In March 2012, nearly a month after George Zimmerman killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, hundreds of high-school students in Miami-Dade and Broward counties staged walkouts to protest the fact that Zimmerman hadn’t been arrested on any charges. A group of current and former Florida college activists knew that they had to do something too. During a series of conference calls, Umi Selah (then known as Phillip Agnew) and others in the group planned a 40-mile march from Daytona Beach to the headquarters of the Sanford Police Department—40 miles symbolizing the 40 days that Zimmerman had remained free. On Good Friday, 50 people set off for Sanford. The march culminated in a five-hour blockade of the Sanford PD’s doors on Easter Monday. The marchers demanded Zimmerman’s arrest and the police chief’s firing. Within two days, both demands had been met.
A little over a year later, a jury found Zimmerman not guilty on charges of second-degree murder or manslaughter. Undeterred by the legal setback, the activists—calling themselves the Dream Defenders—showed up in Tallahassee and occupied the Florida statehouse for four weeks in an effort to push Republican Governor Rick Scott to call a special legislative session to review the state’s “stand your ground” law, racial profiling, and school push-out policies, all of which the organization linked to Martin’s death. Fueled in part by participants sharing updates on Twitter, the occupation became a national story, and Selah fielded a flood of requests from media and progressive organizations. Some wanted to give an award to the Dream Defenders; others wanted to add Selah to lists proclaiming the arrival of a new generation of civil-rights heroes. (One writer said he embodied the spirit of Nelson Mandela.) Others wanted his perspective on the burgeoning racial-justice movement. After a while, Selah wanted none of it.
The breaking point came when a major news outlet profiled him without first conducting an interview. The result, he says, was an account that credited him with successes in social-justice movements he wasn’t even involved in. “If I was a person in the [immigrants’-rights] movement, I would look at this article and think, ‘Who the hell is this dude?’” he told me. “I really panicked. I imagined somebody saying, ‘Why is this dude telling Time magazine that he’s been in the forefront of these movements, and we’ve never seen him here?’”
Selah’s response was to pull himself out of the spotlight. He started declining media requests and posting less often to social media. When he did accept an invitation to speak, his goals were to disavow any hero label thrust on him by others and to demystify the Dream Defenders’ work.
Selah is an organizer, not a media personality, and so the trade-off made sense for him. But for others, that might not be the case. Twitter personality and trailing Baltimore mayoral candidate DeRay Mckesson was described in a recent New York Times profile as “the best-known face of the Black Lives Matter movement” and BLM’s “biggest star.” Now followed by more than 300,000 Twitter users, Mckesson began building his following by live-tweeting the protests in Ferguson in August 2014 after driving there from Minneapolis, where he lived at the time. More than a million mentions and retweets on the social-networking platform made him the protagonist of the Times magazine’s cover story on Black Lives Matter and earned him a spot on Fortune’s World’s Greatest Leaders list. But is he an organizer? The historian Barbara Ransby, author of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, says she defines organizing as “bringing people together for sustained, coordinated, strategic action for change.” Mckesson, who wisely calls himself a “protester,” is doing something else entirely. The problem is that too many of us don’t know to look for the difference.