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'We are our own solution to our problems' — Lincoln youth lead local protest movement
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'We are our own solution to our problems' — Lincoln youth lead local protest movement

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BLM leaders

The young organizers who have led several peaceful protests in Lincoln over the past week stand outside the Nebraska Capitol on Friday, June 5.

Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tamir Rice.

On Friday night at the state Capitol, members of the Black Leaders Movement lit each other's candles as they stood on the north steps.

Then, in a solemn and emotional moment, the small group of young people walked toward the crowd and lit more candles in remembrance of the lives of those killed by police in recent years. 

In minutes, what started as one flame spread through a crowd of hundreds across K Street and Centennial Mall.

Protests only a first step: Lincoln task force to focus on police accountability

That is exactly what these young people, between the ages of 15 and 24, endeavor to do this summer: Spread their message from one to another until so many are aflame that the city can no longer ignore it.

The group, affiliated with Black Lives Matter, has been instrumental in organizing peaceful events nightly after protests over the death of Floyd in Minneapolis spawned violence and rioting last weekend.

These are their stories. Who they are, how they got here and where they hope to go.

LeeAaron Berks, 19

LeeAaron Berks

LeeAaron Berks

LeeAaron Berks knows his words can be abrasive.

If his speeches at the Capitol and County-City Building in the past week have made people uncomfortable, then they might give a glimpse into how uncomfortable he is when he interacts with police, the Lincoln High School graduate said.

Once, Berks said, he was followed in his car by Lincoln police, pulled over, and referred to by a different name. He said police believed he was a man they had an arrest warrant for, even after he showed them his ID. They took him back to their squad car, ran his identification, and let him go without telling him why he had been stopped, he said.

Lincoln law enforcement officers meet, take knee with black community leaders

Berks said that kind of discrimination, compounded with the injustice he sees across the nation, are what have driven him to speak to those gathered at the recent Black Lives Matter rallies.

Berks had never spoken in public before last week, and he gets nervous each time that he's up on the Capitol steps. But he said his message is more important than his nerves.

“We all know right from wrong,” Berks said. “But just seeing people that constantly do what is right because they know what is right, I think that’s important.”

Berks said he hopes white people who hear his words take a moment to reflect on the privileges they've enjoyed, and how their lives might be different if they had not had those opportunities. Then, he said, people of privilege should use their voices to amplify voices fighting for justice.

“Instead of using that privilege to stay above and keep the difference, use it to do what is right," he said. "Use it to show, 'Hey, this is not right.'”

Feeling uncomfortable is part of what can drive people to make a change, Berks said, and he believes that everyone should be uncomfortable with injustice.

“They know it is wrong,” he said. “So if they know it is wrong, why are you allowing it?”

Apollo Matthews, 21

Apollo Matthews

Apollo Matthews

A week ago, Apollo Matthews was just a guy working at a marketing firm and making music in his spare time. Now, he said, his community has called on him to do something greater.

Matthews said he went to one of the protests last week and saw some of his friends leading the crowd. He realized then that he could help make a difference.

The local black community is very close, Matthews said, and when one member suffers, the rest come together to help out. He said that is part of the reason he’s so passionate about the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

“If we see one of them fall, and we don’t do something, what would that say about us?” he said.

At first, Matthews said, he started chants and got the crowd excited. Now he does a little bit of everything, but he primarily operates as a security guard at the protests while also encouraging people to vote.

Watch Now: Lincoln protesters have peaceful message Tuesday

In his eyes, Matthews said, voting is one of the best ways to make systemic change with long-term effects.

“I think that should be emphasized in this community,” he said. “I think we can make change through that.”

Ta'mircle Washington, 17

Ta'Mircle Washington

Ta'Mircle Washington

When Ta'mircle Washington first came out to the protests last weekend, she noticed there wasn’t anyone in charge. “TiTi,” as her friends call her, didn’t let things stay that way for long.

The Houston native is a Lincoln High student and good friends with Dario Rossin, one of the other organizers. When she and Rossin watched confrontations between police and protesters become chaotic last weekend, they knew something had to be done.

“That was disastrous,” she said.

As more organizers joined them, Washington said, the Black Leaders Movement was formed, and the protests began to take a more peaceful and coordinated shape. The week has had ups and downs, she said, and all of the organizers are exhausted. But they’ve become close through the experience.

Washington said she’s glad to be protesting peacefully after the chaos of last weekend, and she’s glad to have come together with the other organizers.

“We became a big old family,” she said.

Malaysia Perry, 19

Malaysia Perry

Malaysia Perry

Malaysia Perry said she’s been out protesting and organizing every night because her community and every community is worthy of a fair criminal justice system.

“People deserve it,” she said. “People deserve change.”

While Perry said she’s exhausted and sometimes overwhelmed after a week of protests, the support of those who have gathered nightly reminds her why she’s doing this. After the chaos of last weekend, she said, a more peaceful atmosphere is helping kids and older people feel safe protesting.

Still, Perry said, the constant meetings, rallies and media attention have taken a toll.

“I’m still trying to process because it’s all happened so fast,” she said.

Perry said she’s especially glad that more people feel comfortable coming to the protests now that the atmosphere is more peaceful.

