Over the last month, New Hampshire has seen some of the largest demonstrations in recent memory, with hundreds protesting against police brutality and racial injustice. One of the major forces behind these is a group of Black Lives Matter activists in their early twenties, who’ve known each other for years.
NHPR’s Sarah Gibson caught up with them about what it’s been like to lead this movement.
Back in 2016, a group of Manchester high school students organized a protest. Among them were Ronelle Tshiela, Tyrell Whitted and Eli Kendrick, who were galvanized by the police killing of Philando Castile.
Fast forward to 2020 - with the news of George Floyd and other Black citizens killed by police, Tshiela says it felt like nothing had changed.
“We were all kind of angry on social media,” she explains. “And I remember Tyrell adding me in a tweet and going ‘We should hit the streets again,’ and then Eli said ‘I’m down.’ And then we all fell in line and we were like ‘Cool, we’re going to do something on Saturday,’ and everything kind of snowballed from there.”
Tyrell Whitted, now a student at Plymouth State University, wrote his speech on the way to the march in downtown Manchester. When he arrived to Veteran’s Park, he found a crowd estimated at nearly a thousand.
“We have to live everyday wondering whether we will die naturally or be slaughtered by the system built against us,” he said into a loudspeaker. “We literally say ‘Black lives matter’ because we don’t know if America knows that.”
Erika Perez, another member of the group from high school that reunited to organize the Black Lives Matter march, says she wasn’t planning to launch a movement at the age of 21, but people were looking to them for answers.
“Everyone’s like ‘What’s next, what’s next, what’s next?’ And it was like: we can’t put this down again,” she recalls.
A few days later, the friends organized a vigil. They began making calls to elected officials, organizing a youth forum, and more protests with other social justice groups.
Perez says this feels different from 2016.
“Last time we were kids. This time it’s like, if we need something, I feel like we can get someone to try to help us. We can get someone to print posters; we can get someone to get us a PA system, we can get someone to get us a stage, a permit for the park. We have access to the senators, the governor, the mayor,” she says.
The group of six says these conversations - with public officials, potential allies, and each other - have taken over their lives. They coordinate their work and activism schedules with a shared Google calendar and communicate throughout the day.
On top of that, the groups in Manchester and Nashua aren't affiliated yet with the global network of Black Lives Matter. To become official, they need to become a non-profit.
“We’re all 20 years old, you know, so we never thought - I don’t want to speak for anyone else here - that we would be starting non profits at this age,” says Jordan Thompson, a community organizer from Nashua who works on racial justice issues with the ACLU-NH.
Even as it becomes more recognized, the group regularly encounters accusations that they’re a terrorist group or that they’re exaggerating the extent of racism in New Hampshire.
But Eli Kendrick, a member of the group who grew up in Manchester and now works as an ER technician, says racism is part of his daily life.
“I’m paranoid to drive every day,” he told a crowd at a recent youth forum in Manchester. “I don’t drive with anything in my pockets. I’ll either put it on the dashboard - my wallet, my phone, anything like that, just so if I get pulled over it doesn’t seem like I’m reaching for something. I want you guys to really understand how crazy that is for us that I have to do that every day.”
Kendrick’s high school friend Mohamed Elhassan, now a student at SNHU, recently became an official member of the group. He does a lot of the chapter's web and social media. He says his family - originally from Sudan - is still getting used to his activism.
“My mom’s worried, definitely. She’s a very conservative woman, so even if there’s things that are kind of affecting us, she’s worried about safety more than anything else," he says. "So if I tell her I’m coming to things she’s super nervous, super scared, but she’s proud of me trying to get involved.”
This group is writing a new playbook for how to build a racial justice movement in New Hampshire. They coordinate some of their work with local chapters of the NAACP, but they turn to each other for mentorship.
“We lean on each other so much. Whenever there is feedback, whenever we come across something ridiculous we’re like ‘I got to send this into the group chat,’” says Thompson. “Honestly, if I didn’t have these people around, I would lose my mind every day.”
The organizers say this work is their calling, but they can’t do it alone.
“I wish people would realize that we can’t fight every fight and we can’t be everyone’s superhero,” says Tshiela, who is on summer break from University of New Hampshire where she studies political science. “We had people ask us if we could organize protests for the mayor to open up swimming pools and I’m just like ‘people are dying,’ you know what I mean? Not only that, but they’re like ‘what about this issue? what about this issue?’ and I’m like: ‘We’re talking about them but I’m also 21 years old!’”
About a week ago, the group had their first non-organizing hangout since the protest started. They went out to dinner in Manchester.
“I just remember there was this moment where we were standing on the corner of Elm Street and it felt weird, simply because it felt like in that moment we could just be us for once,” says Tshiela. “We weren’t under this microscope and no one was looking at us and no one was asking us questions, you know what I mean? And I just felt so free.”
But a few days later, it was back to work. This past weekend at the state house, the group announced their list of seven policy demands for this year’s candidates for governor, focusing on holding elected officials and police accountable for racial bias and racism.
And they vowed to not back down.
“We are not going anywhere,” Tshiela yelled into the microphone. “Black Lives Matter is not going anywhere. We mattered yesterday. We matter today. And we’ll matter tomorrow!”
Back at home, the group is pushing for greater diversity in the curriculum and staff of Manchester public schools, where most of them went. Perez and Tshiela are also organizing more community events to, in Tshiela’s words, “make Manchester something it’s never been before.”