Since May 2020, youth organizers across the country have been mobilizing against police brutality and working for systemic change in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Some of them had organized for social justice before, but many of them took to the streets for the first time and without an organized plan. Across Instagram posts, Zoom calls and iMessages, these youth organizers used social media to launch some of the largest Black Lives Matter protests in the country. In the first episode of Rolling Stone’s “Youth Organizers” video series, we take a look back on where it all began, starting with Freedom March NYC.
Chelsea Miller, 24, and Nialah Edari, 25, are the co-founders of Freedom March NYC, which has become one of the largest youth-led civil rights organizations in New York. It started, however, with a few text messages between friends in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnapolis police officers. Equipped with their shared pain and grief, newly purchased protective goggles and their Instagram accounts, they planned a march at Washington Square Park in Manhattan. What they didn’t expect were the hundreds of people that would share their message across social media and show up to join them.
Since then, Freedom March NYC has led hundreds of in-person and “virtual” marches, vigils, and community events for voter registration. They’ve spoken at the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington this summer, raised $50,000 for their Freedom Fall voting initiative, and even appeared in Ciara’s “Rooted” music video. In the first episode of Rolling Stone’s Youth Organizers series, Edari and Miller share some of their memories from this tumultuous year.
Rolling Stone: When did you two first meet?
Chelsea Miller: Nialah and I met at Columbia University, actually. It was during Black History Month weekend and she wanted to have an event celebrating Black women on campus and Black women in the community. At the time, I had launched my non-profit organization Women Everywhere Believe, which is a national leadership pipeline for women and girls of color.
Nialah Edari: Yes, I was the co-chair of the Columbia University Black History Month and I wanted Chelsea to come speak on my Black Girl Magic panel. At the time, I was also working for Kimberlé Crenshaw as a research assistant at the African American Policy Forum. I only bring this up because I remember seeing Chelsea in a #SayHerName T-shirt that we gifted her, that she’s now worn to many of the marches this year.
Miller: So we really just met around our activism and really being passionate about doing the work and have become close friends since then.
How were you engaging in your communities before Freedom March NYC?
Miller: In 2016, I was one of the youngest interns in the Obama White House working on domestic policy. For me, I’ve always come from the lens of, “How do we think about movement building that can cross many different sectors?” It was in the Obama administration that I learned a lot about the power of civil society and nonprofit organizations who often do not get credit for the sustainable work that they do. From a young age, I’ve been passionate about creating more opportunities for young Black girls to be at the table and know that they can be leaders, too.
And how would you describe Freedom March NYC’s mission?
Miller: Freedom March NYC is a youth-led civil rights organization based in New York City. We focus not only on protest, but also on policy change.
Edari: At a basic level, our mission is freedom. Freedom to vote, freedom from police brutality, and freedom to just live. That’s what we’re fighting for.
Miller: We emphasize the freedom aspect because in 1964 there was Freedom Summer where civil rights organizations and youth organizers were going down to Mississippi to fight for justice and there were KKK members who were killing organizers and hiding that. There were also police officers that were in cahoots with the KKK. In that same way, we are living in a time where we are seeing injustice through the mixing together of white supremacy and our policing system. What we’re seeing now is a demand to reimagine some of these systems.
What inspired you to create this organization?
Miller: It was the weekend of May 30th after the murder of George Floyd. It’s important to note that I had actually gone out to protest the night before we launched Freedom March NYC. I was feeling so frustrated and voiceless. We were in a pandemic where a lot of us were home. All you kept seeing was black trauma, black death, and a lack of accountability with our country and our leaders. The movement was being silenced and the narrative was shifting to property from people’s lives.
Edari: For me, I was meeting my friend in Brooklyn. As I was biking over the bridge, I stumbled into a march — it was a complete accident. I remember while biking through that protest I just started crying and having the same feelings as 2014 when Mike Brown and Eric Garner were killed. That was a mentally draining year for me. So when I also saw Chelsea marching on social media, we decided we should create our own.
