At 12:35am on Tuesday, July 5, 2016, Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old Black man, was shot several times at close range while being held on the ground by two white Baton Rouge Police Department officers in front of Triple S Food Mart on the corner of North Foster Drive and Fairfields Avenue in North Baton Rouge.
Less than twenty-four hours later, three BRYC Fellows, Myra Richardson, Raheejah Flowers, and Jeanette Jackson, convened approximately 90 Baton Rouge youth (in person and via group chat) to plan their response. In the wee hours of that morning, they formed The Wave out of their collective heartache, passion for justice, and concern for their community. Raheejah, or Rah, who lives half a mile from Triple S, created a flyer advertising The Wave’s first initiative, a peaceful, youth-led march to take place at 4pm the following Sunday, July 10. “We wanted the police to hear our voices and feel our deep anger,” Rah said.
While the disturbing video of Alton Sterling’s brutal death went viral, The Wave’s flyer was shared across the city, state, and nation. The scope of the march rapidly grew beyond the group’s original vision, with organizers and activists across the country calling to offer assistance. The murder of Philando Castile by police officers in Falcon Heights, Minnesota on July 6 only intensified support for The Wave’s efforts and heightened anger and unrest in Baton Rouge.
With no experience coordinating marches or protests, the BRYC staff connected The Wave with community organizers from Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and we provided direct support when and where we were best suited to.
From Wednesday, July 6 to Sunday, July 10, numerous organizations – including Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools (Rethink), Black Youth Project 100, The Micah Project, National Lawyers Guild, and the Southern Youth Law Network – and several independent organizers – including Dawn Collins (EBR School Board Member District 4), Tesia Burton, Desmond Collins, Gary Williams, Jarvis Antwine, and others – met at the BRYC House to help The Wave leaders realize their vision for the march. They supported the youth in drafting demands, finalizing speeches, ensuring logistics and safety measures, coordinating volunteers, and raising awareness. Most importantly, these individuals and the BRYC staff ensured the march remained solely focused on the youth and their message.
By the day of the march, the Wave leaders were exhausted, having slept very little amidst a week of intense planning, stress, anger, and sadness. But when they arrived at 4pm at Wesley United Methodist Church, the starting point of the march, they were reenergized at the sight of growing masses of people who had come out to be in solidarity. “When we started marching, it was just, powerful,” Jeanette said.
That afternoon, Myra, Rah, Jeannette, and about twenty other youth peacefully led thousands of people in a 1.5-mile march to the Louisiana State Capitol. From the top of the steps, they delivered powerful speeches filled with pain, hope, and determination, and they set forth thoughtful demands calling for immediate, substantive change. Other young leaders joined in addressing the crowd. Youth from Rethink led the crowd in chants for justice and peace; Hezekiah Harbor, a BRYC sophomore, shared a prayer and recited a moving poem called “I dreamed…”; and Mar’Quaan Logan, a BRYC College Fellow and University of Wisconsin-Madison sophomore, performed a riveting spoken word piece titled “Brewing.” Each young person was met with love.
The Wave leaders and other youth linked arms and returned to Wesley Church, the masses following behind. The Michael FosterProject met the youth in front of the Capitol grounds, turning the walk back into a second line parade for Alton Sterling – a quintessential South Louisiana celebration of life. Myra said she felt a burst of love and hope. The ladies were in awe of what had taken place and what they had achieved. Upon arriving at the church, The Wave leaders answered a few media questions but quickly returned to the BRYC House, as a separate protest developed on Government Street. Militarized police vehicles and officers in riot gear were reminders that while The Wave march was a success, the work is far from over.
Myra, Raheejah, and Jeannette are well aware of that. “We are very proud of how the march turned out,” Myra said, “but we also know it was a small step in a much larger, longer fight for justice that many people have paved the way for us to participate in.” The Wave is currently applying for 501(c)(3) status and developing initiatives to mobilize youth across Baton Rouge – and possibly one day, across the nation – to advance social justice. While The Wave is just getting started, their progress so far has been significant. After a very challenging summer, we can find hope in these and other youth, who aren’t waiting to be “the future.” They are the now.