The Teenagers Who Organized a 10,000-Person Protest
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because these high schoolers are just getting started.
By Shaan Merchant
The six teenage girls first connected on Twitter, responding to a call to action in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd. They didn’t know one another, but each knew she wanted to be a part of the movement. Soon the group chat led the Nashville, Tennessee, high schoolers — ages 14 to 16 — to decide to organize a protest. They started asking around for support and donations.
The local chapter of Black Lives Matter asked which organization they were a part of. “We were like, ‘Organization? We don’t have one of those.’ So we just made one up,” says Emma Rose Smith, explaining the creation of Teens4Equality, the organization and Instagram page that she launched with Kennedy Green, Jade Fuller, Nya Collins, Zee Thomas and Mikayla Smith.
The protest turned out to be one of the biggest in the country since the death of Floyd, with at least 10,000 people filling the streets of Nashville — far beyond the teens’ wildest expectations.
Just as the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting led to the emergence of young gun control activists, teenagers across the country have been taking the reins at the mass protests against police brutality and racism, from Nashville to O’Fallon, Missouri, to Washington, D.C., where 19-year-old Parkland survivor Aalayah Eastmond is bringing her organizing experience to the fight. After the shooting, she says, “I recognized the imbalance between Black voices and white voices of my classmates, so it felt like my duty to speak out … for all the Black youth who look like me.” Today, that focus is essential as she works to organize activists and push legislation centered around the voices of young Black people.
“Although [youth activists] may not always have the resources to do certain things, we find a way to make it happen,” Eastmond says.
The Nashville teenagers took that improvisational spirit to heart. Even with the help of Black Lives Matter and other organizations getting the word out, they expected a smaller turnout, roughly 800 to 1,000 people, Fuller says. But as the June 4 protest got underway, “more people were just winding down the street. It was crazy,” she says. Fortunately, the teens were prepared with volunteers, legal help and medics.
Among the masses was Elizabeth Dossett, a Boston-based immigration activist. “It was super well-organized,” Dossett says. “Communication was very clear, people [were] giving out water.” She felt the community spirit and was struck by how many kids and families were there. “Nashville is a really segregated city, and it was powerful to see communities coming together in this moment,” she adds.
We need to fix the system right now so that [our kids] don’t have to protest for this.
While the teens don’t condemn violence at certain demonstrations, the community feel of the protest they organized meant they were careful to avoid skirmishes with officers. So, again, they adapted smartly to what was happening on the ground. “Anytime we would see the riot police, we just rerouted,” Green explains. “We think it’s kind of funny they called the National Guard on 14- and 15-year-olds,” Smith says with a laugh, noting that several police officers kneeled, but “only when the news showed up.”
With this insight and humor, the teens also brought energy. In a Zoom call, they project commitment and outrage, often interrupting one another with historical information and pertinent statistics. They debate their schedule as they jump from “podcast to TV spot, interview to photo shoot — not to sound cocky,” Fuller says. “Not to sound cocky,” the others chime in.
At times, the girls reminisce about simpler days. “I like a quiet life.… It’s been two weeks since I’ve played Fortnite!” laments Green. But the desire for a better future outweighs the time lost scrolling through TikTok curled up in bed.
They each brought a different perspective to the table, but they all have a personal connection with the fight for racial justice. “I have a [younger] brother and it really worries me that next year I’m gonna have to talk to him about what to do when you encounter a police officer,” Green says. “I don’t want to think about that. I don’t want to think about losing him to some people that say they’re supposed to protect and serve all people of America.”
“We’re all fed up,” says Smith. Adds Fuller, “We need to fix the system right now so that [our kids] don’t have to protest for this.” Eastmond agrees: “We hold no tolerance for BS and we’re just really tired of the foolishness that’s happening in the world. If nobody else is going to do it, it’s our turn to take the baton and have these uncomfortable conversations and hold people accountable and vote people out. That’s what this generation is really about.”
The members of Teens4Equality have taken the baton and are running. On their Instagram page, which has more than 25,000 followers, they share resources and information, calling attention to local, national and international issues. And their next event is already in the works: a red, black and blue protest on July 4, complete with Black-owned barbecue vendors and a voter registration drive.
- Shaan Merchant