The Education of Daunasia Yancey
Yancey found salvation in activism. In eighth grade, she fought the school’s administration to establish a gay-straight alliance—her principal thought 13-year-olds were too young to have gay pride. She volunteered at Boston Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services, then at BAGLY. Activism was a form of self-care, she says. Every time she reassured a gay kid that he or she was important, she was taking a stand for herself. “All of the ways in which society or my family or newspapers or magazines or whatever tell me that I am not worth being alive, or not worth feeling good, or not worth taking care of myself, or being taken care of, being loved—in acting against that, I am telling myself that those things are untrue,” she says.
At BAGLY, Yancey blossomed as a leader. She coordinated volunteers, gave presentations, led meetings, spoke on panels. At 17, she sat on BAGLY’s board of directors, and became the supervisor of the organization’s health education team and cochair of its youth leadership committee. BAGLY offered her real power—an antidote to her frustration.
Yet she was one of only a few people of color at BAGLY. And after Yancey went through a nasty breakup with a white partner at 18, their mutual friends at BAGLY—all white—started a subtle campaign against her. Harassment escalated. Volunteers she supervised stopped complying with her directions. Others complained they didn’t feel “safe” around her. “I saw her targeted as a loudmouth, pushy, aggressive—all those things women are not allowed to be,” recalls Jessica Flaherty, BAGLY’s director of programs. “Too strong of a woman, too opinionated—all of those kinds of things. I understood it to be racist, sexist, and misogynistic.”
Eventually, Yancey broke down. “I had proven myself so many times,” she says. “It was like, ‘There is no more, I cannot do any better. I cannot do any more. You want me to no longer be alive. There is nothing I can do, other than die, that will please you.’” She checked herself into McLean Hospital for 13 days.
For Flaherty, the incident was “a defining moment in BAGLY’s organizational history,” she says. “We let people know we were standing by [Yancey].” Five volunteers got the message, she says, and left the organization.
Yancey returned to BAGLY, but she was shaken. “I was tearing myself apart,” she says. “What they wanted me to be was not black, not a woman, not smart, not in a leadership position. Not doing any of the things that keep me alive.”
Yancey led the protesters up Tremont Street, then took a hard left onto the Common. Chanting, they swarmed past Park Street Station, up and over benches, heading straight for the tree-lighting ceremony. The police flanked them, but the metal fences set up in concentric circles around the tree were the real barriers. The light from news crew cameras caught the flower in Yancey’s hair. A reporter approached to ask a question. “Now is not the time,” Yancey said.
The marchers enveloped the tree-lighting revelers. A thousand voices chanted: BLACK LIVES MATTER. BLACK LIVES MATTER. They sang: BACK UP, BACK UP, WE WANT FREEDOM, FREEDOM.
People there for the holiday event turned to look—curious or disgusted or thrilled. But mostly, they were indifferent. It was clear that the tree lighting would continue; nothing would be disrupted, nothing would be shut down. The protesters kept chanting. The loudspeakers started playing holiday music, drowning them out.
Then a white protester hoisted himself up on the base of a lamppost and shouted, “Let’s take the State House!” and the march started moving again—a continent of bodies and signs drifting uphill toward the marble steps and the golden dome.
Yancey stood still as the crowd moved around her.
In the days following Michael Brown’s death on August 9, 2014, Yancey stayed up every night, watching the protests on Twitter. The images made her weep. Community and local activists in Ferguson were blasted by sound cannons, gas cannisters, and wooden bullets, menaced by armored vehicles, rifles, and dogs. It was a form of police intimidation not seen in America’s streets since the 1960s.
The emerging Ferguson movement comprised local community activists, as well as ordinary citizens who’d never protested before. Now, seasoned activists from around the country were flocking to Ferguson, bringing their knowledge and their numbers. Among those were people who’d signed on with Black Lives Matter—a young network formed by three queer black women in the days after Trayvon Martin’s death.
