The night before Tennessee’s June 4 protest against racism and police violence, 15-year-old Zee Thomas couldn’t sleep.
Thomas stayed up until 3 a.m., tossing and turning and setting multiple alarms. The demonstration would be the largest such protest in the region to date, with more than 10,000 people in attendance, but there was no way for Thomas to know that yet. All she knew was that a tweet she’d written on her personal account on May 27 had led to this moment. It read, “If my mom says yes, I’m leading a Nashville protest.”
Thomas had been inspired by the protests in Minneapolis, which erupted after George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died in police custody after a white police officer pinned his neck to the pavement. Thomas, who gets most of her news on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, was struck by the visible anger and frustration of Minneapolis protesters. “I wanted the people in Nashville to know that we could feel that anger sooner or later if we didn’t do something to stop police brutality,” she says.
Two other teenage girls in Nashville, Jade Fuller and Nya Collins, replied to the tweet and said they wanted to help. Then they introduced Thomas to other friends — Emma Rose Smith, Kennedy Green and Mikayla Smith. Teens4Equality was born, and the six girls, ages 14 to 16, got to work.
They reached out to the Nashville chapter of Black Lives Matter, which posted about Teens4Equality on their social media channels and provided advice to the girls, asked for donations and researched past protests, noting what worked and what hadn’t. Thomas says her mom “trusted” her and “let me take care of it.”
A week and several thousand Instagram followers later, the march was set to happen. And most of the girls hadn’t even met in person yet.
All across the country, protests have stretched into their second sustained week, with stronger numbers and generally fewer clashes with police. Thousands are demanding greater police accountability in light of Floyd’s death and other recent incidents of police violence, including the death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician who was shot and killed by Louisville police officers in her home on March 13.
Black women and girls, like those behind Teens4Equalty, have been responsible for many of the demonstrations. A Saturday protest in which thousands blocked the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco was led by Tiana Day, a 17-year-old girl. Kamryn Johnson, a 9-year-old, raised $40,000 for black-owned businesses by selling homemade bracelets. Jael Kerandi, a student at the University of Minnesota, pushed for her school to limit ties with the Minneapolis Police Department a day after Floyd’s death.
Perhaps the most glaring example is Black Lives Matter, the national organization behind many of the protests, as Ashley Howard, a professor of history and African American studies at the University of Iowa, points out. The organization, which has now become a rallying cry all its own, was founded in 2013 by three women — Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors — in response to the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
“African American women are really driving these movements,” Howard says. “They may not be getting public acknowledgement, but if you’re spending enough time in these circles, if you’re on the ground, you see these things happening.”
This isn’t a new story; black women have long been the “brainchild and backbone of the black freedom movement,” according to Traci Parker, a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts. African American women were leading the women’s suffrage movement and anti-lynching campaigns in the early 1900s, pushing to integrate white businesses in the 1930s, and organizing some of the most successful campaigns of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet their activism and sacrifices were often overshadowed by men, Parker says.
Despite the sleepless night, Thomas woke up on June 4 at about 10 a.m., hours before the 4 p.m. protest was set to start. With about a half hour to go, she met the five other girls in Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park. They had planned to kick off the protest there, then lead a march past the National Museum of African American History, all the way to the state capitol, where the statue of a state lawmaker who espoused racist views in the 1900s had been toppled just a few days before.
Meeting the others for the first time in-person was “so nice,” Thomas says: The other girls were exactly how she imagined them from their group chat.
But at that point, it was still unclear how many other people would show. Nikki Healy, a high school teacher in the Metro Nashville Public Schools district who has taught Smith and Collins, showed up early to help the girls get organized. There were “about 15 people there,” Healy says. She remembers Collins turning to her and asking, “Do you think anyone’s going to come?”
In time, they did. Within the half hour, thousands were flooding the park, holding Black Lives Matter signs and chanting, “No justice, no peace.”
All six girls stood in front of the crowd, the park’s imposing carillon pillars curving behind them. Before marching, each took a turn speaking about what this protest meant to them; their voices were amplified by a speaker they’d managed to borrow for the event. The enormous crowd, Thomas says, went silent: It was one of her favorite moments of the entire day. When it was her turn to speak, Thomas turned the crowd’s attention to the experience of being a black teenager.
“As teens, we are tired of waking up and seeing another innocent person being slain in broad daylight,” she said. “As teens, we are desensitized to death because we see videos of black people being killed in broad daylight circulating on social media platforms. As teens, we feel like we cannot make a difference in this world, but we must.”
After their speeches, the crowd parted ways for the girls to walk through. Thomas says she “kind of felt like a movie character.”
The thing that struck Healy, the high school teacher, was how well-organized the event was. It turned out to be five hours of completely peaceful protesting — a contrast to previous Nashville events, including dozens of arrests following a break-in at city hall the Saturday before.
For Healy, the success of the event sent a clear message:
Howard, the professor at University of Iowa, says that social media has a lot to do with the current organizing happening around the country. The girls were able to come together over Twitter, which has also become “a tactical tool for organizing people,” she says.
What’s more, the immediacy and “democratization” of social media allows people, especially young people, to shape their own narratives. This may be one big difference between black women organizers of the past and the present: Although mainstream media and institutions tend to “invisibilize” women, Howard says, the truth is getting more and more difficult to ignore as these women so visibly lead the charge.
The girls behind Teens4Equality haven’t slowed down since the success of their protest. Right now, they’re working on a Juneteenth celebration with food trucks, speakers and performers — something to bring people together as the nation commemorates the end of slavery on June 19.
In addition to finishing a book of poetry she’s writing — which largely centers on the experience of feeling forced to grow up too quickly as a black girl — Thomas anticipates she’ll be busy organizing more events throughout the summer. Fighting against systemic racism feels long-term, sustained.
“We’re going to be dedicating our time to this to make sure things actually happen,” Thomas says. “I want people to know that things will change and things will be better in the future.”