Howard County Times

Youth-led group behind Columbia’s Black Lives Matter protest discusses what it takes to organize in 2020

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A group of young adults was tucked under the balcony of the usually-running water fountain at the Downtown Columbia Lakefront on Wednesday. They were laughing, occasionally arguing and constantly nodding their heads in agreement. Inside jokes and moments of whispering suggested a bond forged over many years; in reality, it was only the second time they had met in person.

The first time they were together, they weren’t alone. On Tuesday, the 17-person group of 18- to 21-year-olds organized the largest protest in Howard County history, according to Shawn Gladden, executive director of the Howard County Historical Society.


The balcony that now shaded them from the hot summer sun was their stage just 24 hours earlier as they spoke out against police brutality and systemic racism in front of thousands. The group that began as HoCo4Floyd — created in response to the recorded death of George Floyd, a black man, under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer on May 25 — now goes by HoCo For Justice and has aspirations beyond Tuesday’s rally.

The group spent three hours explaining exactly how they organized amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, in the shadow of large protests across the country and all on their own.


Organizing in 2020

It only took five days for the first text about organizing to become a march that thousands joined.

Micaela Lattimer, 19, who is an indigenous Latina, and Sarah Fishkind, 19, who is white, previously worked together on March For Our Lives Maryland — organized after 17 people were killed in 2018 during a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The two started brainstorming ideas to bring the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement into their own community. Then they started making calls and sending texts.

“[Watching what was happening in response to Floyd’s death] took a toll. I could see with other black peers at my university, and around here it took a huge emotional toll on us,” said 19-year-old Rahel Petros, one of the organizers who attends Duke University. “It felt like we were so stuck in our own environments, we had no one to turn to. I was tired of being sad, I was tired of being exhausted, I was tired of being so helpless.”

So Petros, who is Ethiopian-Eritrean-American, joined the group. She said she didn’t think she had the energy to organize, a sentiment echoed by other organizers, but when Lattimer and Fishkind called, she couldn’t say no.

Many of the organizers knew each other from previous inclusion and diversity events across Howard County, events that were far less attended than their Tuesday protest, they said.

They gathered virtually via the Zoom video conferencing app to plan, focusing heavily on crowd control, and got marshal training from the Rev. Janelle Bruce, who works at The Church Without Walls in Prince George’s County and is a community activist. Many of the organizers knew Bruce from previous events and protests against systemic racism.

“[The organizers] made it very clear they didn’t want to work with the police,” Bruce said. “They also knew they needed to be able to protect their people.”

During a Zoom training the night before the protest, Bruce, who’s organized protests and large-scale events in the past, trained the organizers in crowd control and how to engage with police if the situation arose. The organizers intentionally chose white police liaisons in case a situation happened that prompted interaction.


“Black people often hold the burden of trying to make sure their lives are worth something, but it’s not black people that we have to convince that we’re equal. Black people know we’re equal,” said Dumebi Adigwe, 18, one of the organizers who is Nigerian-American.

The group brainstormed ways to maintain social distancing due to coronavirus concerns; they lined up medics to be available to assist, they purchased first aid kits for the organizers and they got the support of a black-owned urgent care in the area just in case.

“This pandemic is already disproportionately killing black people, but we [were] out here protesting and marching because the police are also [killing black people],” said Ibukun Sokoya, 21, an organizer who is Nigerian-American.

Bruce said she started by training 30 marshals; however, as time went on, it became clear they would need more. She ultimately trained 100 marshals, clearly identifiable on Tuesday with red vests to guide the group to the Columbia waterfront.

Growing up in Howard

All 17 HoCo For Justice organizers are graduates of the Howard County Public School System. The group includes six Long Reach High School graduates, six from Atholton, one from Wilde Lake, two from Reservoir and two from Mt. Hebron.

While some graduated a few weeks ago and others a few years ago, their memories of microaggressions which all of the organizers of color said they had experienced during their time in Howard schools were clear as day.


“I get back [from college] and everything I’ve been ignoring, all of the racism in this county, all of the microaggressions I’ve had to deal with, everything I had ignored until I left came flooding back to my mind,” said Adigwe, who attends Harvard University.

