Wednesday night in downtown Washington, D.C., as tall black fencing was being set in place around the White House, hundreds of millennial protesters gathered under the intense scrutiny of riot troops armed with batons, guns, rubber bullets, tear-gas canisters, and flash grenades.
A young woman yelled into a bullhorn, “If your friend makes a joke that’s a little too micro-aggressive, please check them because micro-aggression turns into aggression!” The crowd applauded.
As she spoke, another woman passed out Capri Sun fruit-juice packs and bananas from a cooler on the same corner where earlier in the week I watched as roving bands of young people smashed the windows of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. building, ripped the face off an A.T.M., torched a row of cars, and, in the case of one creative smoker, lit a cigarette off an open garbage fire. The protests were entirely peaceful by now, and yet Fortress White House loomed large behind the demonstrators. In an interview on Fox Radio that morning, Trump said of the bizarre new militarized state of the capital, “I jokingly said, a little bit jokingly, maybe, it’s one of the safest places on earth.”
Who’s the safe-space snowflake now, Bunker Boy?
This is hardly the first time young Americans have taken to the streets to protest a police killing of an unarmed black citizen, but for those who weren’t around to occupy Wall Street, the George Floyd flash point is the twentysomething generation’s first real taste of mass defiance and civil disobedience. This time, the battle is being fought with protest marches, sit-ins, chants—and Instagram likes.
“We got more backing. As you see it’s a lot of people my color and your color out here,” said Will Kent, 23, a rapper who performs under the name WillThaRapper. “In the 60s, they probably didn’t have as much diversity on this side of the line, you know what I’m saying? It’s easier to get your voice heard. We got social media. We got way more than just, you know, somebody walking, taking bus trips state to state trying to get a crowd together.”
Barack Obama, who is now 58, praised the new generation’s activism in livestreamed remarks on Wednesday. “This reminds people of the 60s and the chaos and the discord and distrust throughout the country. I have to tell you, although I was very young when you had riots and protests and assassinations and discord back in the 60s, I know enough about that history to say there is something different here.”
“It’s easier to get your voice heard. We got social media. We got way more than just, you know, somebody walking, taking bus trips state to state trying to get a crowd together.”
The former president said that today’s “broad coalition” of marchers exists because of the “engagement of so many young people across the country who put themselves out on the line to make a difference.”
Only eight months ago, Obama had mocked millennial sensitivities. “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff,” he said in a speech, “you should get over that quickly.” He added, “Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, ’cause, ‘Man, you see how woke I was, I called you out.’”
But then millennials did something that shocked the world: they got off their phones. (Well, not entirely.) But they also got into the streets. Now half their world is marching.
However grotesque social media can be, it has spread a much broader awareness of race, police brutality, and injustice. At the protests, there is lots of talk of hashtags, which ones to use—and how not to become one.
On Tuesday, white people—“allies,” as some refer to themselves, perhaps too generously—tried to make themselves feel better by posting black squares on Instagram with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. The mass blackout backfired spectacularly, with all the posts clogging up the hashtag where critical information about protests and arrests was being shared.
It was about as helpful to the black community as the “radical chic” party Leonard Bernstein threw for the Black Panthers in his Upper East Side penthouse in 1970. “We know that’s it no intent to harm but to be frank, this essentially does harm the message,” tweeted B.L.M. activist Kenidra Woods about the kerfuffle.
On my own Insta feed, black squares blanketed everything. One friend of mine, in Portland, had been a real digital warrior of late, posting up to between 10 and 15 times a day with all manner of hashtags and all the accoutrements that Extremely Online people know about. I messaged her to ask how the protests in her neck of the woods were unfolding IRL. “I’ve been watching live when I can and supporting in other ways but, regrettably I haven’t been out, bc i’m paranoid about corona,” she wrote back.
Others have done better. On Thursday, Lady Gaga pledged to fork over her own Instagram and its 42 million followers to several organizations whose voices she wished to “amplify.”
Jazzmyn Ellis, 29, a restaurant manager and painter living in Virginia, emphasized the impact of culture and music on this generation. “You guys listen to music that comes from predominantly black sources, you watch black movies, you like clothing that comes from a black source of street culture,” she said. “We created a foundation that you guys are actually cultivating off of, and it’s only right for you to protect it.”
Indeed, much of the music that paved the way for mainstream success in today’s rap and hip-hop, such as the street poetry of N.W.A. and Public Enemy, could be heard all week long in D.C. and elsewhere. Streaming of N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police” has quadrupled since the protests began, and modern renditions on race in America, including Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” have surged as well.
“This stuff has been going on since the beginning of America, but if anyone can change it, I feel like it’s my generation,” said Masai Coore, 22, a cable technician for Comcast who was in front of the White House on Wednesday night.
“It has to be my generation,” he said. “This can’t be a continuing cycle. We have to be the ones to break it.”
Shawn McCreesh is a writer based in Washington, D.C.