“You promised me you wouldn’t kill me. I didn’t do anything.”
Natasha McKenna was naked and her hands were cuffed behind her back when five sheriff’s deputies from Fairfax County, Virginia, entered her cell. The 37-year-old mother — a diagnosed schizophrenic also suffering from bipolar disorder and depression — had her feet shackled and her face covered to prevent spitting or biting. The officers were wearing full hazmat suits and helmets, one carried a riot shield. Outside of the room, four additional officers in uniform watched the scene, including one who controlled her upper body via a strap from her handcuffs, passing through a slot in the cell door.
“Stop resisting,” they told her. “Hold still.”
Writhing in pain from the weight of the bodies stacked on top of her 130-pound frame, she was struck with a 50,000-volt shock. Once. Twice. Three times. A fourth. Then she lost consciousness. Natasha McKenna died in police custody in February, five days after that incident in the cell. When a 48-minute video of the mentally ill woman being restrained was released earlier this month, activists Johnetta Elzie, 26, and Brittany Packnett, 30, were among the first to respond on Twitter.
“The video [of the] killing of #NatashaMcKenna should be a scene from a horror movie. But this is real life. Black in America.,” Packnett wrote.
“Every employee at that jail is guilty. Not 1 tried to stop these men from brutalizing #NatashaMcKenna’s naked body. Not 1 valued her life.,” a tweet from Elzie reads.
Each of the whip-smart St. Louis natives boasts an impressive online following. They use outlets like Twitter to call for accountability when Americans die at the hands of state sanctioned officials, or under the watch of police employed to protect them.
“Social media allows us to speak our own truths for ourselves,” Packnett told Women in the World in an interview. She and Elzie began publically pushing back against police brutality in August 2014, when 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black and unarmed, was shot dead by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s death prompted a national conversation about how race and class intersect with policing in the United States. America’s eyes opened to a struggle long recognized as reality in poor, non-white communities. A mantra used by the activists protesting the death of Trayvon Martin – one reiterated by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) this week – became household rhetoric: “Black lives matter.”
Alongside other young activists, Packnett and Elzie launched the Ferguson Protester Newsletter. “We had no handbook on how the movement should work, what it should look or feel like,” Elzie explained. Packnett served as behind-the-scenes support and Elzie (or Netta, as she’s known to her 73,000+ followers) was a co-curator, giving the public “the most truthful stories” coming out of Ferguson. As the world watched the protests unfold, they turned to Elzie, Packnett and their fellow Black Lives Matter comrades for information.
“Ours is a story of friendship and love built in struggle,” Packnett said.
Violence continued once protestors left Ferguson’s streets. Across the United States, with each new victim-turned-hashtag, Packnett and Elzie were there — on the front lines protesting, or online, sharing information as it became available. Cases like Natasha McKenna’s and that of Sandra Bland, whose improper lane change in July prompted a violent arrest (caught on dash cam) and who later died in jail by hanging, proved that their mission has purpose.
“[Even] with my college degree and full-time employment, I could have been Sandra Bland,” argued Packnett, who has been appointed to the Ferguson Commission and President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Before Elzie was arrested during a peaceful protest in St. Louis last month, she tweeted a disclaimer that alluded to Bland’s death: “If I’m arrested today please know I’m not suicidal. I have plenty to live for. I did not resist, I’m just black.”
A year after Ferguson, she and Packnett launched Campaign Zero with fellow activists DeRay Mckesson and Samuel Sinyangwe, who doubles as the group’s data scientist. Campaign Zero’s 10-point agenda, aimed at reducing police violence in the United States, serves as more than a response to those who criticize the Black Lives Matter movement for its lack of specified goals. (To be clear, Black Lives Matter is a specific organization and also the name of a larger, overarching movement comprised of different groups fighting for racial equality, which includes Campaign Zero.) Packnett considers Campaign Zero’s agenda a push for accountability, a blue-print for officials and a tool for communities – employable to “anyone who is about the business of substantive improvements to end police violence in America.”
Protest and policy can work hand in hand, she said, and the group is determined to stick to their motto: “low ego, high impact.”
“Each of us has a role to play in this movement,” Packnett explained. “Campaign Zero is the recognition that even while we pursue equitable, alternative structures and systems, policy will continue to govern our lives and must be addressed with urgency.” The reason for this focus is simple, she said: “Black and other disenfranchised people keep dying at the hands of police.”
The group’s policy suggestions include bringing an end to broken windows policing (including racial profiling and “stop and frisk” tactics that disproportionately target black people), a call for civilian oversight, the establishment of deadly force standards, better training for officers, and the overall demilitarization of America’s police. Like the Black Lives Matter organization, which now has chapters in 26 cities around the country, Campaign Zero is focused on eliminating on wide-ranging systematic and institutionalized racism and oppression, but with concentrated eye on police violence. Seven-hundred-twenty-nine people have died from police shootings so far this year according to the Washington Post, a tally that does not include deaths that occurred while in police custody, like those of McKenna, Bland, or Baltimore’s Freddie Gray.
