Warriors in the Garden - "Stand Up For Yourself"

Co-founder Kiara Williams on Grassroots Organizing and the Future of BLM

Warriors in the Garden -

Kiara Williams ~ Photo by Robert Hamada

The frontline fight for racial justice has witnessed a changing of the guard in New York City. Warriors in the Garden, an emergent collective of young activists, has taken over the boroughs en masse in defense of Black lives following the police murder of George Floyd.

In less than three months, they’ve already mobilized tens of thousands of protesters in response to police brutality and institutionalized racism — both inspiring the populace and drawing the ire of the NYPD. Their continued work is no small feat, and one that’s taken far more than a village. The movement has taken the entire city by storm.

Co-founder of the collective, Kiara Williams, is a 20-year-old hardware store worker turned full-time activist. Originally from Queens and now living in Bed-Stuy, she is one of the key organizers helping to determine the future of racial equity and awareness in America’s most diverse city.

Kiara offered her perspective on the mission and ethos of Warriors in the Garden, and shed light on where she hopes the movement is heading from here.

RB: What's the first group you started working with as an activist? What drew you to this kind of work?

KW: Warriors in the Garden is the first group I've been a part of. I finally brought myself to watch George Floyd's video on May 29th, the first day of protests. I planned on going out, but I felt like I needed to watch the video beforehand. That experience upset me even more than I already was, so I went by myself to Barclays Center and I was there from 6pm until 12am.

The police brutality that day was very apparent, so I went out by myself the next day, too. After the second day of protests, Joseph, another co-founder of Warriors in the Garden, called me up and he was like, "Hey, I want you to join this thing." So the next day everyone else in Warriors in the Garden came together and we formed. On June 1st, we led 20,000 people throughout the city our first time protesting all together. And ever since then we've just been just been at it.

What was that experience like, leading 20,000 people for your first demonstration?

We didn't realize it until we told everyone to take a knee halfway through the protest... and we just saw heads for blocks, all the way down. And we were like, "What the hell..."

Then one of our members pulled up Twitter and found a video from a helicopter recording above us. So by the end of the day we found out we led 20,000 people. We didn't think it was nearly that much. It was so strong and it really made us all grounded. We realized how much we can do together. Then we just kept going. It was really inspiring to have 20,000 strangers following us in support of Black lives.

Can you describe the meaning behind the name Warriors in the Garden?

It was actually inspired by the proverb: It's better to be a warrior in the garden than a gardener at war.

My interpretation is that war is brutal. If you’re on a battlefield gardening when there's a war going on, you're destined to be defeated. So why not make that garden your fighting place; to be a warrior and stand up for yourself.

The name was Joseph's idea. When we joined the group chat together at the end of May, it was called Warriors in the Garden and I was just thrown into the chat. Then, two days after that, everyone was like, "We need a name." So Joseph and everybody else decided that Warriors in the Garden is great. Especially after Joseph explained the meaning behind it. We were like, "Yeah, that's it. That's us."

Co-Founder Livia Rose Johnson ~ Photo by Robert Hamada

What is your role within the collective now?

I am the Secretary, a co-founder, and I'm the Event Planning head as well. But I dabble in everything because I'm the Secretary. So I keep tabs on everyone and make sure everyone's doing their part. Within Event Planning, I organize the protests and make sure they're successful by creating agendas, reaching out to organizations, and bringing in medics, vendors, and suppliers for support during the march.

I've gained a lot of skills that I didn't know I could gain and it's given me a real leadership opportunity.

Where do most of the members of Warriors in the Garden live? What would be the home zone within the five boroughs?

We're everywhere. We're all over Brooklyn, Manhattan, Bronx, Harlem... There's 14 of us and we're not stationed in one part. We come from all the boroughs, except for Staten Island. We meet up bi-monthly on Thursdays for strategic organizing and handling business meetings. But we're just always together.

Looking at the broader ecosystem of progressive organizations for racial justice, what is Warriors in the Garden particularly good at?

Educating and frontlining. Frontlining because that's how we began and that's what we're always going to do. Except for when it gets cold, because people aren't going to be out. So we're shifting digitally in the winter. But we are all very unique individuals and we're all vocal.

People feed off of that because so many don't know how to express their anger and emotions. So that's where we come in, to provide an outlet for the emotions people feel. I think that's another reason why people gravitated towards us so fast. So frontline work — organizing demonstrations, getting people in the streets — and then using those opportunities to gain mass and educate.

What have you been doing in terms of programming? What is the ethos behind what you're hoping to teach?

We've introduced explainers on the legalities of things, providing context for specific legislations and social factors. A lot of people don't understand legal talk, so we give specific examples, like for 50a — if an officer punched me in the head and went to another precinct, that wouldn't be on file. So we break it down in a simple way for people to understand and to realize how wrong the system is.

Also, we've been posting educational content around eviction and qualified immunity on our Instagram. We just put up another post about police unions as well. So we're gonna keep doing this work. We have just a bunch of content and information that needs to be pushed out.

