Bearing signs that read “White Silence is Violence,” “A Man Was Lynched” or simply “Black Lives Matter,” over 200 Ithacans gathered to rally and march through downtown Ithaca Friday afternoon in the aftermath of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police officers.
The event — which was organized by Ithaca’s local Black Lives Matter organization — joins other protests across the nation after a video was released showing Alton Sterling being held down and shot by police in Baton Rouge, La., and a livestream of Philando Castile moments after he was shot by police in Falcon Heights, Minn. appeared on Facebook. These incidents renewed national focus on the systemic racial biases in law enforcement.
Locals began gathering at the Southside Community Center at around 4:15 p.m., where Black Lives Matter partnered with Congo Square Market to provide music, food and other items for sale as community members spoke publicly about what had drawn them to the rally.
As the rally officially began at 4:45 p.m., the atmosphere tangibly shifted to reflect the anger and sadness in the community as Black Lives Matter organizers spoke emphatically about the inherent injustices embedded in America’s political and cultural institutions, calling for a dismantling of white supremacy.
“One of the gifts of Black Lives Matter nationally has been to revive our awareness of structures of oppression in our society,” said Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, grad, a local Black Lives Matter organizer. “We must also understand our personal relationships to those structures and recognize that those structures affect different people differently. We are all oppressed under white supremacy.”
Prof. Russell Rickford, history, — another Black Lives Matter organizer — elaborated on Lumumba-Kasongo’s point, saying that not only was it important to uproot the structures of white supremacy, but that of “white supremacy in service of capitalism.”
Overturning capitalism, Rickford argued, is imperative to creating a new system that values human life and needs.
“I have never been more convinced that we have been called by history to launch a grassroots movement against white supremacy,” Rickford said. “We’re up against an entire social apparatus designed to terrorize us.”
He continued by citing body cameras, community policing efforts and new training programs as only “palliative” reforms to racism in society.
Dubian Ade, another Black Lives Matter organizer, called for “no more reform, no more waiting until tomorrow, no more talking about how I feel … no more empty statements from politicians.”
“We must bring this system down, and don’t for a second think that this is not possible,” Ade said.
At approximately 5:15 p.m. the crowd began to mobilize and march toward the Ithaca Commons with Black Lives Matter organizers leading chants and cries at the head of the march.
In a call and response chant, organizers shouted names of black men and women who had been killed by police, while the crowd responded “Say his name!” and “Say her name!” The names included Sterling and Castile, as well as Shawn Greenwood and Keith Shumway — local black residents who were killed by Ithaca Police in 2010 and 2011, respectively.
As the march progressed down several roads, traffic was blocked at intersections, with police officers stationed every block. Upon reaching the Ithaca Commons, the crowd began chanting, “Black Lives Matter!”
The march concluded at the Bernie Milton Pavilion on the Commons, where the protesters gathered to listen to members of the public, who hailed from across the country, as well as to the calls to action from the march organizers.
Reiterating his points from earlier, Rickford called on citizens to look internationally and beyond the United States to initiate revolutionary change.
Rickford argued that the continued deaths of African-Americans in the U.S. was a genocide according to the United Nation’s definition of the term, and that it was time to look to other progressive countries and the United Nations to charge the United States with the crime of genocide.
“Don’t look to the United States government to solve the problem,” Rickford said. “They are the problem.”
Concluding the rally, Ade stepped forward to summarize Ithaca Black Lives Matter’s five main calls to action, which included calls for more people to organize and act as leaders in the community, defunding the Ithaca Police Department, new alternatives to the police, organizing at jobs and work stoppages and a strengthening of the local community of people of color.
In particular, Ade called on the IPD to sell their SWAT truck, which he said was frequently near events attended by people of color but with no purpose but to intimidate and cause terror.
Among the many people who attended the rally, some agreed with the sentiments of the organizers and their call to end white supremacy.
Zillah Eisenstein, a long-time Ithaca resident, writer and activist, said that in light of the recent shooting of five Dallas police officers Thursday, it was still important for people “to feel the power of social collectivity.”
“We just have to make so clear that black lives matter unconditionally, always and that we are present to do whatever it takes to restructure and dismantle white supremacy,” Eisenstein said.
Other residents were also motivated to gather and further the cause of the Black Lives Matter because of the local deaths of Greenwood and Shumway. Greenwood’s death — a result of a police officer who fired on him during a drug investigation — has raised questions locally about racial bias and profiling.
Shumway, who had a history with mental illness, was reported by the police to have seized a gun from a police officer before he was shot. However, many still question the legitimacy of the police report on Shumway’s death.
Ade brought up Greenwood and Shumway’s deaths to show how issues of police brutality were not only occurring on a national level, but locally as well.
“If you hear an IPD police officer say anything like, ‘IPD is an exceptional police department,’ I want you to correct them and let them know the blood that is on their hands,” Ade said. “The IPD is somehow, someway absolved from the violence that has been occurring on a national level. No, it has also been occurring on a local level.”
Leslyn McBean-Clairborne (D – 2nd District), a Tompkins County legislator and Deputy Director of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center, took the opportunity to speak publicly on the Commons about how the cycle of police violence needed to end.
“I fear every time my argumentative husband is driving and we get stopped by the police, because he is trying to say what he is doing right, and I’m trying to say ‘shhh,’ cause we don’t know where we are and what could happen,” McBean-Clairborne said. “This cycle that keeps happening over and over again has to stop. … Not so long ago we were doing the same thing for Shawn Greenwood, and here we are again. It has to stop.”
Jhakeem Haltoum, co-founder of Congo Square Market, said he believed the rally’s large turnout was partially motivated by local response to Greenwood’s death.
However, Haltoum also said that he hoped people left the rally with “a sense of community [and] a sense of unity around the struggle.”
“‘Black Lives Matter’ is ‘All Lives Matter.’ When black lives matter, all of us matter. The unity that we see today is across skin tone,” Haltoum said. “When we collaborate around what has happened to darker skinned people, everybody is getting in tune with their origins.”
Vanessa Aguiar, a teacher at the Finger Lakes School of Massage, also echoed Haltoum’s message of unity and community, adding that she had hoped to gain a better understanding of how she could participate in dialogue on contentious issues.
“I’ve been really personally trying to explore my complacency as a white person and how to get over the barrier of not knowing what to do,” Aguiar said. “This is an opportunity to do something, to talk to people, to be part of a conversation, to show my support.”