Staten Island’s Black Lives Matter Protests Have Activists Cautiously Optimistic
Amazed to see Islanders speak out against police brutality, activists also hope they continue to do so wisely
When Jasmine Robinson first learned about the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis cop, Derek Chauvin, she had flashbacks of when Eric Garner was killed on Staten Island by a NYC police officer in July 2014. Like Floyd, Garner died saying, “I can’t breathe”.
“I cried like many other folks,” says Robinson, who lives on the North Shore. “In 2020, we are still being abused and victimized. It just hits us like a ton of bricks. Why is this happening again?”
An activist who ran in 2018 for State Senate, Robinson was friends with Eric Garner and his family. She recalls how many were outraged over Garner’s death, by an illegal chokehold, but justice was not served, and still has not, as Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo was not indicted for his actions. At the same time, the protests over Garner’s death did not start too many discussions on police brutality or bring about legislation to change such incidents.
But the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, the discussions have restarted more loudly and have resulted in numerous protests nationwide — including Staten Island, the fifth borough of New York City, often seen as conservative while widely supportive of the NYPD. Some of these protests went beyond the Island’s North Shore — an area with a more diverse population — to its Mid-Island and even South Shore. Having Black Lives Matter protests near those two areas’ precincts (122nd and 123rd) appears highly significant, considering both locations are in less diverse and more conservative places than the North Shore. Dozens and sometimes hundreds turned out for these protests.
“I was shocked,” says Vernon ‘Dyverse’ Wooten, an activist and Senior Case Manager at the Fatherhood Matters program, who has lived on the Island for nearly 30 years. “The consciousness has changed. Some kids grew up on an Eric Garner energy, there’s less lines between white and Black. It is a huge difference.”
The protest culminated on Sunday, June 7th when 1,800 people of various ages and racial backgrounds marched from the Conference House, a Revolutionary-era landmark, to the 123rd Precinct. Comments on the Staten Island Advance’s Facebook and Instagram accounts showcase how inspired Islanders felt seeing the turnout and how peaceful it was.”
“It was a different experience than what I anticipated,” Robinson says. “I thought a mob would jump us. Folks thought it would be mayhem, people thought we would riot and loot.” Right before Sunday’s protest, rumors on social media about the possibility of rioters coming to certain neighborhoods became so widespread, Assistant Chief Kenneth E. Corey, Commanding Officer of the Patrol Borough Staten Island, released an open letter where he called the rumors “completely false”.
“It shows there needs to be more positive dialogue,” Robinson says. “It opens the door to more conversations on racial division, more productive conversations.”
“But it was beautiful,” she adds about Sunday’s large protest. “We have not seen this in a very long time.”
But despite the hope being spread, both she and Wooten don’t believe the work is over.
“There needs to be more focus on solutions,” says Wooten, who has long been active in police reform activism since before the Black Lives Matter movement. “A lot of people are angry , but nobody has solutions. Young people can be at the frontlines, just teach them the skills in their organization.”
Other activists fall into a similar mindset, such as Jewel Miller. She is the mother of Eric Garner’s youngest daughter, Legacy, and while she now lives in Pennsylvania, she is still active in calling for justice and police reform in New York. She is the founder of The Legacy Eric Garner Left Behind
“Leave out the cops,” Miller says about police officers walking with the protests. “Enough with the peace talking and walking with the oppressors. Show your oneness with us! Fist up, fight back!”
With Staten Island having a reputation for being a pro-cop, conservative-leaning borough, Miller feels more has to be done to prove Islanders want to see change.
“More people are waking up and speaking out,” she says in a phone interview. “The good officers need to show up and call for justice without their uniforms. Staten Island needs a shake up. It’s a cop island; Staten Islanders need to stay in the streets. This really has to end, police brutality has to end.”
The demand for justice is much louder now that it was back in 2014. Since then, the list of Black Americans being killed by police, and even by vigilantes, has gotten longer.
“Enough is enough,” Robinson says. “We do feel like we can’t breathe. Black people have been through so much. It takes a toll, that’s why people are taking to the streets.”
Robinson says she’s glad that the movement is larger, more intersectional and diverse. She especially is thrilled to see younger people are more involved, and believes social media should be given credit for that.
“Millennials and Gen Z rely on social media,” she explains. “Everything is on social media now; with cellphones, you can now see how people of color are treated.”
Wooten knows of a young woman from the South Shore, and believes Eric Garner’s death might have changed her mindset.
“If Eric Garner didn’t happen,” he says. “She wouldn’t have arrived.”
