Interview by Avani Kalra
Twenty-three year old Lexie Pitter has barely slept in weeks. As one of the millions of young people around the world who took to the streets after George Floyd was murdered on May 25, she became an activist and leader almost overnight. Pitter lives just north of Chicago, one of the most segregated cities in the world, and sought to bring police brutality protests to the generally more affluent and primarily-white North Side of the city, where residents often perceive the police as benign protectors as opposed to threats to the innocent.
About a year ago, the college student attended her first protest for LGBTQ+ rights in Washington DC. Pitter was inspired by the solidarity and strength she felt there, and didn’t hesitate to join protests in Chicago’s downtown area in late May. She became the key speaker at a North Side protest that started outside of Wrigley Field on Tuesday, June 2nd that drew more than a thousand people, later addressing a seated crowd outside the Chicago History Museum, asking white North Siders to stand by the Black community, and finishing by singing “I can’t breathe.” Many readers saw a picture of Pitter, moved to tears and clinging to her friend, Semira Truth, on the front page of June 3rd’s Chicago Tribune.
As the weeks went on, Pitter transitioned her focus to addressing the persistent inequity in the Chicagoland area, getting involved with a number of local initiatives to support Black communities. She volunteered for the John Walt Foundation’s “Feed the West Side,” and delivered groceries to pregnant Black women for Chicago Birthworks Collective. She attended and advertised the Defund CPD Trainings offered by the Black Abolitionist Network, and shared lists of Black-owned businesses in Chicago.
Pitter will be returning to Howard University as a junior this fall, and plans to devote her life to addressing systemic racism and advocating for prison reform. Her father has been incarcerated for much of her life, and Pitter has borne witness to a system she says treats inmates as “less than human.”
I spoke to Pitter over the phone on June 17th. We talked about the reality of protesting in Chicago, her opinions on policy and police reform, and her vision for the city’s future.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Kalra: What have you been up to these past few weeks?
Pitter: My motto is, “Seven days a week, no sleep.” After the George Floyd killing, I had this moment where it all felt so personal. It’s not like any of this is new, but it just felt closer to home for me, because now I’m older. I know more. I read more. I understand more. I’m more aware. So, I decided to get involved. One of my major goals has been participating in protests focused more on the North Side, because many North Siders have the ability to ignore so many of the issues we’re protesting. We feel so distant from the movement and from that reality. We find a way to normalize the situation.
Recently there have been food drives in the city that I’ve been helping out with. We get some groceries, we get some Pampers, and we make sure that the Black community’s good. We’ve been really lucky because so many people have been open to donating their goods, and we’ve been able to raise a good amount of money through internet drives and platforms like Venmo. This is a moment in which we’re all grieving, it’s a very traumatic moment, and we’re all dealing with it in different ways. It’s very important that we be there for our community and for everyone to know in this moment that they are not alone.
We’ve also been doing children’s drives where we bring out school supplies, and people like Toni Mono have been organizing meditations all over the city I’ve been helping with. We’ve been able to utilize public spaces like parks to organize our meditations. It is so important to take care of your body and heal yourself, and we try to touch on all aspects, because grief is very different for different people.
Absolutely. All that you’re doing is amazing. What does a typical day in the past few weeks look like for you?
A typical day for me begins by waking up at five in the morning and going to sleep at two in the morning. Sleep is not necessary––my body has been fighting for me. I mostly am out protesting during the day. I think some people think posting on social media is enough in terms of showing our support and igniting a movement, but in actuality, it’s not enough. We have to actually go out on the street. It’s showing support, and it’s also having conversations.
This movement is so much deeper than the media talks about. It comes off on TV that aggressors, violent people, and thugs—as Trump puts it—are taking to the streets. But it’s a community that’s had enough. A community that finds itself in food deserts, without access to healthcare, without opportunity in education. What do you expect? It’s like poking a bear and expecting it to stay still. For me, the reality of race was always present. My father is incarcerated…I didn’t get to wait until an “appropriate age” to discuss it.
