Activists march down University in protest against police violence. Photos by Yatrik Solanki.

Activists march down University Avenue in protest against police violence. Photos by Yatrik Solanki.

Fifty years ago in Selma, Ala., thousands of nonviolent civil rights protesters made a pilgrimage to the Montgomery capitol building, where a blockade of state soldiers and local police met them when they arrived. They commanded the protesters to disperse. When they didn’t, soldiers and police rained down tear gas and baton blows in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

By mid-August of last year, Ferguson, Mo., was similarly flooded with state troopers. An 18-year-old unarmed black man, Michael Brown, had been fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a local police officer. Among the resulting peaceful protests and candlelight vigils, some protesters had also looted buildings and vandalized cars, prompting the mayor to send in the Missouri National Guard. A grand jury chose not to indict Wilson.

So when the next high-profile grand jury decision broke in December — a police officer was, once again, not indicted after putting an unarmed black man, Eric Garner, in chokehold that killed him — cities across the nation joined in protest. In all of this, much like their Montgomery-bound predecessors, allies and people of color came together in what has come to be known as the Black Lives Matter movement.

The night after the December grand jury decision was made public, activists in Gainesville organized a protest for the following afternoon, launching a series of protests that made a national movement local.

“We literally planned it the night before,” said Azaari Mason, one of the protest’s organizers. “We were up planning until 4 in the morning, sorting out all the little intricate details.”

Mason, a third-year political science student at UF, said they decided to stage a die-in, joining the many other groups in cities across the country who were also symbolically laying their bodies on the ground to remind onlookers of people of color killed through police violence.

They decided to send out the word exclusively through text message.

“Before you knew it, we had about a hundred or so people lined up, ready to go,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

And the groundwork for this kind of accelerated reaction was first laid about three years ago. After the death of Trayvon Martin, a group of 60 students marched over 40 miles from Daytona to Sanford to protest outside of its police station.

This demonstration led to the creation of the Dream Defenders, an organization dedicated to black liberation and elevation. Local chapters began to appear across the state, including one at the University of Florida.

“Before you knew it, we had about a hundred or so people lined up, ready to go,” Mason said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Since then, the organization has worked to make people aware of police brutality through public demonstrations and community building, going as far as taking over the state capitol in a 31-day sit-in to force their message into the lives of the state’s lawmakers.

“We’ve been doing this since before anybody cared,” said Mason, who is also a member of UF Dream Defenders.

In fact, ever since Mason became involved with Dream Defenders, he has seen some of the organization’s platforms become major mainstream issues.

“The paradigm shift has been very evident,” he said. “I feel like people are starting to realize that the whole concept of policing in this country is in need of some serious investigation and reform.”

After the die-in, local activists with the Black Lives Matter Movement shut down 13th Street. Hundreds of students and locals flooded the street corner at rush hour, filling the air with call-and-response chants and protest songs.  The city’s police department even cooperated, shutting down the intersection of 13th Street and West University Avenue to ensure the safety of everyone present.

Officer Ben Tobias, a spokesperson for the department, said that though the police were the subject of the protests, the protesters still had legitimate grievances that deserved to be heard.

“We’ve had our fair share of shortcomings in the agency, but we work hard to repair public trust when something like that happens,” Tobias said. “Not only are we here to protect by enforcing the laws, but we’re here to serve and make sure rights remain protected.”

As the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction, an increasing variety of voices joined in support, including white people. Two of these white activists, Rebecca Wood and Madeliene Moyer, organized a workshop at the Civic Media Center last January to accomplish just that.

“There were a couple of folks from this community who saw a need for organizing around white racist actions but didn’t know exactly how to talk about it or where to find the right forum,” Wood said.

The two women created the workshop alongside local Dream Defenders, Wood said, making sure that the event addressed the group’s goals: elevation and liberation.

Kayla Coleman, co-treasurer of Dream Defenders, said that while much of the group’s work involves organizing the black people of Gainesville to address pressing racial issues, they intend to create cooperation among groups outside of the black community.

“It’s about creating relationships and working with different organizations that have the same goals as we do,” Coleman said. “We need this group of white allies to exist. We’re not prioritizing white voices, but we want people to be involved and be in-the-know.”

The January workshop was meant to inspire and educate its mostly white audience. The leaders began by outlining a short history of racial injustice and civil disobedience in the U.S. They guided people through exercises that pointed out aspects of white privilege. Finally, they encouraged participants to brainstorm how to become involved in the movement while not interfering with the efforts of black activists.

Kayla Coleman, co-treasurer of Dream Defenders, said that while much of the group’s work involves organizing the black people of Gainesville to address pressing racial issues, they intend to create cooperation among groups outside of the black community.

Members of the Dream Defenders used a Black Lives Matter demonstration at the O’Connell Center as an example, in which some white activists had attempted to take the lead and even directed their outrage toward black bystanders. They acknowledged the good intentions of these protesters but made it clear that white allies should know when they cross the line.

Leaders at the workshop gave out small hand-made zines that began: “Hey, white folks in the streets, enraged by police brutality? Impassioned by #BlackLivesMatter? Your presence here is valued.” The zine outlined the effects of a white-supremacist society and explained why focusing on black liberation is necessary.

The zine also broke down what is and isn’t OK for white allies to do with two sections titled “Please Don’t” and “Please Do.”

The “Please Don’t” section advised against appropriating the experiences of people of color by co-opting slogans such as “Hands up, don’t shoot.” It also advised against decentering or dismissing black people’s experiences, such as transmuting “Black Lives Matter” into “All Lives Matter.”

The “Please Do” section of the zine explained why white allies should concede the spotlight and encouraged checking other white people, allies or otherwise, with tactics like the hashtag #WhiteSilenceIsViolence.

Leana Anderson was one of the white activists who attended the workshop that day. Anderson said she had been hearing about the message of the movement through friends and added that she wanted to find a way to get involved.

Anderson lives on a farm without much access to the Internet, and because of this she said she was unsure how she could help. However, after the workshop Anderson said she felt more secure about her place within the movement.

“I’m not always super involved in activism, but I feel like I want to be,” Anderson said. “This was really good for people like me that want to figure how to get involved.”

Wood said she hoped that people would take the workshop’s critiques to heart and incorporate anti-racist action into their lives personally, organizationally and nationally.

Many of those in attendance had already begun planning their own black liberation projects through methods like reading groups, drafting petitions and passing out educational literature.

“Dream Defenders is the most inclusive organization I’ve ever been a part of,” Mason said. “[We’re] not just about tearing down institutions that we don’t believe work, we’re also about building the community. Anybody who’s down to build with us, we’re down to build with them.”

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