Kai Williams carries the weight of her great-grandmother and civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama's legacy in the midst of the Black Lives Matter student protests.
When Malcolm X was shot, grown men ran towards the door, but my great-grandmother ran to the stage. That’s the fact that my father and his mother, and anyone who ever shook my great-grandmother’s frail hand and looked her into her unrelenting eyes passed down to me. That’s what one of Malcolm X’s daughters told us, at my great-grandmother’s memorial. While Malcolm X lay dying, my great-grandmother Yuri Kochiyama ran to the stage, automatically, and unafraid of having her life torn from her the way his had just been torn. She cradled his head until they confirmed he was gone. The moment is immortalized in a photo taken for Life Magazine.
I grew up bearing this history with the kind of quiet pride that one harbors even when they’ve done nothing to deserve it, other than be fortunate enough to be related to a person. I wore it on my sleeve, like a family crest. It was tattooed on my sternum. I was raised to believe that when the moment arose that I would be called to some sort of action, it was both my birthright and responsibility to respond. The spirit of Malcolm X was in the rooms where we gathered.
On a chilly April afternoon in 2015, when one of Cornell West’s Stop Mass Incarceration tour organizers asked for a member of the delegation from my prestigious Upper East Side prep school to speak before the crowd of protesters. Half of the students behind me screamed my name and lightning rocketed through my body. I tasted metal in my mouth. My great-grandmother’s frail hand, beckoning from beyond the grave. I ran to the stage, out of fear that the organizer might call on someone else, though I would not admit that to myself at the time. Climbing up the stairs, a microphone was pressed into my shaking hand. The first words out of my mouth were “we will not be moved.”
Thinking back, it’s a bit cringe-worthy. How that phrase appeared to me, programmed into my brain. Without thinking, with nothing prepared, my mind defaulted to the movement phrases I’d heard about and filed away for future use, all my life. But after I told the crowd “we will not be moved,” words short-circuited and died on my tongue. I had nothing more to say.
When I was 15, I decided to become a radical, feminist, pro-black bitch.
I’d already been radical, feminist and pro-black. It was the bitchiness that was new. It was surprisingly easy to decide to make this metamorphosis. I would simply slip into a cold, calculating exterior, like bath water, like a second skin. I would no longer be nice about my opinions, nor clutch my copies of Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions and Feminist Theory From Margin to Center against my chest. I pulled out my computer and wrote, I am a little bit of a bitch. If I wrote it down, and thought it, I could will it to be true. The same way I’d willed myself to start believing I was sexy after I spent all of my eight grade year casting aspersions at my flat-chested little self in the mirror. Yet, this transition would be a tough trick to pull off. I’d been the weak, non-confrontational type for many years. The nerd. The bookworm. Setting my sights on bitchdom was an unexpected move. None of my friends would believe it. At the time I thought it was the my growth spurt, the arrival of my period (I was a late bloomer), and my approaching sixteenth birthday that made me decide to change my persona. But looking back, nothing was a bigger provocation than the white, rich kids at my new prep school, and the money culture I turned my nose so far up at.
My prep school was a breeding ground for future Ivy Leaguers. It was not uncommon to catch a glimpse of seven-year-olds in Yale sweatshirts running up and down the staircases. It was not uncommon to hear a racist remark made to a little black child, by a little white child, who would one day inherit a jet ski, Mercedes, or penthouse, all before his high school graduation. Often I believed I spoke a different tongue than those people. Could it be that I was an alien or foreigner transplanted into another theocracy? In the way I used to feel confused reading about Native American Indians and the White Man simply misunderstanding each other’s intentions on the most fundamental of levels, incredulous and unhappy, I could not understand the thing the parents of my wealthy friends prioritized. My mother and father both attended college but in my home the value of a degree from a “prestigious university” and then a six-figure job had never trumped the value of love, the value of social change, the value of passion. Perhaps it was because we hung pictures of Malcolm X (not college educated), and my great-grandmother (not college educated), on our walls, not any alma mater paraphernalia. We were more likely to sport sweatshirts advertising our demand to free Mumia Abu-Jamal than the name of a university. Perhaps it was because our families were formed by social movements, my Japanese grandmother and my black grandfather locking eyes for the first time whilst handing out leaflets for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
A year after I’d begun prep school, the disillusionment sunk me deep into a depressive state. In my newfound antagonism, I would bitterly announce that maybe I wouldn’t go to college after all, whenever a classmate asked. Then I would pointlessly debate for an hour why I would still be as successful, if not more successful, than someone with an elite degree. Of course, I was taking it for granted that I would be attending a college, but to most students at my prep school, college was never an option. Everyone who went to these schools went to college. Everyone who went to these schools worked at banks later in life.