This work has directed attention from scholars and communities around the country, as well as Congress, the Department of Justice, and presidential candidates like Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), who met with the team to discuss Campaign Zero and his racial justice plan earlier this month after Black Lives Matter activists disrupted a Seattle rally in August. At the table, Elzie and Packnett were joined by DeRay Mckesson, who became a close friend and partner when the group came together to support protesters and anti-racism movements last year. The women each have their own strong suit, he explained: “Brittany’s gift…is pushing this work into many spaces, and Netta…keeps us grounded, all of us, to the core.”
“We all show up as partners in the work,” Mckesson said. “Having a true diversity of perspectives in the room, equal and present in partnership, only makes the solutions stronger.”
(It is worth noting that activists affiliated with Black Lives Matter – a group that will not endorse a presidential candidate – suggested to BuzzFeed that Mckesson’s visibility and Campaign Zero’s work has become a “source of contention” within the movement. Mckesson’s replies noted that those calling him out for “accountability” spoke anonymously.)
Both women have experienced first-hand the effects of police violence. In February 2014, St. Louis city police shot and killed one of Elzie’s friends, Stephon Averthart, a 27-year-old black man suspected on felony charges, who she said was “dehumanized” by the media following his death. “Detectives did not interview witnesses and harassed the people who loved Stephon for asking questions about what happened to him…. He died twice—once at the hands of law enforcement and again in the media,” she said.
Packnett mentioned Mansur Ball-Bey, an unarmed black man who was shot in the back by police just three blocks from her church. “The way things are going, I won’t be surprised if one of the [next] names is one I know,” shared Packnett, who says she has been tear-gassed at protests “a handful” of times. To the critics who condemn the movement and cite black-on-black crime as the “real issue,” she notes that the black community faces challenges that cannot be unlinked from the systematic racism and oppression they have faced for “the entirety of [our] presence in America.”
“Police violence, like mass incarceration, is one of [the] many ills rooted in that reality,” Packnett said. “You can’t discuss how to help black people without being willing to discuss dismantling racism.” She scoffs at those who say people deserve death when they fail to act “respectfully,” as many said of Michael Brown when they learned he stole from a convenience store before being shot.
“[It’s] a lie that being respectable saves lives, that if protestors just turned down our music or kids just pulled their pants up, that we’d all be safe. Respectability won’t save us [from militant police].”
Beyond their individual expertise and understanding, Elzie and Packnett are passionately navigating the activism sphere as black women – a group historically pushed to the margins of previous rights movements, despite their invaluable contributions. “Living in a white male patriarchal society, one of the effects is the constant need for a leader to look, talk, and think a certain way,” Elzie said, adding – “Patriarchal men have an issue with outspoken black women.”
When asked about the powerhouse women that inspired their leadership, the pair cites names that may be unfamiliar to those only versed in Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcom X – influencers like Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Shirley Chisolm, Diane Nash, Ida B. Wells, and Daisy Bates. For Packnett, the history she has learned over time goes beyond the narrative dictated to her in classrooms. She is thankful for old-school activists, “the elders and experts that I learn from every day.” Their leadership follows in the footsteps of bold women – “and will continue to be unapologetic, audacious, urgent and visible,” even in the face of those made uncomfortable by their beliefs, she promised.
“I don’t need Martin and Malcom to have been women,” said Packnett, “I need for more little girls to know of the many women heroes that came before us.”
Society has changed since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, when the world was not yet ready for black female leadership, according to Elzie – nor someone “under 18 or identify[ing] as LGBTQ,” Packnett added.
Times have changed: the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was created by three queer black women and Mckesson, arguably the most visible member of the movement, is gay. Visibility for other marginalized groups within this civil rights movement has become a learning moment for the world, and for the activists themselves. Along with developing the skills to organize, “I’ve learned about intersectionality, what the word “queer” means, [and] what struggles the black trans community is living through,” Elzie said.
The movement still sees instances of misogyny and sexism. Elzie said that early on in her participation in protests and with Black Lives Matter, she noticed that men wanted to take the lead and often tried to speak over her. Their desire to run the show can manifest in the silencing of female voices, but many accomplices – women and men alike – work vigilantly to ensure that they are heard, Packnett explained. “We’ve made it a practice to call it out in the moment and address breaches before moving forward,” she said.
On the Campaign Zero team, the female-male split in leadership allows for equal participation. “We benefit from it,” Mckesson added.
There is much work to be done before the structure of policing in the United States sees great change, but Campaign Zero is putting in the work, one small stride at a time. FBI Director James B. Comey announced this week that federal authorities will begin to collection information about shootings and publish a report with details about deadly force used by police – a move that comes as a result from pressure from groups like Campaign Zero. They have spoken to students at schools like Princeton and Yale, and soon, the data-informed team will meet with Hillary Clinton to discuss her criminal justice platform before its release, a chance to present their structured policy suggestions.
Dedicated to remaining humble, they will keep reading (Packnett is currently reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me; Elzie is diving in to Carolyn Morrow Long’s The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau), writing, and supporting each other. The pair welcomes diverse voices to keep engaging in conversation, especially young women.
“Practice courage,” Packnett advised, “fearful people can’t change the world.”
And for those who face haters and online trolls, Elzie said it is best to stay focused. “Block them, mute them, do not internalize the hatred,” she advised. “You are loved.”
Follow Alli Maloney on Twitter.