Co-Founder Chi Osse ~ Photo by Robert Hamada

So Warriors in the Garden has myriad irons in the proverbial fire. But is there a critical benchmark on the horizon? If your current campaign were 110% successful, what could that look like and how do you think that could come to pass?

For us, success will be dismantling the systems of racism in New York City before branching out nationwide. We plan to reach Chicago and Detroit and Compton and Oakland before focusing on the particularly racist places, where people need to be educated because they're stuck in their ways... like Alabama or Milwaukee.

You can't only dismantle the system in New York City, and, of course, we are choosing New York City because we all live here. But after we fix our home, we are planning to form new chapters and coalitions in different cities.

What does the internal decision making structure look like? How do you reach consensus?

We vote and the majority wins. It's democratic, and it's been a journey. Fortunately, we respect each other and respect each other's opinions enough to work through differences in values.

So we give everyone the opportunity to provide a new outlook that another person may not be able to see. Then all together, we choose the best direction as a group.

Yacine Diallo & John Xavier Acosta ~ Photo by Robert Hamada

Through this process, how many protests have you organized together so far?

Hah! I can't even give a number. It's been so much. Even since our first protest on June 1st, we've collaborated with a bunch of other organizations which made our reach even greater. But we don't plan on stopping, as long as the weather's on our side. We plan on taking full advantage of the summer months.

Have any demonstrations exceeded your hopes or expectations?

The protests in Bayside, Queens. The first one was on July 12th. It was only around five or ten of us... against 100 white supremacists and police officers. That was a brutal day, but it made us want to go back out there a second time. And we made sure to return with numbers.

So when we came back on August 1st, we had nearly 200 people with us, which was significant because Bayside is really far. To even have that many was so helpful and made us feel safe, because Bayside is a hub for white supremacists.

After helping to lead all of these demonstrations, is there a particular moment or feeling that you carry with you?

When we're chanting. I lead the chants most of the time and people feed off my energy... Even though it's exhausting — because I have so many people taking energy away from me — I know it's going into something good. I want them to be louder than I am on a microphone with two big-ass audio speakers in the crowd. To hear them louder than I am... it's unity.

Do you have a specific chant you tend to favor?

Yeah, definitely, but they also change over time.

My favorite chant right now goes like: "1 - We are the people. 2 - Say, it louder. 3 - We want justice..." but here's where I changed it.

The original chant goes "for our people", but I say "for Black people". That is my favorite because it's so powerful and makes clear what we're fighting for and who we are.

Kiara Williams ~ Photo by Robert Hamada

How has COVID impacted your ability to gather people and lead demonstrations?

I feel like COVID has had a positive impact on the movement in general, because people are eager to get outside in their masks and people have way more time to research, gain an understanding, and get out of their old ways.

We've met people who were oblivious to what was going on within the Black community for years. People who suddenly had the time to sit at home and try to understand why all these people were angry that another Black person was killed by the police; that another innocent Black life was taken. So I feel like quarantine has been a factor that helped the movement.

Obviously, it also sucks because people are dying from COVID. But the pandemic has been a unifying factor that other movements didn't have, which is why they died out and didn't have as many allies. I feel like there's been a lot of allies out this movement, especially in New York City, but everywhere else as well. Due to COVID, the movement became international. There’s been marches everywhere, from London to China... Who would've thought?

Beyond the pandemic, how would you characterize the most challenging factor with organizing today?

Both prolonging the movement until we create change and keeping everyone's mental health stable. To continuously experience trauma doesn't often lead to positive outcomes. It can really break you down over time. It's great to be out here every day, but if you start to feel like you can't take any more, or that you're going to need to take a break soon, do it. We can’t burn out before we have the opportunity to continue helping and to make change.

How do you work together and delegate responsibilities to maintain, with all that you have going on?

We have departments, which consist of Event Planning, Communications, Legislation, Education, and Groundz. Within those departments, we have department heads who tell people what should be done. Then there's our Congress, which consists of the department heads. This is where we're making the big decisions based on voting and a simple majority decides the direction we're going to go.

Looking outside of Warriors in the Garden and toward broader NYC coalitions, who would you say is your fiercest ally in this work?

It'd be difficult to just say one because all of the organizations have showed up and supported us. A bunch that've been really impactful and helped us along the way are Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, Bayside BLM, Strategy for Black Lives, Unite NY, Freedom March, Queens Liberation Project, as well as Cherish with The Descendants, Carlene from NYC Action Lab, and Vidal and Kimberly’s No-Name Group.

I’d also have to mention Justice for George NYC, Black Womxn’s March, Riders 4 Rights, Black Chef Movement, Fueling Justice NYC, Musicians United NYC, Fuel the People, The People’s Bodega, Code BLM, MicBikes, and Qween Jean. They're with us all the time. Whenever we ask them to come, they come.

