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Young Activists Find Their Voice Organizing Protests For Racial Justice In D.C.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Here in D.C., there were multiple demonstrations. This national movement has drawn in many young people who are finding their voice for the first time. One of the largest protests yesterday was organized by a group of seven young activists who only got together 10 days ago.

KERRIGAN WILLIAMS: So a tweet was sent out by our founder. She was like, does anybody want to do a protest? And I was just like, sure. And I thought that it was just going to be a collective of maybe 10 people just going outside and just holding each other accountable. But it's balled into something much, much bigger, as we can see.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kerrigan Williams is 22. She's from Houston. She's a graduate student at Georgetown University. And when she saw that tweet...

WILLIAMS: I just felt something activate in me, like, OK, this is hitting too close to home right now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She actually knew George Floyd. They came from the same community in Houston.

WILLIAMS: He was really, really close to a few of my friends that I went to college with. One of my cousins was his football coach. So I'm in this moment because, being from that community, it could be my cousin. It could be the guy that I see at the corner store all the time. It could be anybody.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Or it could've been her. When she was a student at Sam Houston State University...

WILLIAMS: I was walking in a residential neighborhood in Huntsville, Texas, right by my apartment building in college. And the police followed me the whole walk - the whole walk, just walking through the neighborhood, just trying to get some fresh air before I go back to sleep or go back to class or go back to work. They followed me the whole time. I didn't want to go home 'cause I didn't want them to know, like, you know, where I lived. But I went home, got in my car and drove back to Houston. That same officer followed me all the way back to Houston, which is a 45-minute drive.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And she says every single black person she knows has a story like that or much worse.

WILLIAMS: It just made me feel kind of dehumanized. I know that that is just an experience for all black folks when I say that you just feel subpar, subhuman and feel like you have to be watched with everything that you do. Even taking a walk in the park, you just have to be surveilled. And it just makes you feel like you aren't worthy of just living a normal life without being surveilled by the police.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Then came this moment. These seven activists formed a group. They named themselves Freedom Fighters DC, and they assigned roles so they could plan protests.

WILLIAMS: That's over different sectors, such as transportation, supplies, safety, public affairs, governmental relations and press. And I think that our volunteers have grown just to the hundreds at this point.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And this Saturday was their big event. They called for a huge march. They asked for donations, and people all over the city donated supplies. Kerrigan and I were talking in a park on Capitol Hill.

It does strike me that we are sitting at the seat of American power between the Senate and the Supreme Court, and you're marching towards the White House. I mean, this is the essential part of the United States government.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. And it's really, like, surreal to be here in the nation's capital.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Even more surreal because the area was barricaded. There were police, National Guard, uniformed officers in unmarked cars at almost every intersection.

WILLIAMS: This is alarming, but we aren't going to freak out just this moment 'cause I'm not sure if my safety team is aware or not. They may be aware.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kerrigan's first job of the day to prepare for the march is to scope out where the security forces have been stationed. We walk from the park down to the mall on the road to the White House. She calls a member of her team to let them know security has been ramped up from only yesterday.

WILLIAMS: It's a whole military, like, setup. Like, it's maybe, like, 5 coach buses - no, maybe 10 coach buses, five on each side, 18-wheelers, tents, police in riot gear. And this is, like, two blocks up and two blocks over from our starting point. So I mean, I'm kind of not scared. Like, hopefully they won't intervene. But, like, it is a scary sight that they right here along the route. And I just wanted to alert you because, I mean, I know you got, like - you're capable of, you know, holding down the front lines, but dang.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I should say at this point that Kerrigan is immunocompromised. She's wearing a mask, but she's been out protesting for days. And her family are worried about her getting sick with the coronavirus. While we're talking, she also calls them in Houston.

WILLIAMS: Is my mom here?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Honey, you're on speakerphone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, OK. OK. OK.

WILLIAMS: I just wanted to call y'all before everything got started today 'cause I'm probably going to be turning off my phone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Unintelligible).

WILLIAMS: Cause, I mean, the protest stuff - people can hack your phone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And after that, the next stop is a storage site across town.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: What's up, ladies? Good morning.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: What's good, homie?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hey, girl.

WILLIAMS: I need to wash my shirt. My shirt is so filthy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I washed it this morning. I was like...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She meets with the founder who sent that initial tweet, 22-year-old Philomena Wakenge, who is a refugee from Congo, and she came to the U.S. when she was 6. Jaqueline La Bayne is also there. She's 23 and from Sacramento. And there's a 28-year-old D.C. native who goes by the name Zues X. They're all about to go into the storage unit when...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Where's the key? Did somebody contact the...

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They realize they don't have a key. Eventually, the key arrives.

Tell me what you got here.

WILLIAMS: So we have tents, paper towels, a whole bunch of first aid stuff, which encompasses gauze, Band-Aids. These are goggles, helmets, trash can lid. Anything that you would need in a protest to either defend yourself or just, like, have for a medic, we got up in here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Including a pink helmet. They gush over it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Oh, that's cute.

WILLIAMS: Ain't it cute?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: There's two of them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They head back to the capital, and then it's time for the march to begin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Chanting) We are the voice of the voiceless.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) We are the voice of the voiceless.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Chanting) We are the voice of the voiceless.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) We are the voice of the voiceless.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And people have arrived from all over the city. Volunteers are handing out supplies - water, hand sanitizer and masks. The Freedom Fighters don't have a sound system, though. They're giving speeches through a loudspeaker, so a lot of people can't hear. It is DIY, but it works. The protesters demand justice for George Floyd, and then thousands of people take a knee, stretching down Constitution Avenue, a road that flanks the Senate. And Kerrigan Williams looks stunned.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I'm overwhelmed at the turnout. I'm just really, really proud. It's a proud moment, but I can't take any time to suck it in right now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Her fellow organizer, Zues X, looks up from distributing T-shirts and says this is their generation's moment.

ZUES X: We're past hope. It's going to get changed. We're past hope. By any means necessary, period - it's going to happen (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the crowd moves towards the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Chanting) Hands up.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Fight back.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Chanting) Hands up.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Fight back.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Chanting) Hands up.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Fight back.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Chanting) Hands up.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Fight back.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: Let's go.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This story was produced by Denise Guerra and edited by Hadeel Al-Shalchi. Elsewhere in the show, we'll hear from a member of antifa about their role in these protests.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIK B & RAKIM'S "DON'T SWEAT THE TECHNIQUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.