This was the first protest Devonte Parker ’21 ever organized.
He said that after the news broke about the murder of George Floyd, he kept watching and waiting for someone in the Cornell community to plan something. When he didn’t see what he was looking for, he and other members of Phi Beta Sigma — a historically Black social fraternity of which he is president — got together on Saturday to plan a protest, contacting other on-campus and local organizations.
The event, co-sponsored by La Unidad Latina, Lambda Upsilon Lambda Fraternity, Inc., as well as the Nigerian Students Association, Black Students United, Occupy Ithaca and the Southside Community Center, went live the next day. By Sunday night, news of the peaceful protest was circulating widely on Facebook and social media.
Looking around Ho Plaza about an hour before Wednesday’s event as protesters trickled in, he said that the strong online traction was when he realized that “this might just be something.”
By 12:15 p.m., hundreds upon hundreds of people packed Ho Plaza. Organizers handed out donated bottles of water, snacks and supplies to make protest signs. Also distributed were face masks made by The Protest Mask Project emblazoned with “I Can’t Breathe.”
Even in protest, the COVID-19 pandemic stayed close to mind — nearly every protester of the hundreds that gathered sported a face covering. Some masks were surgical-grade, some were only bandanas wrapped around faces and some had similar slogans of the movement drawn on with paint and marker. Speeches condemned the disproportionate number of Black and Brown people who have fallen victim to the coronavirus.
“Enough is enough,” said Maureen Ekwebelem ’21, who is the vice president of internal affairs for the Nigerian Students Association, as she handed out supplies. She said that while many of their members have left Ithaca, she worked to mobilize everyone who could march.
“We came out here to show that we want the police brutality to end. We read in textbooks about Occupy Willard Straight, activism on this campus,” she said, standing outside the same Willard Straight Hall. “We’re still living through that time. We’re still fighting.”
The Cornell University Police Department maintained a presence on the plaza, and there
were workers stationed outside the hall to prevent entry.
Ekwebelem and another organizer, Onyinyechukwu Nnodum ’21, questioned where campus leaders were during the movement, and said that they wished President Martha E. Pollack would make an appearance after her email condemning police brutality last week.
“Put that in there. Martha, where you at?”
Heart of campus to heart of Ithaca
Before the march began, Phi Beta Sigma organizers Jelani Hoyt-King ’17 and Parker called on the crowd to peacefully protest:
“Today we express our feelings, our pain and our hurt. As we express these feelings, this pain and this hurt, I must request that we all please refrain from any looting, violence, hate speech, or any other breaches of the law.”
Cornell Police blocked off the roads on campus, allowing the protest’s progression towards the Commons, around a mile-and-a-half walk.
Though the movement started on Cornell’s Ho Plaza, the protesters were not all students. People of all ages, from Ithaca and surrounding towns, followed Parker, Nnodum, Ekwebelem and other student leaders down the slope and in rallying cries of “Black Lives Matter” and “Say His Name.”
A woman in scrubs pushed a stroller with one hand and held a cardboard sign in the other. Another woman pulled a child in a red wagon, the little girl clutching a “Black Lives Matter” sign.
Like the improvised masks, most signs were carefully hand-painted or lettered, some on the backs of torn pizza boxes or scrap cardboard.
They read “Enough is Enough,” “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” and “How Many Weren’t Filmed?”
“None of this matters unless we turn this into political action,” said Eva Milstein-Touesnard ’22, a Cornell student using a QR code on her phone for others to scan to register to vote.
The protest picked up many more people in the Ithaca Commons before marching to the Ithaca Police Department headquarters on Clinton Street. As a light rain began, the crowd of over a thousand knelt on the pavement in front of the police department for eight minutes and 46 seconds — the time it took for former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin to suffocate George Floyd to death.
‘IPD, you’re guilty’
After the silence, community leaders took turns sharing personal stories, poems, words of inspiration and rallying cries in front of the Ithaca Police Department building, where a cardboard coffin reading “RIP George Floyd” was taped to the door.
The speakers differed in their calls to action — voting in the upcoming state primary election, donating to anti-racism advocacy organizations, active allyship, complete
governmental restructuring, defunding the police department entirely. However, the overall message was united: Ithaca is not immune to the same types of power abuses as seen in the case of George Floyd.
Parker, the rising senior who led the organizing, addressed the full crowd of what had become by far Ithaca’s largest police brutality protest since Floyd’s killing.
“From Houston, Texas, I scratched and crawled my way to an Ivy League education,” he said. “And yet, no matter how educated I am, no matter how eloquently I speak, the president will still see me as a thug; the police will still see me as a threat.”
At different points, sounds of frustration, anger, support and joy rippled through the crowd. As Black and Brown speakers shared their experiences, calls of “Speak on it!” echoed off the department building. Two IPD officers watched from an opened third-story window.
Common threads included calls for continued action, even after the protest ends and the signs are put down — through voting, donation and active intervention. Many speakers addressed the large number of White people in the crowd directly.
Prof. Cynthia Henderson, theater, Ithaca College,
implored White people to learn how to be an active ally — “the verb, not the noun” — by stepping between the police and their Black and POC friends and fellow protestors, and by calling out injustice.
“‘This ain’t right.’ That’s your line,” Henderson said.
Henderson was both the first Black person to
receive tenure at Ithaca College — in 2007 — and the first Black person granted the rank of full professor in the school’s 130-year history. She was promoted less than three weeks ago.
Ithaca rallied against police brutality last year as well, after the arrests of two young Black people, Cadji Ferguson and Rose DeGroat, on the Commons.
After six months, charges against the two were dropped, and speakers and signs called for justice and reparations for the two as well as naming players such as District Attorney Matthew Van Houten — who is up for reelection this year.
DeGroat took the microphone briefly, near the end of several hours of speeches, to make one request: “Please vote Matthew Van Houten out of the district attorney office.”
Van Houten was also named in the case of Nagee Green, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the murder of I.C. student Anthony Nazaire on Cornell’s campus in 2016. Green’s aunt sent in a letter that was read before the crowd, calling for another trial.
Near the end of the speakers, the news broke that all four of the officers present for Floyd’s death had been charged, and that the charge for Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck, had been raised to second degree murder. Cheers, whoops and applause broke out across the crowd at Hoyt-King’s announcement.
“This does not signal the end of the movement,” Hoyt-King said. “It is one more tiny step forward.”
Correction, June 4, 4:53 p.m.: A previous version of this article misstated the status of La Unidad Latina, Lambda Upsilon Lambda. La Unidad Latina, Lambda Upsilon Lambda is a Latin social fraternity, not a Black social one.