In February of 2012, Trayvon Martin was a bright-eyed, baby-faced 17-year-old with his whole life ahead of him. It was raining, and he had his hood up; he was talking to his girlfriend on the phone and carrying an Arizona iced tea and some Skittles as he walked back to his father’s house. George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watchman, followed Martin, chased him, got into a fight with him, and shot him dead. After much community pushback, prosecutors charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder. The following July, a jury acquitted him.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi, three Black women—two of whom are queer—took the resounding injustice of this moment as inspiration to build a movement dedicated to bettering and protecting Black life. Catalyzed by Zimmerman’s acquittal, they founded Black Lives Matter, which would evolve into an omnipresent rallying cry. The organization set afire a new era of Black protest. The women behind this movement had another core goal: create a space where women and LGBTQ folks’ contributions to Black liberation would be centered and recognized—not merely left to turn the gears of mobilization in the background while Black men stood in the spotlight.
Black women have always been involved in liberation work and protested in their own ways. They led revolts and uprisings. They committed arson and poisoned slaveowners. They had abortions and committed infanticide to spare their children a life of enslavement. They instilled the value of an education into their children and taught them to read. They formed activist organizations and investigated lynchings.
And yet they’ve long been marginalized by major protest movements. During the civil rights era, Black protest projected an image of respectability that sought to prove the worthiness of the fight by upholding the dominant culture’s norms and morals. This was a decision that aided coalition-building, but it also meant exiling Black women, like Ella Baker, a human rights activist, and queer people, like Marsha P. Johnson, a prominent activist in the gay liberation movement, to the backdrop. If Black women were centered at all, they were required to fit into “ideal” standards of womanhood, meaning light-skinned, conventionally attractive, polished, and ladylike. Rosa Parks, for example, was chosen as the face of the Montgomery bus boycotts largely because she was perceived as fitting such an ideal. When the Black Power movement rolled around, it embraced patriarchal authority and hypermasculinity via a militaristic imagining of strength complete with fists in the air and guns strapped to protesters’ backs.
But the current fight for Black lives finally placed women and queer people at the heart of a movement, instead of pushing the narrative that it would take a straight, cisgender man wearing a buttoned-up suit or paramilitary gear to save Black folks from white oppression. This current iteration of Black protest is inclusive in an unprecedented way and challenges what it means to be a Black American interested in liberation. It has blossomed and branched off into different sects addressing gun violence, police brutality, wage inequality, violence against women, immigration, the school-to-prison pipeline, and more. It has entered the mainstream, transformed the conversations we have about race, and completely reworked how journalists cover racial violence. And much of this fire has been fueled by the labor and, at times, the lives of Black women.
BYP 100, an activist organization descended from political scientist Cathy Cohen’s Black Youth Project, was formed in 2013 following Zimmerman’s acquittal. Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s mother, founded Circle of Mothers as a way to connect women who have lost children or family members to gun violence. (She also co-founded the Trayvon Martin Foundation, which raises awareness about gun violence.) Millennial Activists United, a grassroots organization that began following the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, is predominantly led by Black women. The Mothers of the Movement, a collective of Black women who have lost their children to police or gun violence, was featured onstage at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Valerie Castile—the mother of Philando Castile, killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in 2016—continues her son’s legacy of paying off students’ lunch debt in Minnesota through the Philando Castile Relief Foundation. Kelly Holsey Davis fought for the release of her fiancé—Keith Davis Jr., a Baltimore man who was charged with murder under murky circumstances after being shot by police in the neck and face—from jail. Tawanda Jones, the sister of Tyrone West, has held a vigil for her brother every Wednesday since he was killed by Baltimore police in July 2013.
This decade, Black women rushed stages and snatched microphones. They were tear-gassed and often stood on the front lines of marches throughout the country—in Baton Rouge, Charlotte, Baltimore, and New York—placing their bodies between the police and others. They organized demonstrations where tens of thousands of people turned out.
Eventually, some of them made their way into politics. In 2018, Rep. Lucy McBath, D-G.A.—the mother of Jordan Davis, killed at age 17 in a racially motivated 2012 shooting—became the first person of color to represent Georgia’s 6th District in the U.S. House. Fran Griffin, who was on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri, and Lesley McSpadden, Brown’s mother, both ran for Ferguson City Council in August. Griffin won. Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, is running to be a member of the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners.
Assata’s Daughters, a group led by Black women and queer people, organized a campaign to oust former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez because of her slowness to charge former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke for the murder of Laquan McDonald. DeJuana Thompson, LaTosha Brown, Angela Lang, and Jessica Byrd founded organizations dedicated to tailoring electoral strategy and increasing Black voter turnout during elections. Thompson and Brown spent months—alongside Black PAC’s Adrianne Shropshire and Birmingham Councilwoman Sheila Tyson—organizing thousands of students and churchgoers in Alabama, an effort that led to Sen. Doug Jones’ win over Roy Moore. Black women worked tirelessly behind the scenes on campaigns for the three Black gubernatorial candidates who ran in 2018. And now, in the lead-up to the 2020 election, collectives like Black Womxn For and Higher Heights are endorsing candidates and being frank about what policies they expect from a Democratic nominee.
The women who have helped propel this decade of Black protest are not magical, nor are they superhuman. Organizing is soul-breaking work. It’s financially burdensome. Being placed in the media spotlight opens organizers up to an influx of criticism, much of it dipped in misogynoir. Constantly responding to the untimely, often violent, deaths of Black people while fighting for policy reforms places these women in a seemingly unending cycle of stress and trauma.
Erica Garner was thrust into the spotlight when her father, Eric Garner, was killed by an NYPD officer in 2014. Garner never asked to be an activist. But after the death of her father, she felt compelled to demand justice for him and others. And she provides a necessary counterbalance to much of the Black activism that gets praised in the media.
Garner was rowdy in the way a Black woman who loves her people can be. She wasn’t afraid to candidly pop back at officials—such as when she told New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, “Just cause you love Black pussy don’t mean you love Black lives”—and demand accountability for injustices facing Black people more broadly. She gave the movement a different energy. Yet the work wore heavy on Garner, as did her frustration that no one was being held accountable for her father’s death. Her housing was often unstable, and she found it hard to take care of her two children off movement work alone. “I’m struggling right now with the stress and everything. This thing, it beats you down,” said Garner in 2017. “The system beats you down to where you can’t win.” Weeks after that interview, she suffered a heart attack, and was declared brain-dead days later. She was 27.
But Garner, like many Black women before and after her, fought against that system even as it tried to beat her down. It’s through the work of these women that we remember the names of Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Renisha McBride, Tanisha Anderson, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Keith Scott, Atatiana Jefferson, and many others. Without Black women, there is no Black protest.