ITHACA, N.Y. — In between calls to action against police brutality and individuals sharing their experiences of racism against Black individuals, members of the Ithaca community stopped for a dance break as DJ Double A played songs like “Sound of da Police” and “Drogba (Joanna)” to celebrate Juneteenth.

“That right there is what community looks like,” Savannah Gonzalez, an Ithaca resident and one of the organizers of the Juneteenth rally, said. “Even though I didn’t know half of the people on the stage, this is what loving each other looks like.”

Decarcerate Tompkins County, a local group that advocates reforming the incarceration system, held the rally, “Decriminalize, Demilitarize, Decarcerate Juneteenth Rally” on June 19. Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, Black slaves in Texas were told they were freed, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Over fifteen speakers shared stories and musical performances on the Bernie Milton Pavilion stage over the course of four hours. Hundreds of people attended the rally.

Decarcerate Tompkins County stated that the purpose of the protest was to “have the public understand the problem of police violence in relation to other criminal justice factors locally, and to give ways for people to join and add to the work that is already in progress.”

“We’ve got to stop criminalizing Black bodies, we’ve got to stop criminalizing poor bodies, and this is going to take work and concerted effort,” Taili Mugambee, one of the organizers of the protest said. “We’ve got to address the systemic issues that individuals are faced within this community.”

Residents of Ithaca have been holding and participating in protests over the last three weeks to address police brutality and racism in the local community and nationally, following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. Similar rallies were held on Juneteenth across the country. In the past, Southside Community Center has held a Juneteenth Festival to commemorate the day. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic this year, Southside held its first-ever virtual Juneteenth ceremony on June 13.

“I hope and pray that the people here aren’t just here because so-called protesting and rallies are a trend. Black lives are not a trend,” Gonzalez said. “So what I really want you all to do is stop talking to your Black friends, like ‘Oh yeah, I support you, I’m Black lives matter, this is bad.’ … Make a damn plan on what you choose to do because words are empty without action, and you all need to do something. And Ithaca, you are all so-called good at covering up racism.”

On June 17, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday for state employees, and will advance legislation to make it an official state holiday next year. Juneteenth is celebrated on some state levels across the country, but is not a federal holiday.

“I appreciate this because I feel like this is all for me,” Harry Smith, an Ithaca native, said. “This whole thing is based around my whole life, and so I have to be here.”

Smith said he is working with fellow Ithaca resident Jordan Clemons, who has been in the forefront of many of the protests in Ithaca over the past three weeks, to establish an identity for Black individuals on the West End, which is where many Black Ithaca residents were pushed to after gentrification in Downtown Ithaca. Smith said that he will be showing documentaries about systemic racism on Saturdays in the West End, and Clemons announced the Unbroken Promise Initiative, which is a fundraiser to create a local economy on the West End.

“What the initiative is, we would like for everyone in this community with the abundance to invest and franchise those who have been disenfranchised,” he said. “What does that look like? We have entrepreneurs in our neighborhood ready to go. We want help from those who have successful businesses to come and help those and empower those to run their own businesses. We have people in those impoverished communities who have intellectual property. Come and mobilize those people. We want for us, by us, for the people. We want a localized economy on the West Side. Everything that you guys have on this side, we want on the West Side.”

Clemons said that more details about fundraising will be at the next protest Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Bernie Milton Pavilion on the Ithaca Commons.

Maureen Lane-Black, Nagee Green’s aunt, and her family spoke at the rally as well. In 2017, Green was convicted for the 2016 murder of Ithaca College student Anthony Nazaire. The Free Nagee Green Committee has been working to get him exonerated over the last four years.

“This Juneteenth is extremely emotional for me and my family because my nephew’s freedom was taken away by the Ithaca Police Department, Judge John Rowley, and District Attorney Matthew Van Houten,” she said. “The unfortunate truth is my nephew is not alone. So many of us are incarcerated due to the biased criminal justice system which is designed to re-enslave us due to the slave patrollers that they call the police. This has to stop now.”

Lane-Black said that the Exoneration Initiative, an organization that provides legal services to prisoners in New York State with compelling claims of innocence, has adopted Nagee’s case.

Other speakers addressed the Ithaca City School District system and called for more anti-racist practices in its curriculum. Black and African American students made up 8% of ICSD’s enrollment in the 2018–19 academic year.

“If you want to make change, you need to be intentional about making that change,” Harmony Malone said. “I’m no longer accepting verbal apologies this year, only changed behavior and sustained commitment to action. I need you to hold yourself accountable to prioritize an anti-racist education and practices. You need to be committed to be investing in a diverse team of teachers who are reflective of the community, and you have the ability to engage and connect with all.” 

Aloja Airewele, one of the speakers, shared the mousetrap dilemma, a folktale that stressed the importance of the community coming together to support Black individuals, especially Black children.

“When we close our eyes and say, ‘What is that to me? What does a mousetrap have to do with me? What does the incarceration of a child from the West Village have to do with somebody who lives in Cayuga Heights?’ That is the most stupid attitude to have if you are a human being,” he said.

Mugambee also spoke to the harmful nature of the phrase “All Lives Matter.”

“How are you just going to take over a movement, just abduct a movement, just commodify for yourself?” he said. “We know that [all lives matter], but all lives ain’t getting assassinated like ours. That’s disrespectful.”

Other speakers addressed issues like the unjust treatment of Black transgender women, the criminalization of immigrants and ICE detention centers and the militarization of IPD through SWAT. 

Watch the livestream of the rally here.

Madison Fernandez

Madison Fernandez is a contributing reporter at the Ithaca Voice. You can reach her by email at mfernandez@ithacavoice.com.