ITHACA, N.Y. –– New leadership is taking charge of the weekly “Truth and Justice” rallies on the Ithaca Commons as Jordan Clemons, founder of the Unbroken Promise Initiative has handed over the emcee role to Yasmin Rashid, a previously quiet figure in the movement.
Rashid’s leadership has not been an easy transition –– for two weeks, tension has built and arguments with the crowd have erupted showing fissures within the community fighting for racial justice.
Clemons, who has been the prevailing voice of the rallies over the last 10 weeks, said he would be stepping away from the rallies and focusing instead on the Unbroken Promise Initiative and their work creating a community hub on the West End.
Rashid, now taking the helm, is a single mother of three who grew up in the Ithaca area before moving to New York City. She’s been back in Ithaca for about 5 years and said that her experience overcoming the trauma of being a domestic abuse survivor, a sexual abuse survivor and a teen mom can help the community overcome the trauma of systemic racism.
“One of my first memories of being disrespected by a caucasian person where it hit my soul –– I was pregnant with my first son and I was in the hospital having complications, they thought I was about to miscarry,” Rashid said at her first rally last week, recounting an especially poignant experience with racism at 16.
“They were trying to insert a catheter and it was painful. I was scared, nervous and I was crying and asking for my mother. (The nurse’s) response to me was, ‘what are you crying for it doesn’t even hurt as bad as the first time having sex.’ What I heard between the lines was that I put myself in this position and that I wasn’t deserving of her kindness, I wasn’t deserving of her patience of her respect and I wasn’t even deserving of having my mother next to me in a moment of distress,” Rashid said. “It made me understand what I was really up against.”
Rashid, a Muslim-born Black woman represents a different perspective than Clemons for the weekly rallies and the movement as a whole. However, backlash has still emerged over the last two weeks that LGBTQ voices and women’s voices have not been elevated in the more than two months of protests.
One of the people voicing this concern has been Rayvon Kenyan, a young Black lesbian woman who has made it a point to call out Rashid two rallies in a row –– interrupting Rashid with questions like, “why were black women excluded from the movement?”
Given a chance to address the crowd, Kenyon spoke to a need for intersectionality and diverse perspectives saying, “we highlight Black lives because it’s the most important right now –– we’re getting shit on relentlessly. But we can’t make waves and break the establishment unless we have every single person here no matter the skin tone, gender…if it’s not inclusive it won’t work.”
Rashid, in response, gave her opinion on why race-specific issues need to be elevated above any other part of someone’s identity, or above any other issue marginalizing Ithacans.
“I understand that other people have issues but our issues are most important right now because they have been the longest standing issues in America and have yet to be addressed –– from mass incarceration to voter suppression and tenants issues to raising our children, to police brutality and being accosted in the streets,” she said. “What I was told is that this is a collective of other people who may have been discriminated against or marginalized yes, but that the basis of this event is about the black experience which is not to be overshadowed by anything else.”
The back and forth exchange between Kenyan and Rashid lasted several minutes until intervened by another audience member. Rochelle Matthews, a gay Black woman herself, brought unity to the situation advocating both for inclusivity and specificity.
“Everything she said is absolutely valid –– this is a space to talk about Black lives. What’s missing from what she said was that there are gay people who happen to be Black. i.e. somebody like me who exists and comes from a different intersection and deserves time, space and latitude to speak and will not be silenced,” Matthews said. However, she continued, “Black Lives Matter is not a movement for everybody’s movement…if it’s not through the lens of Black lives then you’re doing essentially what thousands of years and thousands of oppressors have done, which is roll over a movement that is supposed to be about education about Black lives.”
The numbers have been steadily shrinking at the weekly Sunday rallies –– drawing hundreds in their first weeks and now dwindling to just over 50. It is unclear whether the infighting has contributed to the shrinking crowds.
This week’s protest ended with a march through downtown and with protesters blocking traffic at the intersection of Seneca Way and Aurora St. The Ithaca Police Department kept a watchful eye over the crowd, though no arrests were made and the group disbanded peacefully on their own.
The rallies are set to continue next week on Sunday, Aug. 16 at the Bernie Milton Pavilion at 2 p.m.