From Ferguson to Hong Kong: Youth on the front lines

October 24, 2014


By Rafi Hoq, Amnesty International USA Student Activist Coordinator for Georgia

This week, I’ve been reading the latest updates from student-led “umbrella movement” in Hong Kong with a deepened diligence, and continuing to follow the ongoing protests in Ferguson, Missouri with newfound excitement. Youth are leading the fight for human rights around the world, and I’m proud to be a part of it. I’ve spent just a few of my 20 years as an activist, but having recently returned to Atlanta after Ferguson’s Weekend of Resistance, solidarity means something entirely new to me.

Demonstrators in Ferguson, MissouriFerguson has emerged as one of the epicenters of today’s historic, global, youth-led movement, where thousands are rising for human rights. Despite the anxiety and stress of knowing that young people are marching for days and even facing aggressive policing, it’s comforting to know there are students all around the world, from Gaza to Hong Kong, resisting in the same way and fighting for the same rights. This is happening right now, and now that I’m back in Atlanta, I’m going to keep standing up right here at home.

While we were in Ferguson, we participated in many protests planned in advance, though I remember most vividly a march that happened spontaneously. My friend Dina and I noticed it as we were heading back to a solidarity hip-hop concert. Drumbeats and commotion gave away a crowd splayed out onto a wide street, near a long line leading into the venue. As we got closer, we noticed that Charon Gaskins, our Field Organizer, was among those at the center of the chanting crowd.

Everyone took turns leading the chant with the crowd, effortlessly blending from one verse into another with perfect harmony, all while a man pounded away on a tamba.

“Hands up! Don’t shoot!”

“The people, united! Will never be defeated!”

“They think it’s a game! They think it’s a joke!”

“United we stand! Divided we fall!”

As more joined in, energy rising, I felt something profound being communicated beyond resistance. The lines started to blur between leader and group, statement and response.As voices merged and tensions released through the collective, the energy of our crowd seemed to shoot upwards, reddening the grey sky above with both anger and the drive for change.

A girl from Lost Voices, one of the youth groups that has emerged at the center of organizing in Ferguson, stepped in and yelled, “Whose streets?”

“OUR streets!” we answered.

We took to the wide, empty streets, wrapping around the occasional car that rolled through, passing red lights and worn-in storefronts, block after block in steady tempo. I noticed we were being watched by others: suited men looking from inside an office; people honking encouragement from within parked cars along the roadside; flannel-wearing hipsters on the corner recording us on their phones but keeping a distance. At one point, two patrol cars out of nowhere flanked our front and back, containing the march, clearly indicating they meant to prevent further escalation.

As we approached an intersection, I found that we also reached the crossroads of my own values, and the creation of a world where everyone’s human rights are universally respected.

I saw in that moment that change from below – from sore feet and hoarse vocal cords together – is ultimately what will lead us all to victory. I saw through the myth that it’s only authorities that can make change, and realized the power of those of us in the streets.

That was never more clear than when two seven-year-olds stepped up to the front of the crowd. They told us about being in the streets for over 60 days, and implored us to lift up their voices. With hoarse voices they screamed, “Black Lives Matter!” And we screamed back, “Not one more!”

It took 7-year-olds to teach me what 14 years of school failed to teach; that regardless of what can be changed by who, regardless of what political labels are put onto what countries, our power manifests when people are out doing instead of staying inside thinking.

I’m back home in Atlanta but I’m far from done ‘doing.’ Just the opposite. It’s the #BlackLivesMatter National Week of Action, and I’m keeping up the fight against excessive use of force by police in my own community by organizing on my campus and beyond, and challenging those around me to participate in this long-overdue conversation about race in the United States. I’m taking that energy and giving it new life by bringing it to our Regional Conference, and by continuing to push everyone in my community to stand up with us.

We claim our human rights, and we uplift the human rights of others, when we move beyond our questions and self-doubt, when we connect with others, and when we step outside and march.

Rafi Hoq has been a Student Activist Coordinator for Georgia for over two years, and was in Ferguson last weekend for the Weekend of Resistance. He is currently studying political science at Emory University, and plans to go to Dharamsala, India, next semester, to study abroad and meditate with the Tibetan community there.