What marks these protests is their longevity and camaraderie. In the last week, I have been party to a dozen or so eye flushes. It’s a simple act, using a water bottle to clear someone’s eyes of chemical irritants after they’ve been tear-gassed.
The volume of eye flushes signals, for me, a rapid development in protesting — I performed only two eye flushes all of last year. There are people in my city (Columbus, Ohio) and likely in yours, too, who are attending their first protest and performing their first eye flush on the same day.
All across the U.S., protests are being organized. In the days since George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis Police Department, there have been demonstrations in all 50 states. More than 300 cities have erupted in protest, with the National Guard now deployed throughout nearly half the country. Protesters across the nation are in the streets demanding justice, and I am one of them.
Because of this influx of new comrades, the way information is shared around protests has fundamentally shifted. No longer can organizers rely on static channels of communication to share details about a march or rally. Because the core of the movement is by its very nature decentralized, organizers who otherwise might have painstakingly planned out every possibility are pushed into a new position: that of working with the totally unknown and unpredictable in real-time.
We are now engaged in a movement based in action as opposed to one that is meticulously planned and centrally messaged. This evolution is represented perhaps best by what I have seen countless times in the last few days: the person who is handed the megaphone and leads an impromptu and engaging series of chants on the fly. We don’t have anybody singularly in charge, and that is part of why it’s working.
I was naïve and not at all well versed in security culture at the time of my first high-risk protest in 2017. The people showing up today, a large number of them teenagers and young adults, are not. Where I once didn’t know to mask up to avoid identification, the people showing up at the statehouse every day this week have been careful, covering their faces not only due to the pandemic but to avoid detection. While I sent unencrypted messages and left location tracking on through my phone, I see meme accounts showing new protesters how to avoid these missteps all over my Instagram feed.
I was radicalized alone in my living room in high school, watching as George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin. I was young, Black, and filled with anger and energy, but I couldn’t find a place in the movement for another 18 months. It seemed opportunities to engage in direct action were few and far between at the time. Now we are watching teenagers and their parents alike being radicalized and finding their voice all at once in the street en masse.
We won’t be discouraged. As my comrades keep reminding me, this moment is a marathon, not a sprint.
Police departments around the country are being forced to diversify tactics and appeal to flawed ideas of shared humanity. They are taking a knee with gullible protesters and posting videos from their official Facebook pages showing them high-fiving civilians, trying to salvage a reputation of protector that they never earned in the first place. Less publicized is the extreme violence they are enacting on protesters, in many cases just minutes after they finish their faux-solidarity photo ops.
While police departments are not posting the second half of this story, the aftereffects of their actions linger. The tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber, wooden, and in some cases live bullets they fire at us. I cannot imagine a more effective strategy to quickly and fully disillusion people of any misplaced trust they had in America’s police departments than cops alternating between hugging them and spraying them with chemical weapons.
Yet we won’t be discouraged. As my comrades keep reminding me, this moment is a marathon, not a sprint. The movement requires pacing and working in shifts for the long haul. We are in one of those precious periods of time Vladimir Lenin spoke of where decades of events are packed into mere weeks. Even as a sprawling movement encompassing so many, we are connected in power, in the streets, and online.
As we stand together in the street, on the statehouse lawn, at the White House, kettled in on bridges, on the coasts, along the Rust Belt, toe-to-toe with cops armed to the teeth in riot gear, it would be remiss to call each moment unique. What’s unique is the ubiquity of these moments. The revolution will not be defined by singular moments and perfectly timed photos that showcase and define the struggle. We are all defining it now, in tandem.
As we watch a revolution unfold before us, there is no foolproof map to locate how to best move forward. And while this is often the case, what I think distinguishes this moment is its longevity — it’s stretching out long enough for us to firmly seize control. We are directing the narrative and forcing the world to acknowledge the humanity of George Floyd and the rest of Black America with it. Unreserved participation across the country and globe in a movement that is anything but fleeting has brought us to an inflection point. The energy buzzing in the air today is that of the unknown.
How rare it is to face the unknown in a country that has for my entire life seemed so dead set on repeating its own worst missteps. How lucky we are to face this unknown, well equipped as we are for it.