This piece is part of The Whiplash Decade, a package on the wild ride that was the 2010s.
It would be untrue to our generational forebears to suggest this was the decade Americans learned to protest. We’ve long relied on public demonstrations to make progress in everything from racial and gender equality to worker protections. The 2010s were, however, the decade when protest went mainstream. Credit rising income inequality, fears over a warming planet, increasing gun violence, a president who is known as a bully and a rapist, an administration hell-bent on stripping away health care and the ability to travel freely, and perhaps more than anything else, social media’s ability to help people air their grievances and mobilize around them.
GEN spoke with seven activists about their rise to action in the 2010s: how they organized, how they used media, and the toll that this essential and exhaustive work took on their mental health. The work of these seven individuals, and the movements they participated in, has significantly shaped the course of U.S. policy this last decade, and has made us rethink the way we stand up for the values we hold most dear.
Alexis Goldstein, participant, Occupy Wall Street (2011)
I showed up at Zuccotti park around week three. I’d heard about the plans for the protest on Facebook and was extremely skeptical. “That’s not going to work,” I thought. “The police will immediately kick them out.” But it was still going strong, almost a month later. What motivated me to show up was when the NYPD kettled and pepper-sprayed three young women. This is really messed up, I thought. I started coming down to the park for a few hours every day.
Carmen Perez, co-founder, The Women’s March (2017)
The woman who initially posted about the march on her Facebook page, Hawaiian grandmother Theresa Shook, had given her permission to Bob Bland and other women to move forward with the march. At first, they were calling it the Million Woman March, in reference to a march that black women had organized 20 years prior. Then I was called, along with Tamika Mallory, by an activist named Michael Skolnik, who had another woman on the phone who wanted to do the march, Vanessa Wruble. Michael had told her about us. “These are the women that know how to organize a March in their sleep.” We had just come off of co-organizing Justice or Else and had organized a 250-mile march from New York City to D.C. to bring awareness to police accountability and police brutality. Marches were something we had been doing for quite some time.
Daniel Altschuler, organizer, Make the Road New York (2017)
The week after the inauguration, we knew it was likely that one of the actions President Trump was going to take was a Muslim ban. The actual announcement happened on Friday, January 27, 2017. Our response was to issue an immediate statement decrying what was going on. We then heard from folks at the International Refugee Assistance Project that there were travelers who were being held at the airport. On Saturday morning, we awoke to a New York Times story about Iraqi immigrant, Hameed Khalid Darweesh, and another man, Haider Alshawi, who were being detained at JFK. A small group of us decided we needed to go to the airport.
Delaney Tarr, co-founder, March For Our Lives (2018)
Our generation grew up in an era of gun violence and mass shootings. When it happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, we knew we needed to stand up and say something. My tweets started getting a lot of attention, and I’d been doing a lot of interviews too. I was being aggressive about the fact that this was something that could’ve been prevented. It culminated in all of us sitting down together and deciding the best way forward was to mobilize a march.
Sarah Blazevic, co-founder, Sunrise Movement (2017)
In college, I was a part of the Fossil Fuel divestment movement. After college, watching the rise of Bernie Sanders inspired me and others to start Sunrise. I saw how the climate movement had been leaving power on the table by not finding ways to engage people — and here was Bernie, telling a story about corrupt fossil fuel billionaires. I felt like this was the story we should be telling.
We spent a year planning the strategy and structure for a new youth climate movement. We spent time at retreats, reading a lot of books, trying to take stock of the political landscape and assess what was necessary to face down the scale of this crisis. We wanted to be honest with ourselves about the level of power we would have to build to stop climate change and create millions of jobs in the process. We got ready to launch in summer 2017 through a series of small, bird-dogging actions — which is when ordinary people ask hard questions of leaders in public forums — calling out politicians who take money from the fossil fuel industry, betraying our generation.
LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, participant, Standing Rock (2016)
When we were first notified that they wanted to build a pipeline across our land, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe came out to our communities to explain what this was to the people. In one of these meetings, the young people present said they were thinking about creating a camp. “I have some land,” I told them. “I am the closest landowner to the pipeline. Go ahead and create a camp.” So we went down, they looked around, and said, “This is perfect. We’ll start the camp on April 1st.” That was in five days.
Alicia Garza, co-founder, Black Lives Matter (2013)
BLM was created by myself, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin. BLM catapulted onto the national and international scene in 2014, when Mike Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. For the first two years, BLM was very organic, adopted by organizers and activists on the ground. Because there was so much attention during the weeks of unrest in St. Louis, “Black Lives Matter” became a rallying cry.
