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National

'Black Lives Matter' Activists Meet in Cleveland to Plot Movement's Future

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The #blacklivesmatter hashtag became a powerful tool to mobilize thousands of protesters angered over recent police killings of unarmed black men, but many activists acknowledge that hashtag alone can't sustain the movement. They're meeting tomorrow in Cleveland to start figuring out how to turn their protests online and in the streets into real change. Adrian Florido of NPR's Code Switch team has more.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, Tamir Rice in Cleveland - all household names, thanks to thousands of activists who took to social media and the streets to protest their deaths at the hands of police. But for months now, a handful of leaders within this protest movement have been trying to figure out where to take it next. To help figure that out, they decided to do something that isn't possible on Twitter.

MAURICE MITCHELL: We thought it was appropriate and necessary for us to bring people together.

FLORIDO: That's Maurice Mitchell. He's a Cleveland-based organizer and one of the leaders who planned this week's conference at Cleveland State University. They're expecting 800 black activists from across the country.

MITCHELL: This convening is a place where we can sharpen our demands and create a space to figure out where we go next and how we make sure that this tremendous power and this tremendous building of energy lands in a real way where our people in our local communities really feel changes.

FLORIDO: There are lots of possibilities for that change. Do they push for new laws locally and nationally? Start a new civil rights organization? Back political candidates? No one really knows yet, but lots of people are eager to find out. One is Nat Williams. He's executive director of the Washington-based Hill-Snowdon Foundation, which is helping to fund this week's conference.

NAT WILLIAMS: These founding moments are very critical. When you look back in history, you usually do see a gathering that launches, you know, substantive and deep social transformation over a period of time.

FLORIDO: He points to the conference that black leaders like W.E.B Du Bois held at Niagara Falls in 1905, which led to the formation of the NAACP. Williams says the movement for black lives is ushering in a new chapter in the fight for racial justice, and because it's led by many young people, it's drawing in a new generation that hasn't really connected with traditional groups like the NAACP. That's why Williams's foundation has committed nearly a million dollars in grants over three years.

WILLIAMS: This is not just about police accountability. This is really about trying to develop the political institutional power, to address any issue of social significance that limits the ability for the black community to thrive.

FLORIDO: But the conference in Cleveland won't only be about strategy. Organizers are calling it a safe healing space, a place where activists will be able to talk openly about their experiences with racism, and there'll be counselors on hand.

Waltrina Middleton is another of the conference organizers. She says this weekend's gathering will be like a brush arbor - those places where slaves held secret meetings to organize, pray and express emotions.

WALTRINA MIDDLETON: That's what this gives us, a brush arbor experience to come together in love and support of one another.

FLORIDO: Middleton says even today, these safe spaces can be elusive for black people. Her cousin was DePayne Middleton Doctor. She was one of the nine people killed during a prayer meeting at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church last month. Washington. Adrian Florido, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.