Repeating history, veteran activists say youth drives Black Lives Matter movement

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

As marchers across the nation and in Metro Detroit protest police brutality against Blacks, one group is on the front lines — young people.

Youth have been on the front lines of Black Lives Matter marches that have drawn millions of demonstrators across the nation following the deaths this year of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police.

They're visible marching in the streets, they’re vocal on social media mobilizing their efforts — and local activists say they’re not surprised to see the groundswell of teens and twentysomethings in the Black Lives Matter movement.

And their elders — especially those who once marched the same streets — have taken notice. 

“We’ve got to know and understand that movements like this have always been populated, led by (youth),” said Bishop Edgar Vann II, senior pastor Second Ebenezer Church and a former member of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission.

“Back in the '60s when I was growing up, we saw movements, whether it was the anti-war movement against the Vietnam War or whatever it was, it came from college students.

"It came from young adults who were tired of the status quo and wanted to make change and were very passionate about it," Vann continued. "I’m not surprised that this time there are young people in droves. Black, white, of all ethnicities coming together to demand change.”

It’s motivational to see so many young people protesting, demonstrating and articulating their concerns about these issues, said the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 

The movement is tantamount to the young people in the '50s and '60s involved in the civil rights movement as freedom riders, traveling down south to demonstrate at lunch counters and to integrate stores.

"That was their civil rights movement, their Black Lives Matter," Anthony said. "Today, the issue at hand is police brutality and the death of Black folks. Different generation, same situation. We were dying back then, literally hanging from trees, dogs being sicced on us and police targeting us, but it was not as rampant as what we see today to the degree that it’s so visual.”

Tiahna Pantovich, a 25-year-old and recent University of Michigan graduate from Washington, D.C., marched Monday night in Detroit.

Among the marchers in Detroit on Monday night was Tiahna Pantovich, a 25-year-old and recent University of Michigan graduate from Washington, D.C. She believes this is a historic moment for her generation, believing "it's unstoppable. ... States are changing their flags. Statues are coming down.”

“This is telling me we are no longer our grandparents' generation," she said. "My parents' generation definitely set the stage ... (but) we saw a Black president. He looked like me. He taught me that I can be president."

Sheila Cockrel, a former city councilwoman, said seeing young protesters is nostalgic. In 1968, she was in her early 20s when she formed a citywide Ad-Hoc Action Group that protested against police brutality in the aftermath of an incident at Cobo Center. She said the city’s mounted police rode down on participants in the Poor People’s campaign as they were getting off buses.

“The ethos was young people,” she said. “It’s really wonderful to see that sort of arc of history playing out again today. It’s an important development in the fact that that movement is being sustained, that there is the opportunity for people to really understand or have a better appreciation for white privilege and institutional racism. It’s an inflection point. In 2020, just as the 1967 and '68 period — inflection points for the American society in that era.”

Samuel Paupore of Detroit, marching down Toledo Street in Detroit, Michigan on June 29, 2020.

Samuel Paupore, 31, of Detroit has marched twice, including Monday night. He said the movement is about equality and that “people are fed up”

“A lot of people are waking up, standing up, a broad range of people,” Paupore said. “Every generation is a little more liberal and progressive. This generation has really proved itself.”

The Rev. Horace Sheffield III poses in the Horace L. Sheffield Jr. Complex, which includes a health center. Community meetings and church services are also held here. A portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was used on a poster for the UAW's 41st annual State of the Race event, which helped raise money to digitize the Horace Sheffield Jr. historical archives.

Rev. Horace Sheffield III, a longtime activist, said the youth of today have had a different upbringing than their predecessors: “They’ve had a taste of eight years of Obama, a sense of a different kind of society not based on class or color." 

Sheffield became entrenched with civil rights as a child, over the years witnessing riots during desegregation efforts. He said the recent incidents of police brutality against Blacks doesn’t sit well with today’s youth who have grown up in a quilt-like society.

“These are the kinds of things that are repugnant, that basically causes them great alarm,” he said. “Some of us have been around a long time. We’re used to police doing these kinds of things. … These kids have a different sense of how life should be because they’ve had a taste of it. I think that’s why you see so many young people out here. Because they know what can be and refuse to allow what is to obscure that.”

The Black Lives Matter movement benefits from both the strength and energy of youth and wisdom and knowledge of the elders, Anthony said: “Young people come out of a tradition where they want to get things done. They want to move it quick. In some cases, they’re not as patient as members of the former tradition.

"Both traditions are essential and are necessary. Young people want to move. Folks who are tenured in the civil rights movement, they want to move, but they want to do it pragmatically and strategically with regard to policies and programs. You need both. It’s not either or.”

The culture of the protests and the current generation is reflected in the use of social media. Activists say social media, empowered by the use of mobile phone cameras, makes the issue of police brutality against Blacks real for some people who otherwise have avoided it.

Sheila Cockrel inside her home in Detroit's Corktown.

Cockrel recalls starting a police watching program in Detroit in the late '60s and noted Black men were targeted. She said they would take photos, write down badge and vehicle numbers and let the person know that they would track what was happening to them.

“To go from Kodak 126 photographs that had to be developed at the store to camera phones that can literally record instantly a modern-day lynching of a Black man for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, that has a profound impact on how people experience that kind of police homicide,” Cockrel said. “It’s real-time real life. You can’t look away.”

In the past there was so much injustice that wasn't seen, Sheffield said: “My dad worked with Dr. King in the south, and I remember on a couple occasions having to get out of the bed and pray because my dad and Charles Evers and Aaron Henry, who were over the NAACP in Mississippi, had been hemmed up by the Klan.

“You didn’t get the news. You didn’t see these things. Obviously, the hosing of folks and the Edmund Pettus Bridge was carried on national TV and that spawned an additional consciousness.

"This social media, people being able to tape things in real-time, all of that has had a great impact, coupled with the impact of seeing a plethora of people from all walks of life, every color, every class rise up against this, that’s really a loud statement that social media carries and enables it to grow." 

The leaders say protesting is good, but more needs to be done. That includes people exercising their right to vote and changes in policy. 

“I think the pain that people feel and the protests that people have participated in has to lead to a platform of policy,” Vann said. “We have to call on our elected to bring policy to the forefront that addresses these problems, that addresses police misconduct, that brings accountability to law enforcement, that addresses systemic racism and addresses every other form of racism whether it be racial or environmental, etc.

"We’ve got to have policy that addresses all of that. This is where it needs to go, this is where has to go in order to put a framework and structure into what happens next. So protest is good, but it can’t stop there.”

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN

Staff Writer Christine MacDonald contributed.