Interviewer: When you hear the name George Floyd, what does that mean to you?
Participant: A Black man whose life was taken unprovoked.
Participant: I think it represents a social movement and something that's inspired a lot of people and sparked a lot of change in many people's lives.
Participant: It's an empowering name. When that event happened, it shocked the whole world. I feel like it pushed us to be better, pushed us to be more demanding as a culture.
Participant: I think George Floyd is more than just a name of a person now. I think it's more of something that happened in our society.
Participant: George Floyd is one example of many people out there, of countless names that I think have been forgotten.
Participant: I really wish that we could remember all the names of victims to police brutality so they don't just become another statistic.
Participant: It means a lot because it's been happening for decades and decades and decades and centuries actually.
Kai Wright: It's Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright and Happy Memorial Day. This holiday is one of remembrance and since 2020, it has for many people been inseparable with the painful memory of George Floyd's murder. He was killed on May 25th, launching a global protest movement that continued throughout the summer.
Kai Wright: Both his murder and those protests are inextricably tied with the other epic events of 2020. COVID, obviously, and a presidential election that would end in an effort to violently interrupt the transfer of power. For at least one generation of young people, Memorial Day 2020 is very likely a permanent marker. There's a before and an after. That's certainly true for Chelsea Miller. We met Chelsea earlier this year as part of our Martin Luther King Jr Day broadcast from the Apollo Theater.
She was one of the lead organizers of the protest here in New York City in 2020, and she co-founded a youth-led civil rights organization out of that moment. It's called Freedom March NYC. Recently, she had an encounter with some middle school students that has really stuck with her, and when I heard about it, it struck me as well, particularly when I think about the context of this third anniversary of George Floyd's murder and the movement it launched. We invited her back on this show to talk about what happened. Hi, and welcome back to the show, Chelsea.
Chelsea Miller: Hi, Kai. Thank you for having me. I'm definitely excited to be back.
Kai Wright: You had, as I understand, an experience recently while talking to young people that was thought-provoking for you. Can you tell me that story? Tell me what happened.
Chelsea Miller: In February, I actually went to a school in New York and delivered a keynote focused on, of course, Black History Month, but I think a larger conversation about the state of our current movement as it stands and what does racial justice look like, and how do we reimagine equity, how do we reimagine our futures? Once the keynote was over, went to one of the classrooms and the students naturally had questions and wanted to know about activism and social change and how they can be a part of so many of these conversations.
Really, I think just the curiosity for learning more about the history and what does this mean for their futures. One of the questions that I asked them was, "How many of you know about George Floyd?" All of their hands went up. Then I asked, "How many of you know about Trayvon Martin?" Not a single hand was raised. That was a moment of, of course, disbelief naturally for me. Then I had to think about it. I think that we all have to think about it. Say, why is it that in a classroom full of middle schoolers, they don't know about Trayvon Martin? Then it hit me, Trayvon Martin was 10 years ago
Participant: To the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.
Chelsea Miller: If we're talking about why a bunch of 13-year-olds wouldn't know about Trayvon Martin, whereas that was such a defining moment in my life and my journey in understanding how we show up in this world for them. George Floyd was their Trayvon Martin. I think that it's important for us to think about the history of our movements and honestly, where we are as a country and the fact that we are reaching a generation that is losing so much of the history, even if it is recent history. What does that mean for the past 400 years that we have to reckon with?
Kai Wright: When I heard this story the first time, there's just so many things in it that caused me both emotional and intellectual confusion that I don't know, I'm going to just try to wrestle with you for a minute. Why'd you ask them that? What was on your mind and heart when you asked it?
Chelsea Miller: Because I'm looking at students who in a lot of ways, right? I'm young. I'm in my mid 20s now, but I started my work in high school. I can remember the core memories that changed my life and my trajectory of how I see the world. When I asked them that, it was more so for connection. It was more so for the, "Yes you guys know Trayvon Martin's name and I was basically your age when I lived it."
