Before George Floyd stopped pleading for air beneath a police officer’s knee, 19-year-old Weidmayer Pierre was planning to work at Walmart during his summer break from Palm Beach State College.
Now his days look completely different. Pierre has quit his retail job to focus on organizing Black Lives Matter protests every few days in Florida, determined to channel the groundswell of energy around the world into meaningful reform in his hometown.
“Every time someone gets killed by police brutality, we protest once or twice and it’s done,” said Pierre, who wants to help police improve the system from within. “This time, I’m not planning on stopping until we have a change.”
Pierre is part of a grassroots, decentralized wave of young organizers across the U.S. helping drive the outpouring of protest against racism and police brutality in cities and towns around the nation.
Many are new to organizing but have seen a drumbeat of deaths of police brutality cases captured on video since they were children. Social media is second nature for many, and they’re showing how small groups can translate online information quickly into real-life action.
Now, in big cities and small towns, both liberal and conservative, they are taking matters into their own hands and bringing together hundreds of thousands of people to press for change.
The novice organizers’ visions for the future differ, but they all hope their voices are helping create a historic turning point in dismantling racism and inequity.
Tiffany Medrano Martinez had just graduated from eighth grade when she decided to organize a peaceful demonstration in her hometown of Redwood City, Calif. The 14-year-old had watched protests sweep the country in the wake of Floyd’s death, some accompanied by unrest in the form of smashed windows, stolen goods and burned buildings.
She said she understands the roots of anger but wanted the keep the focus on reforms. So she put together an online flyer setting the event for June 2, and wrote “don’t take anger out on small businesses.”
Within an hour, someone had altered the flier so it said the opposite. As word spread online, local leaders got worried. So she and her friends called the mayor and the police department to reassure them they didn’t want any property damage.
The event came together as she had intended, with nearly 3,000 demonstrators gathered in the center of town. The sea of peaceful protesters brought her to tears.
“When I voice out my opinions, it usually doesn’t get heard. It was crazy that people were actually hearing it for once,” she said. “As youth, we have a much bigger voice than we expect we have.”
She wants more police training and more testing of officer candidates to weed out those who might become violent. And like many others, she also wants more taxpayer money spent on social programs instead of police militaristic gear — an effort often called defunding the police.
Halfway across the country in Detroit, 16-year-old Stefan Perez said his only real public speaking experience was on his school’s debate team before early June, when he was handed a megaphone and asked to help lead a protest at the city’s police headquarters.
That night, he also stepped into the no man’s land between the lines of protesters and police, putting his hands behind his back in a silent appeal for calm.
“At the end of the day, I wanted people to get home safe,” he said. “The people who are with me and watching are the voice of Detroit.”
Protesters have skewed younger demographically, with a median age of 30 or younger, at several major demonstrations since Floyd’s death, said Dana R. Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and author of the book American Resistance.