A couple of weekends ago Staten Islanders participated in a set of historic protests. The first was Friday afternoon and was organized and led by the Young Leaders of Staten Island. They marched from Targee Street to the 122nd precinct on the South Shore. I got my daily alert from the Staten Island Advance that the protest was being covered. It was a largely peaceful protest with more than 200 people at the start and countless others joined along the way. Shane DiMaio, the SI Advance social media specialist, kept saying "he had not seen anything like it on Staten Island." Truth be told I hadn't either.
Protests aren’t new to Staten Island and I have attended quite a few but all have been on the North Shore where I felt comfortable and to be quite honest safer. After watching the success of the protests on Friday I knew I wanted to do something over the weekend. I wanted to be heard and surround myself with others who understood the pain I was feeling. Later that day on one of SIWWM’s core leaders, Tal Jasmin posted another protest that would be happening Sunday.
Initially, I was excited, until I saw that it was a South Shore protest. The flyer called out for white, anti-racist participants. I saw the power in having a protest particularly for them, but I also had reservations about going to the South Shore. Some of my reservations were based on prior experience but I was much more concerned about what was happening on social media. The week leading up to the protest was full of rumors and innuendo regarding the intentions to hold a protest on the South Shore. On Facebook there were tons of posts circulating that there would be riots and looting. But that didn’t stop the organizers. They were on top of it and put out information about the goals of protest and limited the release of details to prevent agitators from showing up.
I have lived on the island almost all my life and there have always been racial tensions between the North and South Shores. People joke that there is this invisible Mason Dixon line that separates the island. But, like the rest of the world the death of George Floyd resonated with many members of the Staten Island community because it tragically mirrored the death of Eric Garner almost 6 years ago. There was something decidedly different about George Floyd’s death and I honestly can’t explain it. I don’t know if it was the lack of humanity that the officer had when he knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, or George Floyd calling out for his mother, or Covid-19 leaving everyone in an agitated state. But, across this country and throughout the world people started to wake up and on Staten Island that imaginary line that separated our two shores had to be crossed.
I don’t know what I expected to happen at the protest on Sunday, but the experience was nothing like I ever imagined. The event was almost entirely peaceful. To be honest there were a few agitators in attendance, but they directed most of their comments at the white people who were supporting the protest. Hardly anyone responded and that left them confused and silent. I smiled as I thought about the looks on people’s faces when they realized there would be no riots or looting and their assumptions were entirely wrong.
Honestly, in many ways I had made some assumptions too. I never expected to see South Shore families outside their houses with their fists raised, handing out water and snacks to the protesters, holding BLACK LIVES MATTERS signs, and taking a knee for George Floyd in front of the 123rd precinct. It was unexpected and what I consider to be a pivotal moment for our island that has long struggled with racial division.
When I woke up the following Monday, I thought to myself I don’t want to lose our momentum. I don’t want to go back to last week, last year, or 20 years ago. I want us to move forward with the diverse collective of people I saw on Sunday. People of all races, religions, sexual orientations and ages gathered together against injustices that have gone unchecked for far too long.
I realize now I was witness to a huge leap forward for our island. I am also not naïve and understand that one weekend of protests together will not erase years of social, political and racial division. There is a long road ahead of us and I believe the path to healing and understanding begins with opening up a dialogue where we can set aside our assumptions and be open to having difficult conversations. It also means asking white people on our island to do some of the heavy lifting when it comes to change. Their voices need to be just as loud, if not louder than ours. It can't just be at protests, it has to be at home, at work, on social media and in your everyday lives.
Truthfully,I am not confident of how much progress we can make or if it will ever lead to meaningful change. But, I have seen a side of Staten Island that I didn't think existed and for now the memories from that weekend may just have to serve as reminder that change is possible.