That was the direction that I was going in when I asked about George Floyd and then getting to Trayvon Martin, because I was trying to connect that bridge right between the 13-year-old version of myself and there was that curiosity that came on their face because they didn't know about him. They wanted to, but they didn't.
Kai Wright: How did they respond when you told them who Trayvon Martin was? What are some of the responses that happened in the room?
Chelsea Miller: They were shocked. They were curious. They wanted to know more. I told them, essentially, the story of what happened.
Kai Wright: This is what happened. On the night of February 26th, 2012. A 17-year-old Black boy named Trayvon Martin was walking home from a convenient store in Sanford, Florida. He was a high school student in Miami, and he was in Sanford visiting his father and his father's fiance. He'd gone to the store to buy some juice and a bag of Skittles. George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old man who was in charge of the neighborhood patrol, saw Trayvon and decided he was suspicious. Zimmerman called the police, who told him to leave the boy alone. Instead, he took his gun and he stalked this 17-year-old child.
I have always admired the fact that Trayvon confronted this depraved stalker when he realized he was being followed. Zimmerman, he shot and killed the boy on the spot. The Skittles and the hoodie Trayvon wore that night became cultural symbols in the national protest movement that followed. George Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder. He pled self-defense under Florida's Stand-Your-Ground law and a jury found him not guilty. Three Black women launched the Black Lives Matter movement in response and Chelsea Miller has never been the same.
Chelsea Miller: I'll never forget my teacher who literally set aside time, it was my history teacher, she set aside time before class. I was only, I think about one of three Black students in the class and he was like, "How are you guys feeling? We need to talk about this. All of those things that happened that--" First of all, to this day, literally, I love this teacher, Mrs. [unintelligible 00:08:29], if you're listening.
I also think that for me, it was important to realize that classrooms should be places for us to talk about the issues that are happening in our world that will define their leadership and define their journey. We have a responsibility to bring that into how they see the world and how they talk about it because they care. They care a lot. If there aren't safe spaces to have these discussions, then what?
Kai Wright: When you say you'll never forget that moment. Do you remember how you felt and why you felt that way when your teacher was like, "Let's talk about this."? Do you remember what your emotional response was?
Chelsea Miller: I was so sad. I was so sad because I didn't fully understand it yet. Also keeping in mind that my teacher was not Black. She's not a Black woman. For me, that was also powerful because you have to keep in mind that in a lot of our school settings, you'd be surprised how many Black students are being taught by, of course, non-Black teachers. It's a certain level of trust that happens when educators see their students. I don't mean when it's time for a test.
I don't mean when it's time for state exams. I don't mean when it's time to submit your homework or talk about whatever you're learning around the classroom, talk about when you feel seen. All that you are by a teacher. That's what happened in that moment when she said, we're going to pause because it is not business as usual. I know that you guys have questions and are feeling confused, and I want to give space to honor that.
Kai Wright: Here's to teachers. How important of a moment was that for your life? Now, look at all the things you've done. Here's to teachers. Coming back to your experience recently talking to those middle schoolers about Trayvon Martin, what did it make you think about your own journey in the decades since that time?
Chelsea Miller: For so many Black people, we don't get to navigate our childhoods in ways that are completely free. We are always feeling attached to something, responsible for something. Stories that are connected to us. In a way, it made me think about the past 10 years, if not more of my own work and coming-of-age story and this realization that it's like we don't afford our young people in this world to live truly in a way that speaks to all of who they are. Because whether or not we realize it, this world puts limits on them. I think that in a lot of ways when we talk about our history, it's to get to a point where we start claiming those narratives for ourselves and using it as our strengths.
Kai Wright: It's Notes from America. I'm talking with youth organizer, Chelsea Miller, who helped lead the protests that erupted in response to George Floyd's murder three years ago on Memorial Day. Coming up, Chelsea and I wrestle with how and why we can find strength in remembering the names and the stories of George Floyd and Trayvon Martin and the depressingly long list of other Black lives that have been taken in acts of anti-Black violence. I ask her about my own growing uncertainty with this particular political act. Stay with us.
