On August 9, Johnetta Elzie ("Netta" for short) was on Twitter scrolling through her timeline when a friend tweeted her to tell her that a black teen, Michael Brown, had been killed near where she lived in St. Louis, and that his body was still lying on the ground.
There wasn't much news about the shooting at first. "None of the local media stations were tweeting or talking about it," Elzie says. So she began to look into it herself. Soon she was on the streets in Ferguson, near where she grew up. "I used to live right behind Canfield Green [where Michael Brown lived], and that street, I walked down it before when I was 11 or 12, in the middle of the street, because the sidewalks were raggedy then, and they're raggedy now," she said. "And we were able to make it home. And it just really hurt my feelings that on this day, this boy could not make it back to his Grandma's house ... His blood was so vivid on that road. The blood was just that deep." She joined protests outside the police station, helped to organize donations and volunteers coming in from outside the city, and tweeted news and information from the growing marches.
Later she began to co-edit the newsletter Words Into Action with DeRay Mckesson, chronicling information about Michael Brown's death, and then about other instances of police brutality across the country. They now have more than 14,000 subscribers. "I didn't even know what I was doing was considered organizing until someone told me," she said. "I didn't know I was an activist until someone told me."
Like many of those in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Elzie came into activism not through an organization or institution, but through Twitter. Many of those new activists and organizers, like Elzie, have been women. As a result, the visible leadership of Ferguson protest, in comparison to that of past civil-rights struggles, has been much less male. I talked to Elzie by phone about how women have been involved in the protests, and what that means for the movement.
Noah Berlatsky: Conversations around police brutality issues have centered mostly on incidents with black men or boys: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice. Given that, what role do women have in the #BlackLivesMatter protests, or why are women important to the movement?
Netta Elzie: In the beginning, the first 21 days, when we were under militarized police occupation, I can say for sure it was way more women than men in those streets. So many black women put their bodies on the line for this cause, because we birthed the people that the police are killing. So not only are we out there for ourselves, but we're out there for our husbands, our boyfriends, our kids, our cousins, our nephews. Because we're the ones who keep birthing black people, basically.
So it is interesting to see the dynamics change when it was time to have meetings and private phone calls and the back door stuff. I'd go to these places and it would be predominantly male, predominantly heterosexual black men. There would be little representation of everyone else that was out there in the streets. It was overwhelming at first. People wanted to be able to say that I was there, but I would be silenced or people would speak for me instead of asking me. People would speak ahead. There would always be some man who would answer the question for me while I'm trying to talk.
Berlatsky: There was a lot of discussion about the moment when you and Erika Totten got on stage to speak at the Justice For All March in D.C. despite the fact that Al Sharpton's National Action Network didn't really seem to want you there. Is there a change in terms of the amount of women participating in these protests versus the civil-rights movement?
Elzie: Compared to the civil-rights movement, I think it's the same amount of women. It's just that in our case, we are fortunate enough to not be silenced. There are many wonderful black women who made the civil-rights movement move, but you don't know their stories. You have to go dig for them. You really have to do your research to find out who Ella Baker is.
But now ... I feel like this movement is so all-inclusive because blackness is all-inclusive. Blackness is not just black straight men. There are gay men in this work doing amazing work. There are queer folks. There are trans folks. There are gay and lesbian folks, bisexual, there are religious black people, There are atheist black people. I am not religious at all, and I'm still doing this work in the name of love and in the name of loving black people.
So I think this time around, as far as being proud of who you are, and being proud of being black, we are able to include everything and everybody who wants to play a role. Why would it be just straight black men talking about the plight of black people, when there are mothers who lose their children to police brutality, there are aunts and uncles and grandmas and grandparents. Police brutality doesn't care about your gender. It doesn't care if you're light-skinned or dark-skinned. It doesn't matter. What does matter is that we include all the different types of people who fall in the category of black.
Berlatsky: Do you see #BlackLivesMatter as a feminist issue?
Elzie: Oooh. That one I just don't know. Because not everyone working in the work is a feminist. Somedays I feel like I am, somedays I feel like I'm not. When I went out on August 9, it wasn't because I was concerned about feminism. It was because I was concerned about black people. So, no, I don't know how to answer that question.
Berlatsky: Do you consider yourself a feminist? You sound somewhat conflicted.
Elzie: I am conflicted. (laughs) I tweet about this all the time. In the beginning of the movement, people would say, "Oh, this young black feminist," and I would say, who? I didn't call myself that. So some days I feel if it's strictly about equality and things of that nature, then yes. And some days I read opinions and tweets that people say and I'm like, that's not what I agree with.
I was talking to Erika Totten and Jamilah Lemieux from Ebony in great detail about feminism. Because they're both feminists, and they both get it and have eloquent ways of describing feminism and black feminism, because there is a difference between black feminism and feminism. And they explained to me in several different ways that it's really what you make it, and it's about addressing issues that face black women, black trans women, and I get it when they say it. But when it's me by myself, I don't know what I think about feminism.
But I'm definitely open to the conversation which is why I keep talking to them about it. Or they keep talking to me! They're both like, "You're a feminist. Stop it."
Berlatsky: Has social media made it easier for women to be involved in the movement?
Elzie: I think so. In the beginning—DeRay Mckeeson has pointed this out to me—there was a chart which showed how the Ferguson movement was involved in social media growth. And of the four people who had the biggest growth early on, there was Antonio French, there were two other men, and there was me. Just a 25-year-old black girl from St. Louis, just because I was in the streets every day.
And I think that definitely played a role in me believing I was making an impact. So twitter definitely helped me elevate my voice, and elevate the message of what was happening to us on West Florissant. And it helped me tell the story of what was happening.
Berlatsky: Has it helped you connect with other women as well?
Elzie: It has. I have met some amazing women during this—what are we on? Day 160. In these 160 days I've met some of the most brilliant, smart, and beautiful black women ever. And they've changed my life. I've never felt so empowered before; I've never felt that I've had such a true purpose in life. Being around these super-smart black women, I've been wrapped in love. Like a cocoon almost. It's just so nurturing and loving. It's nice to have sisterhood in struggle.