Rising from the Ashes: The Two-Year Journey of The Kansas City Defender – Collectively Imagining an Abolitionist Future

The Kansas City Defender's Editor discusses his compelling journey and why he decided to launch the Black radical, Abolitionist, digital news startup. The post Rising from the Ashes: The Two-Year Journey of The Kansas City Defender – Collectively Imagining an Abolitionist Future appeared first on Kansas City Defender.

Rising from the Ashes: The Two-Year Journey of The Kansas City Defender – Collectively Imagining an Abolitionist Future

Three years ago, the world found itself in the grip of monumental shifts. As a deadly pandemic swept across the globe, an equally potent force was stirring throughout America.

Amidst the crisis, millions of people across the nation united, igniting an unprecedented wave of radical mass uprisings – the most widespread and sustained in U.S. history.

At the tender age of 24, I found myself tucked away within the sterile walls of a corporate digital PR agency in Chicago.

I was a digital strategist and web analyst, the lone Black man amid a capitalist, profit-driven entity. Each day, I battled the soul-crushing tide of severe depression, my only beacon guiding me through the darkness was my hip hop aspirations and the vision of someday harnessing my nascent tech skills to serve a higher, more transformative cause.

When the tumultuous uprisings of 2020 erupted, it felt as though destiny was calling. It was a clarion call, pulling me toward the purpose I’d been primed for.

The universe seemed to conspire in my favor; I was temporarily visiting my parents in the Kansas City metro and working remotely, although I planned to shortly return to my apartment in Chicago.

From leading numerous college protests to stoking the embers of activism in the politically radical city of Chicago, I was no stranger to standing on the frontlines. Thus, when protests sparked in Kansas City, I found myself helping lead the charge once more, buoyed by my steadfast childhood friends. People soon began asking if we were a group. We weren’t—at least not in the political sense.

The truth was that we were a rap group named Black Rainbow, brought together by our shared passion for hip hop and a deep sense of brotherhood. Recently, I had secured branding and a logo for our group, imagining it emblazoned on album covers, not protest banners. But as the question of our group identity persisted, we saw an opportunity in the swirling chaos. 

The name ‘Black Rainbow’ possessed an inherent fluidity, its meaning amorphous and malleable, ready to morph and adapt to whatever creative necessity the moment demanded.

Already laden with our shared history and aspirations, it seemed ready for a new, timely purpose. We realized we might as well repurpose the branding of our recently-formed rap group, transforming it from a symbol of our musical aspirations to a beacon for our political cause.

Enveloped by the fervor of the revolution, my day job had become a dreary monotony that I could no longer stomach. 

It was a day like any other when I shared my intentions with my parents. I remember vividly, my father sitting at his computer, his back to me as I voiced my audacious plan to quit my job. He swiveled around to gaze at me, his face a mask of incredulity that told me, without words, he thought I was on the brink of madness. He offered no reply, turning back to his screen and returning to work. I can’t help but laugh, recalling the scene.

The months that followed were a whirlwind of action. We spearheaded protests and innovatively conceived community survival programs inspired by The Black Panther Party, like our Grocery Buyout Program and Political Education programs, providing essential services and fostering consciousness about the Prison Industrial Complex Abolitionist movement among our community.

Black Rainbow Juneteenth Cookout, June 2020
Protest organized by Black Rainbow, May 2020
Black Rainbow “Anti-Independence Day Rally”, July 4th, 2020. Protesters set fire to a carriage in front of Kellys Westport, a building infamously known for holding Black people enslaved in its basement during slavery

Yet, as our actions resonated, the specter of KCPD loomed ominously. Their surveillance was a constant presence shadowing our steps.

To counteract their intrusions, we instituted our own protective measures. We stationed members outside our meeting venues to run counter-surveillance, a necessity underscored by the regular sight of unfamiliar vehicles lurking in nearby streets.

We implemented strict protocols, asking all attendees to submit their phones upon entering our meetings to safeguard our discussions. Rigorous background checks were conducted to ensure we were not exposing ourselves to infiltrators or informants.

Despite these precautions, the sense of threat persisted, escalating to brazen confrontations. Our lead organizers were routinely followed home by suspicious vehicles.

I still remember a night, after an event of ours ran late, a solitary vehicle that had been parked inconspicuously for hours suddenly sprang into motion.

As I left the park alone, the vehicle bolted towards me. I swerved instinctively, adrenaline surging as I sped away from the unnerving encounter.

Nevertheless, we remained unflinching in the face of such intimidation. When three of our members were unjustly detained by KCPD and threatened with baseless terrorism charges, we refused to buckle. We held our ground, driven by the righteousness of our cause.

The tumult peaked in October 2020. The brutal assault of a 9-month pregnant Black woman by a white KCPD officer almost resulted in the loss of her unborn child.

Spurred by the horrific incident, Black Rainbow and a coalition of community members occupied City Hall for an unbroken 21 days and nights. The lawn of City Hall became our temporary home. 

2020 was a crucible, a fiery test of courage and resilience. 

Each dawn I awoke to the chilling recognition that commitment to militant resistance might demand the ultimate price, a reality I’d seen grimly reflected in the fate of our ancestors in the Black Power Movement. Every morning I meditated, preparing myself for the possibilities of death or imprisonment, ready to face whatever tribulations lay ahead.

But this was only the beginning.

A few years earlier in my final year of college, I became drawn to radical Black texts, becoming an insatiable reader. From the passionate rhetoric of Malcolm X to the incisive commentaries of Assata Shakur, I eagerly absorbed their wisdom, their insights fueling my journey.