Tell me a little bit about your decision to focus some of these protests on the North Side and your involvement in that idea.
There are Black men and women dying every day. I wanted to say to the North Side: “Go out there and quit being so stuck on the North Side. Have conversations.” There are so many people in the North Side that are like “Don’t go to the South Side…Don’t go to the West Side, because you know…” No! We’re all people. These neighborhoods were created by redlining. Go protest for your fellow Chicagoans.
Why do you think North Siders are choosing to show up now for racial justice? Living north of the city, how do you react to that?
I’ve never seen anything like this. Not just on the North Side, but in Chicago and in the whole country. I went to a memorial for George Floyd two days ago in Skokie by the Skokie Water Playground, and there were so many people there who showed up that I just started crying. This is a fight for most white people that will last for a week, maybe for a month, and if you’re really crazy maybe for three months. But this is an everyday fight for us. Imagine that. I mean, imagine waking up and having to convince yourself “Hey, I do matter, and I don’t deserve this.” How is this even a conversation where I have to prove that I’m human? Because you [a non-Black person] don’t have to do that. To see so many people so empathetic, it touches me. It makes me feel like people do care, and it makes us realize at the end of the day these colors of black, brown, white… they were given to us by anthropologists. When we die, we die with blood. And it’s the same blood.
There are so many people who still have to get involved. Is that what’s motivating you to keep getting up day after day and put this work ahead of your sleep?
Yes! And it’s also realizing that I have the means and the privilege to do this. As much as I’ve been pushing people to acknowledge their privilege, I need to realize my own. It’s a privilege to live here in Skokie. It’s a privilege to have a car, and be able to go to these protests. It is a privilege that I make it home safely, every night.
Especially in this day and age, with the pandemic and the number of people that are physically unable to get out there and protest, it’s so amazing to be able to be out there. And I guess that sort of factors into my next question. At these protests there seems to be so many people our age leading. What do you think about Gen Z stepping forward into these leadership roles and taking control of so many of these peaceful protests?
I do want to start by saying that all of the recent protests have started out peaceful. The only things that are making these protests not peaceful is when police come up in riot gear and scare you, or when they have tear gas or rubber bullets. But I don’t think anyone was ready for this generation. This generation is fearless. It continues to fight. I think that the difference between our generation and older generations is that older people have been brought up with this traditional mindset of what life looks like and what this society looks like, and when you try to explain to them that things are changing, it’s almost like an identity crisis for them.
I like that our generation doesn’t really accept a certain status quo, so the norm itself sort of seems to be shifting. To that end, obviously you’ve been telling me a lot about how you haven’t been sleeping, you’ve been up and at it with Gen Z every day…so I just want to know how you’re doing. Emotionally and physically, how are you feeling?
First of all, thank you for asking that question. You know, I’m stuffed full of anger. Seeing people who look like me killed is normal and it always has been. That could be me shot out there, or my little brother who is nine years old, or my best friend. When I see the police, I have a literal physical reaction. My heart beats fast, my hands are sweaty, I’m nervous, I’m jittery…and that’s called PTSD. And at twenty-three, I know that feeling way too well. There’s no prescription for that. It’s just a normal feeling for us. If you look like me and you get pulled over, in Skokie, in Chicago, in DC…you panic. You’re thinking, okay, so, what should I do? Should I look up? Should I look down? Should I stay still? Should I move? What if I move too much to the left, or to the right? Who should I call? And you don’t have to be an adult, you could be fifteen, seventeen, eighteen, having these thoughts. There are still people who sit here and say there are “good cops” and they serve our communities. What community? What community are they here for? Your community. Not my community. My community is becoming extinct.
Saturday, May 30th, I went to a protest in Chicago. That’s when Mayor Lori Lightfoot set a curfew, and that’s when I felt the most empty. There were all of these protesters peacefully protesting: we showed up with signs, we showed up with tears, we showed up with hurt… I’m out protesting peacefully and you’re here being aggressive and hostile. In a situation where I came to protest police brutality and my city lifted up all bridges and barricades and set in a nine p.m. curfew at eight-thirty, effectively stranding me, how was I supposed to feel? All of a sudden, I could be arrested for exercising my First Amendment right.
