Clay Paley was sweating profusely. He appreciated being outside for a change—he had been rigorously adhering to quarantine for the past three months —but he was a bit concerned at the fact that only 10 minutes in the sweltering heat of New London, Connecticut had already caused him to soak his t-shirt. Nevertheless, he was fully prepared to endure the heat during today’s march; he knew how important his attendance was to his best friend, Kobe, who had invited him to come the week prior, and how important his attendance was to himself and his own beliefs.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” Clay had asked Kobe during one of their weekly FaceTimes. This one in particular had become emotional as they discussed the death of Elijah McClain.
“Actually, yeah. My uncle is helping organize a Black Lives Matter protest down here in New London. I’d love for you to come.”
Clay and Kobe had been best friends since their first week of college at the University of Connecticut. During their time at school, Clay would sometimes hang out with Kobe at his house and around New London. Since their graduation a year ago, the two had kept in touch.
“Absolutely,” Clay had said. “I’ll come up the morning before. We can hang out all of Friday.”
Clay and Kobe did not go on to hang out all of Friday. Instead, Clay spent two hours in the middle of his trek from New Jersey to Connecticut getting his popped tire replaced on the side of the road by AAA.
Fortunately, Clay had rested well at Kobe’s house the night before, and was determined to finish the day’s march—all 5.5 miles of it. Clay and Kobe, along with their friend Johnny and Kobe’s girlfriend Mia, clutched small water bottles as they joined the crowd in the streets.
This one’s going to be different, Clay thought. He had been to Black Lives Matter protests before—three in just the past month—but they had all taken place in the predominantly white and upper-class neighborhoods of Monmouth County, New Jersey. These protests lacked both the color and energy that he was seeing here in New London. This crowd was different—it consisted mostly of younger faces, many Black and brown, but also toddlers accompanied by their Millennial parents, as well as older folks who clearly had seen their fair share of civil rights rallies.
The crowd was also more boisterous. There was a more confrontational energy to the march—it was clear in the chants echoing around the city:
“Fuck Donald Trump!”
“Fuck the police! Fuck 12! Fuck 12!”
That last chant was repeated for an entire mile, one that went past several police precincts. This was intentional, as the march was designed to hit all five police precincts in New London. Clay assumed the precincts were likely empty since the protest march was flanked with officers. Their presence did little to quell the intense, angry energy radiating from the protestors.
But the march wasn’t just about sending the police a message—it was also about remembering the lives of victims the police had taken.
“Say his name! George Floyd! Say her name! Breonna Taylor!” Clay and Kobe shouted through their masks. Clay held a sign with an image of George Floyd painted by Johnny; they all took turns holding it during the march. About a half hour into the protest, the marchers passed an unusual sight—a black Cadillac hearse. Clay walked over and peered closer at the inscriptions scattered around the vehicle’s doors and windows. Dozens of names, each belonging to a Black person who had lost their life at the hands of police brutality, were cut out of white paper and taped to the car. Beside his friends, Clay read every name, disgusted by how many lives had been lost to a cruel and unregulated police system infested with prejudice.
After another two hours of marching, most of the crowd suddenly stopped, and Clay heard a bellow come from the police precinct. Clay watched in awe as a young man climbed and leaped to the roof of the precinct, removed his shirt, and waved it above his head as he screamed about the mistreatment Black people by police. The man then undid his pants zipper and urinated on the building.
“That’s stupid.” Kobe said to Clay.
“Yeah,” Clay replied. “He’s going to end up on a sex offender list. You can’t just flash a crowd with children in it like that.”
Equally shocking to Clay, the man then seamlessly hopped back into the march, mixing into the crowd.
After another hour of marching, the protest ended where it had started. Several of the organizers, including Kobe’s Uncle Red, spoke on a small stage to the crowd of 5,000. Under the summer heat, they spoke of the hardships and discrimination they had suffered through and witnessed throughout their lives. The speeches were followed by a nine minute moment of silence honoring Eric Garner.
Exhausted, emotional, but proud to have been a part of something so important, Clay and his friends returned to Kobe’s house for a much-needed dinner. As Clay ate and rested, he couldn’t help but reflect as he recuperated. He reflected on how his voice was left raspy and hoarse from chanting, how his legs and feet were left sore and swollen, and his body sticky from sweat—and how none of these inconveniences compared to the daily pain Black people endure at the direction of a society that sees them as a threat. As a person of privilege, Clay knew it was his duty to step up for those who lacked the basic societal entitlements that he had been granted. He was proud to suffer under the blazing heat for this march, and was prepared to do it again. The words of Kobe’s Uncle Red echoed throughout his head: “All people get hurt, but Black people get hurt worse.”
There is no question that America stands at a historic crossroads. You can see it on social media, the news, and in the conversations families are having at the dinner table. Possibly the best way to determine the cause of this social upheaval is to ask a young person: what does America need to change, right now? Chances are they would reply ‘a lot’.
Although movements like Black Lives Matter and the Sunrise Movement are relatively new, they are a response to decades of social, economic, and racial injustice. In the manner they march and in the causes they fight for, it is apparent they are cut from the same cloth as the civil rights and environmental movements of the past.