Concurrently, my studies led me to explore revolutionary movements, both historical and contemporary, their strategies and tactics, their successes and failures.

The impact and importance of communication became undeniably clear through my investigations. I learned that the Black Panther Party’s most potent operation was their newspaper, The Black Panther, which served as a tool for education, agitation, and organization.

It was through the paper’s pages that they disseminated their revolutionary ideals, informed the public about their community programs, and countered the demonizing narratives prevalent in mainstream media.

Similarly, the Abolitionist movement of the 19th century relied heavily on Black newspapers like Frederick Douglass’s “The North Star.” These radical presses served as powerful platforms for advocacy, agitation, and mobilization, aiding tremendously in the struggle against slavery.

Such examples were not limited to the United States. Globally, revolutionary movements from anti-colonial struggles in Africa to labor movements in Latin America recognized the power of owning the narrative. They created radio stations, newspapers, and newsletters, tools to communicate their cause, uplift consciousness, and rally support.

The glaring truth soon dawned upon me: our efforts would remain stymied unless we seized control of the narrative.

Our actions, no matter how bold or revolutionary, risked falling on deaf ears, twisted and contorted through racist, anti-Black framing by white media. The need for a platform to shift public opinion, to counteract misrepresentation, and to articulate our vision and our truth became an undeniable necessity.

And thus, with an empty pocket, no journalistic background, and no Plan B, The Kansas City Defender was born in July 2021. Armed with a rented camera, I sought stories in the pulsing heart of Kansas City – the 18th & Vine district, interacting with the vibrant Black community there.

I made promotional videos for local events, reframed news articles stripped of their racist bias, and soon employing social media, my stories began resonating, traveling far and wide.

In this journey, I was soon joined by my childhood friend and fellow Black Rainbow Co-Founder, JT. Our collective vision painted the city with stories, as we reached out to our community, from nightlife scenes to local liquor stores and even strip clubs. 

Anywhere there were Black people, we went. 

We created free videos for promoters, asking nothing in return but their support for our cause – an unwavering belief in and support for Black people.

A mere three months into our journey, The Kansas City Defender began to resonate powerfully across social media, eclipsing nearly all legacy media outlets combined. We offered an unfiltered perspective from the streets, interviewing individuals experiencing homelessness first-hand rather than commentary of government officials and politicians. 

When police shootings happened, we spoke with the family of victims and eye-witnesses rather than police propagandists. By September, just two months post-launch, we published our first viral story, the infamous, racist Olathe South homecoming sign proposal that reached over a million people, far beyond the confines of Kansas City.

Now, as we mark our second anniversary, we are proud of the engaged community we’ve fostered, our team has grown substantially, our social media following is over 65,000 strong and predominantly composed of young individuals aged between 13 and 30. This platform has allowed us to shine a spotlight on over 15 nationally captivating stories, reaching a staggering audience of over 50 million people. Our coverage of the tragic shooting of 16-year-old Ralph Yarl was so impactful, it prompted a response from President Joe Biden within 72 hours.

While recognition of our impactful work has come in various forms – from the National Community Engagement Award by LION Publishers and the Community Service Award in the NEXT Future of News Challenge hosted by the American Press Institute, to attribution from outlets like The Washington Post, DemocracyNow, The New York Times, CNN, and MSNBC – these are not the compass by which we steer our course. Awards, while useful in pursuing grant funding and establishing credibility, are not our primary source of validation or motivation.

What truly fuels and matters to us, are the voices from within our own community.

It’s the students who, having endured terror and abuse at the hands of their racist peers, found courage and hope through reaching out to us. It’s the Black families, victims of police violence, whose narratives would have been silenced and distorted if not for our platform that relentlessly exposes the deception and lies of KCPD. It’s the Black youth, inspired by the uplifting images and stories of artists, athletes, and our “Student of the Month” features, finding a sense of pride and aspiration in these positive reflections of our city’s Black community.

In The Kansas City Defender, we’re not just fostering a news outlet; we’re laying the foundation for the future of news – Abolitionist, radical, unapologetic and community-led. Our work at the local and regional levels is having a profound impact, not only within our own community but rippling across the nation.

The Kansas City Defender is our collective battle cry. Echoing the indomitable spirit of the historic Black Press, and radical news outlets like The North Star, the Chicago Defender, as well as the relentless courage of trailblazers like Ida B. Wells, we strive to bear their legacy onward. 

Chicago Defender, September 10th, 1955

We commit to illuminating these buried narratives, to confronting and defying the ironclad white supremacist power structures, and to advocate unflinchingly for an Abolitionist future.

We envision a future void of exploitation, one where Black, brown, and poor people are no longer shackled by cages, surveillance and criminalization. We yearn for a world where the scales are re-balanced, where police departments are obsolete and no longer usurp more resources than all our public schools combined. 

We are building a future where the boundless imagination of Black children isn’t stifled but nurtured, where they have the means to chase their dreams unabated. We picture communities buoyed by affordable homes, sustained by wholesome food, and infused with vibrant arts and rich cultural resources. We dream of a world where the oppressive edifices of jails and prisons have been razed to the ground, replaced by monuments of life, love and community.

With your support, we stand on the precipice of turning this collective dream into a shared reality. We will write the next chapter of our narrative, building a Kansas City that reflects not only our struggles but also our boundless potential. We look forward to scripting this story with you, to constructing a brighter, more liberating future, one powerful narrative at a time.

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