A lot can change in a year. A lot can stay the same, too.
In 2020, the world witnessed horrific videos of killings of Black people. Widespread protests and rioting erupted across the country. People implored the government to overhaul police practices and end race-based abuses.
In 2021, the world witnessed horrific videos of killings of Black people. Widespread protests and rioting erupted across the country. People implored the government to overhaul police practices and end race-based abuses.
Nearly a year after the image of a police officer pinning George Floyd’s neck to the pavement moved millions to action, that officer — Derek Chauvin — has been found guilty of murder in an unprecedented case. And Floyd’s legacy has awakened a new generation of activists who are determined to see social justice in this lifetime.
“It’s necessary for me to use my voice as an advocate, and I will continue to do so,” said 16-year-old Zee Thomas, one of six teens who helped organize a 10,000-strong protest in Nashville last summer. “But I should have never had to use it in the first place.”
Ahead of the anniversary of Floyd’s killing, we circled back with activists and essayists we’ve talked to over the past year to learn how the protests have changed their lives and where we go from here.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
The Lily: In your essay for The Lily last year, you pondered what it would take for America to take a hard look at itself and address its origins and practices. A year after Floyd’s murder, do you think the country has made progress there?
Nelson: I feel like we are closer than we’ve ever been. But at that same token, I also feel like once we had a changing of the guards in the White House, we’ve seen less people up and arms and speaking out as loudly as they did before.
It feels like we’ve gone back to hashtag culture a little bit, instead of real activist culture. I get that activism is mentally and emotionally and physically exhausting in every possible way, which is why I don’t write a lot about race issues — so I get that.
But I also feel like, oftentimes, it’s the Black women doing the hollering in the public forum. I’m tired of hollering. I want more White men, specifically, but also White women to holler just as loud. It seems like they were hollering loudly because there was also a certain person in the White House who was fanning the flames. Now that he’s not there anymore, there’s this idea that everything is better, and it’s not.
The Lily: Last year, you helped create the nonprofit Teens4Equality. It organized the largest racial-justice protest in the Nashville region until that point, with more than 10,000 people in attendance. Are you still involved with the organization? What are some goals you’re now focused on as it relates to your future and the fight for social justice?
Thomas: I have never regretted making Teens4Equality, nor have I regretted participating as long as I did, but I am no longer involved with the group. There are many reasons why, but the official reason for me is that seeing my recognition skyrocket based on the murders of Black people is frustrating. It’s frustrating that I have to use my Black tears to make people finally realize that people who look like me matter. It’s necessary for me to use my voice as an advocate, and I will continue to do so, but I should have never had to use it in the first place. My rights as a person should have never been questioned from the beginning. I hope that in the future this changes.
As for goals, Jade Fuller [another former member of Teens4Equality] and I plan on getting back in touch with the Nashville community and supporting them through mutual aid and activism. Nothing is official yet, but watch out!
The Lily: You wrote an open letter last year airing frustrations about your non-Black friends and how they weren’t doing the work to really learn and understand the Black experience in America. How have your friendships changed since that letter was published? Do you feel more comfortable now presenting yourself fully and freely to people?
Watkins: There were some friendships that were already on that path where I was already openly talking to them, but not to the degree that I do now. I was starting to come into my own pre-George Floyd. When the letter was published, those relationships really flourished and they strengthened. But for some people, it kind of burned, like fire — like a flash paper, basically. They read the article, they let me know that they read the article and that they’re doing the work. Maybe a week or two would go by and then I would basically not ever hear from them again.
I’m a lot more open about [who I am]. I’m a lot more unapologetic — even in a professional setting. I’m a little more upfront [in letting people know that] I move through the world very differently than a majority of my co-workers. In that aspect, a lot of my co-workers have taken a moment or taken time to kind of process and think about those things.
The Lily: Last year, you told us about your struggles as a Black student at Georgetown. As you enter your senior year, what has your experience been like since we last spoke to you? Do you feel like you’ve found community or support to help you get through a critical time in your education? And what are you hoping to do when you graduate?
Friedland: I have had to weather a series of personal crises with little to no support from Georgetown. I have become fully independent of my family, lost my best friend to overdose, lost my opportunity for a graduate school scholarship as a result of my abolitionist praxis, supported a close friend through a psychotic mental break, begun to display clear symptoms of severe depression, anxiety, PTSD and more.
Though I ultimately figured all of these problems out with the help of a couple of support staff members and my remaining support system, I was left to rectify and heal from each of these situations and countless more all on my own, in the midst of a global pandemic and coping with enduring racial trauma from police brutality on TV.
The only thing that has kept me sane until the conclusion of the academic year was the promise of being able to recommit nearly full time to the D.C. protests for Black lives once again this summer. I feel ever-committed to the struggle for social justice and Black liberation, fastened by my determination to reconcile my educational privileges as a student of a gentrifying, elitist university with my queer, poor, Black femme experience. Through the community I have built in the D.C. protests, I feel more supported with radical love and empathy than I ever have before, when I’ve needed it most. I hope to continue my organizing and social work post-graduation, while participating in a teaching program — either TFA or Urban Teachers — eventually shifting to macro-level social work in efforts to bridge structural gaps that particularly disadvantage poor Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples.
The Lily: When we spoke to you last month, it was at the start of Derek Chauvin’s trial and you said you were expecting to be disappointed in the outcome. How did you feel after Chauvin was later found guilty on all counts in the killing of Floyd? What has it been like in Minneapolis in the aftermath of the verdict?
Koha-Jallah: After the verdict, Minneapolis was extremely overwhelmed with happiness, but the message still remained that this was the first of many guilty verdicts that America needs to see in order to really feel like justice and change are coming. George Floyd’s trial was setting the precedent that must follow in all wrongful police killings from here on out.
Going forward, I am planning on interning at the Minnesota Capitol to see what lawmakers do to enact the change that I have been so fortunate to be able to participate in on the streets.
The Lily: When you arrived on a horse at an Oakland protest last year, you became a symbol for revolution and inspired Black cowgirls and Black cowboys to do the same throughout the country. Has that visibility brought you more opportunities to help young people of color gain experiences with horses? And what has changed about Oakland since the protests?
Noble: Life has definitely been a whirlwind since that day! The visibility has brought us the much-needed funding that has allowed us to impact over 1,000 kids and families in our community this past year. I am working towards finding a permanent home for our program here in the Bay Area, and I am now sitting on a few influential boards in the equestrian world which allow me to be at the forefront of the fight to make our world more accessible and diverse. Post-protest, and -pandemic, I have seen people gravitating more to the outdoors, recognizing that the beauty of Oakland can also be found outside of its concrete.