A police officer killed George Floyd only a 15 minute drive away from where a police officer killed Philando Castile in 2016; and before Floyd died, he cried “I can’t breathe,” the same words Eric Garner gasped before a police officer killed him in 2014. Sometimes, when a moment takes hold of our collective consciousness, you can easily forget that it’s nothing new.
But the response to George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor’s unjust endings was different this time: People across the country took to the streets chanting, marching, and kneeling to protest the murders and to demand justice for countless others. Instagram was flooded with donation-matching challenges, alternative actions to policing, and email templates addressed to elected officials. If COVID-19 forced the racial fractures of the United States into our line of sight (the virus disproportionately affects Black people), the protests that began in May made sure that we wouldn’t avert our gaze.
As summer progressed, the selfies and sunset photos slowly reappeared on our Instagram feeds; media coverage of the protests began to dwindle. On the surface, everything seemed to be returning to normal. But if you take a closer look, you’ll see that there are Black women who are still fighting every single day for equality. Some of these women are your friends, sharing New York Times articles on their IG story and rallying donations for bail funds. And then there are the women who have taken it a dozen steps further and devoted their lives to activism, running organizations dedicated to change.
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Cosmo spoke with five of these young activists, and if you thought you were overwhelmed while momentarily confronting racial injustice a few months ago, consider what it would feel like to lead that charge forever. How do you hold your head up when you’ve made it your job to shoulder the burden that comes with being Black in this country?
Well, a strong support system helps. And so do beauty rituals. For these five women, the simple act of taking care of themselves helps them find a sense of balance; this allows them to continue their activism on the front lines, bringing them closer to their shared goal of shattering the cycle for good.
In May, Nialah was riding a Citi Bike from her apartment in Chelsea to Brooklyn to meet up with a friend when she got caught in a protest and started uncontrollably sobbing. Nialah organized protests in high school as the Midwest Youth Director of the National Action Network, and in college, after Michael Brown’s death. But after watching what seemed like never-ending clips of Black people in their final moments roll out across the Internet—as if they were viral memes—and seeing the justice system fail the victims time and time again, she wondered if the grueling effort was worth it. She gave out in 2015.
Standing next to her bike in the middle of that Manhattan protest, the emotions that were swept aside four years earlier came tumbling out of her. “I just remember crying and thinking ‘not this again,’” she said. “It just hit a bit harder and it was crazy to grasp. We were locked in our houses. How is this still happening?” Two days later, she called up her friend Chelsea and asked her how she could get involved.
Before the IG story promoting their protest had even expired, the two organized their first march and over 200 people showed up. They planned more events, which had Nialah roaming over all corners of the city, leading clusters of protesters in chants. The marches could last up to five hours and stretch nearly half the length of Manhattan. And although she felt great about the work she was doing, her sanity was hurting in other ways: Her skin was wrecked. The long hours, heat, and friction from her face mask created the perfect environment for a skin condition with a cutesy name—“maskne.” Following a protest, Nialah would find the lower half of her face covered in cystic acne, and it rattled her confidence. It made her anxious about speaking on camera, something that she needed to do to grow the visibility of her newly-formed organization, Freedom March NYC.
When the maskne persisted, even through an onslaught of salicylic acid treatments, she made an appointment with dermatologist, Dr. Elyse Love, who gave her cortisone shots to calm the active cysts and then placed her on a simple skincare routine: Cetaphil cleanser, My Topicals Faded Cream to clear acne scars and marks, and daily sunscreen of at least SPF 30. Her skin’s been on its best behavior since. ”I don’t have those little bumps anymore,” she says during our Zoom call, smiling and moving her hands along her face. “I can finally feel my skin again.”
She also added bi-monthly facials at Skindelush to her skincare rotation—they don’t just help keep her skin clear, but also free up some much-needed mental space. The daily to-do list swirling in her mind on any given day can include press interviews, collaborating on future events and protests, overseeing fundraisers meetings with local politicians (the group has a working relationship with New York State Senator Kevin Parker), and excelling at her full-time day job working on a political campaign during a heated election year.
Nialah’s packed life makes it crucial for her to carve out some self-care time to avoid upsetting the delicate balance she tries to keep—she doesn’t want to hit the same wall she did in 2015. “When I’m taking care of myself, I feel more grounded,” she says. “I’m more than just an activist, you know? I’m also a human, and I don’t think I could do this work if I wasn’t together myself.”
As the sun set over a scorching day in Times Square on July 8, 2020, a man wearing an MTA uniform drove his black Dodge Durango through the crowd of protestors that Kimberly was leading. Amidst the chaos, the demonstrators, including Kimberly, managed to jump out of the way just in time to save their lives. The police arrested the driver that night—and then released him before the sun rose the next day.