The following Tuesday, I went to a Wrigley Field protest that my friend organized. It was very peaceful, and we were able to have important conversations. We had a moment of silence that day, and this woman grabbed me and pulled me close. And we cried together. I realized this was a woman I used to go to open mics with in high school, and in that moment I just allowed myself to be so vulnerable. It was very deep for me. For days I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I kept having nightmares. It was just so nice to feel like I wasn’t alone.
The night before the Wrigley march, I decided that I would talk to the police at the protest the next day. There should be some way for them to empathize with this situation. So I’m out there, and I’m crying, and my brothers and sisters are crying, and we’re just asking them “Please, see me as a life, see me as a human. I’m not just an object, I’m not just a body, I am a soul within, and I am afraid for my people. I’m afraid of you.” And these police, and they’re laughing. They’re cracking up. This is the biggest joke to them. It doesn’t change anything for them. This is just a week with a little more work for them. And that hurt.
At the Wrigley protest, there were about eighty cops lined up, some dressed up in riot gear, and I asked them to raise their hand if they thought that the killing of George Floyd was wrong. I asked them if the cop that murdered him (and I won’t ever say his name) was wrong. And they all stood there, and did not raise their hands, did not blink, did not move at all. Nothing. They just stood there, like robots. That’s the moment where I understood the police force for what they are. They are trained soldiers. They are trained to kill. When you see a fellow soldier doing something wrong, killing an innocent man in front of you, it makes sense why you don’t move. It makes sense why you don’t say anything. You’ve been ordered to move as a unit. There is no concept of morals, what’s right and what’s wrong, when it’s one of your fellow officers committing the act.
It feels to me like the goal is the extinction of Black people. It’s so deeply rooted, there’s now also a gang war. How did the Latinx community turn on us too all of a sudden? We’re being targeted by all sides. We’re being targeted by the government, we’re being targeted by the police.
You’ve told me you’re out there protesting for your life everyday, for a safe environment for you and your family, and for a change in the system that’s brought us here, but I also wonder if you have an opinion about any policy initiatives. Is there a specific future in terms of law and policy you want to come out of this? In Chicago, in Illinois, and at the federal level?
The police need more training days. It takes more time and hours to get your cosmetology license than it does to get a police badge. There also needs to be more psychological background and mental checks, because we need to change the whole general psychology of the police force. For too many of the police, Black means evil. And that’s so scary. Right now you fire these “bad” police, and they go onto another place, another job, and their slate is wiped clean. Ideally, before police get out and enforce law in the community, they need to be put in the community.
The police department needs a budget cut. The fact that the police get forty percent of our city’s budget is absolutely ridiculous. They are getting paid to kill people. That’s ridiculous. And Chicago Public Schools are closing all over the city. We also need to change the education system as a whole, and funnel some police money into it. Black kids should have access to all classes, for a start. A lot of AP classes end up being primarily white. Also, there should be an AP African History class. Civilization literally started in Africa. Besides, we don’t talk about Africa half as much as we talk about the Holocaust, or how George Washington founded America. Systematic racism is very deeply rooted in the education system.
It’s great to have reparations, but I almost feel like they can serve as shut-up money, and then the race conversation is over. There are so many little things that need to be changed instead, like ending hair discrimination in jobs. If you’ve been telling a Black woman that having your hair natural is not professional, that is racist. That’s oppression. Start there, and work your way out.
Although voting is always important, I don’t really trust politics. I’m not a huge fan of Joe Biden, and I’ve kind of given up on the ability of the government to find justice for me, so that’s less of my focus. I’ll still be voting in November, though.
What have you seen on the ground that’s touched you? And conversely, what have you seen in the past few weeks that’s been most disappointing or discouraging? I’m referring both to interactions with the police, and on an individual level.
There were four tanks at our protest in Wrigleyville. What do you need tanks for? What makes the government and the police so powerful is that they come together and function as one organization?
