How Black Lives Matter became a multicultural awakening

An increasing number of white activists are taking part.

July 9, 2020, 3:57 PM

In 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement took form first as a hashtag and then as protests across the country in response to Trayvon Martin's death. Now, that same cry for justice reverberates once again following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Americans have taken to the streets demanding justice for a system many believe is broken.

Some activists say that since the first protests in 2013, Black Lives Matter has blossomed into a multicultural awakening with an increasing number of white activists taking part.

Kenidra Woods is among those fighting for racial equity, leading protests in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. Woods began her activism seven years ago at the age of 13 after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown's death hit close to home she said, and told ABC News that she was so traumatized that all she could think about was her older brother.

PHOTO: Activist Kenidra Woods raising a fist at a protest in Missouri.
Activist Kenidra Woods raising a fist at a protest in Missouri.
Kassie Nusbaumer

"It put everything into perspective for me," Woods said. "Do they really care about us? That's what I thought at 13. Do I matter? Why am I hated for the color of my skin? So I just knew, 'Kenidra, you got to stand up.'"

Woods has remained vocal amid the pandemic, making Zoom calls, engaging in conversations with celebrities such as "Riverdale" star Lili Reinhardt, and racking up views on TikTok schooling the younger generation about racism.

One aspect of these protests that Woods said is not the same as previous Black Lives Matter movements is the surge of white people involved she has seen.

"Starting off at 13, I saw mostly just black people on the front lines. And you know, there were a few white people out there but now I'm seeing way more white people who are standing up saying no more to the racism and injustice that black people face in this country," Woods added.

In Asbury Park, New Jersey, race is a continuous conversation for lifelong activist Felicia Simmons who is a chapter president in Reverend Al Sharpton's National Action Network.

"None of this is new. None of it is new. But this is the first time everybody's seeing it," Simmons said.

PHOTO: Protesters holding signs and listening to a speaker at the June 1st rally in Asbury Park.
Protesters holding signs and listening to a speaker at the June 1st rally in Asbury Park.
David Ziegler

Simmons initially organized a protest in her hometown of Asbury Park after Maurice Gordon was fatally shot on the New Jersey Turnpike by a state trooper, just two days before Floyd's death. With no permit, Simmons held the protest on public government grounds on the post office steps, expecting only a couple hundred people to show up.

Simmons said she was joined by nearly 10,000 people instead. Asbury Park, a New Jersey beach town, has deep-rooted racial divides. White people have historically lived on the east side of the town's railroad tracks and their maids and housekeepers, mostly people of color, lived on the west side. It's a racial divide that persists today.

"It reflects the world," Simmons said. "The disparity is on one side of the town, which is posh and pretty. You get the bar scene, the nice time when a police officer walks and shakes your hand. And on the other side of town, it's like the young man, Raequan [Bowers], who got beat for not having a street light on his bicycle."

Yet, Simmons said the town came together in solidarity for the protest. Lana Leonard was among the attendees who decided to take action by creating their own rally.

"We're talking about the intersections of being black and being queer, and in particular being black and being trans and the work within the LGBTQ community that we need to do to ensure that our black sisters brothers and siblings are kept safe and alive," Leonard said.

PHOTO: Drone footage of June 1st Asbury Park protest organized by Felicia Simmons.
Drone footage of June 1st Asbury Park protest organized by Felicia Simmons.
David Ziegler

As a white, transgendered person, Leonard said they use their privilege to stand up for black trans counterparts.

"We need to understand what it is that the privileges that I have with this skin and instead of feeling guilty, it's a matter of what can you do? What are solutions?," Leonard said.

Zack Sims, an Atlanta native, said he was moved by the video of Ahmaud Arbery being fatally shot.

As a former track and field athlete at the University of Georgia, Sims said "it's one thing to know racism and how it exists in America, the prevalence of it, but then it's another to watch a video and watch a person basically be executed running down the street."

