Six South Side teens spark activism using social media

Two of the Youth for Black Lives organizers, Maxine Aguilar (left) and Eva Lewis (right), lead a protest downtown around police violence against the black community. (Courtesy of Heidi Zeiger)

By Haley Velasco

Angered by police violence against the black community, six young black women decided to found a group in 2016 to make their voices heard and to take action. The four original members, who are high school students, Natalie Braye from Francis W. Parker School, Sophia Byrd from Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, Eva Lewis from Walter Payton College Prep, and Maxine Wint from Kenwood Academy, organized more than 2,000 people together through their Facebook group and by using retweets on Twitter for a silent protest against police shootings on July 11, 2016 at the intersection of State Street and Lake Street.

One month later, in August, the group held a second rally that hundreds attended in Millennium Park where participants gathered to demand justice around the police-related shooting of 18-year-old Paul O’Neal in Chicago. For this second protest, the group held a sit-in and marched down Michigan Avenue, according to Jones College Prep junior, Maxine Aguilar, one of the two new organizers that joined in August, along with Yahaira Tarr, a senior from Jones College Prep.

Lewis, one of the original co-organizers, reached out to Tarr through Twitter to help get the word out about the August protest.

“I only knew Maxine [Aguilar] because we go to Jones together,” Tarr said. “And then the others I just kind of followed on Twitter because we are all … teenagers in Chicago and know each other through mutual friends. I didn’t get to know them until I joined the group.”

Through Twitter and Facebook, each of the six co-organizers reached out to their own social networks, mainly their friends from high school, to get the word out about the protest and to get people to show up.

“I remember that we got 6,000 retweets on our first protest. It’s reaching those sort of voices [to get involved],” Aguilar said.

In November, the group continued their organizing work and planned for a third protest in Mount Greenwood following an incident at Marist High School, 4200 W. 115th St., where students referred to black people using profanity and the n-word over a group text.

According to Aguilar, the black students “felt ostracized and so we wanted to bring [Chicago Public School] students from across the city to stand in solidarity with them.”

However, as the group organized, they received online threats, forcing them to cancel the event for the sake of safety. According to Aguilar, CPS leadership contacted the teens’ parents and cited their concern for the safety of the students protesting at Mount Greenwood. Even though the protest was canceled, that didn’t stop the group from working towards change.

After the protest in Mount Greenwood was cancelled due to safety, the group insisted they have a meeting with the Principal of Marist High School Larry Tucker, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson and Ald. Matt O’Shea (19), where they presented the students’ concerns and listed the following demands:
Provide mechanisms to support students of color; hold mandatory workshops that educate offices on why Black Lives Matter as a movement is important; conduct town halls centered on making the neighborhood more progressive and safe for residents of all kinds; and organize monthly meetings with Superintendent Johnson (and possibly [Mayor] Rahm Emanuel and Forrest Claypool), which we plan to be open to the public, to continue discussions on how to obtain justice for our people and our communities, and to hold them accountable to the promises that they make.

During that time, the youths decided to change the name of the group, which was Black Lives Matter Youth, “because Black Lives Matter doesn’t meet with police basically,” Aguilar said. The group became Youth for Black Lives.

Following the administrative meeting around the incident at Marist High School in November, Youth for Black Lives pushed for a public meeting on Jan. 17 with Superintendent Johnson. The public forum, which was held at Hyde Park’s Experimental Station, 6100 S. Blackstone Ave., was created to communicate concerns over excessive police brutality in a public setting.

“Those have been kind of successful,” Tarr said. “We have gotten [Johnson] to show up and have made them public, which is something that he wasn’t interested in.”

Following the meeting with Johnson, four of the co-organizers, Lewis, Aguilar, Wint, and Tarr spoke on Jan. 21 at the Women’s March on Chicago.

The event, which an estimated 250,000 people attended, aimed to bring attention to protecting the rights and civil liberties of women, according to the event’s organizers.

“It was kind of bittersweet because it was like wow, all of these people are motivated to come out and fight for their rights but then I am kind of hoping that all these people will care,” Aguilar said. “And to see the same faces when we march again or when we are fighting for others rights.”

Aguilar, a junior, added that the future of Youth for Black Lives is to create and achieve tangible goals.

“We are the future. Older generations are going to be done soon and we are going to be the adults,” Tarr said. “I think it’s really important to educate our youth.”

Photo at top: Two of the Youth for Black Lives organizers, Maxine Aguilar (left) and Eva Lewis (right), lead a protest downtown around police violence against the black community. (Courtesy of Heidi Zeiger)