clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

First-time activists on how last summer’s protests changed their lives

On the anniversary of George Floyd’s death, young protesters reflect on the movement’s lasting impact.

“Who do you call when the murderer wears a badge?” a black-and-white sign reads. Around the woman carrying it are socially distant knots of protesters.
Last year, protesters demanded justice for the death of George Floyd in Las Vegas.
Denise Truscello/Getty Images

“I just felt so incredibly angry last summer,” said Maya Green, a 19-year-old who attended her first protest in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020. “I learned this summer that it’s really easy to get burned out and become disillusioned, so I’m trying to rest when I need it and be intentional about taking the time to learn.”

Green is just one of many protesters politically awakened to the magnitude of racist police violence in America during the wave of Black Lives Matter protests a year ago. The uprisings drew a high number of students and young people into the streets; one recent poll from Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan claims that 2020 saw a particularly high number of teenagers protesting, with one in 12 parents reporting their teen attended a protest last year.

The summer was a radicalizing moment for many, and had a particular impact on young people: According to a June 2020 Gallup poll, 81 percent of survey participants between the ages of 18 and 34 believe that policing in America must undergo “major changes,” as opposed to 43 percent of survey participants ages 50 to 64; 33 percent of young people surveyed want to abolish the police altogether.

Last month, Derek Chauvin, the then-Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd, was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. He faces up to 75 years of jail time. Though many — including first-time activists from last summer — were relieved that Chauvin faced consequences for the murder, others have also pointed out that removing one “bad apple” from the police force does little to enact real change to the institution of policing.

“My position toward abolition increases daily,” said Dorien Perry-Tillmon, a 20-year old student at Loyola University and organizer during last summer’s protests in Chicago. “However, I have become extremely pessimistic. I have no faith that this country can grow past its police state era.”

But attendees of last summer’s protests told Vox that the events sparked change for them. In the year since Floyd’s death, many young first-time protesters have become veteran organizers: coordinating more protests against the police, reading up on political issues that are important to them, and deepening their politics through study and activism.

Many spoke not only of feeling more informed and aware of the social issues that surround them, but of a sense of skepticism about the possibility of real change in the future under our current political and economic systems. Vox spoke to four young activists about the lasting impact of last summer’s protests. Their remarks have been lightly edited for clarity.

“I’d been watching Black people die my whole life”

Courtesy of Maya Green

Maya Green, 19, Stanford University student

This summer, I attended protests for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in various parts of the Charleston area whenever they were advertised on Instagram — I felt pretty helpless and so, so angry, so showing solidarity in that way was cathartic and much needed, even as I also felt anxious about Covid.

I remember at one protest that I attended this summer, someone started playing Kendrick Lamar and people started dancing. It was one of those surreal moments of joy that sometimes happen at protests.

The police had been watching us the whole day, and when the dancing started one of them joined in. I remember thinking it was super weird that the police would be celebrating at a protest against them and just being really uncomfortable by it. It definitely felt like co-option of a moment that did not belong to him. Later, when I was walking back to my car, I saw that right across the street from where that one police officer was dancing were over a dozen officers in full tear gas gear with batons, ready to disperse the crowd the second curfew hit. It was so disingenuous.

As I watched protests across the country be met with such violence and vitriol night after night, it just became really clear to me that the solution can’t be an additional training session or the occasional firing of someone caught on camera. It has to be something radically different.

I just felt so incredibly angry last summer. I’d been watching Black people die my whole life, and it was always followed by calls for reform, and yet the death just kept happening over and over again. It was so heavy and I was just so tired of it, and so on a personal level, learning about abolition felt really cathartic.

I learned this summer that it’s really easy to get burned out and become disillusioned, so I’m trying to rest when I need it and be intentional about taking the time to learn. And I’m looking to the activists, so many of them Black women, who have been doing this work for years.

Where do we go next? I think defunding the police is the bare minimum, and abolition is the goal. But I know in my city, it’s not even an accepted given that racism exists in policing, which is a really frustrating place to be in. In that sense, I think there’s absolutely value in the organizing that activists are doing here for racial bias audits, as long as the results aren’t used to justify more funding ... which is too often the case.

