ITHACA, N.Y. –– Hundreds gathered on the Ithaca Commons Sunday afternoon in solidarity with protests across the country this week remembering George Floyd, a black man killed in police custody in Minneapolis on Memorial day.
Community members who spoke expressed anger with police brutality and pervasive racism in the community –– calling on their white peers to take a more active role in resisting both institutional and everyday injustice.
“One of the things we can do to put an end to this madness is holding the powers that be accountable. Stop being afraid, stop worrying about your own profit, stop worrying about your own safety –– and when you see something that isn’t right, stand up,” one of the speakers, Jordan Clemons said. “The second you allow something to slide, you have a situation like George Floyd.”
Several bystanders captured video on their smartphones of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for over 8 minutes while assisting officers stood nearby and held Floyd’s legs down. Autopsy reports conclude that the injuries caused by Officer Chauvin’s restraint led at least in part to Floyd’s death.
Niara Boykin, a Cornell student, also spoke to the need for more direct action.
“All we’re asking for is equitable treatment…to not be murdered –– for our murder and mistreatment not be condoned,” she said. “They love to hate us so much that thats a hard thing to ask…that it takes centuries and decades of asking and telling and pleading and begging. We’re done asking, its time to demand now because asking has not worked.”
Word of the protest spread on social media Saturday and Sunday after an event was created on the Occupy Ithaca Facebook page. Logan Bell, a local activist formerly involved with the Occupy movement in 2011, said he created the event to bring people together in order to voice their frustrations, although he is not a person of color or affiliated with any local POC groups.
In a post on their Facebook Sunday afternoon, Black Lives Matter Ithaca distanced themselves from the action saying, “we have avoided promoting any of the upcoming activities, in part, because we do not know the organizers and have questions about the political character and basic nature of the events.”
The post goes on to say, “at the same time, we have been deluged with inquiries and requests for a protest or some other form of public response to the recent racist killings.”
BLM Ithaca said the group has not yet found a way to organize an official protest due to coronavirus complications, despite recognizing the great need for such action. They said they will continue trying to help fashion local responses that are conceived and carried out primarily by people of color.
Tompkins County Showing Up for Racial Justice also said they were not officially involved in Sunday’s event.
Community activist Phoebe Brown became one of the unofficial moderators of the event, addressing the crowd and leading moments of silence for black lives lost due to police brutality.
“I wasn’t a part of the organizing but when I got here everybody was just sitting around so I said ‘come on, let’s get this party started,”‘ she said. “This is about George Floyd, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg…this is about everything that’s happened over 400 years.”
George Floyd is only the most recent in what has become a familiar story in the media –– in March Breonna Taylor was fatally shot in her home by Louiseville Police and Ahmaud Arbery was shot while jogging. Locally, outrage was sparked last year an incident involving police led to two black young adults, Rose DeGroat and Cadji Ferguson being charged with assault. Several points throughout the afternoon the crowd chanted those names as well as “no justice, no peace.”
District Attorney Matt Van Houten, who was at the center of much of the controversy surrounding Rose and Cadji’s cases, was in attendance of the protest. He said he believes it’s important for police officers to be prosecuted under the law the same way regular citizens are.
“I’m here because this is something I acknowledge as a national problem that effects us locally and I want to listen and be present and acknowledge that we have a lot of work to do in our community and the world,” he said. “As District Attorney, it’s my job to make sure that anyone who breaks the law is prosecuted in Tompkins County if it’s something that endangers the public and if it’s in the interest of justice to do so.”
Tompkins County Legislator Deb Dawson was also in attendance. She said she is frustrated with the slow progress the country is making towards justice.
“I was 16 in 1968, growing up in Buffalo I remember the race riots there then…It doesn’t seem like we’ve learned anything,” Dawson said. “What we can do on a local level is support fair law enforcement in Tompkins County, we can also let Albany and Washington know anything less than fair law enforcement is unacceptable.”
— Anna (@alittlelamb8) June 1, 2020
The crowd, which grew to several hundred by mid-afternoon, took to the streets to lead a march past IPD and back to the Commons. One IPD car blocked traffic while protestors peacefully walked up South Cayuga Street.
Notably, there was little police presence at the protest itself –– with no uniformed officers amongst the crowd.
There was some mention by speakers and the organizer Logan Bell of weekly gatherings at the same time on the Commons scheduled indefinitely, but it is unclear whether those will actually take place.
Michayla Savitt contributed to this report.