Somehow I’d worked it out that I was better than these people. From some lofty post, I watched my classmates eat away at their nails, break out in hives and implode with stress about the SAT and exams, while I enjoyed my healthy que sera sera outlook on the future. I knew love was more important than money – and all I had to do was remind myself of that and any pressure lightened. I felt untouchable and unbothered.
The New York Times described the Black Lives Matter protests unfurling throughout New York City and throughout the country as “the new civil rights movement.” When I read those words my body caught fire. Aflame, my heart skittered and burned. More electrifying words had never been written. Arrogantly, self-servingly, my hands fluttered around an invisible hilt. I felt charged and lucky to be alive in this moment. Black and brown people have always been dying at the hands of men and women in blue, but now people were finally amassing together again to push back at those hands. For the first time in my life, I recognized history in the making. I was three on 9/11 and only registered the smoke, the unusually long walk to my grandparents’ house through the park. I could not see textbook history unfolding in the misery of the city. I could not see tragedy. When I read The New York Times, I felt the significance of the moment pulse living and squirming in my palms. How it breathed. How it thumped.
The streets welled with thousands of people every night, only to empty by morning and then fill again. Raised fists became a sight of the present, unfreezing from black and white photographs and materializing in a tense interaction between protesters and policemen on any street. And as this fire caught, something extraordinary was happening to my prep school.
Without warning, “woke” white kids and students of color alike were demanding everyone to stand up. With the kids of color, I understood that it was just anger ... pure unadulterated rage that drove their raised voices and militant crossing of arms. The usually cool, collected, assimilated or else apathetic kids (the same kids who up until then hadn’t seen the point in correcting the white boy or girl who said “ratchet,” or talked about the ghetto) were now barking at freshmen who argued that stop and frisk was not racially motivated. And the black and brown kids who had previously been vocal became even louder. These students reached out to friends at more progressive or public schools, spread the word throughout their circle that there would be a march or a sit-in lead by a congregation from this school or that school, and would send mass texts detailing when and where we could demonstrate our resistance. Black kids who’d never spoken to each other, but had recognized anger in each other, began to reach across grade lines to mobilize. It was the white kids who surprised and discomforted me – the trendiness of it all, the concealed self-congratulations, the way they patted themselves on the back for posting a status about allyship, about how it was their responsibility as well as ours. “White people,” one white girl I’d despised for two years wrote, “don’t make this about you.”
But despite my discomfort, it was extraordinary. When the protests around the city started in earnest, something beyond or instead of college was prioritized by my classmates, and nearly everyone was expected to participate in the same way they were expected to participate in the kind of academic competition so characteristic of our school. All of a sudden the struggles of black people were centered and students of color shed their invisibility cloaks.
I was jealous. Then and now, I balked at my jealousy, at my smallness, but I stayed jealous and small nonetheless. My best friend had led galvanized the students at her school and I wanted to do the same. I wanted to have the same platforms she had, the same news crews and TV cameras pointed at me so that I could tell the people what they needed to hear. I wanted to know that when the time came for me to either surrender out of the movement or be led away in handcuffs, I would not be moved. An hour before the first BLM protest held in New York City, I called my mother and told her “I’m going to march in Union Square.”
By April, I was leading about thirty students out of my school in a walkout. I’d been chilling with my friend, eating snacks on her parents’ bed, and when I asked what she was so busy doing on her phone, she’d explained that she was planning her school’s walkout. Stop Mass Incarceration was throwing a march downtown and many schools were organizing groups of students to walk out and meet in Union Square to join the protest. I told her I highly doubted that kids in my school would take that kind of risk, but she prodded me to organize something anyway. “You never know...” Once the idea entered my mind, it latched on and sunk its teeth into me. I was a moth to a flame. My face heated up, thinking of it. My heart burned.
