Several prominent Chicago youth organizers—all of them Black women, and the majority of them queer—were physically assaulted on Black Friday during the hugely successful shutdown of the Magnificent Mile in honor of Laquan McDonald.
The religious leaders and community elders who called for the demonstration rallied early in the day at the Water Tower in the Loop. Several youth organizations—BYP100, FLY and Assata’s Daughters—were invited to participate, and appeared in several photo ops with Jesse Jackson Sr. and other public figures, the majority of them men.
As organizers began to address the crowd, several well-known Black elders forced their way to the front, pushed youth organizers back from the mic, and one man actually began elbowing a young, Black, queer woman in the face. Minutes later, when one of the heads of BYP confronted the elder, he swung on a second Black woman, shouting sexist and homophobic slurs, and a small scuffle ensued.
In the wake of the altercation, youth organizers performed their own mic check to address the crowd, then promptly left the march—some to treat injuries, while others simply felt deeply unsafe and disrespected.
The Black, queer women targeted in this attack were the same ones who had been clashing with police in the streets all week, including the night the video of Laquan was released. They were the same organizers who had staged and been arrested in the shutdown of the IACP conference in Chicago last month. They were the youth who have been working tirelessly to lift up the name of Rekia Boyd, and who created a seamless campaign to fire Dante Servin, the officer who killed her. They were the same youth who have been instrumental in organizing for and ultimately winning a trauma center for the South Side, and who led the original Black Friday shutdown of the Magnificent Mile in 2014.
In short, they were badass, Black, queer, young women who have orchestrated and overseen long-term campaigns for Black lives in the city of Chicago with little to no support from the male elders who attacked them.
The incredible turnout for the Black Friday demonstration displayed Chicagoans’ ability to forge direct connections between capitalism, corporate revenue and the squelching of Black life. It undeniably fueled the firing of police superintendent McCarthy, and the calls for further resignations resounding through the city. Yet the media frenzy generated by the video of Laquan McDonald’s murder and its subsequent cover-up meant the sudden appearance of community members, religious leaders, and well-known Black figureheads who have not been in evidence at the countless political demonstrations over the past two years. Large numbers of these were men, significantly older than the organizers who have been leading the fight for Black lives in that time.
The assault of young women activists on the Mag Mile is both tragic and terrifying. When placed in the context of the larger demonstration, and the state of Black organizing in Chicago, the attack raises crucial questions about the next steps of the movement for Black liberation.
Black Lives Matter was founded by young, Black, queer women. This is not up for debate. On both national and local levels, Black, queer women have been on the front lines, while simultaneously organizing strategy, tactics and messaging behind the scenes. It was their groundwork that made the uprising at Mizzou and subsequent campuses around the nation come to fruition. It is their deeply capable organizing that has made the founding of new organizations, the execution of game changing actions, and the sustaining of the struggle for Black lives possible.
This is not accidental. As youth, as women, and as queer people, these revolutionaries stand at the crux of deeply oppressive systems, and carry a unique understanding of the ways racial injustice is dependent on misogyny, homophobia, nationalism, adultism, capitalism, and so much more to maintain its potency. Not only have they shown themselves over generations to be the most fearless warriors for justice, their demands are consistently the most radical, their vision the most clear, their abilities to unite and connect the disparate members of their communities the most well-honed and indispensable.
What is alarming about the attack that happened on the Mag Mile is that it requires us to revisit these facts as though they are revelations, rather than things that should be common knowledge to any individual claiming to be a part of the movement for Black lives. Attacking any young, Black, queer woman—but especially those who have been fighting harder than anyone else in their city for justice on a daily basis—is the equivalent of showing up late to class halfway through the semester and throwing your textbook at the professor.
It’s not surprising, then, that many of the male elders who organized the march, as well as those who took prominent positions in media coverage, posed not merely less radical demands, but ones that actually contradict those advocated for by young, Black, queer women throughout the last year. Calling for vague reforms, and even demanding there be more police of color, not only displays a lack of knowledge of the issues the movement has already rejected, but undermines the nuanced and more fully-formed demands for economic justice and the redistributing of resources that youth organizers have heralded.
There is a long history within Black struggles in the US of purposefully silencing youth, women and queers. From Claudette Colvin—a teen mom who was the first person on record to refuse to give up her seat in Montgomery—being swapped out for a depoliticized Rosa Parks, to Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker and other women being banned from speaking at the famed March on Washington. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were infamously barred from participating in the pride march they were instrumental in founding.
The reoccurring rationale for erasing the contributions of these radical figures is respectability. As movements gain momentum and visibility, the militant voices that spark them often become seen as threats to mainstream acceptance, and the faces of the true leaders too controversial to be beheld by the structures they are railing against.
Is it any coincidence, then, that as national scrutiny falls on Chicago over issues that youth have been drawing our attention to for years, male figureheads felt the need to physically attack young, Black, queer women who have been leading the fight long before there were any cameras to record them?
Ultimately, as our movement swells and attention grows, there is a question about how leadership will be shared. One of the greatest successes of the Black Lives Matter movement thus far is its decentralized form of organizing—not a leaderless but a leader-full movement, to quote BLM originator Patrisse Cullors. This structure is the intentional design of young, Black, queer women organizers. Its dismantling or undermining in the name of ego represents not just the sexist dismissal of their hard work, but a disregard for the movement’s early triumphs, and lack of forethought for its future.
And as so many of the leaders and experts that materialized this week before the cameras were nowhere to be found in the campaigns pioneered by youth organizers, one must ask where they will be once the media hubbub has died down.
Will the preachers and pastors who tout “Black love” remember to extend that love to Black women and queers? Will the public intellectuals and talking heads who call for “Black unity” reach out to youth as more than mere tokens? Will the sectors of our communities that chant “stop the violence” intervene when they see youth, women, queers being assaulted by their brothers and sisters?
One thing is for certain: We will always be here, and we will always be at the front—whether we are recognized by our more privileged counterparts or not—no matter what slurs or threats are hurled at us, no matter from what party.
In the words of BYP leader Charlene Carruthers: We started this shit. We gone finish this shit.
Special thanks to Veronica Morris-Moore