Shakir Ahmad of Santa Barbara is 6 feet tall and growing, but he’s already a giant.
Everywhere the 16-year-old goes, he’s big and bold. He could be on the three-point line sinking the game-winner in a basketball game. There was that time he handed out pairs of $200 Nike shoes for free to homeless people in Santa Barbara. A star of San Marcos High School’s AAPLE Academy, he formed a program called Keep Ya Head Up to mentor elementary students.
Most of his antics — the serious and the goofy — are captured on Instagram.
It was his feat on June 7, however, that was captured by media cameras and caught the attention of the world.
Ahmad led a seminal moment in Santa Barbara’s social justice history, leading several thousand people on a march from the bottom of Stearn’s Wharf to City Hall, to the Santa Barbara Unified School District headquarters and then to the police station. With a megaphone in his hand and wearing camouflage shorts and a T-shirt reading, “You Can’t Break Me,” he was ready for battle.
“It was kind of overwhelming, but not too much because I was like, ‘I know I am doing the right thing, and I know what I am saying needs to be said,’” Ahmad said. “I’ve kind of always felt like that.”
Along with 17-year-old Talia Hamilton, Ahmad organized and led a student protest to present demands to the school district for ethnic studies classes, to declare racism a public health emergency and several other reforms in the aftermath of the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, a black Minneapolis man who died in police custody while a white officer kneeled on his neck. The recorded incident was met with widespread condemnation and sparked protests, marches and rioting against racism and police brutality.
Ahmad and Hamilton’s protest was peaceful, full of teens and others carrying signs and shouting for justice. The students won over the Santa Barbara Police Department, with personnel who led parts of the march and welcomed protesters at police headquarters. Ahmad and Hamilton used Instagram to organize the event and said they were surprised at the thousands of people who showed up.
Yet, for Ahmad, to some degree, the moment wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. As a freshman, he made the varsity basketball team at San Marcos. On that protest day, he carried the megaphone with as much ease and grace as he when dribbles the ball through the double-team to attack the rim.
In fact, he’s been at the center of attention for much of his life.
He was born in San Diego and his mom and dad, Megan and Shakir Ahmad Sr., moved to Las Vegas. They came back to Santa Barbara when Ahmad was in second grade. The elder Ahmad grew up in Oakland and Santa Barbara and played basketball at Santa Barbara High School. Basketball is in the blood, and the father and son played everywhere they could find a court.
The younger Ahmad was somewhat of a basketball prodigy. He played on club teams, including the Los Angeles Bobcats Elite and other teams from Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
“Basketball is a strong part of my life,” he said.
On Instagram, he has a picture of himself, at 2 years old, with legend Kobe Bryant.
“He plays hard,” Ahmad’s father said. “I always told him, ‘Don’t do anything half way. If you are going to do it, do it hard.’”
Some kids used to tease Ahmad for being a “try harder” kid,” the elder Ahmad recalled. He laughs today because he says it’s the “try harder” kids who get somewhere in life.
Ahmad is more than an athlete and an activist. He’s a math whiz with a 4.4 GPA and a sketch artist. His mother, Megan, said he could recite the alphabet forward and backward when he was 2. The elder Ahmad said his son could read and write early and that “he has always been smart.” With some athletes, the academics need to rise to match the athletic skill. Not in Ahmad’s case.
“The basketball needed to catch up to his academics,” his father said.
After a strong freshman year, Ahmad tore his labrum on his hip and had to have surgery, which put him out from July to December in 2019. He took the recovery time to get invested and organized to form San Marcos’ first Black Student Union. Like so many others, the killing of Floyd shocked him, and he wanted to get involved.
After Floyd’s death, Ahmad, who has a 10-year-old sister, recorded a video on Instragram, where he spoke his poetry over images of violence against black people:
“How many more lives need to be lost before we all address this as an issue
Fighting this war against injustice is what we all need to commit to
‘Cause I am so tired of seeing yet another black man getting shot
or being harassed or accused of something they are not.”
At the end of the video, about two dozen of his classmates and other local students recited the line “I Want Justice.”
Whether it’s through his mentoring or activism, Ahmad lives by a no-limits mentality and wants others to feel the same.
“I knew I never had the best living situation, but it’s all I knew and all I ever had,” he said. “But it’s OK. Wherever people come from, they can still do crazy things. They don’t need a giant house. You can still make an impact.”
Ahmad attended the first protest and rally at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, organized by Krystle Sieghart and Simone Ruskamp. He was inspired by their message and decided to take on a similar effort at the high school level. A common thread throughout Ahmad’s protest moments was his desire to keep things peaceful. At one point, when the volunteer police chaplains declined to take a knee with the thousands in the crowd in honor of Floyd, the crowd shouted loud and called on the group of men to take a knee.
When it became clear that they would not, Ahmad stepped in and convinced the crowd to move on.
“It was kind of getting rowdy,” he said. “I knew they had every right to be upset with everything going on, but I knew we couldn’t just stand out there all day and just wait for things to escalate, so I just tried to calm everyone down. We had already done so much on that day so far. It was positive and uplifting. I just didn’t want everything to come crumbling down, like the last couple minutes of it all.”
The protest was a success, and about 10 days later, the school board approved the students’ list of demands. It was perhaps one of the quickest turnarounds of policy seen in local government, and perhaps a testament to the students’ efforts.
Going forward, Ahmad said he would like to bring Black Student Union groups together at local high schools to work on projects. He also wants to keep the pressure on the school district.
“We know they made their resolution, but there’s still some things that we are going to make sure they know the point we are really trying to get across,” Ahmad said. “We’re going to keep pushing for exactly what we want.”
He said he knows that there’s a balance between pushing for change and getting what you want.
“We want people to understand where we are coming from and what we want to happen,” Ahmad said. “I know we can’t completely just come at them and hammer them down and make them feel bad, because maybe they’ll take it the wrong way and maybe not appreciate what we are doing for what it really is.”
Ahmad’s father said he appreciates his son’s efforts and watching him grow into a young man.
“He’s a very exceptional kid,” the elder Ahmad said. “Everything he is doing right now, it’s all him. My whole thing is effort. If you do something, you might as well as just go all out and do everything you can do.”
Whether it’s basketball, school, art or activism, Ahmad is already standing tall.