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Kai Wright: Welcome back. It's Notes From America. I'm Kai Wright, and on this Memorial Day weekend, I'm talking with youth organizer Chelsea Miller. We first met Chelsea during our Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at the Apollo Theater here in Harlem this winter. Recently, she told our team about an interesting experience she had. While talking with a class of middle school students, she discovered that they'd never heard of Trayvon Martin, which really shook her because Trayvon's death in 2012 and the subsequent acquittal of his killer, it not only gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, it ignited Chelsea's personal desire to become a youth activist.
I told Chelsea that I too was of course deeply, deeply affected by Trayvon Martin's killing, but in a little different way, because by that point, this was already a crushingly familiar tale to me. When Trayvon Martin happened was like I think the turning moment for of exhaustion for me. I remember how exhausted and over it all I felt by that point.
Immediately, the first thing that comes to mind is, for you, it was a starting point.
It's almost where I started to lock up and be unable to continue to respond to a decade ago. For these young people you're talking to, had never even heard of it. I don't have a question here other than that's the immediate thing I came to, and I just want to put that to you and see what it sparks.
Chelsea Miller: It sparks a certain level of, I wouldn't even say frustration, but it's more so I think a responsibility that we have. I think the weight of that because if we're talking about-- For me, thinking about Trayvon Martin and when it happened, I was still very young. I couldn't go out and protest. I couldn't really do anything because I needed parental approval. At the time my mom's like, "No way."
For me, I just think about how defining that was in my life and how it shaped me. When we asked, and I remember when we had our sit down at the Apollo and he said, "What is the legacy of 2020?" I told you, I was like, "I think that we aren't going to be able to measure it for another 10 years because think about all of the young people who witnessed that, who are now mobilized." When we're talking about George Floyd 2020, we won't see fully the impact and legacy of that for years.
I think for me, it's like, "Okay, in that interim, as they are still being shaped by the story and so deeply impacted by it, how are we creating stories? How are we telling narratives? How are we building the infrastructure to support them as they come of age?" Because we're talking about a huge population of young people who are waiting and are ready to take on the baton and what is the foundation that we're setting for them. I think for me it's just like we have work to do.
Kai Wright: Yes. We're thinking about this conversation in the context of Memorial Day and remembering and memorializing. Another thing that really, I had complicated feelings and thoughts about when I heard this story is part of me, Chelsea, when I heard they didn't know who Trayvon Martin was, was like, "Good that they don't have that trauma. They don't have that Black death to remember." I have such a long line of Black Death to remember and I don't feel good, but part of me was like, "I'm glad they don't."
Chelsea Miller: I get it. I get why you feel that way. They have the legacy of that to reckon with, even if they don't know his name. I think that that is the most difficult part to essentially just process. As much as we want to protect them from what this world looks like and the truths of our systems that have failed as time and time again, I think we have to understand that they are seeing it.
Even if they can't name it, even if they don't know the origin, even if they're still struggling to process it internally and see how they fit in the world, they are feeling every single aspect of what it means to navigate this world in their Blackness. It's important for them to know that before there was a George Floyd, there was a Trayvon Martin, there was an Emmett Till, before, before, before, before, before, so that they don't feel alone when they're going through these things.
They know that there are generations that have come before them that have so much to teach them. Also, a legacy even beyond just trauma, but of resistance, of joy, of all of these things that have existed historically. That they are part of that tradition. I think that in a lot of ways that is something that can empower them. I think it's one of those things where you just think about the experience of being a teenager, and how lonely and isolating and feeling as though adults don't understand you.
No one understands you, the world doesn't understand you, but I think there's a missing piece of how we tie generations together through a shared history, even beyond the trauma that I think is worth talking about.
Kai Wright: When you talk about the legacy of resistance and joy that shifted something for me in thinking about these memories, how do we memorialize that? Do you see us memorializing that? How would we memorialize that?