The past two months in NYC have been about unification and solidarity. So whenever they need us, they know we’ll be there for them as well.

Kiara Williams & Cindy Kamtchoum ~ Photo by Robert Hamada

How involved has Black Lives Matter of Greater New York been with Warriors in the Garden?

They've been so helpful. When Dwreck [another Warriors in the Garden co-founder] was harassed by the police, they extended their services so far. Obviously, they've been doing this longer than we have. So they've really become our mentors and they've guarded us. We appreciate them so much for that because we're so new and we got so much attention so early. We weren't expecting to have this many supporters and they’ve guided us along the way.

Can you describe what happened with Dwreck? Do you know why the NYPD targeted him?

The police harassed him outside of this house for almost five hours and tried to arrest him. They didn't have a warrant so he didn't open his door. Then they brought canines, battering rams, sharpshooters were across from his apartment, drones and helicopters were circling his home... and then they just left.

There's no main founder, we're all co-founders of Warriors in the Garden. It's between myself, Livia, Chi, Joseph, and Dwreck. They targeted Dwreck because he has a leadership role in the group, so he ended up turning himself in the next day to protect all of us. So they wouldn't come after us to try and get to him.

I don't want to talk too much about his case. But they said he was charged with assaulting an officer because he was yelling into a microphone. So when Dwreck turned himself in and saw the judge, everyone went on his side because they really didn't have any reason to arrest him. So Black Lives Matter of Greater New York really helped with legal advice, but almost everyone in New York City supported in some way. Even the regular citizens came out when we dropped an address to show up and support that day.

What are the benefits of having a decentralized leadership structure?

It really keeps us on track. It minimizes fighting and having to implement checks and balances. We don't have to worry about one person trying to take authority over the whole group. It keeps everything balanced. There's nothing negative that's happened since we've decided to run things that way. It's really just a respect thing, at the end of the day. Now there's 14 people helping lead the collective and we want to make sure we're respecting everyone's choices and how everyone feels.

Can you describe what intersectionality means to you?

For me, it's just unity. When I began to educate myself and I started to really understand how deep oppression is within the system, I realized everything ties together. Everything is intertwined. The oppressors have so much control over everything regarding Black people's lives. Down to our names, how we talk... If people realized how deep rooted racism in America is, then this work would be a lot easier.

But it wasn't until this year that I started to think about intersectional justice. And I'm still finding things out. Like when a Black father goes to jail, that instantly affects the Black family for generations. So it's intergenerational trauma as well. You have to really take your time and realize that these things are happening and how long they've been happening.

Oscar Vera ~ Photo by Robert Hamada

What is your impression of The Blueprint? Do you anticipate Warriors in the Garden contributing any further calls to action?

It's pretty similar to what we're all fighting for. All of this is what we've been asking for for years. I recently watched one of the Black Panther documentaries on Netflix and to see their 10 commandments literally resonate with everything Warriors in the Garden is fighting for... It's so scary, because so many years have passed and we're still fighting for the same things.

Even though there’s still work to do, I do believe there's a few things that we've achieved since then, as a Black community, that deserve recognition. Of course, there's more work that needs to be done. But we do need to highlight those small victories because if we continue to sulk in how long change is taking, we will give up before we can actually see it.

If you had the chance to teach the public one thing about racism and solutions for justice, where do you think the average New Yorker has room to grow in their understanding?

If I had time to really sit and teach something to the average New Yorker, it would be how oppression intertwines with everything Black people do. I feel like that's so important because that's such an awakening.

People need to acknowledge that Black people are still legally slaves with the 13th Amendment [and how that manifests in the prison-industrial complex today]. That is meant to target the Black woman because then she'll feel like she can't depend on the Black man because he's never home. He's going in and out of jail, and that creates generational trauma. Then you have these seven-year-old boys thinking they have to step up and be the man.

So much goes into one simple thing, before it becomes multiple factors that are meant to oppress Black people. If I had the opportunity, I would teach the depth of this issue and I think people would be very receptive to it. When you listen, and you really sit and ponder, you see how true, how traumatizing, and how detrimental these systems of oppression are to the Black community.

What does allyship look like for you? How can people support Warriors in the Garden?

Volunteering and just showing up for protests. We don't want money right now because we are still self-funded. We can't fundraise until we become an official nonprofit, which should happen this week or the next. So right now, money isn't what we're asking for. Just numbers, an open mind, and for people to share our content and continue to educate others.

You can protest all day, but if somebody around you or in your circle is still thinking negatively about the Black Lives Matter movement, how are you still promoting change if you're not going to speak up and tell them, "No, the way you're thinking about this issue is wrong."

Take what we're teaching you and teach it to someone else.

Kiara Williams, Livia Rose Johnson, & Gaya Rajesh [L-R] ~ Photo by Robert Hamada

Ryan Baesemann

is a writer, editor, and meanderer living along the central coast of California.

All contributions from Ryan Baesemann

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