“I’ve gotten so many people who have come up to me and told me we gave them a voice,” she said.

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Bryanna Schade, 23

Bryanna Schade

Bryanna Schade

Bryanna Schade saw plenty of energy when she attended a Black Lives Matter protest earlier in the week, but she knew the organizers — many still in high school or just graduated — needed guidance.

Over the course of the week, the North Platte native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate said she’s offered advice, but said she’s learned a lot, too.

“We’re all here helping each other hone each other’s skills,” she said.

And as the movement has begun to take shape across the nation, things in Lincoln have gotten more organized, Schade said. The Black Leaders Movement has begun to meet with state and city leaders and host more-elaborate demonstrations.

As a black woman, Schade said, staying on the sideline during this time wasn’t an option.

“I have to fight for my life,” she said. “I’m black.”

Shade said she understands the full scale of the movement, but thinks the work being done in Lincoln is important.

“I am just a little grain of sand in the pile of sand that is going to change everything,” she said.

Dario Rossin, 17

Dario Rossin

Dario Rossin

Dario Rossin serves as the Black Leaders Movement's self-appointed “hype man,” leading chants and pumping up the crowd before speeches and during marches.

He credits his aptitude for that to his ADHD, which he’s glad to have found an outlet for.

“Even in my dreams, I’m hyper,” he said.

Rossin said he was with a group peacefully protesting George Floyd's death when looters hit the EZ Go gas station near 25th and O streets in the early morning hours of  May 30.

“I said, ‘This is not how it should be,’” Rossin said.

The next two nights, the Ghana native and Lincoln High student was marching again, peacefully resisting the police, but the chaos of that weekend made clear to him and his growing band of fellow organizers that more orderly, peaceful protests needed to follow. 

“Me and my ‘family’ flipped that, and now we have a peaceful protest,” he said.

For Rossin, this movement is about spreading joy through the pain that people are feeling as they fight for justice.

“The people give me motivation when they come out to support us,” he said.

He plans to join the military after high school to fight for freedom around the world. Until then, he said, he’ll fight for his own rights and the rights of others here at home.

KaDeja Sangoyele, 24

KaDeja Sangoyele

KaDeja Sangoyele

Most 24-year-olds don’t find themselves making phone calls to discuss policy with their city's mayor, especially inside one week of joining an organization. KaDeja Sangoyele has been on those calls this week.

The Lincoln High graduate and UNL student said she attended the Black Lives Matter protest at the Capitol on Monday night, and she helped the organizers coordinate a moment of silence. Afterward, she said they asked her to speak, and the rest has been a whirlwind.

Sangoyele may be one of the later additions to the Black Leaders Movement, but she said she’s been working for justice in her community for years. She's an impassioned speaker, but she said she doesn't prepare her remarks.

“I don't need to prepare anything for something that I’ve lived,” she said.

Sangoyele said she knows the outcome of the movement has to be substantive policy changes in the way local law enforcement operates. She said the group is working on a series of policy demands. She said it will call for more police training in implicit bias and deescalation, as well as increased body camera usage and better definitions of key terms to the issue.

While Sangoyele said the Black Leaders Movement did not participate in forming the Hold Cops Accountable task force in Lincoln announced last week, the group is supportive of its goals and hopes to work alongside them. The Black Leaders Movement met with Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird and other city leaders and state senators Friday and plan to continue those conversations.

In a speech earlier in the week, Sangoyele accused Gaylor Baird of only “paying lip service” to the protests without laying out policy changes, and she said she will continue to believe that until real changes are made.

“I’m not gonna be a prop,” she said. “And I stand by that.”

Failed by policymakers and politicians in the past, Sangoyele said it’s vital that young black people directly call for change themselves.

“We are our own solution to our problems,” she said.

Alexandre Benamon, 15

Alexandre Benamon

Alexandre Benamon

Alexandre Benamon said he joined the movement because he knows the power of adding his own voice to the chorus.

“I have a voice,” he said. “I have things that I want to say, and I would feel wrong if I didn't put my part into this.”

At 15, Benamon is the youngest member of Black Leaders Movement, but he feels like he can help older members as he learns from them.

“I’m learning and I’m teaching,” he said.

It’s been an emotional week, he said, but he’s glad the group has worked to clarify its message, and he’s learning valuable skills.

Dominique Liu-Sang, 20

Dominique Liu-Sang

Dominique Liu-Sang

For Dominique Liu-Sang, this movement is all about the people she’s trying to help.

The Friend High School graduate and UNL student said her Mormon faith has taught her to see the dignity in every person, and she sees Black Lives Matter as a way to fight for justice for those who are not being afforded it. Liu-Sang was angry, she said, about killings by police across the country, but also by the treatment of protesters here in Lincoln.

“That’s why I said, ‘I will be arrested for this cause,’” she said.

And Liu-Sang was arrested Sunday night by local law enforcement for protesting past the curfew. By Tuesday, she was back at the Capitol peacefully protesting again, this time alongside the Black Leaders Movement.

Liu-Sang said she hopes people understand that this movement is made up of regular kids. She loves sushi, she plays video games and she was in the FFA in high school. But the reason she’ll keep fighting for this movement is simple, she said. 

“To see people violently arrested didn’t sit well with me,” she said.