Trained by LGBT elders, BLM cofounder Patrisse Cullors says she and her collaborators came with “a different set of politics.” Cullors sees “clear connections” between Ferguson and the early gay movement: “I think that’s a key piece in this conversation. There’s a level of being unapologetic of how we are in the world, as black queer people in particular…If we don’t stand clear and unashamed, and don’t make demands of the system and we don’t shut it down, we’re not going to change what keeps killing us.”
The involvement of BLM was significant. Where the old civil rights movement had disowned gay organizers like Bayard Rustin, the planner of the March on Washington, now the movement born in Ferguson would count queer people among its most visible assets.
“I don’t want to be a part of a group, a moment, that’s only symbolic for black men,” says Tef Poe, a.k.a. Kareem Jackson, a rapper who became one of the movement’s leaders in Ferguson. “I don’t want to be a part of a moment that’s only symbolic for heterosexual black men. I don’t want to be a part of a moment that’s only symbolic for black people. I want to be a part of a moment that’s symbolic for oppressed people, period.”
BLM put out the word online that they were organizing rides to Ferguson. Yancey recognized one of the contact names: Darnell Moore. She had recently spent a weekend at Moore’s place in New York. Surrounded by brilliant black people, authors, dancers, most of them queer, that weekend had been like heaven. “And they just loved on me,” she says. “It was so beautiful.” She still had Moore’s number in her phone.
That was how she wound up in Ferguson, only 21 days after Michael Brown’s death.
In Ferguson, Yancey and her group attended an NAACP protest in a park where speaker after speaker preached to the choir in the language of the old civil rights movement. At the same time, young local activists pleaded from the sidelines for them to go straight to the heart of the matter—the Ferguson police department. “The park didn’t kill Mike Brown!” one BLM member shouted. “The police killed Mike Brown! We need to be at the police station!”
After a discussion, Yancey and her group chose to follow the young locals to the police station. They passed little kids kneeling silently on the sidewalk with their hands up, protesting. A woman with a megaphone taught them chants and urged them to face off against the police officers standing in a line in the street. “Let ’em know!” she shouted. Yancey had been to protests before—permitted LGBT marches in DC and elsewhere. But this was raw and different. “Nothing looked like what Ferguson looked like,” she said.
As soon as she got back to Boston, she got to work. Cullors was impressed with Yancey’s drive: “She didn’t just go on the ride, she made it real clear she was going back home to organize her community.” She helped lead the Newbury Street march in October, with a few hundred protesters in attendance.
A second march in November—starting in Dudley Square—drew at least 1,500 demonstrators. They marched to the South Bay House of Correction, where inmates stood at the windows and spelled out “MIKE BROWN” in tape.
Yancey was facing down a line of cops when her friend Chantel Aaron found her. “Hey,” she said. “Your grandma and your aunt are here. They’re marching.”
Now a month later, the crowd of Boston protesters and Yancey had come to a stop at the foot of the shallow steps leading to the State House gate, where police formed a line. Yancey thought, If we’re going to do this, might as well go as far as possible. She and Joyner cut their way to the front and mounted the steps to stand in front of the gate. Joyner was yelling, unleashing her anger and her extensive, salty vocabulary. Yancey had her hand on her friend’s back, supporting her in her rage.
Suddenly the gate opened. A uniformed arm reached out. It grabbed Joyner. It pulled her inside. She was gone.
No, Yancey thought. That’s my friend.
She threw her body against the gate and the police on the other side. “PUSH!” she screamed at the crowd at her back, and the crowd obeyed, swarming up the steps. The pressure of a thousand bodies leaned in on the gate. The police shoved back against it. Voices were yelling and the gate yielded. Yancey saw an opening, and dove for the cops’ knees, trying to squirm through them like a little kid, and then she was on the ground. Her glasses fell off, and the crowd pushed behind her, and a police boot collided with her side. Now she was crawling, like a soldier, on her stomach, to where Joyner was prone—face-down, 110 pounds, with a handful of officers holding her down—screaming in a high-pitched voice that terrified Yancey, “Get off me! Get off me!”
Yancey reached her friend and put a hand on her body. “I’m here,” she said. “You’re okay.” She and Joyner lay there together. And they breathed.