The driver’s employer, the MTA, failed to act—he received no consequences for his actions. A month later, Kimberly’s group held a rally outside of the New York City Transit Customer Service Center. Dressed in all black, she stood in front of the gathering and spoke. “Sometimes you come out here, and it’s fun,” Kimberly said that day, “but we are in the middle of a war, and this is a fight for our lives.”
Fragrance is her war paint; she doesn’t leave her house without it. The musky pairing of the vetiver and patchouli notes in Givenchy’s L’Interdit and the black coffee at the heart of YSL’s Black Opium connect the dots in her brain, allowing her to shift into battle mode. Fragrance places her in the mindset necessary to deal with the consistent uncertainty that comes with taking on the NYPD (one of her organization’s long-term goals is defunding and abolishing the police department), or with watching her friends risk their lives for the cause (recently, while riding his bike, a fellow activist was nearly hit by a driver in a black SUV. The man looked him directly in the eyes before stepping on the gas).
But Kimberly isn’t scared—these acts just push her to go harder. If anything, the unrelenting scrutiny is what’s draining. After a long day of leading on the frontlines of this war, Kimberly turns to a 10-step K-beauty skincare routine to help relieve her stress, which includes everything from a gentle cleanser (her favorite is the Innisfree Hydrating Cleansing Foam) to a lip mask (the Laneige Lip Sleeping Mask is her holy grail). These 20 minutes of alone time gives her the clarity to be able get back outside the next day and fight again—especially since she’s not really fighting for herself. “I’m actually doing this for, some might say, selfish reasons,” says Kimberly, who has three children under the age of 10. “I’m doing it because I don’t want to be Eric Garner’s mother or Trayvon Martin’s mother—I don’t want to have to martyr my children for this movement; I don’t want to feel that pain.”
Cherish loves dishing out makeup advice. Her favorite tips? Blend your eyeshadow first when you’re doing a full-glam face beat, and make sure to layer on moisturizer beforehand, so your foundation applies seamlessly. Oh, and don’t wear mascara while protesting—the chemicals in tear gas will stick to it, trapping the fiery irritant inside your eyes. “It would be over for you then,” she says. Though the 18-year-old founder The Descendents (an organization promoting Black liberation) has escaped protests relatively unscathed over the years, the same can’t be said for her friends: Three of them have been hit multiple times by officers with mace over the years. Still, the chemical weapons don’t faze her; she devoted herself to this movement for reasons that trump her own discomfort.
More than 200 people attended her first event, a vigil in Harlem to honor Breonna Taylor on what would have been her 27th birthday. During the early days of the protests, Cherish would sit on her terrace with a picture of Taylor, lighting candles, burning sage, and giving herself grief space to breathe. She let herself cry in those moments, knowing what every Black woman in this country knows: Breonna Taylor could’ve been any one of us.
Though Cherish loves beauty, her pre-rally routine is pretty simple: She massages shea butter into her skin, pulls her hair back into a sleek ponytail, and layers on lip gloss. For her, the power and confidence needed to address a crowd stems from her cosmetic choices (which also include brightly dyed hair and a double nose piercing). “It’s not a beauty contest,” she says, “but to go out there and be beautiful in my being while screaming against white supremacy? It’s a large form of resistance for me.”
Even after forming an organization that promotes Black liberation, Cherish is still reluctant to call herself an activist. “I’m just Black and angry,” she says on our Zoom call. At age 10, her mom gave her the nickname Little Malcolm X for her ultra-hot temperament. At age 14, she read his autobiography, and every word hit home—literally. She, too, was born and raised in Harlem, growing up on the same blocks he wrote about. Cherish doesn’t masquerade as anyone other than herself, but when she speaks, it’s hard not to see “Big” Malcolm X in her expressive gestures, booming delivery, and commanding presence.
Cherish’s life is shifting; she’s starting classes as a first-year at Spelman College. The class load means reconfiguring her organization’s approach in this fight—less IRL protests and a greater number of digital events. She isn’t going anywhere, though; this movement is her new normal. “Normalcy is literally what Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery were doing; they were living their normal lives,” she says. “So there’s no such thing as ‘normal’ when racism is prevalent.”
Sophonie and Ahmaud Arbery both shared a love: running. When she jogs down the streets and trails of her primarily white suburb, the paths don’t look too different from the ones Arbery took the day he was killed. It was one of the first times she realized that she could die simply doing something she loves. Arbery’s killing broke her spirit, and then Floyd’s death pulled her into the movement. She’d had enough.
