Three years ago, when Hasani Malone first set foot on Flagler College to kickstart her career as a journalist, she knew from the outset that something about the school was off.
Hasani had spent the majority of her life in Atlanta, where growing up, she was enveloped in a largely African American community. Now, she was one of the few black students in the nearly uniformly white, liberal, upper-middle class mass of Flagler’s student body. And though many students treated her nicely, the feeling of cultural listlessness- that depressing sense, however diluted, of having been dropped in a foreign country without knowing the language- was nonetheless acute.
But within two years, she had not only helped carve out an inward space for the flourishing of black culture within Flagler College, but had joined the ranks of a loose but dedicated group of black activists who’ve made outward ripples by fighting racial injustice in the St. Augustine community as a whole. She helped galvanize the Black Students Association (BSA), where as the groups VP she worked to create a space on campus where “black culture at the school and in the community was given a platform to express itself.” She’s participated in the rising wave of protests against racism, police brutality, confederate monuments which have proliferated, as with the rest of America, across North Florida: demonstrations which have garnered as much praise from young liberals as they have opprobrium from aging conservatives. She helped engineer a drive to deliver books to prisoners within America’s vast prison system. And on October 31st of last year, she became a community pariah when she and a friend spearheaded an impromptu protest against the wearing of blackface- a racially charged costume designed to make one look “black”- by an employee within a prominent local restaurant, the Bunnery.
If Hasani seems like an unusually involved activist, it is because she is: though she did not morph into her current shell overnight. In the same way that geologic epochs slowly come together to paint distinct layerings on sedimentary rock, the individual chapters of her life have each compounded successively, coming together over the years to form the unique person she is today.
The roots in activism go far back in time, predating even her birth. Both sides of her family had always been politically active, endowed with abnormally pronounced senses of social consciousness. Her mother’s family even ran guns for the Black Panther Party at one point.
Growing up, Hasani always had a profound awareness of her own “blackness.” Like many young African American girls, she unwittingly subscribed for many years to the notion that beauty was a virtue restricted only to white women with long blonde hair, though thankfully, at an age earlier than many others, she learned how ridiculous this assumption was and began to love her body as anyone else would.
“I had to unlearn so many things when I was little,” she later told me, discussing the unconscious presuppositions about race that still permeate the American psyche. “Even to this day, I’m still having to unlearn so many small intricacies, little things regarding identity and race that I was taught, but never thought about, when I was younger.”
She was lucky enough to have grown up in a middle-class household, though that by no means precluded her from witnessing the immense poverty of other students in her Atlanta public high school.
That she would hail from Atlanta, a city whose whopping population of 5.9 million is more than half African American, and whose history is steeped in the struggle for civil rights, seems befitting for a person like Hasani.
She joined this same struggle for civil rights in its most recent iteration- the Black Lives Matter movement that’s emerged in light of the spate of police brutality being exposed in recent years- late in her high school career.
To begin with, she felt too shy to go to the Black Lives Matter protests, and only started going because of her sister had dragged her along. Very quickly, however, she became hardened to the unyielding, brutal ways in which the police would respond to these protests.
In the course of her activism in Atlanta, she participated in public protests that both shut down highways and surrounded the governor’s mansion.
For Hasani, the police responses to their presence as black protesters providing revealing lessons in the dynamics of power. Cops regularly attacked their groups, despite the large presences of the elderly and children. To scare them off the pavement, police shot terrifyingly loud rounds that burst like firecrackers at the ground before them. They oftentimes threw protesters to the ground when they didn’t immediately respond to their demands (she related to me a story of how once, she saw an elderly woman thrashed down upon the cement by a far younger and more fit officer).
When the protesters surrounded the governor’s mansion, the police laid siege to them by erecting a cordon of officers through which no one was allowed to pass- not for food, not for water; not even to go to the bathroom- for six hours straight.
