The story of Millions March NYC

January 15, 2015

On December 13, over 50,000 people turned out to Millions March NYC, the largest single demonstration in the wave of #BlackLivesMatter protests that began in Ferguson last summer. The march was initiated via social media by two young Black women, 19-year-old Synead (Cid) Nichols and 23-year-old Umaara Elliot. Cid and Umaara sat down with Gina Sartori, who was also part of the Millions March organizing team, to discuss the next steps after this success. This interview took place in December, shortly before the shootings of two New York City police officers presented new challenges to the movement.

MORE THAN 50,000 people showed up at the Millions March. Why do you think people decided to come, and why do you think this march was so important?

Umaara: With these protests that have been going on since August--the people in Ferguson have been protesting for over 120 days--the media is trying to portray the demonstrators as agitators and violent. It scares people from coming out because they think that they're going to get hurt or something, when really it's the police who are being the agitators, who are infiltrating, who are hiring agitators to come into the protests.

So we planned for this to be as peaceful as possible, because people want a voice. But when they're seeing people getting pepper-sprayed and maced on TV and on the Internet, they're scared. So we really wanted them to be able to bring their children, for elderly people, for disabled people to come out and really be allowed to be angry. Because we are allowed to be angry.

Cid: Just because I'm angry. It's an emotion, it's not an action. If you want to be angry about a hockey game and burn a city down, that's cool. If you want to be angry about Joe Paterno, that's cool, but I can't be angry about my neighbor getting shot down, and my neighbor is a 12-year-old child. No. I'm not happy about that, and I will remain angry, and you will feel the wrath of my anger. Point blank.

The Millions March NYC brought tens of thousands of determined activists together
The Millions March NYC brought tens of thousands of determined activists together

I'm tired of trying to limit myself and limit my emotions because it makes you uncomfortable. Well, you make me uncomfortable, too. So let's all just be uncomfortable together. I don't mind being uncomfortable. I can deal with that. The problem is that you can't, and you want to do whatever it is to deter that feeling. It's not going to be deterred, and it's only going to get worse. So I hope you're prepared.

WHAT WAS it like organizing the march?

Umaara: It was a learning experience definitely. It was a lot. It was stressful because we didn't know how many people would come out. So we had to plan for if 1,000 people came out, if 100 people came out...

Cid: If two people came out...

Umaara: And if 40,000 came out, or from the last time we checked the [Facebook] page before the march, 49,000 people. Obviously, New York is geographically different from Ferguson. There are 35,000 officers as part of NYPD. So we had to really make sure that people were safe if we were to be outnumbered by the NYPD. We ended up outnumbering them, but we had to make sure that they were safe.

The great thing was that so many people were willing to help us when we reached out to them. They were willing to give their input. We had meetings until 1:30 in the morning, constantly messaging each other. Wake up, check your phone, 50 messages, constantly e-mailing. We were on a time crunch because the page was put up on November 25--at 1:30 in the morning--and the march was planned for December 13. There was no time to waste at all. We had to use every part of the day. We would lose sleep.

WHY DID you feel it was important to have family members of police victims at the front of the march?

Cid: Is it about us? Did we lose children?

Umaara: Exactly. We didn't lose children. We hope not to lose children, brothers and sisters. I think also it was important because they need to be able to voice their anger. They're doing a lot of TV appearances, a lot of appearances in different places, but they haven't been able to release their emotions, really voice their anger.

Cid: I think it just makes it more real. Like damn, who's that in the front. Oh, that's the parents of Ramarley Graham or that's the parents of Trayvon Martin,

Umaara: We grew up reading about Emmett Till in the small portion on Black history in our history books--the really small, small portion. To actually meet his family--it's like, yeah, this really happened. This happened in 1955, but this really happened.

YOU'RE TALKING about meeting Emmett Till's cousin, Airickca Gordon-Taylor...

Cid: Yeah, it didn't just happen in 1910, 1911. It happened in 1999 with Amadou Diallo. It happened again in 2012. It's happened actually every day since then. We just don't know about it. And I'm tired of not knowing.

HOW DO you think we involve people most impacted by police violence?

Cid: We have to go out there and talk to them. Because some of them, they're not about Facebook and social media. And granted a lot of people do have it, regardless of where you are from, some people just really don't. We gotta give them papers, and say, come to this community center, and we'll talk to you and let you know what's going on. Teach-ins, demonstrations outside in the neighborhood, in the actual places that are impacted the most: The Bronx, Washington Heights, Uptown, Harlem, Flatbush, Crown Heights, Bed Stuy, Bushwick--all of those places, and especially those places that are being gentrified.

Those are the most important places for me, because those people are experiencing firsthand that their neighborhood's being washed. When you could have come in before and made these places better, you only come in and make this town better once the white people start moving in. You think that we're not capable enough to live and maintain nice homes?

Umaara: You don't think we want to?

Cid: But you're literally trying to run me out of my city, or trying to group us together. That was the purpose of ghettos. And ghettos aren't even a Black thing. That's a Jewish thing, a white thing. That's where it stems from. [In Europe], they put [Jews] in ghettos so they could exterminate them.

