CARRIE KAHN, HOST:
From the streets of Baltimore to the campus of the University of Missouri to the campaign trail, 2015 has been a pivotal year for black America and civic activism. There have been major accomplishments - the removal of the Confederate flag in South Carolina - as well as disappointments - the decision not to indict anyone in the apparent suicide of Sandra Bland in Texas. To discuss the ups and downs of this year's movement, we're joined now by Gene Demby. He's a correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team. Welcome, Gene.
GENE DEMBY: Thank you for having me, Carrie.
KAHN: Gene, this has been a truly historic year. What is it about 2015 that brought these issues to the forefront louder?
DEMBY: So I think this year we're seeing the culmination of a lot of stuff that started late last year. Remember, last year, there was no such thing as Black Lives Matter until the Michael Brown incident. All this nascent political energy started to mobilize around that incident and the Eric Garner incident in New York City. And so this year we've seen that movement sort of take off and make some real inroads in terms of who is influencing. We've seen Bernie Sanders have to nod to the movement directly. We've seen Hillary Clinton take meetings with some of the leaders in the movement. And so it's already had consequences for our electoral politics, at least in the way people talk about these things.
But also I think it's sort of trained us to pay attention to these stories every time they pop up. So we have the Laquan McDonald case in Chicago. That story has had huge repercussions. I mean, every day there are louder and louder calls for Rahm Emanuel's resignation because of the way the city handled that incident, which is another incident in which a black man was killed by the police there.
KAHN: Let's look at some of the concrete accomplishments because people did more than protest this year. They really moved the needle. Talk about the accomplishments this year.
DEMBY: Some of the calls have been - they seem like symbolic calls, right, the removal of the Confederate flag in South Carolina. But those things have tremendous consequence in terms of the way people metabolize how they belong in a society. So if you look at the Confederate flag, that has been an issue for a long time. It only changed this year because of this nascent protest movement and obviously that followed the massacre at the church in Charleston in South Carolina
KAHN: So talk about the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and the protests. That was the big, big story of 2015. Can we look at that as kind of a tipping point for the movement?
DEMBY: We were actually there. Some of us from Code Switch were actually in Baltimore in the days following the protests. And there was a lot of energy. And it's hard to forget now that at the time there was a lot of conversation around whether or not so much of that unrest would delegitimize the movement, right, that the people who were out there protesting were doing a disservice to the movement. And as an example of how much the conversation has changed in just a year, when Marilyn Mosby, who is the state prosecutor there - the chief prosecutor there - announced charges, that was on national TV. And she hinted on some pretty heavy charges against the officers in that case. And that was seen as a turning point in these protests in part because of how much she nodded to, how much she understood the public anger and where it was coming from.
KAHN: So this outcry for accountability, it really seemed to ignite black students on college campuses, too, in 2015, and these were moments of real change.
DEMBY: The biggest moment was probably at the University Missouri in which the school's football team decided that it would strike unless the university's president stepped down. So there was all this agitation around removing the university's president. Black students there said he wasn't responding to their calls. And you could see a university sort of ignoring those calls in a lot of cases. But the introduction of college football players who make a ton of money for these universities. I think it was - the number I saw was $1 million a week for the University of Missouri. Once they become part of the equation, then it changes the calculus for administrators, and then suddenly there was more pressure on the president to resign. And he did, and so Missouri might auger something bigger, both in terms of how student athletes see themselves but also in terms of how students see the kind of demands they can make.
KAHN: So looking forward to 2016, what are the challenges for this movement?
DEMBY: I spoke to a college professor at Northeastern named Sarah Jackson who studies protest movements. And she told me that one of the things that universities usually do is they usually just wait kids out, right? I mean, there's always a spring break coming, a summer break coming, a Christmas break coming or people graduate. And so there's really - it's really hard to maintain that momentum.
So it remains to be seen how much the pushes we've seen on college campuses will continue in the next year. Some of that will - might be offset by the fact that these movements are spread out now. I mean, it's happening on social media. It's not - they're less centralized. It doesn't have to have, like, a local center of gravity, and so maybe we'll see that happen. But outside of college campuses, Black Lives Matter and the issue of race in policing is already an issue of some consequence in the upcoming election. So it's going to be part of the conversation, so at the very least it is a thing that we will all be talking about in some way and that we will all be paying attention to in some way.
KAHN: Gene Demby - he writes about race, ethnicity and culture for NPR's Code Switch team. Thank you so much, Gene.
DEMBY: Thank you, Carrie.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.