How 2 Young Women Brought 50,000 People To The Streets

Photo: Rex USA.
On November 25, Synead Nichols left a demonstration in New York City’s Union Square with a nagging feeling in her stomach. The day before, a St. Louis grand jury announced its decision not to indict former officer Darren Wilson in the murder of 18 year-old Michael Brown. “On my way home from the demonstration I just kept on thinking, What else I could do? I’d been thinking about that for a very long time, and I wasn’t able to put my finger on it,” she says. “That night, my emotions were so raw.”
Nichols went home and created a Facebook page for a demonstration of her own. Calling it Millions March, she hoped that she could get millions of people out for a peaceful daytime demonstration that would cover the major streets in lower Manhattan. She and her friend Umaara Iynaas Elliott invited acquaintances to share the page, which went viral, garnering over 35,000 RSVPs within a week.
Two weeks later, they successfully led over 50,000 people in one of the largest demonstrations in America to protest not only the deaths of Brown and 43 year-old Eric Garner in Staten Island this summer, but the ongoing brutality at the hands of law enforcement, and the social inequality suffered by African American citizens.
We recently chatted with performance artists Nichols, 23, and Elliott, 19, about coordinating the Millions March, Black female empowerment, and what public demonstrations can do to spark change.
UPDATE: This interview was conducted before the tragic killing of two NYPD officers this weekend. The organizers wished to add the following statement:
"On behalf of the Millions March NYC, we express our deepest condolences to the families of the officers who were killed on Saturday. Our march last weekend was a peaceful outcry that senseless violence in our society is harmful to trust, community, and security. This tragedy is in no way connected to our march, or ongoing protests against police brutality, discrimination, and profiling — and we condemn, and are disappointed with, any entity that would try to imply such connection. As New Yorkers, we will continue to march for a peaceful society, where trust between communities and law enforcement is finally achieved."
Photo: Courtesy of Millions March NYC.
You’re young — 19 and 23. Why does this generation feel urgency around issues of racial and economic discrimination?
Synead Nichols: "The same issues that are troubling 40- and 50-year-olds are the same issues that are troubling my generation and teenagers, and that’s a problem. We’re not supposed to be worrying about these issues at this age. We are supposed to be worrying about going to prom, not going to funerals."
You planned a 50,000-person march. Did either of you previously have any experience planning something on such a large scale?
Umaara Iynaas Elliott: "We were very unsure about the numbers of people who would attend — we planned for 5,000+ people. Then, the number of RSVPs skyrocketed."
Russell Simmons, Nas, as well as the cast of Orange is the New Black were part of the demonstration. Did you specifically invite them?
UIE: "No, we heard they were coming, but we weren’t even sure that they would be there. Russell Simmons posted the information about the March on Instagram, and a lot of people shared his post."
As young Black women, do you think organizing this event could affect others who might be doubting their own power or confidence?
SN: "Our presence empowers Black women to pursue whatever goals they have. We are given very little respect in terms of our competency because of how the Black female body is viewed around the world. It’s a threat; the message we get is ‘don’t be Black and a woman.’
"But, there are a lot of Black women out here who are taking a stand. They are not letting gender norms affect their will and their drive to take things head on, to be leaders; to organize, to be that person that others will look up to and to be that person to reach their hand out to help. We are the ones who create the world. We give birth to the sons, to the daughters of this earth."
How were interactions with law enforcement during the march?
UIE: "We had no direct interaction with police officers. The way the march was organized was that we had brave, volunteer marshals who were there to protect the people against the police. So, before the police could even try to interact with us, they had to go through them."
SN: "I walked all the way from the front to the back of the march, and back to the front again. Not once did I see police officers dealing with protesters or vice versa during the entire thing."
Photo: Courtesy of Millions March NYC.
While the March went without any arrests, there were a few instances of vandalism after it ended. Has this had any impact on its relevancy?
SN: "The fact that people are focusing on these minor acts of vandalism says a lot. It shows where they are coming from and where their focus is. I think that these reports are trying to overshadow the major accomplishment of what this march created, which is crazy. Why aren’t people upset when people vandalize a whole town over a hockey game? That’s not a problem? Thousands of people are marching in peace, but you have three people who vandalize a car, or writing their name on the front of a store. That is ridiculous and should not be the focus whatsoever."
UIE: "The vandalism was so minute it should not be a focus at all. You have to remember: Is a person’s life more important than a building? Or a car? We have to focus on what is more important: a building, a wall, or somebody’s son or daughter? Somebody's mother?"
The Millions March was a success; what plans do you have for the future?
SN: "The whole purpose of this march was to bring attention to a national issue, which is police profiling. Our goals include refocusing the attention to these issues and [ensuring] that we get as many people aware of these problems as possible. We will be directing people to other events — it’s not simply a Millions March thing; it’s a nationwide issue."
What did you do the day after the March to decompress?
UIE: "I slept in really late and two of my amazing friends took me out to a restaurant they know I really like, because they knew that I don’t eat when I’m stressed and that I hadn’t eaten the day before. So, we had a ‘Black girl pow-wow’ thing!"
SN: "After the march, I went to Queens to hang out with a friend, just to relax and get my mind right. The next day, I slept in and then started posting updates on the Facebook event site."
What is the takeaway from your experience organizing the Millions March?
UIE: "I just want people to know that regardless of who or where you are or what you do for a living, don’t let that deter you from creating your own destiny. We are two artists; and we hope that people see the intersectionality between the arts and activism. We are both involved in performance art — dancing and music, and involved in the entertainment industry — but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have the passion for activism, or that we don’t have a voice. If you feel you have something important to say, say it."
Synead and Umaara would like to thank the following organizations for their help in coordinating the Millions March:
Justice League NYC
Ferguson Action
Million Hoodies Movement for Justice
This Stops Today Coalition
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