The projects didn't even come from Black people. Black people had land, and that was taken from us. We were taken off that land to somewhere else. It's important and it's vital to get to these people in these neighborhoods because sometimes they just don't know. There are many ways, and we're still trying to figure out all those ways, but it's got to be done, because those are the people you need. Those are the people. They are the face of this whole movement, not me. The ones who are living in one-bedroom apartments with five people.

Umaara: You don't think they want to have healthier food markets to go to? So you only want to have police on the street now actually being productive when white people move in the neighborhood? No, that's not okay.

THE BLACK Lives Matter Movement has responded to the devaluation of Black lives in our society in many ways, from the system of mass incarceration to low wage labor to systemic racism and all the ways it impacts people's lives. Why do you think that is?

Cid: I think it's going further because people are realizing just how far its reach actually is. It doesn't just affect Black people here in America. It affects people in the Philippines. I just found out recently that there's an NYPD headquarters in Manila. NYPD, what are you doing there? Get out! This is not your country. And I feel like it's not a national view. The systemic racial destabilization of all of these bodies is a worldview, and it needs to end.

I think really everybody is just now starting to realize how far it goes, and they've had enough. My family is from the Caribbean, and they're not familiar with race. They only experienced that once they came here. Their issues are more socio-economic: Either you've got money or you don't. And if you've got money, then you're all right. It doesn't matter whether you're Chinese, white whatever, they have all that in Trinidad.

But it's when you come here, it's like, "Oh you're Black, what did you say? I can't really understand you." You can't understand me, even though I'm talking fine. You can't understand me because you're just choosing to not open yourself up. Because I have to bring myself to your level, whether it's up or down. Don't know what it is, but I have to bring myself to your level for you to even begin to respect, acknowledge me and to even understand where I'm coming from.

That shouldn't be a problem. I don't want to be tolerated for how I look. You should be able to accept me whether I'm Black, Asian, Hispanic, trans, gay, whatever. And I think everyone's fighting for that now, because it's about Black people and it's about Black lives, but it's so much bigger than that. It's about the Black woman, it's about LGBTQ, it's about everybody suffering at the hands of white supremacy.

ONE OF the things that's really struck me about this movement is how it has crossed every boundary--class, gender, immigrant rights. There are international solidarity demonstrations. How do you feel about that?

Umaara: I think the whole world's eyes should be open to what's going on in America. America always wants to fault other countries about the injustices that are happening there, not holding themselves accountable for what's going on here. So I think that it is amazing that the whole world is in solidarity with Ferguson, with Ohio, with Staten Island, with Oakland where Oscar Grant was killed.

Cid: Again white supremacy has very wide reach and I think people are just fed up. People talk about stealing and how Black people always steal, they're thieves, etc., forgetting the biggest group of people who stole are whites. And it sucks because nobody wants to be pegged as anything negative but come with the facts. You stole nations from people. You literally stole America said it was yours and then sent these Native Americans to a little bunch of a little area in the state and said ok this is where you're going to live now. They sent them to boarding schools to socialize them into a whitewashed world and you made them not speak their language so they could fit your needs better.

IN THIS movement you have white people standing beside people of color in the struggle, also saying that they don't want racism to dominate the way that we live our lives. What do you think about that?

Umaara: I think that's great. You should be in solidarity with your brothers and sisters, with your Black friends with your Black co-workers. This is their reality. This is what we're going through. If you as my white associates, my white friends, if you don't understand the fear that I have for my life and my 16-year-old brother's life, then why am I associating myself with you? So I think it's important that white people are in solidarity with us.

Cid: I think it's very important because we are not fighting white people--we're fighting white supremacy. When you have a certain privilege under white supremacy, you don't know anything else, but if you can come out of that and realize, "I've got privilege and you don't, and just me having this life and having this skin complexion really fucks shit up for you. Let me utilize a privilege I have to really make a difference."

I told people, you're going to have to pick sides. It's so unfortunate, and it sucks, but it's the truth. You either have to be on the side of the Black people and everyone else or you're going to be on the side of white and privileged. Now if you're going to be on the side of white and privileged, understand what that comes with. Your best interest is no longer in my best interest. What happens to you matters to me, but a little less because now I know you would not stand up for me, when I would have stood up for you no matter what you look like.

AL SHARPTON led a 25,000-person march in Washington, D.C., on the same day as the Millions March in New York. Some Ferguson protesters got up on the stage--they were frustrated that they weren't allowed to be there and in particular that they didn't have access to the VIP section. What do you think about Al Sharpton's approach to organizing?

Umaara: I think with this movement, the whole point is to let the people speak. People want to speak, the people should be allowed to speak. That's pretty much all I have to say about that.

Cid: This is not a movement of exclusivity. This is a movement of inclusivity. And when you have a VIP section, that sends out the wrong message, and when you are already sending out the wrong message to a group of people who are really not on your side, that just makes matters even worse. So let's cut the bullshit, bring our egos down, and cut out the exclusiveness, because it's not exclusive to anybody.

WHAT DO you think about the role of former leaders of the civil rights movement that are starting to come in and be a part of what we are doing?