Strategy for Black Lives, an organization that seeks to bring awareness to the historical mistreatment of marginalized populations, coordinated the first march she attended back in June. The synergy and passion that flowed from the crowd filled her with an unmatched energy, and she joined the group that day. Sophonie’s loyalty to her cause is unwavering. She’s not shaken by the fact that, while protesting, a vehicle has almost run her over. Twice. The first time it happened, she was marching for Breonna Taylor in early July. The driver sped past the crowd, and she narrowly escaped the headlights. The second time was a few weeks later, during the Black Womxn’s March. As the group was roaming towards FDR Drive in Manhattan, a man on a moped broke through the line of bikes in the back where she was stationed, and started charging. Thankfully, she wasn’t injured. She continues to march.
Protesting is like a high for Sophonie; the sense of community and purpose gives her a buzz of exhilaration. But the comedown is just as steep. Aside from the physical stress of walking for four hours straight, there’s also the constant psychological stress of worrying about the safety of herself and hundreds of other protesters. So to help center herself, she invests an extensive amount of effort, time, and money into one thing: her hair. She finds the comforting reliability of her weekly curl routine helps lift her spirits, especially after a particularly intense march.
Every Sunday, Sophonie spends five hours on her wash-day routine. It’s one of the few times where she’s completely alone and focused on herself, and she relishes the process. Sophione’s all about the DIY hair treatments when it comes to her curls: Before any water touches them, she coats her hair in olive oil and lets it sit for 30 minutes to re-hydrated her stressed-out curls. After rinsing, she cleanses with Creme of Nature’s Sulfate-Free Shampoo, then rakes and scrunches on the gel from an aloe leaf to get her curl pattern to pop. “The aloe leaf is by far my favorite step,” she says. “The curl texture that comes out is unmatched.” She rinses out the gel after an hour, then seals in the moisture with a leave-in conditioner and hair oil. Though her activist work may feel slow and somewhat out of her control, her hair certainly isn’t: It’s been steadily growing out inch by inch, thanks to her routine.
Still, despite the exhaustion, the setbacks, and the intensity of her work during the rest of the week, Sophione’s firm in the belief that she’ll also see the fruits of her labor in the BLM movement. “I know that we’re going towards a more progressive and equitable future,” she says. “I can’t really think otherwise.”
Livia Rose will always remember her first protest: A police officer groped her, and it was the first time she’d ever witnessed blatant police brutality. At the rally on May 29, 2020, she and her friend noticed a Black man—completely uninvolved with the protests—weaving through the crowd on a bike. The police officers monitoring the protest clocked him, too. According to Livia, they chased after the man for no apparent reason, threw him on the ground, and then handcuffed him so tightly, blood dripped from his wrists. Her friend ran to the biker to help, but was quickly tackled and arrested. When Livia followed after her, she was thrown against a car and groped.
Livia began to scream during the incident, and she didn’t stop screaming all throughout the next day, when, megaphone in hand, she led a crowd of 300 hundred protesters in chants. The violence she had both witnessed and experienced made getting involved in the movement non-negotiable. She plans to keep shouting until the work is done, no matter how long it takes.
Officers have spit on her. She’s been on the receiving end of death threats via texts, email, and DMs on TikTok (where she posts videos about Black Lives Matter). She’s never felt safe in the physical or virtual spaces where she works, but, even still, she’s commited: “It needs to be done, you know?” Livia says. “The only thing that’s pushing me is the fact that the work is not done. I have two younger brothers, and I can’t live with them knowing that this is going to be their reality. I can’t.”
The uneasy feeling of danger that has settled over her life is managed by meditation. Over Zoom, Livia shows me her collection of crystals and the black and gold bowl in which she burns sage. She constantly reminds herself that the work is right and needed, and she does what she can to bolster her strength and sanity. For example, when she’s protesting, Livia’s color of choice is red. Besides the fact that it’s opposite on the color wheel from blue—the hue associated with police officers—the shade also centers her, keeping her focused on the days she’s leading a throng of protesters through New York City. The bold shade also stands bright against her waist-grazing braids and on her lips, in the form of Fenty Beauty’s fiery-red Stunna Lip Paint. When she looks good, it elevates her mood.
For Livia, feeling good also goes beyond appearances, though; it’s knowing your boundaries and setting good habits. At the start of the protests, 17-hour days were the norm until, eventually, the intense schedule zapped her energy—and her skin. Her face was dull, dried out, and irritated. Now, she’s taking better care of herself, drinking water throughout the day, giving herself time to rest, and carrying out a simple skincare routine (Cetaphil cleanser, hemp seed oil, and an Origins face mask a few times a week).
For Livia, these acts of self-care keep her operating at full capacity without losing herself in the process. “Until you take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anybody else,” she says. “I will not be able to help a single person in the Black community unless I help myself first.”
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