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At only 22 years old, Clifton Kinnie is determined
to make black lives matter.
By gABBy ShAcknAi

It’s 4 p.m. on a freezing Sunday
in January, and Clifton Kinnie is
plotting the future of the United
States. He also happens to be in the
car, having just left a protest at the
Capitol, and is en route to Wendy’s
for a late lunch. He’s preparing
for a trip to New York the next
day, where he will discuss race

relations and activism on an MLK
he’s posting an Instagram story
advocating for H.R.8, the universal
background checks bill; and he’s
juggling assignments for several
history courses back at school.
“I’m thinking a lot about the
displaced and forgotten population,”

Photo By tyler mitchell/Art PArtner


he tells me, adding yet another task
to the aforementioned list. A roar
of angry chants streams into the
car from outside his window. It’s
the fourth consecutive week of the
government shutdown, and America
is far from pleased, least of all,
Kinnie. “It’s just another way that
our government isn’t living up to its
foundational creed,” he says.

“Sometimes I feel I’ve experienced
so much that I’m like an old man,”
he jokes. “And I’m still young!”
Kinnie is a natural-born leader. He
was elected class president three
times at his St. Louis high school
and took an interest in history and
politics from a young age. But it
wasn’t until August 2014 that his
journey as an activist began.

Kinnie is just 22 years old, and
he has already accomplished more
than most people do in a lifetime.
He’s one of those incredible young
people whose name you’ve likely
heard alongside Emma González
and David Hogg. He’s been written
about in The Washington Post, The
New Yorker, and Teen Vogue. He’s
spoken at the Aspen Institute’s
Aspen Ideas Festival, has appeared
on the cover of Time magazine,
and has been on the receiving end
of Nancy Pelosi’s phone calls three
times. While most people his age
are gallivanting between bars and

Kinnie was 17 years old and about
to start his senior year at Lutheran
High School North. A lot had
happened since he’d left campus in
May for summer break. His mother
had passed away two months earlier
after a two-year battle with breast
cancer, and since his father was
already living in a home for his
alcoholism, Kinnie and his seven

their plans for the real, post-college
world, Kinnie is busy organizing
walkouts and marches, meeting
with top politicians, and building
a grassroots movement to eradicate
gun violence.

normal in the wake of this loss. He
was also in the midst of an arduous
college-application process, deciding
between Howard University in
Washington, D.C., and Morehouse
College in Atlanta. Kinnie’s plate
was full, to say the least, and he was
hardly looking to add to it.
On August 9, though, while
scrolling through Instagram, the
young man saw a photo that would

change all of this. It was posted
by a local news outlet and showed
the slain body of Michael Brown,
an 18-year-old black man who
had just been fatally shot by white
Kinnie, “and then I realized it was
just around the corner.”
Protests and riots overtook his
native Ferguson, and soon he and
two friends decided they couldn’t
just stand by. “If you’d taken a
photo of Ferguson at that point,
you would have thought it was 1955
in Montgomery,” he says of the
police-ridden scene in the days that
followed, where teargas and racial
Kinnie starts to break down as he
teargassed, salty tears now pooling
in his eyes and cascading down his
cheeks. It was on August 12, just
three days after Brown’s death,
when the turmoil and havoc reached
their zenith. “There was no real
warning when the teargas shots
went off,” he explains. “It sounded
like an explosion, and I saw
drop, and roll.” As the teargas hit

Kinnie’s body, everything started to
his nose and then his lungs, as tears
fell down his face. “I was crying
not because it hurt but because I
couldn’t believe something like that
was happening,” he says.
The next morning, now two
days into the new school year, his
teachers told their students that
they shouldn’t protest and should
vote instead. “I started saying to
my friends, ‘I don’t know what
we’re gonna do, but we’ve got to do
something,’” he remembers. The
following day, more than a hundred
kids were in Kinnie’s backyard,
ready to create a movement.
In the months that followed, even as
the violence in Ferguson died down,
they organized and led protests
in and outside school. There
were walkouts across thousands
of schools in St. Louis, even as
some students faced suspension
and were unable to graduate, and
Kinnie began gaining national
recognition for his work to combat
gun violence. “Our goal at the time
was to end police violence against
young black people and all people,”
Kinnie says. “Then we started to

notice a systemic problem of how
black people were being treated in
health care, education, housing,
everything.” One year after Brown’s
death and the subsequent action,
Kinnie was in the midst of a move
home, to Washington, D.C., where
he would commence his four years
at Howard. “You never think these
things are possible when you’re
growing up a poor black kid in
Missouri,” he says, now in his last
year of college and preparing to be
a high-school social studies teacher
with Teach for America. “Now I’m
walking through D.C., making
change every day.”
Kinnie continued his activism
at Howard and felt that being in
the center of the political world
helped him immeasurably, but
halfway through his junior year,
something horrible happened
about a thousand miles south, in
Parkland, Florida. A 19-yearMarjory Stoneman Douglas High
School, killing 17 students and staff
members and injuring an additional
17. It was the deadliest school
shooting in American history,
surpassing the 1999 Columbine

High School massacre, and it
immediately reshaped the narrative
surrounding gun violence in the
United States. “I was so distraught
after Parkland,” Kinnie says. “We
live in a nation that is capable of so
much pain and violence.”

“Police violence is gun violence.
Shootings in schools, nightclubs,
everything, it’s all gun violence.”
Kinnie’s generation is standing
up, he tells me. “We’re not just

for many black activists,” he says
with a sigh. “I pray for the people
who don’t want a just society, and
I pray for the people who send me
death threats.”

police violence anymore. We’re

But he notes: “The only time I

As the March for Our Lives
movement began to take hold,
Kinnie joined forces with them,
and through that outlet he has been
able to advocate for the universal
background check bill and bring
even more attention to the crusade

equal housing and education, and
everything else.”

hopeless was the night Trump was
elected.” However, by November
12, he realized that this was nothing
new and that America was in a
similar place with Andrew Jackson
during the Reconstruction era.
“With Trump, it’s brought so many
people and movements together,”
he says. “Right now, we’re in limbo,
but going into 2020, and even in
2019, we’re just going to see our
movement continue. Indifference is
a huge issue, but once we overcome
that, we’ll be on the way.”

he spoke to Pelosi was right after
his father’s funeral last September.
“I feel that I have two angels now—
my mom on one side and my father
on the other,” he says.
Kinnie’s camaraderie and welcome
approach toward March for Our
Lives are striking. Has he felt
frustrated having fought so ardently
against gun violence for years to
almost four years later when all the
victims were white? “Parkland …
and what happened in Ferguson,
in Baltimore, in Orlando, are all
related, and we have to end gun
violence in all forms,” he replies.

When asked to specify which
generation that is exactly—
Millennial or whatever comes
after Millennial—he says he’s a
proud member of Generation Z,
explaining (with enough certainty to
for all of America) that the last of
the Millennials were born in 1996.
“MLK was 26 when he began
organizing, and I was 17,” he says,
“and I think about how young so
many of these activists today are.
It’s amazing.”
Being an activist hasn’t always been
easy for Kinnie. On top of personal
tumult and trauma, he’s had
to deal with the slow pace of policy
change, the folks who adamantly
disagree with gun control, and even
some death threats. “These are
honestly just everyday realities

into the car, and returns to the
shutdown protests. Tomorrow he
will celebrate what would have
been King’s 90th birthday, echoing
the civil rights leader’s question,
originally asked 50 years earlier:
“Where do we go from here?”
Kinnie seems to have the answer.
@CliftonKinnie on Twitter

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