The Roar of A Thousand Activists

April 3, 2015

By Ann Burroughs, Amnesty International USA board chair, and Steven W. Hawkins, Amnesty International USA executive director

Last week, over 1,100 human rights activists gathered in Brooklyn, New York. What for? Amnesty International USA’s Annual General Meeting, appropriately themed this year “From Moment to Movement.” Braving rain and snow, people who have been members for decades –perhaps having joined as a result of the Human Rights Concerts of the 1980s—joined with those new to Amnesty– together reflecting on the spark of change that can begin in an instant and reverberate for years.

So that’s the ‘what’ – but why? What happens when you gather this powerhouse of activism in one place for one weekend? The answers say a lot about what it means to turn a moment into a movement.

What do a thousand activists look like?

A photo posted by Jamira Burley (@jamiraburley) on

They look young, old and young at heart; male, female, gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and straight; black, white, Asian, Latino, and many more races, ethnicities and identities. They look like hundreds of yellow ponchos braving rain and snow across the Brooklyn Bridge to raise awareness about three New Yorkers recently killed by police. They look like strangers mingling at ‘action alley’, networking, writing letters to prisoners of conscience, deciding to go to a panel together about organizing against torture in Chicago, or gender-based violence in El Salvador. They look like a ballroom of individuals standing together to re-commit to building bridges for human rights. What do a thousand activists act like? They act like powerful individual change-makers. And together that power is electric. They act like poets at a “SLAMnesty” event and protesters from the Brooklyn Bridge to the ballroom where our conference took place. They act like activists challenging the status quo and allies ‘calling in’ others to push the movement forward. They act like listeners, learners and leaders – organizing in hallways and in panel rooms for how to grow movements from New York to Ferguson to Oakland to Ayotzinapa to Hong Kong to Lagos; from the LGBT movement to black liberation to freeing prisoners of conscience globally, to climate justice. They act like artists and activists, standing with Harry Belafonte, Annie Lennox, Lemon Andersen, Nusrat Durrani, Piper Kerman, Jesse Krimes, Brandan Odums, Laura Poitras, Favianna Rodriguez, Jesse Williams, and Jie-Song Zhang to share and lift up stories of the people behind the statistics, to ensure that their struggles to claim their rights and the abuses they have experienced are brought to light.  

They act like doers, makers, marchers, writers, sharers, students, travelers and teachers coming together from all over the world to build the human rights movement through organizing, campaigning, and advocacy — and most of all, through connecting.

They act like the inspiration to future movements and the bridges between them.

Ok, so what do a thousand activists sound like?

We’ll let them speak for themselves:

“A lot of people from a lot of different places that I wouldn’t have met” ~ Mohamed, activist/attendee

“Informative … a hub for activists from all over the world” ~ Faisal, activist/attendee

“Collaboration” … really powerful… getting that action, that momentum going” ~ Lynn, activist/attendee

“The perfect structure for all that energy to gravitate toward” … “all the support being around all these people who are real activists” ~ Todd, activist/attendee

Linda Sarsour, activist, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York and the moderator of our “Moment to Movement” plenary put it well:

“We are in a movement, sisters and brothers, not just here in NYC. Ferguson, Oakland, Mexico, Brazil, Palestine, Hong Kong. We are all connected. Our struggles are connected. Our movements are connected. Our power is connected.”

Our human rights conference was inspiring and provocative. It reaffirmed our commitment to build bridges that can carry a moment and turn it into a movement. That bridge that we build at Amnesty should be one that is sustainable, that gives passionate activists a home.

Please join us in building bridges with all those who want to protect people wherever freedom, justice, truth and dignity are denied. Together, we will win.