Initially, a lot of people wanted a march against Trump. But we wanted a march for something. Within weeks, we brought together 27 women from different walks of life to look at how their issues intersected through the lens of gender. That’s when we came up with the unity principles of the Women’s March. After that, everything happened quickly. I remember a lot of conference calls at 7 a.m. in the morning; there were a lot of logistics that we had to think about. Buses, parking, bringing on people to make sure that we were compliant with the disability community. When I think about it, I’m like, wow, I did a lot.
There were about five of us at JFK at the beginning. As we arrived, we notified the press, and over the course of the day, five people became 50 people, which became 500 people, which became well over 5,000 people, swelling to say “no” to the Muslim ban. JFK became instrumental in sparking activity at airports around the country.
There were different pieces of Zuccotti Park. We were all talking to each other and making new relationships. If you were interested in environmental justice, there were groups that were organizing around that. I participated in this super nerdy group called Occupy the SEC. We wrote a several-hundred-page letter to regulators about the Volcker Rule, which got a lot of press coverage.
Then I sat through a General Assembly, which was like a Quaker meeting. It was an attempt to allow everyone who was either living in the park or coming to the park to have their voice heard as a part of Occupy. If you liked something you were supposed to twinkle your fingers; And if you didn’t like something you were supposed to point your hands down. It was consensus-driven.
I was very moved by this concept that they called “progressive stack.” When people wanted to talk, someone would have a little notepad and they would write down everyone whose hand was raised, and they would invert the order of who spoke first based on who is usually the loudest and who would usually be the quietest. If a white guy who was always talking wanted to say something and a black woman who we’d never heard from wanted to say something, the progressive stack would put her first.
We won the freedom of Hameed Darweesh on Saturday. Everybody was still riled up, so a group organizers huddled to figure out the next step. It was 20-something degrees outside, and none of us had any of the equipment necessary to stay for much longer at JFK. We planned an action the next day at Battery Park, which we announced collectively between Make the Road New York, New York Immigration Coalition, Desis Rising Up and Moving, and others. Within an hour there was a Facebook event that had thousands of RSVPs. On Sunday, there were tens of thousands of people in Battery Park and a rally with major elected officials as well as community leaders.
As March For Our Lives grew, we became a cultural phenomenon in the eyes of Hollywood. A lot of different celebrities wanted to support our cause — that’s how we got Jennifer Hudson and Ariana Grande to perform at the march. Honestly, it was strategic. It’s a lot easier to engage with an audience if you have a pop star on stage. The march itself was an absolute whirlwind. Some of the big moments seem so surreal; I cling to the smaller ones. Seeing how many people support your cause, it was insane. I walked out on that stage and I looked in the crowd and I could not see an end.
We spent a year preparing for a program that we ran in the lead-up to the 2018 midterms called Sunrise Semester, where we had 75 full-time volunteers living in movement houses across the country, working to unseat politicians who we’d been bird-dogging a year earlier. The first year-and-a-half was focused on building a base, then we wanted to leverage the power of young people who are concerned about climate change toward the 2018 midterm elections.
When we started the camp, it was all the people from Standing Rock. We had ten, 20 people there. People who would just show up and say, “I can do this.” The Indian community brought food every day. People in our community started emptying out their homes of supplies, of camping equipment, tents, sleeping bags. All of a sudden we had to worry about roads and safety and sanitation. So we made our own roads, we made our own street signs, we set up our own security and medic tents. We set up schools because so many people brought their children. We had song, dance, ceremony, and prayer services every day.
There was frustration about the ways the media portrayed what was happening in St. Louis. There were real infrastructure needs that folks had. That’s what we did: we gathered lawyers, healers, teachers, doctors, and people with skills, but also gathered black media. On Labor Day weekend in 2014, we were instrumental in organizing a Black Lives Matter freedom ride to Ferguson. More than 600 people came via plane, train, bus, and automobile to converge for a weekend of relationship building, observation, and witnessing. That’s where the chapter structure of BLM was born.
The process of movement-building is messy. The process of bringing people together to create change together doesn’t happen in a linear way. One of the things that became clear to me is that the level of infrastructure that is needed for black communities to be powerful is woefully underdeveloped in this country.
You need to tell your own stories. Sometimes you do that when the media has their own stories to tell. But there were several media outlets that really favored the Women’s March, so that gave us the ability to really share our story.
