“I want to change everything,” Kim Moore says softly and follows it up with a laugh. But everything else she has said up to this point makes it clear that she is deadly serious.
If she could, Moore would change systems, institutions, power structures and perceptions – all in order to change the way people like her are treated in the United States and around the world. And by people like her, she means blacks.
The 29-year-old is a public speaker, an activist and a social media inspirer. Instead of merely speaking through a megaphone at marches, she broadcasts her ideas every day – multiple times, in fact – on Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram. She has around 14,000 followers on Twitter who forward her messages about racial equality, the beauty of black women, and tolerance for minority groups in the US, including Muslims and people with mental illnesses.
In October 2014, she travelled to Ferguson, Missouri – the city where 18-year-old Michael Brown had been shot and killed by a police officer a few months before. That incident prompted a federal probe, as well as protests and conversations nationwide about the role and power of the police and the treatment of blacks in the US. During her visit there, Moore says the protests she witnessed were well-organised and far removed from the image of reckless rioting and streets “full of angry black people” that “mainstream media was putting out”.
In recent years, racial tensions in the US have boiled over in very visible and vocal ways. The first catalysing event was the death of Trayvon Martin, the teenager shot by a volunteer community security guard in 2012. Then came Eric Garner, who was choked to death by a New York police officer despite his final plea: “I can’t breathe.” Next was Michael Brown. All unarmed, all black, all boys or men. Moore believes these cases are just the high-profile end of a spectrum of injustices black Americans endure all the time. Others include over-policing, a judicial system that is harsher on blacks than whites, and biases that combine to make every day a little or a lot harder.
As we speak, Moore is sitting on a pew in a chapel, stained-glass windows illuminating the wall behind her on this sunny Californian winter afternoon. We are alone here. She speaks while I listen, ask occasional questions, and carefully consider her words. She brought me here not because of her religious beliefs, but because it’s a private place to talk freely near her office, where she works for a labour union.
Moore tells me about the first time she realised there was something wrong with the way blacks are treated. She was a schoolgirl, growing up in southern California in the early 1990s, and was surprised to discover that some of the other girls didn’t want to play with her and made hurtful comments about her hair.
The second time came when she was in middle school and a role-play exercise about insults and tolerance opened her eyes to the fact that people say awful things to one another purely because they don’t share a gender or a race. By the time the exercise was over, all of the children – from those girls who rarely shied from tears to the toughest little boys – were crying. The message of the exercise: Hearing such language feels horrible, so be careful how you speak to others. Don’t put people down because they’re women, or black, or fat. Moore cried then, and she tears up now, reliving those awful, illuminating moments.
But the real turning point – that rare moment in one’s life when a desire and opportunity for change converge – arrived when she was a young woman. One by one, her friends were being lured into gangs – and getting killed.
“I went through the same cycle that everyone else did,” she explains. “You’re surprised, and you cry about it, and you can’t understand it, and you’re crying, ‘Why, why, why? Why did this happen?’ the first couple of times. Then, after the third, fourth or fifth time, it’s like, ‘OK, this is so stupid. Why does this keep happening? Somebody needs to do something about it.'”
Moore came to realise that that ‘somebody’ might as well be her. “I was tired of crying,” she says. “I was just exhausted.”
She found a group of black activists in San Diego and began learning about the social and economic issues behind gang violence, as well as how to help people stay out of them. “It was like being on fire,” she says of her early days of activism. “It was so strong. I ate, slept and breathed the work that we were doing.”
Her energy and conviction haven’t waned in the years since, as she’s organised rallies, taught young people about sexual health, spoken at social justice events, gathered thousands of internet acolytes and continually deepened her understanding of how gangs pluck underprivileged youth off the streets and tighten their grip upon them.
She has thought a lot about why racism persists, and what crude and ugly beliefs ignite the kernel of hatred in people’s hearts and minds. Understanding that, she believes, is a crucial first step towards changing it.
“People see black people as a threat, and that’s a problem,” she says, after some reflection. “So we need to probe and talk about and discuss why or what ideas give people that feeling – that black people are a threat.”
The way they are portrayed in the media, and how frequently and severely they’re punished, contribute to that impression, she believes.
Moore urges those who might clutch their bag tighter when a black person passes or cross the street to keep their distance to reconsider that impulse. If you own a business or supervise employees, she wants you to consider how many women or blacks you have in positions of power and leadership. “Dissect things like that,” she says.
There may be a lot of work to be done, but Moore is optimistic. “I feel we’re always going to have to fight, and that’s OK,” she says. “But I am very optimistic that change is coming,” – one tweet, protest and social movement at a time – “because we have a new generation of leaders, and we’re resisting in every way possible.”
This article first appeared in the February 2015 issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine.