Thousands became activists in 2020. Organizers say they expect a dip in participation and that’s OK

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Protesters raised a fist in honor of Walter Wallace Jr. on the eve of the release of officer body cam footage of Wallace’s shooting. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Protesters raised a fist in honor of Walter Wallace Jr. on the eve of the release of officer body cam footage of Wallace’s shooting. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Nile Shareef-Trudeau’s life changed this summer.

As an 18-year-old Black Philadelphian, she felt compelled to join racial justice protests this summer demanding an end to police brutality. Shareef-Trudeau had never really seen herself as an activist, or taken her beliefs to the streets, but between June and July she joined thousands in protests at least a half-dozen times.

She was one of dozens of protesters police trapped on I-676 and tear-gassed.

“It will stay with me forever,” Shareef-Trudeau said. “It’s been more motivation to keep fighting.”

Still, Shareef-Trudeau didn’t attend any protests in August because coronavirus cases started to rise and her parents didn’t want her out. Then school started – she’s a senior in high school – and protests became less frequent.

Engagement drop off is something grassroots organizations think about anytime there’s a surge in activism. And 2020 has been a historic year for organizing in the Philadelphia region.

From the racial justice protests that consumed Philadelphia and its suburbs for months, to a groundswell of get-out-the-vote efforts in a pandemic, 2020 prompted people of all races and ages to get involved any way they could. As we near the end of the year, with a new president-elect and some gains in police reform, some organizers expect an inevitable dip in participation, and they say it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Rev. Mark Tyler is co-director of POWER Live Free, the interfaith group’s campaign focused on issues like ending gun violence and mass incarceration. He actually expects people like Shareef-Trudeau to come and go.

“I think that there’s a natural ebb and flow to the work of organizing … where there’s a core group that is always present, that’s always at the table, that’s always in the face of elected officials and always standing before the public, you know, saying that this is important,” explained Tyler, who is a senior pastor at Mother Bethel AME Church in Society Hill.

But Tyler said there will be others for whom work, school and family obligations make that impossible.

At the end of the day, he said it’s always going to be difficult to get thousands of people to protest or attend meetings when there’s not a news headline or hot-button issue, such as police reform, driving them to action.

Just last year, his organization started a series of town halls to discuss police reforms that it hoped the public could get behind. The subject, however, didn’t draw as much interest as it did in the months after police killed George Floyd, which in turn brought renewed anger over the killing of Breonna Taylor and other unarmed Black people.

“We recognize that, you know, when big moments happen, it opens the door for a groundswell of support,” Tyler said. “I can’t speak for other people, but it doesn’t bother me that people come and go, because … people have jobs. They’ve got other responsibilities.”

The people most affected by over policing, said Tyler, usually don’t have the time to attend countless legislative meetings and phone calls.

Tyler said he used to get frustrated by the drop-off in engagement, but that’s where he likens his work to that of a farmer. Activists, he said, need to develop their platforms and demands for when the next groundswell of support comes. Just like farmers who have no idea if their harvest will be successful, but must tend to their crops anyway. This principle applies to groups rallying behind local or national change, explained Tyler.

When it comes to national issues, he said the onus is on people who are paid to organize not to get complacent as President Donald Trump — a major inspiration for people engaging in some form of activism for the first time — leaves office.

“It is incumbent upon us not to do what we did in 2008,” Tyler said. “In 2008, we believed wrongly, many of us who are a little bit younger, that by electing Barack Obama he would go and just do everything that we needed and we didn’t have to push him. We recognize now the fallacy in that. You can trust and believe that we will push Joe Biden and his administration every bit as much as we have done with Donald Trump.”

Devren Washington, senior policy organizer with Movement Alliance Project, which advocates for internet access for schools and community reinvestment, also expects a lot of people to become disengaged for one reason or another.

“But a lot of the people will also say, a lot of people have been radicalized now, pushed further to the left,” said Washington, and when the next wave of activism comes, these people will come back with greater ease.

Washington said ideas like diverting resources from police departments and redirecting them into communities are here to stay, and a cadre of new organizers will rally around the issue effectively, even if it’s with smaller ranks.

“I think before George Floyd, if anyone said ‘defund the police’ everyone would have been like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Washington said. “But now, because they’ve been thrust into the mainstream conversation, it gives organizers the space to be able to push for these things outside of the context of major movements, or major times of action, where there are thousands of people in the street demanding a thing.”

Washington said the work of organizers is to educate people and find ways they can continue to advance their agenda.

Just last week, dozens of residents testified in a first-ever public hearing on police contracts, demanding more transparency in how the city manages them. The idea that residents could even weigh-in on police contracts came from grassroots organizers before the summer of racial justice protests, Tyler said.

So as people take a step back from marching, showing up to public meetings, and decompress from a chaotic election in the middle of a pandemic, Tyler said the long-term activists who do this for a living will continue to engage the community and craft their vision of the future.

For Shareef-Trudeau, taking a step back was about listening to her parents and going to school, but it was also a way to preserve her mental health and her activism in the long term.

The weekend Biden was declared the winner of the election, parades and celebrations took over the city, but instead, Shareef-Trudeau marched again, for the first time since the summer. It was a small march protesting the over policing of Black and brown neighborhoods.

“Although it’s been tough to stay on top of the fight for justice, we’re not done,” she said. “There’s still so much work to be done … and I’m ready when there is another call.”

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