Thousands of protestors took to the streets of downtown Chicago Monday during a march against police shootings. Credit: Kelly Wenzel/ For the Sun-Times

On Monday afternoon, four black teenage girls, followed by more than 1,000 protesters, shut down traffic in the middle of Chicago in the name of Black Lives Matter.

Sixteen-year-old Maxine Wint came up with the idea for the protest, and texted a group of friends from the Chicago Children’s Choir, an organization that grew out of the civil rights movement, to see if they were in. Seventeen-year-old Sophia Byrd texted back: she was.

So were 17-year-old Eva Lewis and 16-year-old Natalie Braye, who knew Wint from Kenwood Elementary School and who reached out to her after learning of her plans via social media.

Together, the four young women organized an event that would allow them to respond to the events of the past week, starting with the shooting deaths of two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, at the hands of police in Louisiana and Minnesota. 

“We grew up reading about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in history books, but what’s happened over the last year has made us realize that this isn’t just history,” says Lewis. “It’s been a shock to our generation. We want to end this so no generation after us has to go through what we did.”

They began with a two-hour silent sit-in at Millennium Park. Hundreds of attendees dressed in black and covered their mouths with black tape. Poets and singers performed—all young black women, which Braye says was a coincidence. They all learned of the event through social media, and came on their own accord.

“People are always telling people our age to stay off our phones, but that’s how this blew up,” Wint says.

The protesters at the sit-in were also mostly young and black, though many other groups came to show solidarity, including the youth group of the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center.

“As Asian-Americans, we wanted to come and be allies, especially at another event led by youth voices,” says 19-year-old Katrina Monreal. “[Youth] are often silenced, but we know that if we empower them, and they speak out about issues they care about, people listen.”

Seventeen-year-old Melissa Flores came to show solidarity as a Latina, saying the “both Latinos and African-Americans are put down by the same system.” Though she’s had plenty of options (Monday was the fifth day in a row of protests), this was her first Black Lives Matter event.

“I chose to come to this because of its organizers,” Flores says. “It makes me feel more welcome since it’s organized by teenage girls like me.”

Even some of the older protesters brought children along. Liz Landins brought her eight-year-old and one-year-old sons to the sit-in. The older boy proudly carried a poster in the march.

“I’d like for my kids to dream about what kind of a world is possible,” Landins says, “but also to know that they have to struggle for that better world—it’s not just handed to them.”

Lameeka Harris brought her three-year-old son, who was chanting “no justice, no peace” while playing in the mist of the park’s fountain. She wanted him to come to this event so he could see a community standing behind him, ready to protect him.

“Even at this age, I’m afraid for his safety,” says Harris, who is black. “I know it could be him one day.”

Another parent in attendance: Diana Byrd, mother of Sophia, one of the four organizers. She stood on the sidelines while her daughter directed the crowd, megaphone in hand.

After the sit-in, the group marched out of the park and across Michigan Avenue. For more than 30 minutes and nearly two miles, they shut down traffic, with the four teens leading the way. Then, the group met up with another Black Lives Matter event—a rally in Federal Plaza that lasted into the early evening.

Sophia couldn’t make it to that part—she needed a ride home from her mom.