The next couple of days were a storm of secret activity. Once again, I reached out to a others who’d cemented their reputations as activists. Together, we created a plan to use solely social media to spread word about the walkout. We each posted the same status on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram ... any platform we could use. The people who liked the Facebook status would be added to a secret event page, and from there we could get a sense of the numbers. For those two days, my school was rocked. I asked a classroom full of kids before my history class began, “Is anyone here coming to the walkout? Will you sign our list of demands?” and the discomfort was tangible, miserable. A half-black girl slammed her notebook down, looked me square in the eyes and when she snapped “no” with such personal conviction, I was reminded of my mother telling me not to ask her for dessert again. The night before we walked out, I received Facebook message after Facebook message from kids I’ve never said a word to, asking if there would be chaperones, if they needed parental permission, if the administration had okayed the whole thing. When I finally turned my lights off that night, the swarm of energy in my stomach kept me up for hours. Organizing, it appeared, was actually a drug.
On the day of the walkout, I thought 12:00 PM would never arrive. When it did, I stood up in the middle of class. Five other students in my classroom followed suit. We stood swiftly, and announced the names of murdered men and women. We avoided the eyes of our teachers, and turned our backs to them. Classmates had expressed their concern or disdain to me in various ways, a curt “no” when I asked if they would attend, a cold stare. We marched to the lobby of the high school, read aloud more names under the gaze of wearied students and faculty. After some initial confusion (who would read the list of demands we’d prepared? How could we do this in the most democratic fashion possible? Could we be sure everyone was here or should we wait for the one or two who may have gotten called over by a teacher on her way downstairs?) we formed a circle around the giant school crest painted onto the floor. We took turns passing around the list of reasons why we were choosing to walk out, large grandiose reasons like “in order to contribute to the new cycle of activists, to stand in the face of societal expectation, to prove that there is a power that comes with youth and that it must be utilized.”
Afterwards, we tucked away the sweaty list, and looked around our shy audience, looked into the faces of curious white students who hurriedly dropped their gazes (the black students not attending the protest had, understandably, put as much distance between themselves and the lobby as possible). And then, one by one, in complete silence, we filed out of the double doors of our school. I can’t remember clearly now, but I believe a few of us put up our fists. Once outside, I watched the tension that had nailed their faces in place begin to melt into brief, incredulous smiles. Shoulders visibly relaxed. My friends and I, and a few of the most vocal kids, took our places at the helm and we began to walk. We all come from a place where our obedience seemed non-negotiable. The fact that we’d walked out of school with our backs straight and our voices raised electrified us.
These are the kinds of moments that even as you are experiencing them feel like memories. Kids I rarely spoke to and who rarely spoke to each other under normal circumstances were moving together, joking around, joining in each other’s conversations all the while making sure they never stepped outside the traveling crowd we’d created. When people shouted encouragements at us, we responded as a pack, nodding stoically when it was a black public service worker matching his fist to ours, stifling our laughter when it was a weathered old lady hunched over a walker. When people walked through us purposefully, attempting to disrupt the group, or muttered darkly under their breaths, we swivelled our heads together and shot the same dirty look right back. As streets ahead of us became distance already traveled under our feet, I thought about how I’d never before seen the unity we were experiencing occur at my school. How even this hand-holding, even this lowering of defenses amongst ourselves and even something as small as smiling at each other, meant so much more than the self-imposed isolation that supposedly lead to success. We were bucking upward mobility as the most important achievement. We were spitting in the face of the idea that we needed to compete with and conquer one another in order to succeed. Our achievement that day would not lie in our ability to advance ourselves, but to contribute to the advancement of us all.
