Peaceful protests over racism and police brutality against black people continued in Valley Stream on Friday, marking four days of sustained demonstrations in the neighborhood after the death of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis police custody almost two weeks prior.
Nearly 200 people gathered at around 4 p.m., despite the threat of rain, on the corner of 7th Street and Sunrise Highway near Brooklyn Avenue Elementary School waving signs and giving impassioned speeches about bringing real equality to America.
“This is my community, and it makes me upset and angry to know that my people are still being oppressed years after having been brought to this country,” Valley Streamer KJ Hall, 17 said.
She said it was “offensive” that some leaders in the country had labeled the current Black Lives Matter demonstrators as thugs while condoning the protests weeks ago against states’ restrictions put in place to slow the spread of coronavirus.
“We’re not saying that black lives are the only lives that matter,” Hall added. “We’re saying our lives matter just as much as everyone else’s.”
The protest organizers said they wanted to sustain the Black Lives Matter movement’s visibility on Long Island, and peacefully agitate for long-term change. They provided masks, water and hand sanitizer as well as protest rights and voter registration literature. They said their goal was to march east on Sunrise to Merrick, a walk of nearly eight miles.
Tafari Jones, 25, from Elmont, and one of ten people who had organized the day’s demonstration, had attended one in his hometown on Monday, and said he was inspired to help organize another. He said he hoped to do the same for others.
“I want to show solidarity, and unity and I also want people to feel empowered to put on their own peaceful protest and move differently moving forward,” he said. “I want people in crowd to become more educated, and politically engaged.”
“I don’t want this to be just a moment,” he later added. “I want this to be a paradigm shift.”
Another of the protest’s organizers, Erik Blam II, 24, also from Elmont, said the group had chosen Merrick as their destination after a tense confrontation there on Tuesday during which a group of white residents suggested protestors demonstrate in other, more diverse nearby neighborhoods.
“It’s not just Merrick,” he noted. “We’re not saying all of Merrick is racist, but we’re saying one the island, everyone’s gotta be checked.”
Blam drew parallels between this moment in history, and that of America in the 1960s, and hoped the day’s protest would echo the landmark 1963 March on Washington demonstration.
“They were marching for jobs and freedom, and now we’re in this situation where we’re fighting for jobs and freedom,” he said. “How many Americans are unemployed? How many black people have died from police brutality?”
Olivia Nance, 23, of Freeport, and another organizer, said it was paramount to maintain momentum in the current movement, and to keep demonstrating. The long term goal, she said, is for reform, but in the short term, she said it was important to get people registered to vote.
“In the past, unfortunately in the Black Lives Matter movement we’ll have a strong voice, and we’ll march and we’ll protest but unfortunately the fact of the matter is they kind of stop showing up,” she said of the protesters. “Their lives take precedent over what it is that’s happening in the world.”
Monday’s protest in Elmont had been Nance’s first. The next day, she went to another in her hometown, and between the connections she made in both, became part of a group organizing more demonstrations.
For people who might be wary of becoming activists themselves, she encouraged them to “Just start,” she said. “People might not have guidance or background. They might not know how to get started or get active. If you’re looking for resources or information, you can make it happen … Be the chance you want to be in your own neighborhood.”
And using herself as an example, she said, “My first protest was on Monday, and by Friday I was an organizer of my own.”
By around 6 p.m. the protesters began their march east, just as rain began to pour. The organizers had come prepared with ponchos, and the protestors donned them as they embarked on the journey.