What differentiates the new movements from the old is simple. They are led by Generation Z. And with that has come a vigor and organizing ability the country has never seen before.
Most of Generation Z, the name of the cohort of people born between 1996 and 2010, are not old enough to vote in elections⸺but that hasn’t stopped them from being politically active. In response to the 2018 Parkland shootings, members of Gen Z organized nationwide marches for gun control. In Sweden, Greta Thunberg began a climate activist movement that has taken her around the world. In the Middle East, Malala Yousafzai started and led a movement for female education and human rights. And now students like Clay are joining the fray. Just as this new generation has started to come of age, new leaders have emerged and movements have been sparked.
The generation is making history in other ways too. According to Pew Research Center, Gen Z is more racially and ethnically diverse than past generations. They are also more educated, as they are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to attend college. Gen Z is more liberal than past generations too⸺77% of Gen Zers between the ages of 18-23 disapproved of Trump’s handling as president according to the Pew Research Center analysis. A staggering 70% of the generation wants an activist government. It is no surprise that members of this generation have no issue with going out and protesting⸺and, in some cases, getting arrested.
Marcos was relaxing on his dorm room bed after a long day of classes when he saw it: a post from the account @Protest__NYC that read “ANTI-ICE PROTEST. TOMORROW MORNING.” By the time he finished reading the sentence, he knew he was going. He followed the account for the exact purpose of finding something like this; he had been attending New York University for three years without once going to a protest and was eager to do so. With a passion for civil and human rights, and as someone who had come to politically align with the far-left, he knew he would find good company in the often protest-laden streets of NYC.
This protest in particular was a response to the news that a doctor had been performing forced hysterectomies on imprisoned undocumented immigrants in ICE camps. Marcos, the son of an immigrant father, had distant family in the United States who lived in constant fear of ICE and deportation. He was well acquainted with the agency and their history of human rights violations.
“They’re more of a modern-day Gestapo than a law enforcement agency. But then again, what’s the difference?” Marcos had said to a friend earlier that day.
He slept that night more excited to wake up in the morning than he had been in years.
The next morning, at around 8:00 AM, Marcos adorned himself in the “protest uniform” – all black pants, shirt, and a dark leather jacket. As he rode into Times Square on his motorcycle, he quickly realized the forces he would be up against – at least forty NYPD officers had already flanked the event. After parking his bike, he kept his motorcycle helmet on in order to protect his identity, and more importantly, the condition of his face in case things got rough.
He joined the crowd and listened as LGBTQ, Hispanic and Black liberation activists, just a few years older than him, took turns speaking with a speakerphone. They detailed the injustices committed by ICE and the need for the immediate destruction of the ICE internment facilities.
As the speakers delivered their impassioned speeches, he was struck by their performative nature; although he agreed with everything they were saying, something about the theatrical, almost rehearsed element of it rubbed him the wrong way. He would later find out the organizers and speakers almost entirely consisted of young actors, artists, and comedians. He was not surprised.
Around the time the speeches stopped and the march began, Marcos noticed something. As he sat on the red steps of Times Square, he saw two organizers walking their motorcycles across the street suddenly get approached by a swarm of officers. In an instant, the officers ripped the two men away from their bikes and threw them to the ground. While one was thrown into a pole, the other was pummeled by officers. After squashing their resistance, the organizers were handcuffed and escorted into a police van. This single act initiated a barrage of police brutality as the surrounding officers, who had made a near circle around the protestors, enclosed on the crowd that had just started marching. The tactic they employed, called kettling, caused most of the crowd to scatter as the officers pushed and shoved.
A surge of adrenaline shot into Marcos as he realized he needed to make a fight-or-flight decision. He chose fight. In the front line, Marcos pushed ahead side-by-side with the protestors next to him. Soon, the overwhelming force of the police became too much to overcome, and the march formation was broken. He saw, within the crowd, a sit-in chain link being formed on the road. Amidst the chaos, he linked arms with the nearest person and sat down.
As the police gradually destroyed the sit-in by violently tearing away protestors one by one, Marcos couldn’t help but reflect on how surreal the whole situation was. He had been asleep in his room just an hour before, and was now actively blocking traffic in the heart of New York City.
Through brief conversation, he learned the girl linked around his right arm, Sophia, was a fellow NYU student and freshman. She was visibly shaken and overwhelmed by the officers taking and arresting each individual in line. Marcos comforted her, saying that it would be okay, she wouldn’t be charged with anything serious when they arrest her, and would be out within the day. As an officer lifted Sophia by her feet and carried her away, he overheard an officer say to another “Grab the one in the helmet.”
As the officer, who Marcos quickly noticed was a handsome and tall Black man, tried to lift him up, Marcos used his weight to stay down. Finally, with the aid of a second officer, he was hoisted up, removed from the link, and handcuffed with zip-ties.
