Metro, Top Story, Boston

A Local Activist Is Bringing Ferguson’s Lessons Home To Boston

After Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was fatally shot by a white police officer in August, the word “Ferguson”—the name of the small Missouri suburb where Brown was shot—was on an entire nation’s lips. It was as if a national dictionary had automatically added it to the population’s linguistic toolkit for discussing America’s racial landscape. Ferguson became the key word for an ongoing cultural conversation about difference, power, and equality. It became a hotbed of protests and activism.

And it was exactly where Daunasia Yancey wanted to be.

“If you asked my family, they’d say I’ve always been an activist,” said the 22-year-old Boston native.

In the seventh grade, she refused to stand up for the Pledge of Allegiance, as she opposed U.S. involvement in the Middle East. She had to sit down with the principal, and questions arose regarding whether she would be able to attend homeroom. It was the first time she faced a systemic response to actions that went against the grain.

Since her first forays into expressed opposition to the status quo, her resume has grown extensive. She served on the Board of Directors of the Boston Alliance of GLBT Youth (BAGLY) as well as the National Youth Advocacy Coalition (NYAC). She also worked for Fenway Health and Boston GLBT Adolescent Social Services (GLASS).

By the time Ferguson became the place for an activist to be, Yancey was ready. Darnell Moore, a friend of hers, reached out to see if she might be interested in a new activist venture. Moore is the East Coast coordinator of Black Lives Matter, an activist organization originally conceived as a hashtag by Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza following the death of Trayvon Martin. Moore wanted to know if Yancey would launch a Boston chapter of Black Lives Matter. She wasted no time.

As her first order of business as the lead organizer of Boston’s chapter, Yancey attended local rallies post-Ferguson to gather a group that joined the flood of activists descending on the Missouri suburb as part of the Black Lives Matter Rides in late August.

“It was intense,” she said of the activism that she saw in Ferguson. “It was beautiful.”

On Oct. 25, Yancey was in a rush—she had a protest to lead, with demonstrators scheduled to meet in the Public Garden around noon. Dubbed the Newbury Street Shutdown, the protest’s goal was to disrupt a normal day in one of Boston’s commercial centers in order to bring attention to the issue of police brutality.

To get there on time, she had to run from Fenway Health on Boylston St., where she had been honored with the Audre Lorde Trailblazer Award.

Lorde, a prominent civil rights activist who passed away in 1992, has greatly influenced how Yancey views her own role as an activist. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,” Lorde once said. “It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Yancey echoes Lorde in her own sentiments. “My activism is self-care,” she said. It is impossible, she explained, to view herself as somehow separate from the community she supports—her activism on behalf of a given community directly impacts the course of her own life.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more appropriate recipient for an award named in the honor of Lorde than Yancey—like Lorde, she is a black, lesbian, feminist civil rights activist. That description, in Yancey’s eyes, is representative of the new face of modern activist leaders—evidence of the increasingly close relationships between the nation’s many activist movements, including those dedicated to equality for the gay community, minorities, and women.

“The leadership has set a standard for intersectionality,” Yancey said of how the community has transitioned away from domination by black males.

The divide between the new and old faces of activism, however, can also be drawn rather starkly—perhaps unsurprisingly—along generational lines. In Ferguson, Yancey said, it is the old guard, those dedicated to the standards and procedures of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who prefer to stick to the plan, to continue following the tried and true script of the activist.

It is the younger generation, meanwhile, which wants to push the envelope.

When she was in Ferguson in August, she was travelling with a group of both old and young activists. The plan was to head to a rally somewhere a bit removed from the seat of power—but the younger members of the group wanted to head right to the police station. The group split.

Yancey recognizes that there is much be learned from the movement’s elders, but there is pressure from the younger generation to do more. It is youths, she said, “who are putting their lives on the line for black folks.”

On the day of the Newbury Street Shutdown, Boston was basking in what was bound to be one of the last brilliantly sunny and warm Saturdays—already, the winter chill had begun to set it, and this was a last reprieve.

In the Public Garden, a crowd of protesters grew, with officers from the Boston Police Department gathering at the corner of Newbury to ride along with the demonstration and see to it that the protesters remained on the sidewalk.

Yancey, in a yellow beanie, glasses, and a black t-shirt emblazoned with the words “I <3 Black People,” raised a megaphone to her mouth in order to split the protesters into two groups—one to march on each side of Newbury St. She led the demonstration out of the Garden, demonstrators raising signs adorned with the faces of those who died as a result of alleged racial profiling and police brutality—Michael Brown among them.

In Ferguson, Yancey saw what she called “a moment turning into a movement.”

Yancey, like so many, seized that moment, and she is making sure that the movement is not isolated to the streets on which Michael Brown last walked.

Featured Image Courtesy of Elijah C

November 5, 2014