The New Activists

Two NYC college students on the purpose and optimism they found at demonstrations in Manhattan

08 Jun 2020 | 02:17

For the city’s college students, it had already been an incredibly uncertain time. They spent the last two months stowed away from a dangerous and unpredictable virus, trying to tend to coursework and wondering what the remainder of their college experience might look like. All the while an economic depression looms like a funnel cloud overhead, threatening to touch ground. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police and self-appointed vigilantes only exacerbated anxieties, adding elements of anguish and anger to their grief.

Some Black college-aged activists, though, are finding purpose and optimism in the streets, joining hundreds of thousands who have shown up in New York City and cities around the world over the two weeks as part the Black Lives Matter movement to protest police brutality.

“The death of George Floyd was really the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Charlene, who is a 22-year-old medical student at City College in Harlem. Charlene and her friend Joseph, a 21-year-old student studying politics at Queens College (both requested to go by their first names), have been attending the protests in Manhattan, and have found them to be a source of inspiration.

“I’ve been on the ground since Friday night, and it’s truly an extraordinary experience,” said Joseph. “There were so many people, and little kids, as we walked from Harlem to the Lower East Side. That was a 10-mile hike. As we hit the Hudson Parkway highway, I saw many people in the car ... people waving their hand in support.”

Charlene also took part in that protest and spoke in awe of a fellow activist who made that march on crutches.

“You can just imagine having crutches and only one leg to lean,” said Charlene. “Something must really be wrong to have someone protesting for 10 miles on crutches.”

Escalating Tensions

Early in the uprising, cases of looting and vandalism had been reported by news outlets, depicting these protests not as the peaceful demonstrations Charlene and Joseph believe them to be, but as violent riots. These instances resulted in Mayor Bill de Blasio enforcing a city-wide curfew and deploying NYPD in riot gear. This action, advocates argue, escalated tensions and gave police officers the pretext to instigate violence, use excessive force and arrest protesters.

Viral videos showing police officers beating protesters with batons and tackling them to the ground with no apparent rationale made the rounds on social media, making protesters’ case that police should be held accountable ever more salient.

Charlene and Joseph said they did not witness any violence by protesters or police during this time, but Charlene said some officers exhibited a chilling callousness. She said she witnessed a protester trying to engage in a conversation with officers about her deceased boyfriend, a Black man she said had been shot and killed by police. Charlene said the police laughed at the women, and didn’t offer her compassion.

“In that moment, to me that was so sick,” said Charlene. “I was so surprised and honestly disgusted by that interaction.”

“They Would Not Leave Us Alone”

As Black New Yorkers, Charlene and Joseph both said they’ve been targeted and treated unfairly by the NYPD in the past. For Joseph, he said he first felt the issue of systemic racism among police when he moved from a predominately white neighborhood in Queens to East Flatbush. He said one day a police cruiser followed him and a friend as they walked the neighborhood, later ambushing them at a corner and interrogating them about an incident Joseph said he knew nothing about.

In Charlene’s case, she said seven police officers showed up to her apartment in Harlem, saying they received a noise complaint and demanded that Charlene and her roommates prove that the apartment was in fact their residence.

“Even though we said we were students at City College and renting this apartment, they would not leave us alone until we showed them the lease that had our names on it,” she said.

The pair said that they do believe police reform is possible in New York City and the United States more broadly. They said reform begins in New York with the repeal of 50-A, a state law that deems personnel records — and misconduct reports — of police officers confidential and not subject to public scrutiny.

“New York is probably one of the worst in the nation in terms of hiding police misconduct,” said Charlene.

They would also like to see significant cuts to the NYPD budget, and those funds invested back into communities of color.

In the past, the proclamation of “Black Lives Matter” has been one of controversy. But Joseph and Charlene have felt a shift in the perception of this movement, and a chance to make tangible change, in part thanks to the pandemic.

“A lot of people have been brought to a state where they’re more conscious of what’s going on politically,” said Joseph. “The fact that everybody’s in tune with everything that’s going on because we’ve been confined kind of has built a greater momentum. It’s causing us to burst out.”

New York City has never been more united than in this moment of protest, said Charlene.

“At the protests, you see people who don’t even look like me but they’re just as energized as me,” she said. “I’m not expecting things to go back to normal. I don’t think that things can go back to normal.”

“I’ve been on the ground since Friday night, and it’s truly an extraordinary experience. There were so many people, and little kids, as we walked from Harlem to the Lower East Side.” Joseph, a NYC college student