An unusual confidence overtook Marcos – he wasn’t sure whether it was from the fact that he was wearing a helmet, or that he was proud of the feats he had already accomplished this morning, but in that moment Marcos felt fearless. As the officer searched him and asked about the objects he had on his person, Marcos replied in an effortlessly friendly manner with a beaming smile. He felt like his childhood obsession and favorite superhero, Spider-Man, in the way he attempted to joke and jeer with the stoic, unresponsive officer. Marcos flashed one of his trademark, smug smiles.
“I don’t like the way you’re looking at me,” the officer said.
“I’m not looking at you in any particular way, sir.”
“I’m just doing my fucking job, man.” the officer replied.
“And I’m just doing mine.” Marcos said.
After watching the arrest of the remaining protesters, he was shoved into the back of a police van that was filled to double the holding capacity. Squished next to the other protestors, Marcos tried to keep himself calm as the officers swerved the van, causing the protesters to slam into each other. Although the Spider-Man confidence had largely worn off, he managed to keep his spirits high by conversing with the lady next to him, who was more than triple his age. She was a therapist who had been attending protests like this for decades. He was inspired by her resolution and commitment to justice, even in old age.
After an excruciating 30 minutes, the drive was over. As soon as he entered the station, he was told to take off his shoelaces (to ensure prisoners don’t strangle themselves or others). He immediately hated the police station – and not just because he was in custody. It felt sterile, soulless. The interior was painted a dreary, off-putting brown color; he hated the station in the way that he hated hospitals, the sole difference being the station lacked the facade of taking care of people.
Soon, an officer explained to him the circumstances for why he was arrested, and had him confirm basic details about himself. For his mugshot, Marcos surprised no one by flashing his quintessential toothy grin. He was placed into a holding cell with about forty other protestors.
Shortly after entering the cell, he was approached by the two organizers on motorcycles he saw arrested earlier.
“Who are you?” asked Luis, a 5’8 muscular and bearded Peruvian wearing a tank top.
“We know everybody here. We’ve never seen you around. Who do you know?” said Blaise, a stick-thin 20-something year old with greasy black hair.
“Hey, my name’s Marcos, I – uh, don’t know anyone, this was my first protest.”
Immediately, he saw Blaise’s heart break. Over the next 12 hours in the cell, Marcos would go on to learn that their nameless protest group had never had an arrest before—this was their first one. They embraced Marcos, expressing their guilt in him experiencing such a traumatic first protest.
Twelve hours passed before he was released. With forty men in one holding area, the conditions weren’t great. Some guys spent their time banging on the walls, sneering and spitting at the cops. The police neglected him and his fellow inmates; they gave out only two water bottles and five PB&J’s. But they made the most of it. Luis, a comedian who was scheduled to perform stand-up that night, performed his set (and extra) for everyone. Blaise, a boxing instructor, taught Marcos and others some boxing techniques. People talked and laughed. Eventually, around 1:00 AM, their names started being called for release. Everytime a name was called, the cell erupted in raucous applause. About halfway through, Marcos heard his name and strutted out like an award-winner.
To his surprise, he was met outside the station with a slice of pizza. A group of fellow protestors had assembled outside to distribute mutual aid to the wearied prisoners—pizza, cigarettes, sandwiches, weed, and water were being handed out freely. Marcos happily accepted all of the above.
After an hour-long walk back to Times Square to retrieve his motorcycle, and a barely-conscious ride back to his dorm, Marcos collapsed into bed, just as the sun began to peek over the horizon. There, he cried, overcome by the emotion and trauma experienced in the last 24 hours.
What might have frightened some from ever protesting again had the opposite effect on Marcos. Now, as not just a witness, but a victim of police brutality, Marcos felt a fire in his belly to continue what he had started. Over the next three months, he largely avoided his schoolwork (to his parent’s chagrin), electing to instead dedicate his time to working with and becoming a beloved member of the nameless protest group in NYC. He now rides his motorcycle side by side with Luis and Blaise, acting as a backline at protests to protect protesters.
The NYPD has attempted to arrest him several more times. They have all failed.
“I wriggle out of holds too good now,” Marcos says.
Marcos and Clay, quite obviously, had very different protest experiences. While they essentially did the same thing, one’s day ended with a hot dinner and bed to sleep on, while the other was confined to a cell without food or water. It’s not hard to guess which individual is white and which is a person of color.
However, there is a commonality in their stories—both chose to protest because they felt a responsibility to do so. Their stories reflect a greater sentiment bound to this generation that is often not discussed but is ever-present in Gen Z’s collective consciousness: a sense of responsibility to “clean up the mess.”
It’s no wonder Gen Z has become known for their activism. For every progressive step forward, they’ve watched America take a regressive step backward. They grew up during the tenure of the first Black president, but had to witness widespread racist rhetoric follow his election. They grew up learning about climate change in school, but had to watch as the government floundered on passing meaningful legislation. They celebrated the legalization of gay marriage, only to see news of a county clerk denying same-sex couples their marriage licenses. Gen Z was born into a problematic world that’s always at the edge of progress, but constantly repelled by systematic vehicles of oppression. They have a unique understanding of what they’re up against and why they need to fight so hard, because if they don’t, progress simply won’t happen.