The first time the White House called me, I was at a protest.
It was late November 2014, a week after a grand jury had declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Organizers had secretly planned a staggered shutdown of St. Louis malls on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, rallying hundreds of protesters to send an unapologetic message: Until our laws and their enforcers treat black Americans equitably and with full respect, until police officers stop killing us, we will not continue business as usual. It was the stuff of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the political text that had most sustained me as I and others began to build what is now referred to as the Black Lives Matter movement. We were beginning to engage supporters worldwide in an effort to “dramatize the issue [such] that it can no longer be ignored,” as King wrote.
Now, as drums were played and chants were sung in St. Louis, I listened on the phone to a White House staffer in Washington telling me to get on a plane the next day for a meeting I should “be sure not to miss.” That happened to be the same day as the first meeting of Missouri’s Ferguson Commission, to which the governor had appointed me and 15 others to address the roots of the Ferguson uprising. I had joined that group hesitantly, unsure how transformative a bureaucratic venue could really be. As I protested in St. Louis, I faced an even bigger decision: The highest point in the very government hierarchy that my fellow protesters and I had spent months challenging was finally asking to hear from us. But would it matter?
Bringing a spirit of protest into the halls of power presents an inherent challenge. There is understandable skepticism, especially in communities of color, when any of us with black skin are invited to the proverbial table. From the civil rights era to today, we have been burned before, both by politicians who weren’t genuine and activists who were easily bought. Now, black communities were watching our nascent movement expectantly. We had been accused of lodging complaints and heightening racial polarization without offering solutions—accusations that ignored both the demands we shared and the fact that identifying racism is not the same as perpetuating racism. Meeting with the president could be another chance to make clear how serious we were about policy change. Still, if we gave in too easily, or just showed up to legitimize a meaningless political exercise, our credibility would be undermined and our work harmed.
I decided I would attend the meeting with President Obama, forgoing the first Ferguson Commission meeting. I had always felt a responsibility to speak truth directly to power, and it would be no different walking into the White House, built by Americans who were enslaved like my own ancestors. Protest and policy, after all, go hand in hand: Protest pressures the power structure, and policy helps turn pressure into results.
Together, eight activists from around the country sat with the president in the Oval Office. We told him of the abuse black Americans were facing at the hands of our government, whether being stopped and frisked, or simply protesting. We requested his increased public candor on issues of race, asking our first black president to use his bully pulpit to substantiate our lived experiences for our sometimes viciously doubtful fellow Americans. We asked for his administration to force the demilitarization of local police and to lower the standard for bringing federal civil rights indictments against offending officers. The president nodded in concentration throughout and proceeded to engage us in a nearly 90-minute conversation.
We have had dozens more meetings since then—at the White House, with presidential candidates, attorneys general and other power brokers who have sought our insight. Every one of the five times I have now met with the president himself, I have genuinely felt that my thoughts were carefully considered. I’ve peered over at his notes once or twice, watching him write speakers’ names and their key points, then starring items for his team to follow up on. I never felt that my presence was taken for granted in interactions with him or other senior White House and Justice Department officials. And working with these officials has produced some results, like the set ofrecommendations those of us on President Obama’s 21st Century Policing Task Force released last year, which several states and cities have since adopted.
At the same time, I’ve long been aware of how limited government is, and how slow progress can be. We have been demanding the complete demilitarization of local police departments for more than two years now. Even the president’s policing task force, which included several law enforcement officers, emphasized a serious need to examine police use of military equipment. Following the release of the task force report, the federal government added a few new requirements for local departments to be able to receive such equipment. Yet, when my friends and colleagues in protest, DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie, and I went to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, this summer after the police killing of another black man, Alton Sterling, we stood alongside children and families holding signs and cellphones who were met with assault rifles and tanks, once again used unnecessarily to police peaceful protests. Of course, the responsibility to curb this aggressive use of weaponry against black people does not sit on the White House alone: Time and again Congress has failed to pass gun control legislation, even after the hate-motivated massacre at the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the mass shooting at Pulse night club in Orlando, Florida.
This is why DeRay, Johnetta, our colleague Sam Sinyangwe and I co-founded Campaign Zero last year: to put continuous pressure on politicians to offer immediate, serious solutions to end police violence. Campaign Zero intentionally helps empower protest by offering a 10-point policing and criminal justice policy platform, publishing information about local, state and federal political action, and releasing investigative reports. These are tools that activists and policymakers alike have found useful, and have even mirrored themselves: At least 60 laws have been enacted at the state and local levels over the past two years to address police violence in ways that are reflected in the Campaign Zero platform, and many other bills are being considered.
But I am constantly reminded of how much work is left undone. Even with all of the political access I’ve had, I’m still a black woman—who just days before writing this recorded aggressive police abuse of power in the aftermath of a black man’s arrest in downtown St. Louis. One officer told me, on tape, that it was “not my constitutional right to film him.” Afterward, I received an unwelcome call from the police on my unpublished cellphone number asking me what I had seen. DeRay was snatched from a lawful protest as we marched in Baton Rouge in July. The month before that, the FBI had visited his, Johnetta’s and Sam’s homes after online trolls fabricated a text conversation in which they planned to take action at the Republican National Convention.
The challenge of protest and policy is as old as activism itself, and we constantly ask ourselves: Will the moment, meeting or conversation be used to subvert our ultimate goals or be a step on the path toward justice? The balance is difficult and always demands that we pre-negotiate the space to ensure we are heard, coordinate our messages, never exchange truth or protest for a conversation, and are never afraid to say “no”—which we often do. This movement will continue to pressure peacefully. And as we do, we commit to speak the truth to anyone, anywhere: in protest, or at the White House.