In December of 2014 after former police officer Darren Wilson was not indicted for shooting and killing 18-year old Michael Brown, Synead Nichols (Cid for short) and friend Umaara Elliott decided to take action. Together they organized what would become one of the largest protests in recent US history, Millions March NYC (MMNYC). What started out as simply creating a Facebook event, turned into something that was much bigger than Synead and Umaara. We spoke with Cid about what it took to organize the event. Although we’ve yet to see an end to the use of excessive force among law enforcement, nor the end of implicit and sometimes explicit bias within the US judicial system, Cid’s story is a blueprint on what activism in the age of technology can look like.
Social media played an instrumental part in getting the word about the protest out, as did creating a team, setting a goal and getting the support of influencers and organizations with the same agenda.
When did you decide, ‘enough is enough’ and began planning Millions March?
It was March 25th and I was walking home after a long night of protesting. I had just come from the Triboro Bridge after marching from Union Square all the way to Harlem after hearing the non-indictment verdict of officer Darren Wilson. Hearing that a young boy’s life would not be brought to justice because of a nepotistic system that solely favors white people is extremely hard to swallow. After encountering situation after situation, conversation after conversation, moment after moment of blatant racial injustices, you are finally on the brink. Emotions were most definitely high and my spirits weren’t exactly down. They were rising faster and faster.
After reaching my destination, with a dead phone and no computer, I just started to think, what else? What else is there to do? What else can we do? And that’s when I thought: you have to look at the moments that have occurred prior Cid–the occupation of Tahir Square in Egypt where tens of thousands protested, Mexico City where tens of thousands protested against corruption and the massacre of students. There are revolutions happening everywhere because people have had enough.
So I got on the computer and I just started making the event on Facebook. I just started going. I kept thinking there are millions of people in New York City… we have to do something. I started reaching out to people, I had to invite guests one by one via my Facebook account and just ask other people to share the page and invite guests. It was in that moment I thought to myself: This is it. Let’s see what happens… and what happened was far beyond what I could imagine.
Did you experience any setbacks or doubts while organizing the march? If so, what were they?
Honestly, I had personal setbacks. I had not been paid for two months at my job at the time and I had just moved back into the city from Nazareth, Pennsylvania. When I finally got paid, I had a lot less than I had expected and I didn’t have enough money to move into my new apartment. Luckily enough, I managed to scrounge together the rest of the money, but getting that money together meant that I would have zero dollars in my bank account. And that’s what it was. I was broke and with being broke I started to think of all the things that could go wrong with the march because this is definitely not good.
But to be honest, the support system that we had within MMNYC was one of the best collectives of people that I had ever come across. We had so many people on the ground tackling issues, problems, and situations left and right. Everyone was so positive about the success of this particular moment that, despite the abundance of work everyone had, it was pretty much as smooth as we could get it.
What were your expectations for the march and were they fulfilled?
All I wanted was for people to come out in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and the overall Black Liberation Movement. If 20 people came out, I would have marched with 20 people. My expectations were beyond exceeded.
Celebrities like Russell Simmons and Nas attended the march. Could you explain how that came about?
Social media. The march just spread around the city so fast that we didn’t even know they had even known about it until Umaara and I started receiving texts with screenshots of Kerry Washington. Miley Cyrus, Nas, Russell Simmons and the like tweeting our flyer. Then we found out Justice League ended up getting word of the march and started to spread it out on social media. I could imagine that with all that’s happening within our communities it’s hard not to say or do something.
You’ve given special thanks to organizations such as Justice League NYC, Ferguson Action and Millions Hoodies Movement for Justice for their involvement. What role did they play in the organization of Millions March?
All of these organizations were vital in so many aspects: funding, outreach, education, media planning, I can’t even name everything because there were so many people within these organizations willing to help organize in whatever way they knew best and were able to.
There were many scuffles documented between demonstrators and law enforcement throughout the city. How did you successfully avoid such disturbances during the Millions March?
To be honest, there was just no space to do that! There were too many people out in the streets. Individuals with disabilities, parents with their newborns, mothers, fathers, children… We were there to stand united. We had a focus and all 50,000 people and more stuck to that.
On December 21st, 2014, a little over a week after the Millions March, two NYPD officers were shot and killed, in what was believed to be revenge killings. Many blamed recent protests, including yours as incentive for the murders. Have you experienced any direct backlash as a result?
Millions March NYC did receive some backlash, but they were your usual twitter, Facebook, cyber bullies and ignoramuses. People were still very much supportive and stood behind us.
Of the Eric Garner/Mike Brown protests, Oprah famously said, “I think what those peaceful demonstrations need is leadership and intention. Like, we’re demonstrating to get what? These are our demands for what? I haven’t seen, now, a clear leader emerging.” What would you say in response to that?
Personally, I feel that we are in a different era. It’s not right to invalidate the work of so many people because there’s not “one leader.” I don’t think it’s fair to put so much pressure on an individual. For them to bear all of the pain, stress, and backlash that comes with organizing and fighting for the liberation of people of color just seems like a bit much. I believe people are very used to this norm of one person carrying the torch, but why are we sticking to norms? We are stepping outside of the rules because the rules do not apply here anymore. They stopped applying when the news of another person of color, a child, was murdered.
We also have to look at the advent of technology and the effectiveness of social media. Where we were only able to have just one face, one person, one man to represent millions, we now have millions of people to represent us. There are so many individuals who have organized and have received absolutely no recognition for their work because there was no platform to highlight their contributions or they were just too out of reach. Now, people can hear about the work of those organizing from everywhere corner because there is a way to get to them now. There are many of us who are willing to be leaders not just for everyone else, but also for each other. We all have skill sets, talents, and capabilities that we can all benefit from if we interconnect and use them in a more collective oriented fashion.
I also think there should be more focus on having more attainable demands as well instead of making demands that are too grandiose and ultimately are not met. When you have more focused community-changing policies, that’s when you can start restructuring the framework of neighborhoods and work outwards.
You’ve studied dance and music your entire life. How do you feel the arts play a role in activism and how would you like to see other artists do their part in making a difference
Being an artist I approach everything I do creatively and just through an internal process. Expression. I think when you are just genuine with your art and yourself, people become attracted to that because they see or find themselves in what you do. This is why celebrities and artists play such an important role in this movement. They are impacting lives in so many ways without even realizing. They can use their social platforms to move people because people will listen to them. Whether we like it or not, they’ve got power. What is important to keep in mind is how the power is wielded. I just think we can be way more effective with how we make a difference.
With the global recognition of figures like Malala Yousafzai and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichied, and the success of Emma Watson’s famed gender equality campaign, HeforShe, do you feel like the face of activism have changed?
I feel people are collectively at the edge. With feminism, there is a platform that’s being gained with the popularity of female empowerment. Luckily enough, there are women in the public eye who are succeeding in bringing attention to the plight of women as well as race. The face of activism is no longer men at the forefront, but women. Especially queer women of color. Also, with so many diverse, interracial, and multicultural families developing around the world, people have more attachment to each other. More people in the world are Black and Brown. Where people were separated by six degrees, we’re now separated by four degrees and continuously dwindling. More people have reasons to stand up against the atrocities formed by a vicious system such as White Supremacy because there are just more people who are personally and deeply affected by it.
What made you think you could do it?
I am, by far, probably one of the most optimistic individuals you will meet. I’ve often been ragged on for my idealistic nature, but ultimately that same idealism is exactly what led me to believe that all of this was possible. As I stated earlier, look to Egypt and Mexico. They made it happen. Did they know they could do it? I don’t know, but I certainly knew there was no other choice other than making this happen.