When we got to Union Square, the organizers announced the arrival of our delegation to the crowd of protestors and the surprise in her voice as she called out the name of my school confirmed every belief that I’d harbored about the way we were perceived. Half of us standing there in North Face jackets. Half of us were white. She asked for a speaker and when my fellow students screamed my name, one short syllable, without even a thought. I thought about my great-grandmother and would she be proud of me? And would I do her justice? My time had come to run to the stage, or so I wanted desperately to believe. On stage, as I trembled I felt actual stage fright for one of the only times in my life. People were waiting expectantly, wanting to praise and cheer on what I had to say. So I resorted to the default. I said “we will not be moved.”
Upon reflection, it was the fact that I wanted a stage at all.
Though I craved the ability to bring forth change and not merely attention, my vision of the movement resembled that of a funhouse mirror: curved around myself. I organized, I attempted to inspire my peers to protest, I protested, because I felt the necessity to do what I could singing in my veins. But I wasn’t just compelled to fight because it was my instinct or because it was the right thing to do, part of me yearned to uphold my family legacy. Part of me understood that the heroism my family placed in such a high regard could be partially achieved by being the first to address a crowd or lead students out of a building. I was running not just towards a stage, but to a finish line, like a test I desperately needed to pass.
And if my family legacy was to screw the system, and I squirmed in discomfort every time I missed a march or sit-in, how much did I really differ from my classmates, whose family legacies looked like attending dinners at the Harvard Club and who burned to be able to take their seat at that table? I wanted to do justice to an ancestor of mine who’d always existed as something of a deity in our home. I wanted to wear the enormous Africa-shaped earrings, the tee-shirts with cheeky sayings about melanin, wanted to get my hair braided, wanted to cultivate a woke-as-fuck Instagram with posts about self-love and white people tears, yearned for the whole beautiful black picture of it.
Only later, as I wrote about organizing for Black Lives Matter on my college applications did I shudder, realizing the truth of my own self-congratulations. My family may have made waves in the civil rights movement, but just because our contributions then were significant, just because we'd achieved a small level of fame amongst activist channels, did not mean we had any more claim to this movement than anyone else.
A few weeks after the walkout, my school’s administration asked me to speak on a panel for student activism and in the coming months I kept appearing on more and more of these panels, discussing everything from the need for affinity clubs and the particular details of how teenagers could start non-profits to how early should we really begin introducing the concept of racism in classrooms. On one such panel, I was introducing myself and my so-called accomplishments and the fraudulent feeling settled over me again. I switched back to my default. I was spewing something memorized.
I’d always felt out of place at my school because I felt removed from the culture of competition and the race to be The Best. But perhaps I was only removed when the goal of that competition wasn’t something my family particularly prized or held in high regard. I think back on the months during which I agonized over what I'd said on that stage, in front of those protestors, and what I didn’t say and what I could have said better – and I laugh at myself. No one cared what I had to say. I was just some private school kid in a Lands End coat, shaking with a mic in my hand. Just because I was standing before women who resembled my Queensbridge aunts, who yelled “say it, sister!” did not mean any of the eyes on me had anything to do with me. I might have said my name into the microphone, but for all intents and purposes, I was just a representative of my school, just an extension of the school I judged and despised. Even in writing this I wonder: do I just care about this movement in regard to my ego? Isn’t this actually a struggle against police brutality? I so often criticized white kids for protesting in order to prune their egos and feel good about themselves, but in exploring how I felt about protesting and the need to organize, aren’t I doing the same?
This internal monologue reflects a much larger community of people. Organizing, or feeling like I needed to organize, was a reflex for me. A physical reaction in the same way that ducking heads, shutting up, and lowering eyes is a reflex. I talk about myself as though I have done something, but in reality I am not describing something I made or did or created but rather: something that happened to me. Something that I went through, as every student of color that I know has gone through: a first real confrontation with collective resistance to systemic oppression, a crossroads faced, a calling, a knowledge that history is unraveling before us and that we had to opt into (or out of) it. This movement was always about me and this movement was never about me. People of color do not have a choice as to whether or not we think about this. We simply react in the ways we were taught. We react with our bodies. Our flesh. We react viscerally and immediately. Yet our movements differ. For most privileged black kids in New York City, these reflexes had never been tested before. Mine curled into a fist that then fell limp. But mine was only one muscle out of millions.