Zeph Kaffey is haunted by the repeated images she has seen of black men and boys dying.
For months, she’s followed reports of police brutality against black people on the news. At first, she didn’t know how to respond. But in recent weeks, Kaffey, who will be a student at DePaul University this fall, decided that enough is enough. She decided to get involved with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis to lend her voice to the protests.
“Seeing my brothers, seeing people that could be my father on television being slaughtered by the police has really motivated me, because they look like me, to get involved,” Kaffey said. “Because it could be my brother next. It could be my dad next. It could be my friend next. And I would hate to see that happen. The fact that my people are being killed and are being looked down upon has been hurting me a lot.”
Last month, Kaffey, then a student of Benilde St.-Margaret’s School in Minneapolis, was among hundreds of Twin Cities high school students who walked out of school for a rally at Martin Luther King Park in Minneapolis to protest charges against members of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis who gathered at the Mall of America in December.
The Mall of America and the city of Bloomington are pursuing trespass and disorderly conduct charges, among others, against 11 protesters, who pleaded not guilty in March.
“Instead of doing something negative about it and being dangerous and violent I just decided that protesting — and I’m a spoken word artist — spreading the word through spoken word, social media, making statuses, sharing different articles and educating people on this issue is going to help them become more comfortable having a conversation about this,” Kaffey said.
Nekima Levy-Pounds, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas who is among the protesters who were charged and are fighting the charges, is heartened by young people fighting for what they believe in. Levy-Pounds, the new president of the Minneapolis chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), became involved in Black Lives Matter after traveling to Ferguson, Mo., following the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown last fall. After a police officer killed Brown, thousands took to the street in protests that captured the attention of people across the country.
Although getting involved in their communities can be challenging for teenagers, the issue of African-Americans dying at the hands of police have rallied a dedicated core of young people.
“I thought I was an activist before that,” Levy-Pounds said with a laugh during a March interview. “Then when I went, I was thinking, “No.” I was an armchair activist apparently.
“But after that experience, I saw young people who had been tear-gassed and crying and trying to get themselves back together, but after the teargas wore off they were going right back to standing and protesting and having standoffs with the police, and so that just blew me away. When I got back from Ferguson I was a changed person. I just felt the spirit behind the protest. It reminded me about the things I had studied about the Civil Rights Movement. So I was all in at that point.”
Through her work with Black Lives Matter, as an advisor and spokesperson, she has continued to watch young people grow and stand up for what they believe in.
“It’s just amazing to see young people lay it all on the line for what they believe in and to see the level of creativity and ingenuity that they bring to the table,” Levy-Pounds said. “And I learn so much just from being connected to them. There are certain things that I can add just from a legal perspective or based on some experience that I’ve had in dealing with government and the media. But they bring a lot of the energy and creativity and very strong organizing backgrounds to the table.”
Some young people, however, say convincing others their age to be involved in the movement is a challenge.
“I think there are a lot of people who are still kind of disconnected,” said Abdi Ali, a member of Minneapolis’ The Black Liberation Project, an organization made up of primarily black people that deals with the reality of being black in America, Ali said.“They know about movements but they don’t want to get involved with it.”
Ali said that one of the reasons he hasn’t seen young people involved is because of time.
“A lot of people do sports or extracurricular activities,” Ali said, “and when you do that plus school, there virtually is no time after that in the day.”
Although getting involved in their communities can be challenging for teenagers, the issue of African-Americans dying at the hands of police have rallied a dedicated core of young people. And occasionally, they are joined by many of their peers.
On the day of the student walkout, teenagers from across the Twin Cities poured into Martin Luther King Park. Encouraged by speakers, they carried signs and chanted, “No justice, no peace, prosecute the police!” Later on, the students joined the International Workers’ Day march.
Students also expressed their outrage and stood in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters who were charged.
The December protest at the Mall of the America was part of a wave of protests nationwide following grand jury decisions not to indict police officers who killed unarmed black men in New York and Missouri. At least 1,500 protesters gathered at the mall.
Levy-Pounds is facing eight misdemeanor counts, including trespassing, unlawful assembly, public nuisance and disorderly conduct, and aiding and abetting for each of those charges. She said she believes the charges were racially motivated and that Bloomington City Attorney Sandra Johnson, who is prosecuting the case, is on the wrong side of history.
“[The Mall of America] brought in about 7,000 people into the rotunda on at least two occasions and rolled out the welcome mat to them,” Levy-Pounds said. “When we came on the scene, because we were Black Lives Matter and because of the fact that they stereotyped us to think that there would be rioting or vandalism, we were met by police in riot gear. We were met by a hyper-militarized response, which I call a racist reaction to a nonviolent peaceful demonstration.”
Like Levy-Pounds, Kaffey believes that black people are being singled out by police.
“The black community, obviously for years [has] been targeted, discriminated against and been put down,” Kaffey said. “I think it’s time we stand up. … [But] when we stand up for ourselves we are charged, we are put in jail and quickly silenced.”
While Levy-Pounds likes seeing young people involved in Black Lives Matter events, she also believes young people should take the initiative and speak up for what they believe in.
“If there’s an issue that is on their minds and that they feel very strongly about, they don’t have to wait for Black Lives Matter to take up the issue,” she said. “They can actually organize within their schools. They can have die-ins within their schools. They can talk to the administration if they feel that inequitable practices are occurring … They see what’s going on in the schools so they should use their voices in that capacity and if they need support from Black Lives Matter they can always reach out and we’re willing to support young people in those situations.”
Although Kaffey doesn’t think she will see equality for all in her lifetime, she hopes this new movement helps pave the way for future generations.
“I know Harriet Tubman freeing the slaves, she didn’t think she was about to solve equality right there. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t think he was about to solve everything and I know doing this isn’t going to solve everything, but look at [where] we are from there,” she said. “She freed the slaves, he was in the Civil Rights Movement and look at where we are. Look at the rights that we have because of those people. So I think that now it’s important that we start to do the same thing to get ready for our children to have a more equal America and future.”