PHOTO: White People for Black Lives Matters at a protest in Los Angeles, California.
White People for Black Lives Matters at a protest in Los Angeles, California.
Danielle Reidy

Sims didn't feel like there was enough backlash from that video from his community so he aired his frustrations on Facebook and began holding uncomfortable conversations with his family and friends. Sims, who is white, said one conversation that stuck with him was with a longtime black friend who said it's not Sims' fault he has privilege, but the way he uses it is.

AWARE-LA, (The Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere) is a Los Angeles-based organization which confronts its members' white privilege. Their goal is to reach out to other white people and educate themselves on the racial injustices in the country to shift the burden from people of color from needing to educate well-meaning white people.

Shelly Tochluk, professor of education at Mount Saint Mary's University-Los Angeles, has been a member for 16 years. She helps run the organization's weekend sessions along with other members and volunteers, the "Saturday and Sunday Dialogues" over issues of identity, community, privilege and racism.

"We look inside ourselves ... what does it mean for us to be a white person?" said Tochluk "How are we affected by what we've just heard, or what we've just experienced?

Some members spoke about the feelings the discussions evoked.

"Being honest, the last few weeks have been a bit of an overwhelm and, you know, at the same time I'm saying that I realized that's privileged to be overwhelmed," confessed Ellen, one of the organization's members who took part in the Sunday discussion.

"I had been doing racial justice work for several years and had pretty much left white people. I was in a really dark place. And I didn't want anything to do with us. So a lot of shame. A lot of self-hatred," said David, another member.

PHOTO: White People at a protest in Los Angeles, California for Black Lives Organizer Hannah Jurs-Allen.
White People at a protest in Los Angeles, California for Black Lives Organizer Hannah Jurs-Allen.
Danielle Reidy

"It's hard to just feel that pain and know that I'm part of what caused it and whiteness is part of what caused it," said Monique, who was part of the group's Sunday discussion.

One of the issues, according to Tochluk, who is white, is that white people have not been taught "the full history of whiteness," or "the history of racism against people of color," she said.

"When we start to realize that our parents were uneducated about this, our teachers were uneducated about this, and therefore we are uneducated and therefore we are absolutely complicit in all of what's going on around us, that can be really big," Tochluk said.

AWARE's activist arm is White People for Black Lives which works in solidarity with Black Lives Matter: Los Angeles, the Movement 4 Black Lives and other black-led organizations. Due to the pandemic moving life to the virtual side, the organization has seen a surge in new members. In June alone, they virtually oriented 3,500 new members, according to Hannah Jurs-Allen, who leads new member orientation

"I think the combination of people really having access to the information of how unjust our system is and frankly having the time on their hands that the pandemic has created was kind of like a whirlwind of creating this moment that we're in now and people are in pain," said Jurs-Allen.

However, allies should be prepared for consequences, anti-racism educator Jane Elliott told ABC News.

"Prepare to have your relatives stop speaking to you," Elliott cautioned. "Get ready to be spit on, get ready to be rejected. Get ready to learn about how unsafe it is to say, 'I don't have to be white to be right.'"

Elliott is best known for the "Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes" exercise she performed with her third graders in rural Iowa the day after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. A lesson in prejudice, Elliott grouped her students by eye color and gave preferential treatment to those with brown eyes one day and then those with blue eyes the next day.

Five decades later, her lesson remains relevant as the fight for equality continues. However, she said she's encouraged by the Black Lives Matter movement "because young people are saying, enough is enough. This isn't just enough, this is too much. But they're out there in groups of people of different colors together, knowing that their lives are in danger because of the way the police have been trained to behave. Knowing that their lives, their health could go to hell because of COVID-19."

PHOTO: Crowd listening to a speaker on the steps of the Asbury Park post office.
Crowd listening to a speaker on the steps of the Asbury Park post office.
David Ziegler

As a former teacher, Elliott also urges the reeducation of teachers. "You can't teach what you don't know,' she said. "And educators learn the same thing in school that I did which was the rightness of whiteness."

In Missouri, protests have renewed Kenidra Woods' hope for change. However, "we cannot move forward with hate on our backs," she said. "We cannot move forward, divided. If we want to fight for something ... collectively ... we have to be together."

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