of thousands of white people across the U.S. who marched this summer for the first time, responding to the deaths of George Floyd, Daniel Prude and others. She says she's learned from Black activists, found ways to fit in.

KENDALL DEVOUR: I just think being a white ally means listening a lot. And sometimes you're going to make mistakes, but you can't get sad and cry about it. You have to just register that there's work to be done.

MANN: This conversation about race is playing out mostly among young people - Black and white - all under huge stress, exhausted and frightened after weeks of confrontation with police. Salome Chimuku, an organizer in Portland, Ore., says it's mostly working.

SALOME CHIMUKU: Whether or not it's always pretty, having these conversations is moving things forward. I think it's going well. The fact that we're still talking about it, the fact that these protests are going past a hundred days shows that it's successful.

MANN: Some cities and state legislatures have responded to these protests with modest police reforms, but many Black organizers say it's not enough. They see this moment as a major reckoning with systemic racism. One test of this movement is whether white supporters will stay with Black activists as they demand more sweeping change.

Brian Mann, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOL HAMMOND AND DUNCAN FORBES' "DAYS WITHOUT END") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.