I have a large database of international friends, so when we started the camp, I contacted my people all over the world and said, “I need help.” Then we did a media strategy. We went to the schools and asked the children what they thought of the water. We started doing small commercials, less than a minute, talking about water.
The contempt with which the press treated Occupy was completely unjustified. What’s interesting now is to see a lot of these ideas being discussed in a presidential primary by many of the leading candidates — issues that eight years ago were dismissed as completely crazy.
Most media reports on protest generally miss the mark. Often, they misconstrue how protest and mobilization work. The thing that media accounts often miss is the power of grassroots organization and the infrastructure: Organizations are communicating with one another to be able to respond in real-time to be able to mobilize their members and their allies to execute strategic action.
Media is a double-edged sword because without all of those TV interviews, we wouldn’t have the platform we do now. But sharing your message with another person, and having that person be the one to dictate the way it’s received, can warp what you’re saying. We still get called “the Parkland kids,” but the March for Our Lives is not just Parkland. It’s easy to harp on certain buzzwords.
The media has legitimized some of what we’ve done; I think we understand the dynamics of what makes a good story, we understand the dynamics of political confrontation. But I would say it has really been an epic failure on the part of the media to cover climate change like the crisis that it is.
The young people told us how to do things. They said, “Grandma, do you know social media?” I said, “No.” They said, “Grandma, you ever did a live stream?” I said, “No, show me.” The young people showed us the world of social media. Media is the most important thing. Whoever controls the narrative, controls the world.
Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown and the news was talking about riots. They were talking about people being out of control, and not talking about the context under which people were angry and responding to that anger. What you would see on television was that this was a city under siege by protesters.
This work takes a toll on you. As you’re speaking to different communities that have been marginalized, you’re also inheriting a lot of the trauma that they have experienced for not being at the table in the past. You really have to take care of your soul.
If you organize with other people, it can ease the burden. People tend to burn out when they do too much in isolation. It’s not easy to lose and lose and lose. But if you’re doing it in a community with other people that are fighting for the same thing, that courage is contagious.
It has been a very challenging time for folks in our world, particularly for people of color, immigrants, women, and trans organizers. I think our organization and others have tried to be mindful of that and deal with, and provide support internally for folks who are struggling, and to know the reality. We can’t undertake a mass mobilization every single day, even if we want to.
A lot of us from Parkland did not process our grief and trauma after the shooting. We jumped into organizing — that was what had to be done. But I don’t know if it was necessarily great for our mental health. I struggled to be alone with my emotions, so I simply did not stop.
We keep on saying, as indigenous people, “How much more do we have to take?” The corporations come with no hearts, no souls, only to make money for foreign companies. Standing Rock is my family land, my traditional land, and my homeland. It is also the land where my husband is buried, my father is buried, and my son is buried. I always ask, “What did I ever do wrong to have people attack my beautiful waters, my beautiful lands? Why is it wrong for me to defend that? Why do they give me the term activist when I’m not an activist?” I have to live with this every day.
Maybe I shouldn’t be working 18 hours a day. Instead, I should work eight to 10 hours a day, and spend time with my family and spend time with people I love and have deep belly laughs. Because coming into contact with trauma and violence is very, very draining. Unless you have a long-range perspective, it can be overwhelming. What I’ve learned is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Some change happens really fast, right? But other change, particularly the kinds of changes that we seek, can take decades.
You go back home to your family and you’re reminded that you are just a regular person. Your brother will say to you, “Hey, could you make me a plate?” But being a public figure, there will always be scrutiny, and I welcome that. It helps me be a better leader.
But I don’t want to be thought of as a celebrity. That’s not what we are. We’re activists. But I have the responsibilities of somebody with a platform and I have to be very cognizant of that when I post on social media. But I’m a 19-year-old girl. I’m a normal person.
For lots of people, their understanding of movement is what happens when people are in the streets. But the reality is that movements are happening all the time. I’ve had people say to me like, “How come Black Lives Matter isn’t in the streets anymore?” And I’m like, “We are! We’re in our communities, we’re organizing, we’re impacting the electoral realm.”
People, particularly women, have found their voice this past decade. That’s given people the ability to feel empowered, to speak up. In the past, you had to ask a woman seven times for her to even think about running for office. Now, I believe it’s twice.
For a long time, it seemed as though we were constantly referring back to the Civil Rights Movement. Now we have the ability to refer back to things that have happened within the last two years.