But even so, all three activists believe the momentum needs to keep going in order for reform and justice to take place. In order for that to happen, the protesters would need to be cautious on how to do that.
“I am happy that the youth are coming out,” Miller says. “I just hope they don’t get hood winked. Children need to be educated, not be pawns.”
Whom Miller is referring to is City Councilwoman Debi Rose, who represents the district that covers the North Shore area, and the Rev. Al Sharpton. She says both have done nothing nor have gotten one cop convicted.
Robinson agrees when it comes to Sharpton. “I don’t see him as a force for good. We got to be careful [with] who we consider allies. This movement now should not be pawns for any politicians. This is organic.”
Wooten, however, believes Rose has certain powers with certain limits, and “unwavering support” from her constituency, fellow party members and officials could add to her push for changes.
“NYC [p]olice brutality is a way bigger problem than Debi Rose alone has the power to address. There’s always politics involved,” he explains.
As for Sharpton and his National Action Network, while an office was set up in the borough after Garner’s death, Wooten says he hasn’t seen much action from them, and his opinion is that they should have done more at this point.
“They should have created voter registration and voter education packets at this point where dissemination of information and materials would be like clockwork,” Wooten says via a follow-up email. “The ability to organize a Zoom meeting and/or Facebook live event to publicly have a town hall amongst our own communities is something that should have been happening but isn’t with regard to organizations like his, especially with a national platform on MSNBC.”
Not only political or high-profiled allies are what activists and protesters need to think cautiously on, but also among white allies. Robinson wonders where will they all be once the news cycle dies down.
“Are they here for the momentum or the movement?” she points out. “We saw this with Eric Garner. White and Black people lost interest as well.”
Wooten believes the movement could fizzle out if the organizers don’t understand what may happen next. That includes calling out politicians when they talk about police reform, but little to nothing happens. For example, the Police Reform Bill in Congress. Wooten says he tries to explain to younger activists about the politics behind it, such as just because the bill is being discussed, does not automatically mean progress is being made. There are other issues, such as the Flint Water Crisis that has seemingly become accepted in American minds, as well as the reality of for-profit prisons.
“We all have a role to play,” Wooten continues. He doesn’t march in the protests, but does give guidance to the organizers. “My role is to bring clarity. My role is to hold people accountable. My role is to aspire, and be fearless, and my role is to just have the fortitude to keep the fight going, and the vision to keep knowing that this fight is not over.”
One way of knowing that the fight to end police brutality is not over, is the prevalence of the terms, “All Lives Matter”, in rebuke to the term, “Black Lives Matter”. Upon being asked about this, Miller becomes upset.
“Oh God, that’s the ignorance there,” Miller says. “I don’t get it. Systematically, you’ve been murdering us. That’s ignorance, that’s disrespectful with both Black and Brown people.”
Another example is the term “Blue Lives Matter”, referring to the lives of cops. Wooten sees that as twisting of the words “Black Lives Matter” , which he sees as a form of gaslighting and co-opting the narrative.
“You give them an inlet, they’ll put a spin on it,” he explains, pointing out that the usage of “Blue Lives Matter” doesn’t make much sense because “there’s no such thing as a blue life.”
“Unless you’re born with blue skin and a badge bulging out of your chest, there’s no such thing. You’re an employee of the city, that’s what you are. When you take your uniform off, you are just like the rest of us,” Wooten explains.
For the time being, all three activists are pleased that so many Islanders are speaking out and protesting, although much more needs to be done, as well as to be seen as time goes on. Both Miller and Robinson will be attending a protest on July 17th at 1pm on Bay Street — the very spot where Eric Garner died from an illegal chokehold.
“Show up unapologetically,” Miller says. “I just want people on Staten Island to stay out, and handle your march. Have a revolutionary stance in the belly of the beast. White allies, yes, they need to be accountable. Use your white privilege! Nothing more, nothing less.”
“People have finally had enough,” Robinson says. “We are seeing change. [But] I want to see where you are when there is no more press. Having Black skin is my life, not a trend.”
“We shall see,” she adds.
For this article, several people and organizations were contacted for a comment regarding the protests. They included Borough President James Oddo, Gwen Garr, Emerald Snipes, Community Board 3, Staten Island Women Who March, and protesters Kevin Walton and DJ Mikediexverse. Comments weren’t given in time for publication.
Megan McGibney is a freelance journalist who is turning to Medium to publish her work due to many publications having tight budgets these days. A native New Yorker, she is a graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. To learn more, here’s her website: www.meganmcgibney.com