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Nationwide Protests Are Decentralized, But Coordinated


One of the leading voices in what sometime's called the Black Lives Matter movement is Phillip Agnew. He's executive director of the Dream Defenders, a Florida-based advocacy organization that emerged in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing. And he joins me now from our studios in New York. Phillip Agnew, welcome to the program.

PHILLIP AGNEW: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Now, you and other civil rights leaders - young civil rights activists met last week with President Obama. And you outlined some pretty specific demands. Can you give us two or three of them?

AGNEW: Well, I want to start with saying, you know, we don't purport to be, and we never announce ourselves to be, civil rights leaders. And that's a hallmark of this movement. And I know we'll talk about that, but it's also an important delineation about where this movement is, where it's headed and the differences between where it once was. The demands we laid out for the president were really simple. The first was that he uses his bully pulpit. That's more than a speech. That's more than a statement. That's more than even the minor reforms that he offered up post our meeting last Monday. This is spending the next two years of his administration, which - from our point of view, he has less and less friends up there in Washington, D.C. Anything that he does is going to be met with contention, so why not go for broke?

The second demand that we laid forward for President Obama was to end the 1033 Program. It's a military program that allows local police districts and school districts to receive military-grade weaponry from the federal government. The third demand was that he follows the law. And the law says that if you receive federal funding - that means money from the government - any money from the government - that you cannot have a pattern of discrimination.

CORNISH: Now, you bristled when I used the term civil rights leader. And I want to know why because some people look back at, say, the Occupy movement, and that was a movement that was criticized for being ineffective in some respects because there were not designated leaders, right?

AGNEW: Well, I - you know, I think our job in a movement is to make the room big enough for anybody to get in there. And, you know, we are leaders. We believe that we are leaders amongst leaders, but we aren't the leaders. And what was important to us - because this meeting that was called with the president was very complex, right? We had to defend our backbone. We had to defend why we took the invitation not just to politicals but to our very own people who were not allowed in that room, to people who lived in Ferguson who had been calling and asking for the president to come to Ferguson and have been rebuffed at every turn. And so it was important for us as leaders of organizations and as leaders in our community that the president knows that we are not the voice or the spokespeople for the entirety of the movement which is complex, which is diverse. You know, this movement has always been guided by people who are very, very brave. And often times it's leaders that are following the people.

CORNISH: You know, we mentioned earlier Phoenix, Cleveland, Denver, some other places where we're seeing protests. Talk about the organization. I mean, is this something that is very coordinated? Have you reached out to these cities or some of these other places?

AGNEW: This is decentralized, but it is coordinated. Folks are having conference calls almost on a daily basis, and these aren't spontaneous. This is the result of people who have been working in the communities already. And there's infrastructure there in a lot of these places - Phoenix, as you mentioned, in Berkeley and Oakland - you know those are hotbeds for organizing. But then there's also a lot of excitement around this moment that draws people and allows us to capture a lot more momentum than we typically have in other times. And so it's a mix of both.

CORNISH: Earlier in my introduction, I called this part of the so-called Black Lives movement. Do you feel like that's what it's called or what it's being called?

AGNEW: Yes. This is a movement for black lives. And it's not to exclude other lives, but black lives are rarely, rarely talked about with respect or with humanity, and so this is. I do think so. And I think it's an important moment. I know some of the folks that started that hash tag - Opal, Patrisse, Alicia. These are amazing women that brought together a rallying cry that people have gotten behind. And I think it's this generation's black power. It says to people that I mean something. I deserve more. I am human. And I'm going to force you, whether it's by blocking the road, whether it's by dying-in, whether it's by interrupting the shopping season, to acknowledge that, even if it's uncomfortable for you.

CORNISH: Phillip Agnew, thank you so much for speaking with us.

AGNEW: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. It was an honor.

CORNISH: That was Phillip Agnew. He's the executive director of the Dream Defenders, a Florida-based advocacy organization. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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