Chelsea Miller: I think that we memorialize it by remembering that, yes, Trayvon Martin is no longer here, but his mom is, and she is a fighter, right? We talk about even Emmett Till and the way that his mother showed up for him. We're talking about mothers of the movement. We're talking about even Eric Garner's mom. Just so many mothers who have shown up. I think that, from a legacy standpoint, their legacy still live on, and the young people who they've inspired, and the changes that are being created.
Not even looking at it from a policy and systemic lens, because we know that it's going to take so much more. If we're talking about in the energy and the ways that people's minds have shifted and the ways that communities have come together and the ways that we have completely transformed, how we see ourselves outside of these systems, I absolutely think that's worth memorializing.
I think it starts with telling the stories. I think it starts with telling the nuances of the stories. To talk about our power and our creativity and the ways that we've existed and shifted culture, even in the midst of all of these things. To me, that is a powerful story that we can carry on of movements, of protest, but also of the fun, of the celebration. I'm excited for that aspect of our storytelling to really take hold into our future generations so that not only is there a sense of pride, but an understanding of our humanity as a whole.
Kai Wright: Do you feel any complexity in the way we have focused on these individuals and their names and their moment of death as the starting point for all that incredible mobilization you're talking about? I guess that's what I'm wrestling with when I think about those middle school kids you spoke with, focusing on these moments of death. Am I being articulate here? I'm trying to figure out--
Chelsea Miller: Yes. No, absolutely, absolutely. I think an answer to that, when I say their stories and their names, I don't mean their deaths. I mean their lives. I mean their legacy. I mean the people who love them. I mean the ways in which their communities showed up for them. I mean the little things, right? I don't mean the nine minutes of the chokeholds, or the criminalizing of who they are, the criminalizing of their bodies. I don't mean any of that.
I literally mean their stories, their names, because they were given their names when they were born, and as the same names that we say. I think that there's an element here of, how do we remember our people? Because also thinking about the legacy of slavery, when we were taken, we were stripped of our names. We were stripped of our identities. We were stripped of belonging, and we had to redefine that.
When I say their names and their stories, it's because that is their birthright. Their names are their birthright. We say their names because there's power in that, and carrying that on so that they aren't forgotten, and those stories aren't forgotten because we know that, historically, that the greatest way that we were conditioned was in removing those stories from us. Now that we have that, we should fight for that.
When I think about the '60s and the fact that there weren't iPhones that you could take out and use to record, and so a lot of the information was passed down through intercommunity, and that storytelling aspect. When you talk about even what took place during the slave trade and talk about what took place when slaves came here, the underground railroad, all of that was through stories, stories that we had to hold onto, to believe.
A lot of that history within our communities is so critical to how we define our own narratives and how we shape them and how we pass it on to next generations. Because if we forgot Emmett Till's name, Emmett Till sparked the Civil Rights Movement. The work of his mother, the relentless work of his mother to shift the way that the world saw her son, right? All of that ties into storytelling.
Kai Wright: That's right.
Chelsea Miller: When I think about Trayvon Martin, when I think about George Floyd and the legacy of George Floyd, I want to ensure, and I think we all have a responsibility to ensure that we are tying the way that we speak about them, that we're tying the way that we speak about memorializing into larger conversations of our liberation that, again, exist even outside of the trauma because Black people, Black children deserve rest. We deserve joy. We deserve all of those things. It's important to show in our history that we have had all of those things in spite of.
Kai Wright: For yourself, do you remember when and how it dawned on you like, "Oh, remembering these individual human beings and how they lived, this is an important political act for me."
Chelsea Miller: It dawned on me in 2020. The reason I say that is because I remember just being home and watching the way the media was talking about George Floyd. As I saw that, "Let's investigate his priors," and, "Does he have a record?" and, "Is he even a great father?" and all these questions that were being asked when in that moment, what was the most important thing was the fact that he was a man who deserved to live. Right? It was that simple. Somehow in the midst of these conversations, the true story was being missed. If we allowed that to continue, then we would lose the battle before it even got to the courtroom.
