20 People to Watch - Aurielle Lucier: The (free) radical
Young radical brings holistic approach to social activist movement
Rarely is Aurielle Lucier at a loss for words. But on an unseasonably warm Friday last November, she sat in her northwest Atlanta home stumped by her own inability to articulate how life-altering the last few months have been.
Days after Michael Brown's death at the hands of a police officer last August, Lucier sent out a tweet calling for 10 people to take a stand in solidarity with protestors in Ferguson, Mo. That 10 multiplied into 5,000 for an Atlanta rally one week later. When she blasted out her phone number over the megaphone at the mass gathering, she had no idea that her cell would still be blowing up three months later.
"I was really worried that people would confuse me with Rosa Parks or confuse me with the picture that I had in my head of what movement leaders look like," Lucier says. "And I didn't want to be confused with that because I didn't think I could be that."
Though her public persona has been shaped by an eloquent defiance that belies her age, the 20-year-old founder and spokesperson of #ItsBiggerThanYou, the hashtagged coalition of young activists fighting for social justice, confesses to moments of vulnerability.
"I don't know how I got here and it's beautiful," she says. "It bewilders me."
Like the protagonist in an Octavia Butler novel, she's arrived at this stage in history overwhelmed by the role she's been cast to reprise, yet eager to write her own coming-of-age narrative — one that fully embodies her evolving identity as a black and proud, unapologetically queer, self-defined "womynist."
"I wasn't prepared, none of us were, for the changes," she says, referring to the executive board of #IBTY. "I think that just speaks to how young people are taught that we aren't powerful."
A spoken word performer whose poetry workshops have taken her from Stone Mountain's Tupac Amaru Shakur Center for the Arts to the halls of Harvard University, Lucier has been arrested and says she's received multiple death threats in recent months. But the fight to eradicate racism from American institutions is not merely a black and white one. Some of Lucier's biggest strategic battles have been waged against older allies of color who preach respectability over radicalism. While young protestors are eager to pursue radical nonviolent action — like the Oct. 27 #ShutItDownATL human highway blockade #IBTY helped organize with other grassroots groups — the established generation of leaders and organizations often prefers a more socially acceptable approach.
The age gap is just one of the aspects that separates this movement from the Civil Rights era. Local action has largely been led by young women who've mastered the use of social media to spread their message. Like most millennials, Lucier also uses her Twitter account as an extension of her identity. She regularly expresses the full range of human emotion, from righteous rage to radical self-love regardless of race, gender, or orientation.
That is a revolutionary act considering how leaders were portrayed so one-dimensionally during the Civil Rights Movement. Lucier acknowledges the contribution of Bayard Rustin, architect of the 1963 March on Washington, who voluntarily took a backseat to keep his identity as a gay black man secret.
"My work is to make sure that trend doesn't continue," Lucier says. "Because it could if I allowed myself to just be 'Elle the activist' and 'Elle the black woman,' and not 'Elle the queer activist' or 'Elle the queer black woman.' That's an important narrative to include in the conversation."
Continuing that conversation surrounding injustice is her main goal. To that end, #ItsBiggerThanYou's executive board has established six chapters outside of Atlanta, Lucier says. There are also plans for a hip-hop concert in Atlanta in 2015.
"I feel like I'm overcompensating for the years I spent on the opposite side of how I feel now," says Lucier, who's become both a student and a teacher of nonviolent action. "I love this movement for a lot of different reasons, but one of them is because it allows us to see ourselves in a powerful way."