Picture this: You’re shopping at your local Forever 21, browsing racks of clothes on a busy, bustling Saturday afternoon. You notice that the mannequins are wearing shirts you didn’t remember seeing moments earlier—shirts with bold letters across the front, and a logo that looks eerily similar to Forever 21’s, proclaiming powerful messages rather than floral prints or cheerful stripes. Store employees seem to know nothing about it. Somewhere, someone is videotaping. On the street, people are stopping, staring, and taking pictures: a bold political statement has been made.
That was the scene over the weekend at New York’s Union Square Forever 21, when a group of anonymous protesters known as “Never 21” swapped out mannequin t-shirts, filled store displays, and hung a banner, all displaying the text “Black Lives Matter.” It’s a phrase that has taken on national significance in recent years following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the death of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, a hashtag that has evolved to become a call to action, a rallying cry.
Never 21’s website, designed to mimic the graphics and layout of Forever 21, is meant to call attention to the deaths of children at the hands of “vigilantes and disgruntled police officers”—making the important point, all too often overlooked in the media, that the names in the headlines such as Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Tamir Rice, were children who never lived to see the age of twenty-one.
Never 21 has been quick to point out that they have no affiliation with Forever 21, stating in the text of their Vimeo upload that “This is not an attack on Forever 21. In actuality, it is an opportunity for the popular retail conglomerate to support the #BlackLivesMatter movement.” We reached out to Forever 21 for comment and were given the following statement: "Forever 21 is not associated with the Never 21 Project and had no prior knowledge of their public demonstration."
While the idea of a large corporation tackling a social justice issue through retail and fashion might seem far-fetched, Never 21 points to the recent sales of “I Love New York’s Finest” t-shirts at Modell’s this past January after the shooting of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, and urges Forever 21 to follow their lead.
MTV News connected with an anonymous Never 21 activist via email for the full story on the motives behind the protest, the response from the media, and what they hope their movement will accomplish.
MTV: How long have you been planning this protest? How many people were involved in all stages of the operation?
Never 21: We've been planning this action since the end of December, so I'd say that makes it about 4-5 months in total? I don't want to give an exact number of how many people are in our group, but it's a good amount of us. We all have our specialties in different areas, so we were all assigned different things to focus on, i.e. the legal repercussions, graphic design for the website and t-shirts, etc.
MTV: Your message is powerful and clearly resonated with many: It's a bold visual statement, to see those words displayed on mannequins. What first inspired you to draw the connection between Forever 21 and children who never turned 21?
Never 21: We knew from the beginning that we wanted to make a statement with window displays, but we wanted to be sure that it was meaningful and respected the lives that we were honoring. When we were trying to pick a location that made sense, someone mentioned Forever 21 and and another person kind of blurted out "Never 21." It made sense for what we were trying to accomplish, so we made it our goal to do it right.
MTV: Can you describe, in detail, how you were able to pull this off? The planning phase, the execution, etc.?
Never 21: I can't go into full detail, but I can say that it was a lot of trial and error. We had to gauge the risk of pulling something like this off, visit the actual location a few times, size the shirts so that they were big enough to just slip on without taking up too much time, practice on mannequins so that we could be in and out without drawing too much attention to ourselves, etc. We all knew the risk, but at the end we didn't really care. This movement is beyond any of us and we all realized that.
As far as the execution, everything in total took about 5-10 minutes. We had planned everything out to the last detail and answered all of the "What if?" questions, so we all were really prepared for anything. We sent in the banner team to go in first with one of our legal observers and videographer. Once we saw the banner go up, we sent in our second videographer, our "shop-gifters" (the people who hung up the shirts around the store), and the people who were actually putting the shirts on the mannequins. It was so busy in the store that nobody really noticed what we were doing.
MTV: One of the striking things about your group's mission is that it reinforces that Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were children, which is not always talked about in the media coverage of their deaths.
Never 21: Black people, even black children, have been dehumanized by the media. In the cases of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, the media likes to bring up how tall they were and how "menacing" they appeared. They weren't these scary monsters who towered over society. They were growing boys, ready to become men. People need to remember that and stop trying to justify this ignorance.
MTV: Do you consider this protest a success? Do you have plans to continue work like this in the future?
Never 21: Yes and no. We're happy that this action has gotten people's attention, but a lot of actions in this movement have been attention grabbing and thought provoking. Success to us is seeing actual change—to not hear about any more black lives being taken for no reason.
MTV: It's difficult not to see this and think of it in the context of Freddie Gray and the protests in Baltimore. I know he's not a child, but at twenty-five...his story is still so heartbreaking and so preventable.
Never 21: Freddie Gray's death was another murder that the police are going to try to justify as a random act that they had no responsibility for. We won't comment on what has been happening in Baltimore, but we will say that people have a right to be fed up.
MTV: What are some next steps that we can all take to help raise awareness of this issue?
Never 21: If there are any organizations or groups in your community that are for the betterment and safety of black lives, please join them. Being neutral about this situation is the same as being supportive of what is happening. Also, if you'd like Forever 21 to actually take on this campaign and donate the proceeds to the families of those affected, please e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org or call at 1-888-494-3837 to let them know.