The North Star has dropped its paywall during this COVID-19 crisis so that pertinent information and analysis is available to everyone during this time. This is only possible because of the generous support of our members. We rely on these funds to pay our staff to continue to provide high-quality content. If you are able to support, we invite you to do so here.
Over the course of the past week, my friend and comrade, Gary Chambers, has become a household name after delivering a scathing read of East Baton Rouge School Board member, Connie Bernard, at a school board meeting. For those who may have missed Gary’s rhetorical smackdown on Connie that has been shared millions of times and posted by celebrities such as Lebron James and Madonna, here’s a brief synopsis:
On June 18, the East Baton Rouge School Board hosted its monthly open-to-the-public meeting in which one of the agenda items was in reference to the name of Lee Magnet High School. Lee, named after Confederate general Robert E. Lee, had previously dropped the “Robert E.” from its title as a poor conciliatory gesture after community members proposed that the school be renamed in 2016. Bernard, a multi-term school board member who just days prior to the meeting ahistorically praised Robert E. Lee, was caught online shopping while one of her fellow school board members was passionately speaking in opposition to the school’s name-bearing any reference to Lee.
When the board opened comments to the public, Chambers, who is a prominently known activist in the Baton Rouge community, immediately called out the insensitivity of Bernard’s shopping while Black school board members were expounding on the tone-deafness of having a school named after a Confederate general and slave owner in 2020. For roughly three minutes and ten seconds, Chambers put on an oratory master class detailing history, offering alternative school names and proclaimed Bernard as “the example of racism” in the community, all while evoking a fire-n-brimstone style delivery. He is, after all, an ordained minister.
Once the video hit the public, it caught on like wildfire and the hashtag #ByeConnie trended for days. Shortly thereafter, Gary interviewed with Morning Joe, Don Lemon, ABC Nightly News, Roland Martin and more, while seeing his social media following increase by the tens of thousands. Because he is someone I have been in community with for the past four years, I was not surprised that he became a media darling in an era of hyper vocalized Black resistance.
Before Gary was trending on social media and being invited on primetime news programs, he was consistently raising his voice at metro council meetings, school board meetings and using his independent news platform, The Rouge Collection, to lobby for equitable gains in the Black community. After years of “dress rehearsals” of fearlessly speaking truth to power, he was already seasoned in the ways of maximizing mic time to make a poignant statement. He was not the only community member to speak that evening, his voice was the one that resonated most impactfully.
But the kind of local-based advocacy Gary enacted is not an anomaly for 21st-century community activists. All over the nation, a new generation of activists, advocates and organizers regularly mobilize in person, via social media, at protests and rallies to challenge the status quo on both the local and national level.
Modern-day activism is fluid and often decentralized. It is the strategic, non-specific, leader-less directives of the Black Lives Matter movement; the everyday feminist energy of the Women’s March; the surge of force that empowers immigrant communities to fight on behalf of DACA. It is a revolution that is televised, digitized, Instagram’d and shouted from the platforms of socially conscious athletes and entertainers. It is less identified by its martyrdom and more by its ability to maneuver into dangerous territories with clear and powerful messaging.
In this time of mobilization in the backdrop of COVID-19, activists are the unsung essential workers ensuring that the outcries of their communities are amplified. Many have lent their voices to inform and activate their cities and neighborhoods around coronavirus testing/prevention, while continuously raising awareness around the daily epidemic of issues such as poverty, social injustice and police brutality.
But what makes up the composition of an activist? According to the dictionary definition, an activist is “a person who campaigns to bring about political or social change.” The essential work of the modern activist is one of frontline advocacy. It is often the non-glamorous and vilified efforts of communal change agents who pick up the mantle for progress that others leave to happenstance.
One defining characteristic of 21st-century social advocates is the specified scope of their advocacy. Modern era activists are more prone to mobilize around laser focused areas of social inequality, often possessing a knack for dissecting the nuances of a macro issue to secure a voice for the marginalized within the marginalized. A prime example of this type of keenly focused advocacy was a recent #BlackTransLivesMatter demonstration in Brooklyn, where more than 15,000 protestors specifically amplified the plight of transgender Black folks who have lost their lives to violent acts of transphobia.
And though several nationally recognized change agents may appear on panels, are flanked with social media followers and occasionally enjoy the perks of an elevated status, there are still incalculable risks that come along with freedom fighting. For every paid speaking gig or book deal a prominent activist is offered, there are death threats and character assassinations that come with the territory of challenging the status quo. Change is a threatening reality for any group that embodies a power dynamic, and it is the nature of the activist to push against power structures in order to level the playing field for the disenfranchised. The tension that persists between those who visualize the world as it should be and those who want to maintain the world as it is for their benefit, often unearths an ugliness that can be a danger to those seeking to make a difference.
When I asked Gary Chambers directly about the impact activism has had on him personally, he shared sentiments that surely echo the thoughts of many who carry similar responsibilities.
“Advocacy has cost me a lot,” Chambers told me. “Public scrutiny. Being arrested for speaking truth to power. Being labeled a radical which impacts my business, because who wants to work with a radical? Liberation has a cost, and advocates/activists pay it all the time. I’ve been attacked in more ways than one just for saying what should be said. It’s not fun, but it comes with the work. It hurts sometimes, but if we are serious about justice and equity we pay the price.”
Yet, in spite of any trouble that may present itself, the modern-day activist is a continuum of activists of yesteryear who prioritized the liberation of their people over the perils of opposition. As long as a society is rife with inequalities, there will always be a need for voices that push for equality.
Activists today are often challenged with resisting the clout chasing, quasi-celebrity status that comes with being a household name in order to maintain the trust of those they advocate on behalf of. Communities that benefit from the advocacy of trusted voices usually identify their champions on the merit of those activists’ work. That work is always essential to the progression of a community, whether the world is locked down or up and running oppressive business as usual.