Miller: When I got on the ground that first night, what we saw was a lot of disorganization. A lot of people were trying to figure out who the organizers were, where they were going and what were the policy changes that we’re advocating for. In a lot of ways, it was like we had the world’s attention, but no one knew what to say. … It’s so easy nowadays in the digital space to turn someone’s name, life and legacy into a hashtag. But behind every hashtag is a family that’s mourning. When I think about that weekend, it just felt as though it was a boiling point of so many things happening.
What was the planning process for the first Freedom March NYC protest?
Miller: Nialah called me and said we should do something, so we decided to organize a march on May 30th. We put together the flyer and posted it to Instagram by noon. By 8pm we had our gas masks, posters and a mission: To get protestors out of 1 Police Plaza to stand in solidarity with Minneapolis and to hold our mayor accountable for the fact that he wasn’t standing with protestors at the time and was silencing the movement in many ways.
Edari: After we decided we were going to do this, I called my friend Jamira Burley who is another social impact strategist. She connected me with Good Call, which is a legal aid community organization. They sent us resources to give out to protestors in case they were arrested.
Miller: Hundreds of people ended up sharing the flyer within a span of a few hours and before we knew it, we were on the front lines.
Edari: Social media really helped us amplify our message more than we could have imagined.
Miller: So, we immediately recognized the power [of social media] to bring about change. Yes, we’re living in an age of hashtag activism. So, for us it was really important to remember that we are living in a popcorn society where it’s onto the next thing in a matter of seconds. We asked ourselves, how can we leverage the fact that the world is currently watching and what do we want to say?
And what was it like the night of the march?
Edari: Once we got to Washington Square Park, Chelsea and I stood on top of a bench. She held a sign, I held my fist up. Slowly, a crowd of 20 people formed. And that’s when someone in the crowd shouted, “Join them!” Before I knew it, we had about 100 people, so we started organizing everyone into three lines and then we marched.
Miller: That first night was one of the most powerful demonstrations that I’ve participated in on the front lines. It was at a time when we were still protesting at night because the curfew wasn’t enacted. If you went on the ground, you did not know what was going to happen or if you were coming home. That day, people were saying the KKK was coming to town because it was the 99th anniversary of the burning of Black Wall Street. People were sending me pictures of protestors that were maimed by rubber bullets. There was palpable fear. I decided to do it anyway because we have ancestors who depend on us carrying this torch. And we have future children who will inherit this country and deserve better.
How are you continuing this important work ahead of the November election?
Miller: One of the things that we do with Freedom March NYC, and we’ve been really intentional about doing this, is incorporating voter registration around a lot of our marches and demonstrations that we do. The reason we do this is because we are a youth led civil rights organization and when we talk about civil rights we know that a lot of changes have come from the ballot and the polls. We created a digital and in-person national campaign called Freedom summer that raised over $50,000. We have a responsibility to educate the youth on the importance of voting and work with the community.
Edari: For a lot of Gen Z, this may be their first time voting. So we want to make sure that we not only register people to vote, but that we also inform them on what is on their ballot and what is at stake. That’s why we held a Harlem voter registration drive in partnership with HeadCount and made sure to have a voter registration at our Juneteenth event. Voting is is not the end all be all. But it’s definitely important at the local level, state level and definitely with President Trump, or as people like to say, “Yall’s president,” at the federal level.
Miller: I think what tends to happen for a lot of youth that are passionate about social justice work is that as you get older, you get desensitized in a lot of ways or you get frustrated with the current systems. Or you feel like you don’t have support, a voice, or the resources to do this work. The truth is that you are enough as you are, you are enough with your passion and your advocacy and your ability to reimagine this world. Your voice matters, your pain matters, your ideas matter. And so, it’s really important for us that when we’re talking about Black lives, we’re talking about the youth who will continue to do this work, Black trans lives who have been left out of the conversation so many times, Black girls and the abuse-to-prison pipeline and the interconnectedness of all of these things. What is going to be our response as a country?
Find more information on Freedom March NYC here.