ITHACA, N.Y. –– For the third time this week, massive crowds gathered in downtown Ithaca to protest police brutality and rally for racial justice. However, Friday’s event took on a unique theme –– highlighting black women’s oppression and their deaths at the hands of law enforcement.

The rally took on extra meaning as it falls on what would have been Breonna Taylor’s 27th birthday. Breonna Taylor was killed in March by Louisville police when they fired at least eight shots at her following a raid on the wrong home.

The rally was put together by black and brown young women of Tompkins County including Crystal Vanpetten, Harmony Malone, Caraya Smith, Sully Chévere, Stephanie James, Jewle Krystal, Phoebe Brown, Candace Wade and Dianne Mack under the official title Uplift and Speak Out!.

Black Lives Matter Ithaca and Showing Up for Racial Justice also lent support to the event.

“Black Lives Matter Ithaca is a grassroots organization committed to anti-racism and the political, economic and social empowerment of black residents. Black Lives Matter was created by black people from different walks of life to fight the injustices and insecurity that plague many local black residents and to build on the resistance that the Black Lives Matter movement generated nationwide through agitation, education and service,” said Nicole LaFave from BLM Ithaca. 

LaFave went on to address any elected officials in the crowd to ask them to take concrete steps towards racial justice.

“We need for you to reduce bloated police budgets, decrease the over-policing of black and brown people. It will also open up more funds for social services and the human needs of education and full employment, housing and health. Such issues are critical to the economic and social suffering that so many are dealing with right now. Black Lives Matter Ithaca recognizes the need to reject respectability politics, the misguided belief that oppressed groups can save themselves simply by adjusting their behavior or following a certain etiquette.”

The crowd also heard from Denise Malone, the mother of Cadji Malone, who was involved in last year’s Commons incident. She spoke about how the police tased and bruised her son, while letting the white man in the situation walk away on his own accord.

Speaking directly to police she said, “as a nurse, the number one thing we are taught is to assess our situation…to go to the academy and get whatever you’re being taught, the number one thing I hope you’re being taught is to assess your situation, not just react.”

Malone went on to say, “there’s so much wrong with the system right now. I don’t know the answers but what I do know is a mother’s anger goes beyond wanting to burn stuff down, beyond wanting to hurt these police officers. A lot of these officers come through my office and I put on a smile and treat them…why can’t you give us the same respect?”

This was the first time Malone spoke publicly about the incident. Her son addressed the crowd as well –– also his first time commenting publicly.

“As a gay black man I have two strikes against me…it could always be me, and it was me,” he said. “I lost every innocence I had about me, I have a hatred in my heart that I never had before.”

Several of the speakers addressed District Attorney Matt Van Houten’s role in Cadji’s case, including Denise Malone and BLM Ithaca’s Nicole LaFave.

“Matt Van Houten, I’ve read your comments about how you’re holding the police accountable. You haven’t done so yet, not one of those officers has been reprimanded. Not good enough,” Malone said.

LaFave in her speech said, “as we listen to IPD Chief Nayor or our District Attorney, Matt Van Houten denounce the death of George Floyd we need them to denounce the brutality against our Ithaca black and brown people.”

The other public official that speakers singled out was Mayor Svante Myrick who has been noticeably absent at prior rallies and who decided to listen rather than speak during the event Friday. Malone in her speech said Myrick hasn’t done enough to prosecute police involved in her son’s case.

Myrick, in a statement to the Ithaca Voice, said he has worked to try and combat racial issues within IPD and the community during his tenure as mayor.

“I’ve spent the last 9 years locked in a battle over the size and purpose of the Ithaca Police Department. I believe we ask police to do too much work that would be better handled by health care professionals and social workers — and that has dangerous consequences. So in my administration, we’ve diverted funds into community-oriented solutions like the Outreach worker program, REACH, and GIAC. The opponents of reform have been the leadership of the PBA and the racist, right-wing groups like Unspoken Ithaca.  I’ll join with any likeminded individuals who want to go further and do better,” Myrick said.

At the end of her speech, Nicole LaFave told the crowd that big change must occur for things to get better.

She said, “Black Lives Matter Ithaca knows that to create a humane future for all our people, we need radical struggle. Our movement can not seek weak reforms like police body cameras or bias trainings. Instead, we must work to transform the economic, social and political structures of our communities.”

Following speeches, the crowd took to the streets, marching through the Southside and back to the Commons. Police vehicles followed protesters and blocked off streets to motorists.

Watch video of the entire protest below.

Correction: the original version of this story said that BLM Ithaca and SURJ organized the event.

Anna Lamb

Anna Lamb is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at alamb@ithacavoice.com