The "Black Lives Matter" protests that have shut down Pittsburgh city streets every week for the past two months are led by a new generation of activists. Two organizers of the "Civil Saturday" demonstrations, Nick Anglin and Treasure Palmer, say their path to protesting started with feeling alienated as young Black people in the Pittsburgh area.
As one of Civil Saturdays’ main speakers, Anglin has grown accustomed to spelling out the power dynamics that drive racial disparities in multiple contexts, from policing to education. Clutching a megaphone, he addresses dozens, sometimes hundreds, of supporters who join the hours-long marches.
“We are here because Black lives matter,” he told the crowd at a rally two weeks ago in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. “And it’s sad to think everyone doesn't understand that Black lives matter … And we need that to change.”
Anglin seeks to dismantle systems of oppression by elevating his voice and that of other young activists. But the 18-year-old’s conviction that Black people deserve better started quietly. He credits his godmother with instilling in him a sense of Black pride, in part by having him and his sister read novels by Black authors when they were in grade school.
“She was always making us aware of Black culture, Black literature, and making us know about Black history,” Anglin said.
And those values, he added, were embedded in his middle school curriculum, at the Hill District’s predominantly black St. Benedict the Moor School.
St. Benedict is where Anglin met fellow Verona resident and Civil Saturday organizer Treasure Palmer. The two, now best friends, ended up going to Catholic high schools just a few blocks from each other. But Palmer, 19, said she felt out of place at the all-girls Oakland Catholic.
Until then, she said, “I was always around people like me, Black people. So when I left St. Benedict, just like Nick, and went to Oakland, it was just like a culture shock. I wasn’t in the majority anymore. And I felt like I couldn’t be myself."
“I always felt scared to say the wrong answer ’cause I didn’t want to be looked at as like, ‘Oh like, the dumb Black girl in the class,’ or something like that,” Palmer recalled.
Meanwhile, Anglin said, at Central Catholic High School his education became “white-washed.” And he was stunned by some instances of outright racism.
“I was called the n-word at the lunch table,” Anglin remembered. “And I was expected to laugh and giggle and just feel like it was funny. And … I was like, ‘What do I say? What do I do?’”
Anglin said in that moment, and another time when a student compared him to a “cute little monkey," he chose not to speak up. “In that setting, where you’re the minority … I felt as though, if I vocalize myself, no one would understand why I felt the way I felt,” he said.
Complicating matters, Palmer noted, “Even within my own culture, I would be looked at as I’m too white, or I think I’m better because I go to a predominantly white [high] school, and things like that.” Anglin, by contrast, said Black people have ridiculed his dark complexion, out of the “colorist” belief that light skin is superior to dark skin.
Such feelings of exclusion left Anglin and Palmer craving a greater sense of community. So they and a few other friends decided to form a group, called Black, Young, and Educated, or BYE. Initially, they wanted to hold mixers with Black students from other schools in the Pittsburgh region.
Originally the group "was driven by that [desire] to create a safe space for anybody who wants … to have fun, and making sure that I’m giving people my age opportunities to do things that I would never get to do in school, or even outside of school,” Palmer said.
Together, members of BYE delve into the issues of race and racial injustice. Anglin and Palmer said they read books on police abolition and listen to podcasts such as NPR’s Code Switch and Crooked Media’s Pod Save the People. Palmer said the podcasts in particular have brought clarity to her experience.
“I feel like a lot of the time, especially in high school, things would happen to you – you don’t really know why … Or, you feel weird about it, but you don’t know why you feel like that,” she said. “So then you listen to someone who knows what they’re talking about. And they explain to you what happened to you. And you’re like, ‘Oh, okay, maybe I’m not just being sensitive.’ Or people try to say you’re pulling the race card, but you’re not doing that.”
With such insights, BYE members felt compelled to organize their own protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Anglin, who first suggested the idea, noted that Floyd was part of a long list of Black people who’ve been brutalized by police.
“We, as younger Black people, we should use our voice for people that are tired, for generations past,” Anglin said. “I felt like it was our duty to fight for our freedom.”
BYE held its first Civil Saturday in early June at the upscale Bakery Square in Larimer.
“I was so nervous,” Anglin remembered of that first event. “And I was like, ‘Oh my God, are people going to show up?’ … And then when that many people showed up and it started, it was just like the nervousness just went away.”
About 1,000 people turned out for the rally, blanketing the shopping center's parking lot and adjacent Penn Avenue.
The crowd goes about this deep all the way around the circle. “We need to teach each other and all those who are not here to have accountability for their actions.” pic.twitter.com/gTkJJszcLf
— Katie Blackley (@kate_blackley) June 6, 2020
Palmer maintains that, even for a generation as wired into social media as hers, protests are the way to get people to take systemic racism seriously. Which is why she and Anglin say they’ll continue to rally in the streets when they start college in the fall.
“I can post on social media all day. But if they don’t follow me, or they don’t have anyone following me, they’re not going to see it,” Palmer said. “But if we’re out here protesting and we’re blocking off their streets, and their police might have to come out in their riot gear … they’re going to know about that. They’re going to hear about it. They can’t look away.”