Free Speech 2020: An Interview with Nupol Kiazolu, President of Black Lives Matter Greater NY
Earlier this year, PEN America spoke with Nupol Kiazolu, the president of Black Lives Matter Greater NY, before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic to the United States and the worldwide wave of protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the murders of Black Americans like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless others. We spoke with Kiazolu about what freedom of speech means to her and to the Black Lives Matter movement, why protests matter, and how young people can harness the power of their voices.
In addition to serving as the president of Black Lives Matter Greater NY, Kiazolu was also crowned Miss Liberia USA 2019–20, is the founder/CEO of the national campaign Vote 2000, stars in the BET docuseries Copwatch America, and is currently earning her BA in political science at Hampton University. A Brooklyn native, Kiazolu has been a leading voice among Generation Z, focusing on civil rights, domestic and sexual violence, and homelessness. She has been recognized by outlets like Teen Vogue, DoSomething.org, Cosmopolitan, and CNN. Kiazolu is also the first HBCU student to be a part of Teen Vogue’s 21 Under 21.
What does freedom of speech mean to you?
As the president of Black Lives Matter Greater New York, freedom of speech is essentially everything to me, and it’s everything to the movement because without that, then we’d really have no movement. As a young Black woman in America, me immersing myself in the movement wasn’t really an option for me. In reality, whether I’m sitting down in the comforts of my home or I’m immersed in the movement, I can be killed either way just because of the color of my skin. So with me using my voice to stand up for what’s right and for social justice, it’s really been critical, and there’s young people like me doing the work everywhere.
“Freedom of speech is essentially everything to me, and it’s everything to the movement, because without that, then we’d really have no movement.”
How did you get your start as an activist?
When I was 12 years old, Trayvon Martin was killed, and that was my push into activism. It was very controversial because I went to a predominantly white middle school in Georgia. I came up with this idea a couple of days after he was murdered. I said, “I’m going to go to school with a hoodie that says ‘Do I look suspicious?’ on the back of it.” Immediately, my teachers did not receive it well. I had support from one woman, and she was a Black woman—my math teacher. Two days later, I was written up, and I was gonna get suspended. Before I went to the principal’s office, I went to my math teacher, who was my only ally, and I told her, “Listen, they’re about to suspend me.” And she was like, “You know what? I’m going to come with you.” So she literally risked her job, put her hoodie on, marched down to the principal’s office with me, and stood by my side the entire time while I was debating with the principal. Instead of suspending me, the principal was like, “I’m going to send you home. Do your research and have your case ready for me tomorrow.”
So I went home, and I did research for hours on my First Amendment rights as a middle school student in Georgia, and I came across this court case, Tinker v. Des Moines—those were the students that were protesting against the Vietnam War, and they wore black wristbands. The next day, I went to the principal’s office, early in the morning. My math teacher was right there with me again. We argued for about two hours, and he was so shocked. He was like, “How do you know about Tinker v. Des Moines at 12 years old?” And I was like, “Well, research.” So I ended up winning, and he said that I was allowed to keep my hoodie on. After that, it was lunchtime. When we stepped into the cafeteria, every student in there had their hoodies on with the exact same messaging, and I was absolutely floored. My teacher and I just stood there and cried. And at that moment, I knew being an activist was my calling, and I haven’t stopped since.
“Right now, in this day and age, we’re seeing young people take their power back in their voices back, and I just want to continue to see young people all around the world do that, because there’s a change in numbers. There’s change in people that show up. So I just really want people—young people all around the world—to know that your voice is powerful, your voice holds weight, and your voice can change the world.”
What advice would you have for people who want to let their voice be heard?
My advice to young activists everywhere is to take your time when you’re immersing yourself within the movement, because it’s very hectic and it can definitely take a toll on you, especially as a student. Moreover, be empowered and don’t let adults—no shade to adults—suppress your voice and make you feel like what you have to say isn’t important. Because at the end of the day, we are not only the future of this country, but we’re the present. And if we don’t have it, we don’t stand up, then who will? What I say to adults all across the country is invest in us, invest in the young people that are using their voices for social change and social good because we need you. We need everyone to be a part of this fight in order for us to effectively change the things that are going on in this country, and we need this now more than ever. So I encourage young people all across the country to be fearless, to show up, and be a part of this fight. Because the change starts with you.
What do you see as being one of the biggest threats to freedom of speech today?
I think the biggest threat to freedom of speech today is political polarization, because we’re at a point in our country right now where everyone is on one side or the other, and we’re not having conversation anymore. It’s really taking a toll on us. I feel that it’s imperative that we have civil discourse with people of differing political ideologies, because at the end of the day, we all live in this country, and we’re going to come in contact with each other. So I encourage everyone to burst their bubble and to speak to people that have different political ideologies, because sometimes, you may find common ground.
“If our First Amendment right is taken away, democracy as we know it will vanish, and the movement will take a huge blow.”
What do you wish more people, especially young people, knew about the impact, their voices?
The biggest thing that I wish more young people knew about their voices, is how powerful they are and how much weight it actually holds. Because I was once a young person that didn’t believe my voice mattered, and that’s what I hear all the time from young people, like, “Nobody really cares what I have to say, adults always shoot down what I say.” And when I was going through other organizations, I faced ageism a lot, along with misogyny and all those other things, so it was very discouraging. But once I tapped into my inner power and my inner self, and realized that what I have to say is important, that’s when I really started to excel and flourish and really just use my voice for change. Right now, in this day and age, we’re seeing young people take their power back in their voices back, and I just want to continue to see young people all around the world do that because there’s change in numbers, there’s change in people that show up. So, I just really want people—young people—all around the world to know that your voice is powerful, your voice holds weight, and your voice can change the world.
Why is protesting so important?
Protesting and rallies are so important to the movement because it raises awareness on the issues that people would overlook if they didn’t know about it or hear about it. I hear people often say, “Protesting doesn’t work. Protesting doesn’t matter.” But I refute that all the way, because without that, you wouldn’t know about the issues that are going on. I’ve been organizing for a really long time and protesting even longer. I’ve seen throughout my experience the impact that protesting actually has. It puts pressure on people in office, elected officials. It puts pressure on people in charge that are overseeing things.
What do you think would happen if our free speech and protest rights were taken away?
If our First Amendment right is taken away, democracy as we know it will vanish, and the movement will take a huge blow. But even if our First Amendment right was taken away, I don’t believe that it will stop the movement from progressing, because we have radical people in here that really care about human beings and lives, and are willing to put their lives on the line for everything. I’m one of those people, and I know that the movement is bigger than me, so that’s why I put my body on the line every single day. So even if our First Amendment right was taken away, the movement will still keep going.
Free Speech 2020 is PEN America’s year-long initiative to highlight threats to free speech and showcase how we intend to fight back—by defending press freedom, fighting online harassment, combating disinformation, and upholding protest rights. PEN America is highlighting our conversations with writers, artists, activists, journalists, and advocates who work at the intersections of creative expression and free speech throughout 2020. Learn more about our work here.