Umaara: Everyone has a role to play, because this is the country that we live in. This isn't about individual people. It's about the movement. As you are relaying the message that the masses agree upon--that we need justice, that these officers need to be fired and indicted--as long as those messages are being relayed, that's all that matters.

Cid: I think they play a vital role, because they teach us. Sometimes they teach us what not to do--you have to learn from people's mistakes. Other times, they teach us what to do, because they have experience. They were in these movements. I think it's important to look at how these movements progressed, and what direction they went in, no matter which direction, because you can always learn something.

THERE SEEMS to be a new young Black leadership that is developing. What are your thoughts on that?

Cid: I think also it goes hand in hand with what you're saying. You've got to give up the torch. You've got to give up the reigns because your generation was very different from ours. You worked hard to make sure we didn't have to do this, but here we are, still fighting, still protesting for the same things you fought and protested and didn't sleep for. So now that you did this, you've given us the tools we're using it in the best way we can, but you have to let us take the lead now. Because this is our time, this is our generation.

Umaara: We're the ones that are going to have to raise kids in this, this generation. Of these future generations, we want a safe world for our children for ourselves.

DO YOU think this will help you in terms of organizing next steps? You put together a 50,000-person march. What comes next?

Umaara: Now we know that people are willing to come out. I think that alone says a lot. I was reading MLK's Where Do We Go From Here?, and he basically said that during the civil rights movement, only about 12 percent of Blacks were actually doing the protesting and the sit-ins. I'm not sure of the statistic today, but you know we want to change that. So we know that people can come out. People want to come out. There are 8 million people in NYC, and 50,000 people came out to the march. We can have more people come out.

We just have to keep impacting more people. I think also with next steps, we just have to get people to come out who are in the areas that are impacted the most; in Bed Stuy, in the Bronx where I live. But you know, I have a 19-year-old cousin who is Black like me, and when we ask him why he never wants to come out, he says he's scared.

Cid: Right. I had a co-worker telling me, "I heard about your march, but I don't know if I'm going to go." I asked why not? She's said, what happens if it gets crazy? I said, you know we're trying to make it as safe as possible, but if it gets crazy, then you should still be there, because this is about you. She didn't come, and I understand why--because it is scary.

Umaara: It is scary from what the media is showing.

Cid: I've lost all fear. I have no fear in my heart anymore because all that fear I'm holding in my heart is not going to help me stand strong for anybody else. It's just going to make me scared and make the next person scared because they see that I'm scared. There is no time or space for that anymore. I have to. Fear is only going to destabilize me.

WHAT DO you think are the next steps that we need to address?

Umaara: Well we're going to keep protesting and organizing until our demands are met. Number one: [Officer Daniel] Pantaleo [who killed Eric Garner] needs to be fired. We have a murderer walking the streets who is still getting paid.

Cid: He's getting paid! That's crazy! We need to have a database for all police officers who are involved in fatal shootings within 48 hours, because there are too many of them who have killed people.

Umaara: I can't remember how long it took for us to find out who Darren Wilson was. So within 48 hours--and really I think it should be 24 hours, but within 48 hours.

Cid: I think it should be the moment it's done, because if it were a Black person or a Hispanic person or anyone else, their name would have been out for slaughter, so put your name out there, too.

Umaara: Also, there needs to be separation between the state prosecutors and the police department, because they're in bed with each other. They have a relationship.

Cid: There are many things they have to do. You shouldn't hire men into the police academy who aren't stable mentally. Look at their backgrounds. Do they come from a home where their mom got beaten every night? Do they come from a loving household?

You have to look for things like that, because those are the things that will make somebody trigger. I know someone who is going into the police force now, and he should not be there. Out of all the people who need to be in there, he should not be there, because he is emotionally unstable. He will kill someone and that's a fact.

The cops and the police department they do not screen people enough. They do not screen how they might look at a person of color, or how they might look at an Asian person, or how they might stereotype or racially profile. You have to look at the communities you're putting them in, look at where they come from, do they come from a racist town?

If they're from Brooklyn, they might be more invested in staying in their town and making their neighborhood better. You can't just keep putting these guys from Jersey and Long Island out here. I don't want to see them. One, they don't know my neighborhood. Two, I don't even identify with them.

ANY LAST thoughts?

Cid: I'm going to need everyone to stay committed to not give up, because this is not a passing moment. It is not fleeting. It is here. And we have to keep it going. If we for one second give it up, it is over, and we have lost and we literally have to start from the bottom. There is no going back to the top. I don't even feel like we're almost there at all, but I feel like we're making so much greater strides with everything we've got on our side, social media. We've got videos spreading out to people in Paris, Tokyo, showing "I Can't Breathe" signs in solidarity. That's a beautiful thing.

Umaara: Don't change Black Lives Matter to All Lives Matter. Your life is not more important than mine. So your changing it to All Lives Matter completely defeats the purpose of everything.

Cid: Black lives matter. They keep trying to say it's all lives. We know all lives matter. We know that but right now your life is not the one being exterminated here.

Further Reading

From the archives