In Atlanta, where the percentage of African Americans is so high, it’s inevitable that a significant portion of the police force itself is black. But Hasani’s newfound experiences taught her how this phenomenon- a fact often deployed by conservative detractors to discredit the BLM movement- revealed the more insidious power dynamic that underlay America’s modernized, militarized police forces: that any police officer, regardless of their own personal color, could use their power to do away with a person’s body as they pleased, and that in nearly all cases, this power was projected arbitrarily over poor people and minorities.
Protesting in St. Augustine, for Hasani, might as well have meant protesting on a different planet. Unlike the demonstrations in Atlanta, the majority of the protesters in the small North Florida town were either wealthy, college-students, or liberals (if not a combination all three). Thus, the police made no efforts to react to the political demonstrations here with the same viciousness nor hostility as they did in Atlanta. Doing so would ignite unwanted controversy in a largely white town dependent on its reputational image for tourism revenue. Whiteness, in its own way, became insurance against police brutality.
In Atlanta, she tells me, “I never went to a protest where there wasn’t police backlash. That’s a privilege white people don’t realize they have… Until I got to St. Augustine, I never realized the police were supposed to protect you.”
Invigorated by the new community surrounding the BSA, she joined in on the BLM Protests in Jacksonville to protest the “Jax 5”- an incident wherein several officers had violently attacked peaceful black protesters.
She draws inspiration from the Jacksonville BLM organizers- a professional and highly experienced group of activists who, within the big city, are able to orchestrate far larger and more effective manifestations than those in smaller cities. She later used the skills she learned from them to help set up St. Augustine’s first Black Lives Matter Protest, an event in which members of the movement marched from the head of downtown, through St. George street, and towards the old slave market. Their goal was to raise awareness of the systemic racial injustice that has permeated deep into the supposedly “post-racial” era.
As a part of the BSA, she helped start a book drive to deliver literature to prisoners within America’s private prison system. In Hasani’s mind, what’s more important than the education those prisoners might reap from the books is the very gesture that someone on “the outside” is actively thinking about them and their well-being.
“When people are incarcerated,” she says, “they’re just counted as a body- not a human being.”
Atop the already impressive repertoire of activism, Hasani was amongst those walking with Rev. Ron Rawls as he set forth on his highly contentious local crusade (which to this day remains in full force) to remove and recontextualize the confederate monuments that dot St. Augustine’s public parks. But even that dosage of controversy was nothing compared to that she would personally experience on October 31st, 2017.
To this day, three months later, she is still in a daze from that peculiar episode, which could be considered the zenith of her activist career thus far:
That morning that yielded no initial hints that it would be different from any other day at school. She received a text from her friend, Courtney Olson, who had been studying at the café earlier that morning, that one of the café’s employees behind the counter was wearing blackface. Harboring the same sentiment of indignation with her friend, that nascent sense of rage, Hasani quickly got herself ready and rushed over to the restaurant, where the two confronted the employee.
Their first failed efforts to politely confront the employee about wearing the outfit, which they regarded as highly offensive (and which has a copious history within America of being used in racially derogatory manners toward blacks) hit the floor with a hard, resounding thud.
The feigned words of politeness between both parties soon devolved into shouting; the employees very quickly fell to making fun of Hasani and her concerns. Amidst the angry shouting match, the manager called the police. But there was a catch: he only dispatched them to sweep out Hasani, the only individual who was actually black.
Both Hasani and Courtney left to avoid confrontations with the police, but immediately afterwards they sent out the details of their debacle all over social media. Not only that: they called for a protest in front of the restaurant to demand an apology and the removal of the outfit.
To their surprise, an armada of equally enraged students would, within an hour, coalesce in front of the store, armed with makeshift signs and chanting “Black Lives Matter!”, to support Hasani and Courtney in their demand for an apology. And amidst this sudden storm of persistent angry students was none other than Hasani herself, leading the protests with a series of rousing speeches.
The protest lasted eight hours, the sprawling amoeba of shouting students clogging the narrow corridor of St. George Street until the last flares of dusk shot orange hues through the evening sky. They proceeded in a series of chants challenging the usage of blackface and the response by management and the police. Relatively early in the afternoon, a cadre of local police amassed alongside the protest- alongside a crowd of curious onlookers- and a short time later, rumors began flying around that a group of local neo-Nazis were coming to counterprotest, though that rumor thankfully never came true.