I’ve seen a lot of people coming to protest the protests, saying “All Lives Matter.” Let me be clear. By saying “Black Lives Matter,” we are not saying all lives don’t matter. Our people are the very lowest on the totem pole. We have the highest rates for poverty. We have the highest rates for high blood pressure. We have the highest rates for diabetes. To free Black people is to free us all. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his book Between the World and Me, said “Perhaps being named ‘Black’ had nothing to do with any of this; Perhaps being named ‘Black’ was just someone’s name for being at the bottom, a human turned to object, object turned to pariah.” He’s a Howard University alumnus and a great author, and he really just tells it how it is.
If you had to define your own role in this movement, how would you label it? Obviously you have a lot of ideas for what you want to come out of the movement and a lot of involvement in it, but where do you think you land? I’m also curious about what you see yourself doing in the future. As you go back to school in the fall and this day-to-day activism becomes impossible in your own life, what do you want to do moving forward?
I go to Howard University and it is definitely a Holy Mecca for me. I wanted to go to Howard because I want to be an activist and make a substantial difference for Black communities––and so many of our graduates have done that. I’m majoring in psychology and I have a political science minor, so I see myself getting into politics because I think it’s important we have more Black people in power making decisions. I want to focus on prison reform in the long term. My father is wrongly incarcerated, and was sentenced to forty years. He was wrongly convicted, and so much of what he goes through in there needs to stop. Prison labor is the new modern day slavery. Inmates should be able to come out of the system and actually have a life. People do make mistakes, then they’re incarcerated, and then we see them as less than human. And there are so many wrongly convicted prisoners. I don’t get to see my father, I don’t get to talk to him, and he has to pay for food and to live even a little comfortably. They ripped away my family. It’s not a good system and it needs a complete overhaul.
When I’m thirty, forty, fifty, sixty…I will still be out protesting, even if I’m out there marching with a cane.
I could see myself becoming a sort of community therapist as well. I’ve experienced how hard it is to be out here marching on the front lines, and I can see how exhausting it is to be out day after day. It is not knowing if at any moment you’ll make it to the next one, it is not knowing if you’ll make it home that night, it is not knowing if you will be arrested.
I am curious to hear what you think is most important for other people to take away from this movement. Both the people you’re marching with and the people watching you and watching the news.
I want to start by saying that if you’re looking to the news for accurate information, you’re not going to find it. I’ve been very, very disappointed, because I see these reporters in real life reporting, seeing what I see, and what I read in the news a few hours later is so completely false and different from what I saw. They just report “There’s so many looters,” or “There’s so many rioters,” and “We need to put them in order, there’s chaos.” We went out there with candles, with music, we were just in Bronzeville with saxophones and drums, there was dancing, and we spoke to our elders. So that’s leading to my takeaway: don’t read the news, be in the news.
Racism doesn’t mean that you hate a Black person, it’s a thought process. It’s the idea that when I walk on a bus you clutch your purse, or when you’re out reporting you call us thugs. You might not acknowledge that as a reality, but your body’s doing it. That’s racism.
All of that absolutely needs to be widely understood. If there’s anything else you’d like to mention or add that I’ve missed, I’d love for you to go ahead now.
I want to take a second to acknowledge the race war going on between Latin gangs and Black Americans. It’s important for us to understand that as minorities we have to stick together, because we’re all fighting the same fight. It’s easy for us to turn on each other in rage, but we have real enemies to conquer. There was a Black and Brown rally last week, and it was striking how everyone there came together.
I also want to say that after the Chicago Tribune interview, I got a lot of random negative emails and feedback. People were saying that we need to address Black-on-Black crime, and claiming that I was entitled. But it’s really important to ask why these issues like Black-on-Black crime exist. In America, we’re way too comfortable with not addressing the truth and history and assigning blame. We put this idea in children that the racism we learn in the classroom is history, but in reality this isn’t history. This is the past, this is the current, this is everyday, this is tomorrow.
Avani Kalra is ACM‘s interviews editor.