“The summer of 2020 was most definitely a learning curve”

Courtesy of Kashish Bastola

Kashish Bastola, 16, high school student and organizer in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area

I was heavily involved in organizing during the summer of 2020, mostly organizing against overpolicing in schools and gun violence on campus. On May 30, 2020, a few friends and I started organizing a rapid-response rally in McKinney, Texas. The next day, on May 31, 2020, hundreds of youth across the North Texas area joined in solidarity as we demanded an end to the egregious injustices that took place in our own community.

As I shouted for justice with my three masks protecting me, I felt united with my community. Overpoliced communities face higher rates of police violence and acknowledging that this is a systemic issue forces the movement to challenge the status quo. I continued organizing well into the school year, calling for police budget divestments and community investments. After reading so much about the school-to-prison pipeline over the summer, I also became heavily involved in the movement for education justice.

The summer of 2020 was most definitely a learning curve. I was learning of events, figures, and movements intentionally left out of my textbooks. As I learned more, I felt more empowered to take action. I started thinking more about what collective liberation means for our society. This past summer showed me that the fight for human rights and liberation does not fit within political party lines in the United States. All of the conversations about public safety have also led me to see that our communities, if given the proper resources, can uphold justice and peace.

“Before George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement wasn’t super prevalent in my communities”

Courtesy of Zigi Kaiser

Zigi Kaiser, 18, high school student and front-line worker in Minneapolis

It was like watching some horror movie when I watched the livestreams of the riots and protesting, and couldn’t believe things were burning just a mile from me and a couple blocks from my school. None of it felt real. I work on Lake Street, where all of the rioting was happening, and watching the community and businesses get rebuilt in the last year is bittersweet. It’s kind of like the community healing.

Last summer, I helped organize and lead the Youth Coalition for Alternative Safety to find alternative safety officers once the Minneapolis Public Schools and Minneapolis Police contract was terminated. I and others in the coalition met with safety and youth organizations, and I co-created a petition to remove police before the contract was terminated.

The summer of 2020 deepened my understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement. I felt that before George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement wasn’t super prevalent in my communities, like at school, even though there were many Black people murdered at the hands of police before George. I think a lot of us at my high school didn’t feel super involved with the current happenings of BLM, but we learned about the movement in debate and sometimes in class.

After George Floyd and after protesting last summer, I felt that something revolutionary had happened in Minneapolis, and although I was always in support, this time I had a much better understanding of why people rioted and looted, and I felt supportive of that, too.

“I have become extremely pessimistic”

Courtesy of Dorien Perry-Tillmon

Dorien Perry-Tillmon, 20, student at Loyola University in Chicago

When I moved to Chicago last summer, I founded Our Streets LUC where we protested through the streets of Rogers Park, a neighborhood in Chicago, calling for our school to defund and cut ties with the Chicago Police Department, as well as demonstrate support for Black students, faculty, and staff. Me and the other youth activists I work with have been trying to keep momentum, especially after President Biden’s election, to remind folks that there has been little to no progress in our country since Floyd’s death.

The summer of 2020 didn’t necessarily change my politics; it organized them. Growing up, I always believed basic things like equal rights, and food and housing security, and climate change, but didn’t feel represented enough by the Democratic Party, although I was brought up to believe they were the good guys. The summer of 2020 taught me that many people felt the same way. I definitely think that the culture of the last year has allowed these conversations to flow more naturally and happen more consistently.

My position toward abolition [of police] increases daily; however, I have become extremely pessimistic. With the amount of Black and brown people dying at the hands of police, I have no faith that this country can grow past its police state era. While I hope that one day our communities can flourish without fear of police or imperialist politicians, with uplifted communities, mutual aid, and a simple regard for all human life, I fear that I will not live long enough to see that day, if it ever comes. Revolution is possible, but we aren’t even close to having that conversation yet.

Mary Retta writes on culture, politics, and education. Her work can be found in Vice, the Nation, Teen Vogue, and other outlets.