The group’s organizers focused on education reform and how they could use their high school experiences to shape progress. In their call to action at the protest, they specifically called for racial justice in schools and to see “the shifting of money away from police forces and back into the community. Fund counselors, not cops.”

Many of the organizers also said the American history they learned in school largely erased the black American experience, and they are hoping through this movement that can change in Howard County, making black history a part of the curriculum.

“At its core, ignorance is just under-education,” Adigwe said. “So, half of me is like, how can I even blame these people for acting the way that they do when we’re not even taught that in schools?”

“The history we’re taught is extremely one-sided,” Sokoya said.

Some of the organizers had taken a one-semester African American history elective class at their schools, and that’s where they said they got much of their scholastic education on African American history.


School system spokesperson Brian Bassett said the African American history course is offered at all 12 high schools in the county.

“Because my parents aren’t from here, they couldn’t teach me that,” Petros said of African American history. “They could teach me stuff about my country, but I’m not as connected with that. I wasn’t getting the part of my identity that everyone sees me as.”

Social media’s effect

When asked if they could realized done Tuesday’s protest without social media, the group answered a resounding and collective “no.” However, the organizers said their relationship with social media is complex.

“Social media, in my opinion, is one of the best ways to get things in the faces of people who didn’t want to see it before,” Adigwe said.

According to Adigwe, it only took two days for the HoCo For Justice Instagram to get 2,000 followers. She credits the historic turnout largely to the HoCo For Justice Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. On those platforms, the organizers shared safety precautions and their call to action. Up until the day of the march, however, they did not share their identities.

The group organizers have been cautious about their personal use of social media. Many made their Instagram accounts private in the days leading up to the protest. To communicate with each other, they moved from a group text to using Signal, an encrypted messaging service.


For organizer Prince Achoronye, 18, social media has been instrumental to the larger Black Lives Matter movement in good and bad ways.

“We have people acknowledging the lives that have been lost, acknowledging there needs to be a change,” said Achoronye, who is Nigerian-American. “Then there are the bad things. People will go out to protests just for the hashtag, just for the post. People will just go for the clout.”

Achoronye said people need to educate themselves before they use a hashtag.

“Protesting and marching isn’t something that just started existing in this day and age; it’s been happening for years,” said Sara Wunete, 20, one of the organizers who is Ethiopian-American. “As for us being young, utilizing social media because of how quick it can get to people, that’s why we were able to make something like this happen in four days.”

Youth-led change

“The goal isn’t justice, it’s prevention. I don’t want to march every time someone dies. I want people to stop dying,” Adigwe said.

To get the change within the county the organizers wanted, they agreed working within existing structures wouldn’t work. They didn’t want to work with the police when they were protesting police brutality, and they didn’t want elected officials to speak when they were asking policy reform.


“There is a room of adults who are in positions to do something and they underestimate youth to make that happen,” Wunete said.

Multiple organizers told stories of adults within the community trying to take over the event and involve the police and local elected officials.

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“If they wanted to speak, it shouldn’t have taken the students to do this,” Lattimer said.

“The goal isn’t justice, it’s prevention. I don’t want to march every time someone dies. I want people to stop dying.”

—  Dumebi Adigwe, 18, one of the organizers of Tuesday's protest in Columbia who is Nigerian-American.

Bruce and Erika Strauss Chavarria, a Spanish teacher at Wilde Lake High School who organized the Columbia Community Care group to help families during the pandemic, were the only adults the group sought counsel from. The organizers said they trusted them to listen and advise.

“We [as adults] tell them they’re amazing and then [adults] want to squash what they’re doing. If we don’t allow them to lead, we don’t see what they’re capable of,” Bruce said.

Strauss Chavarria said trusting youth voices is crucial now more than ever because they’re creating their own futures.


“The adults are failing in trusting the youth and allowing their intelligence,” Strauss Chavarria said. “Unfortunately [the organizers] came in contact with many adults who they should be able to see as their leaders, mentors and guides, and those folks don’t show them the trust they deserve.”

For now, the organizers are moving on to next steps. They said they want to spend the next few weeks using their social media as an educational platform, focusing on what work can be done in Howard County.

“Our generation is a lot of things, but one thing we are not is fearful,” Sokoya said. “We are not scared to push the limits. We are not scared to take risks.”