We would lose because as much as we want to say that the way that we see the world doesn't matter once we enter a judicial and legal system, we know that is a lie. As much as you want to protect a jury and make sure that there is no bias at all once you enter the courtroom, we know that that is a lie. We know it's a lie because we've seen the way in which our criminal system has failed Black folks time and time again.
Kai Wright: Stories matter. Given that I asked Chelsea about the public narrative surrounding Jordan Neely, yet another Black person killed in public in senseless circumstances. He was choked to death on a New York City subway train by a passenger who felt threatened. Neely was a performer who was living on the streets, struggling with mental health and shouting on that train that he needed help. I mentioned to Chelsea that relative to previous stories, it seemed to me like the narrative around Neely's death shifted quickly from questions about what he did to bring it on himself to who he was as a human being. I asked how she felt about the narrative.
Chelsea Miller: I would say that it has been a battle. Even though it seems as though we have gotten to a point where there's a lot of corrective work that's happening around how we speak about him and how we speak about what took place, the reality is that there is still a huge influx that is pushing back against that. It saddens me, the fact that we have to fight so hard for him to be seen as human.
Kai Wright: Right.
Chelsea Miller: It's so interesting because in one aspect, we know the playbook. We've seen it so many times. In another aspect, we also have to realize that the playbook has worked so many times, and that is the frustrating part. It's also one of those things where you'd be surprised how many folks who rallied behind George Floyd are quiet about Jordan Neely.
Kai Wright: Oh, really? You feel that?
Chelsea Miller: Right? Because it's kind of like a certain level in which, "I'll advocate for this, but did they say he did so and so a couple of days prior? I think I'm going to be quiet on this one." I think what we fail to realize is that we are not solely advocating for individuals. We are advocating for larger problems that must be addressed. Otherwise, there's always going to be a name. There's always going to be an individual. It's frustrating.
I think that there's a huge challenge in who our communities show up for and why. I also think that there's another element here that a lot of people don't realize that in 2020, the world shut down. Because the world shut down, a lot of people were paying attention in ways that historically they haven't before. The challenge of organizing for Jordan Neely three years later, is that the world is on full throttle. What happens when you are in the midst of protest for someone that others may not deem as worthy when the capitalist engine is on full throttle?
Do you think that the folks who maybe had some time or were thinking about and reckoning with even their own humanity during a pandemic is thinking about someone who's homeless experiencing mental illness on New York City Subways? It's not the same anymore. I think there's also an element of, you shut down a bridge as a protestor. These things happened in 2020 where protestors were shutting down bridges across the country.
It was okay at the time. When I say it was okay at the time, I don't mean that arrest didn't happen. I'm talking about the public imaginary of what protests looks like for so many folks who believe in advocating for Black lives. They were rallying that on. What happens now when you believe in fighting for Black lives, but you're on your way to work and a bridge gets shut down? Are you still able to show up for that movement in the same way you were able to show up for it in the comfort of your home? Or now is it too personal?
Kai Wright: Yes. That's a question for me if I'm real talk?
Chelsea Miller: Yes.
Kai Wright: Chelsea Miller is a co-founder of Freedom March NYC. A youth-led civil rights organization that emerged as a key organizer in the global protests following George Floyd's murder on Memorial Day, 2020. Notes from America is a production of WNYC Studios. Follow us wherever you get your podcasts, and on Instagram @noteswithkai. If you heard anything you want to talk back to us about, just go to our website, notesfromamerica.org.
Look for the little green button and you can leave us a voicemail right there. Mixing and theme music by Jared Paul. Reporting, producing, and editing by Karen Frillman. Regina de Heer, Rahima Nasa, Kousha Navidar, Lindsay Foster Thomas, André Robert Lee is our executive producer, and I am Kai Wright. Happy Memorial Day.
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