“All we wanted was an apology,” she later told me, explaining why they had gone on with the protest for so long. “From the manager, who called the cops on us. And from the lady, who wore the blackface.”
In the end, the management of the restaurant issued an explanation, but no formal apology. Where the protest was definitively successful, however, was in inflaming the local debates over race, history, and identity politics that have flared in the wake of the controversial proposals to remove or recontextualize St. Augustine’s Confederate Monuments. For many, the easiest punching bag in this debate would be Hasani.
The scale of vitriolic hatred unleashed towards Hasani over social media in the days following the protest was staggering. Conservatives from all around the St. Augustine area, and even a few liberals, let loose on their social media feeds, attacking those who had gone out of their way to cause such a seemingly pointless disruption in their hometown. A large number of people found her identity and sent her threatening messages over Facebook. Veiled behind the shameless anonymity of social media was an anger whose crosshairs invariably seemed to settle on this black college girl, a sensitive snowflake who, in their minds, either couldn’t hold her tongue or was incapable of controlling her emotions. In a Facebook message immediately following the protest, one person wrote (grammatical errors included):
“Take you fascist and racist behavior back to Atlanta Georgia and leave people in Florida alone if you cannot handle our culture you should not be here.”
With three months now between her and that traumatic incident, I ask her: was it merely a “boutique protest” that lacked any true substance, a manifestation of public indignation without any justification? What was the point in engaging in such a spectacle? Was it worth all the hate that was worked up towards her?
“It was definitely a small protest,” she concedes. “Blackface isn’t the most pressing issue for the black community. But when you see people in blackface, when you see someone in blackface, it’s someone mocking a culture. We are in America, and historically, that is meant to mock black people. If you’re going to continue mocking black people on a small scale, that is going to play out on a broader macro level in the world. It’s meant to show that black people are commodities that can be used for humor, and that they’re not meant to be taken seriously as people. This was meant to oppress black people.”
Hasani continued, saying that the derogatory symbolism of a white person wearing blackface- though not earth shattering- is one of many pieces in a larger cultural puzzle that’s continued to re-cement and normalize the usage of black people’s bodies by white people for humor.
“Besides,” she says. “I was miserable that day. That was a miserable day. Why would I randomly decide to ruin an already great weekend by protesting because it was somehow ‘fun’? …But I will not allow myself to let this sort of cultural normalization continue if I can do something about it. I will protest if I see people making fun of my people. My conscience won’t allow me to do otherwise.”
When I ask her about the complaints made by several business owners near the Bunnery that morning- that the protesting crowd cut off the flow of potential shoppers to their stores that day- her answer is acerbic. “Protests are meant to disrupt things- that’s their very nature. If you’ve got a problem with it, perhaps you should join in, or do something to show solidarity.”
Following the I talk to her about her career as a writer, which in many ways has run in tandem with her role as activist. Last summer, she interned and later wrote for the Atlanta Black Star, and she later published an article in the Jacksonville Times-Union. Much of what she writes about concern the same questions that haunt her career as an activist. In many ways, that divide between writer and fighter for social justice, between being a mere stenographer of history and a contributing voice to the struggle, is a chasm she believes she’ll never completely overcome.
“As a journalist, you have to have some form of a political consciousness, ideas… (And) there are some things- as a black journalist- that I don’t feel I have the privilege to be unbiased about.”
I ask her if, over all the years of her experiences, there is something substantial she has learned.
“You know, being an activist, writing about these things, it’s taught me to be more bold, to be less afraid of expressing my opinion. And most of all, it’s taught me to be more empathetic and caring as a human being.”
Earlier in our interview, she had told me something revealing: “A lot of people talk disparagingly of the hood, of the ghetto. I grew up in the hood. And I don’t completely consider it bad. There’s beauty in ‘ratchet.’ There’s beauty in ‘ghetto.’”
At least for Hasani, that beauty is- and will remain- something worth fighting for.