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After Trump’s win, a young activist pauses to consider history and ponder next moves

Looking for lessons and potential alliances

The day after Donald Trump won the presidency, Clifton Kinnie, 19, marched with a handful of other Howard University students to the White House to protest.

“When we got there, there were hundreds of students mostly from American, Georgetown, GW,” he said. “My thought at the time was where were all these people when we were in the streets screaming ‘Stop killing us, police!?’ ” But no matter, he said. “Donald Trump presents an opportunity for new people to come into the struggle. So all these people that were protesting — it’s time for us to really build a coalition.”

Kinnie, a sophomore political science major, is used to being in motion.

But now, he’s taking a minute to process. To come to grips with what in the world just happened. He’s looking for parallels, pondering alliances and, most especially, trying to figure out just what a young black activist is supposed to do now, and for the next four years.

Meeting during Thanksgiving week, Kinnie rushes inside a Starbucks a short walk from his dorm and apologizes for being late. He’s a slight young man, quick to smile. Even for a teenager, everything about him looks young, except for his eyes, which are deep-set and blues-song brown.

The St. Louis native, one of eight children, was 17 when unarmed teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed in nearby Ferguson. He walked around the corner from his high school to join the protests and was tear-gassed. This was a month after his mother died of cancer. (His father had a stroke during his freshman year of high school and lives in a nursing home.) He joined Black Lives Matter, formed a coalition of high school students called Our Destiny and held study groups at his home. Last summer, he asked President Barack Obama about safety for black and brown communities during an ABC town hall meeting on race and policing.

Clifton Kinnie shows off a shirt that he was given as a gift on November 23, 2016 in Washington D.C.

Clifton Kinnie shows off a shirt that he was given as a gift on November 23, 2016 in Washington D.C.

Brent Lewis/The Undefeated

Watching the election results — it was his first time voting — made for “such a bitter night,” he said. But he’d been thinking for weeks that Trump had a good shot at winning. The country was divided over Obama and many of his signature policies, said Kinnie. And “I knew by studying history that anytime there’s a progressive movement for black people, people of color, minorities and poor people in general, there will be some sort of a backlash.”

The day before the election, he texted a friend: “I’ve been studying Andrew Jackson a lot lately in my History class,” he wrote, referencing the plainspoken, slave-owning politician who rode a populist wave to become the seventh U.S. president and champion of Indian removal policies that decimated Native Americans. “From the election to his ‘Jacksonian democracy’—I see to[o] many similarities between now & then..I hope I am wrong…”

So did 88 percent of African-Americans who voted for Clinton (8 percent voted for Trump), which is an overwhelming majority, though down from the 93 percent who voted for Obama in 2012. Like Kinnie, some knew there was a chance Trump might win. “Seemed like Hillary was doing well in the polls and yet, I know the whites,” comedian Dave Chappelle said in his Saturday Night Live monologue days after the election.

More than half of the electorate did not vote for Trump and some who’ve been around a long time now feel themselves in the same existential quandary as Kinnie. With the white supremacists supporting the Trump campaign and the Southern Poverty Law Center reporting upticks in incidents of racial harassment since the election, Americans of all persuasions are grappling with the proper role of the educator, soldier, diplomat, journalist — fill in the blank — under a Trump administration. They debate how to proceed, whether to protest, how to not “normalize,” a Trump presidency.

Kinnie cried the morning after the election. Feeling bereft after the White House protest, he’d gone back to his dorm room to check on people in St. Louis. “Man, we’ve lived through so much,” he told one friend. “We lived through the great recession and Black Lives Matter, and now this.”

They allowed hurt the conversational space it demanded. Then they talked about ways to activate themselves. Since then, Kinnie’s had at least 10 meetings, one on one, and in small groups. He’s attended Howard-sponsored events such as the conversation with writers Jelani Cobb and Ta-Nehisi Coates. He’s met with nonuniversity groups, been on social media and on black student organizer chats.

In mulling things over the past three weeks, he’s settled on a few key thoughts:

Not all Trump voters are racist, Kinnie said. Some are, but “I think there are many people who are desperate right now. All these people saw a man, Trump, that they believed connected to the ordinary man. Someone who was very much divisive, someone who used racist rhetoric, was xenophobic and sexist, but someone who spoke in plain terms when talking about the economy, and he played on anxiety.”

It’s a commonality the activist says he can work with. “If many of Trump’s supporters voted for him because of economic anxiety, OK, many black people are struggling, too. Latinos are struggling as well. Let’s build a coalition. Let’s make sure that we pursue policies that support freedom for all of us, justice for all of us, security for all of us, and not just one over the other.”

Michael Vargas, Kinnie’s high school history teacher and mentor, said that thinking strategically and looking for allies is something the teenager first began to explore in his classroom.

When he taught history, Vargas, who now works to recruit people to run for political office as part of the nonprofit Leadership for Educational Equity, had a guiding premise. He used former attorney general Eric Holder’s 2009 admonition that the United States was “a nation of cowards” when it came to discussing race as the jumping-off point for his lessons.

“No matter if it was Reconstruction, if it was the Jim Crow era, no matter if it was the 1950s,” said Vargas. “No matter that history is showing us that progress is being developed, we still have an African-American attorney general and an African-American president who believe that in all things racial, we’re still a nation of cowards.”

It was a point Kinnie “really really took to heart, and really wanted to understand why,” Vargas said. The young man believed he’d been lied to by the American history he’d been taught in middle school. He’d come to Vargas during a free period with the names of lesser known civil rights movement figures whom he’d researched such as Bayard Rustin. And he kept trying to reconcile the integrationist, nonviolent approach of Martin Luther King Jr. and the separatist, by-any-means-necessary approach of Malcolm X.

Clifton Kinnie, 19, on the campus of Howard University on November 23, 2016 in Washington D.C.

Clifton Kinnie, 19, on the campus of Howard University on November 23, 2016 in Washington D.C.

Brent Lewis/The Undefeated

When Brown got shot, “things just got very real,” said Vargas. Suddenly Kinnie had to translate theory into practice, facing a local police force wearing combat gear and driving tanks. By then Vargas had moved to South Texas, but he talked to Kinnie and other former students daily to help them recognize “their place in time.” His role was to support them verbally and emotionally but said it was also “to make sure that there was a strategy to what [Kinnie] was doing.” Make sure he wasn’t just making noise.

Kinnie’s thinking around coalitions and pushing leaders to embrace new positions is something Vargas says that he and Kinnie discussed, and sometimes disagreed about, during the campaign. Vargas was a supporter of Hillary Clinton. Kinnie supported Bernie Sanders. Vargas calls Kinnie’s approach constructive irreverence. “He’s so anxious to change a world that stubbornly does not want to change, but he’s doing it in a way that’s credible … I think he’s finally matured now in the sense that he understands,” Vargas said. “If you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu.”

Before the election, Kinnie would send Vargas thoughts about the kind of message he wanted to push and the organization he wanted to create. Now, Vargas said, they’ll talk about Trump, white supremacy and strategies for the next four years.

Kinnie doesn’t know exactly what he’ll be doing on inauguration day in January. “I think if there will be protests on that day, those protests will be very historic, very legendary, but they will also be a statement.”

“If he is genuine, and serious about helping poor people and all people, and especially black people, then make sure your policies are serious as well, and if you’re not, we’re prepared to organize against that,” Kinnie said. It’s a message from a young activist who has been in the struggle.

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at The Undefeated. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.