Documenting change: Rutgers students join protests to mourn George Floyd
George Floyd died in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25 after police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, including 2 minutes and 53 seconds where Floyd was unresponsive.
The video of Floyd’s death pointed to a larger issue of systematic racism and police brutality, fueling many to call attention to the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Protests started a day after Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, where people chanted for him and the deaths of many other victims of police brutality, including Breonna Taylor.
Below are the accounts of Rutgers students who joined thousands of others to protest the unjustified killing of an unarmed Black man and to question the grander issue of police brutality. Listen.
Shania Staten, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, organized a protest on June 2 in New Brunswick.
“The reason I wanted to protest is because I am African American, and it's just hard watching this happen and not saying anything. I don't understand how someone could just sit back and be quiet during a time like this. I feel really strongly in this situation because, like I said before, this could have been my brother. This could have been anyone in my family,” Staten said.
Staten discussed what it was like to organize a protest. She said, “It was actually very easy. I didn't expect that many people to come. I just kind of decided that we needed something closer to home, there were so many people telling me how they wanted to go out and protest and be part of the change and show their support, but they couldn't because it was so far. So I had a couple of friends and we created a flyer ... The amount of people that came out was amazing.“
“Another thing is we were in contact with New Brunswick and North Brunswick Police Department, and they were there to provide us with assistance by blocking off the roads and stuff like that," Staten added. "Even though we do have some negative feelings toward police officers right now, I do really appreciate them trying their best to help us as much as (they) can.“
Staten also talked about the protest itself. “The feeling that you get to see your community come together for one big cause to support each other no matter what race, what gender, what sexuality, it just felt nice. When we started walking, it felt really empowering when I would yell and hear people yell back with the same anger that I had about the situation. As we were walking, we did encounter the police."
“Personally, I feel like if you’re a police officer, and you're here for change, and you're not one of those cops that are trying to hurt people, then go ahead and do your job," Staten said. "There were a lot of people who were angry at the police, and like I said, it's not my place to tell people not to be angry at police. But like I said during the protest ... I felt strong, I felt like I had support.”
Staten mentioned her plans for another protest with other organizers in North Brunswick, which she described as having a past history of being “very prejudiced.”
She said that students should continue to be involved. “This happens every year and what happens is everyone's mad for a week and they get over it. We need to be mad every day. This is something that's never going to change unless we're mad every day, unless they get what we're saying.”
Larry Traylor, a School of Arts and Sciences alumnus, is a Class of 2020 graduate who attended the May 30 Newark protest.
"It was just a beautiful time to see so many people come together that really cared about this issue … I think all of this, from the peaceful side to the civil unrest side, is really people trying to make sense of a world that has time and time again failed us," He said. "No matter how many times they protest, no matter how many times we have cried and called for people to be held accountable, how many petitions we sign, how many times we elect different people into office, these deep injustices still stay alive. Racism and white supremacy are built into the fabric of this nation.”
Traylor said there was something different about these protests compared to others in the past. “I just feel like this time around, like the frustration, the energy that we see from … the public discourse of this is much different than I've ever seen in my life. Before when police brutality happened, it was always Black people trying to convince the rest of the nation that this is wrong,” Traylor said. “This time around, the discourse is not proving to humanity, but really asking ourselves, when is this going to be enough? Like, how many innocent people whose lives are taken too short?”
“We have a generation that grew up in a time where we saw injustice happen, and we believed in the system. We thought that by pressing the system, by calling people out, by holding people accountable, things would be done. We’ve seen time and time again police officers get off, same cops getting transferred to different precincts, people not being held accountable, and that really struck a chord with us that really made us look at and reflect on how our system has failed us," he added. "This is (my) first time seeing almost every major city in the nation having protests, having mass protesting, having basically the city shut down … This is really a cultural reckoning.”
Traylor urged people to continue protesting, but because the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is still a concern, people should consider their safety too. “I don't want people not taking safety into consideration. But they should be able to show support and be engaged in any way however they feel safe. We are still a nation that does not give everyone universal basic health care or access to health care," he said. "I think we should be calling out the institutions and the services that we are a part of, that we work with, whether that's our jobs, our colleges, Rutgers itself — and saying, ‘Okay, what is your commitment to racial justice?’”
“The work we do does not end when the year ends … It is a continued effort … The work we do to really include (the) most marginalized (among us) is a lifelong endeavor,” Traylor continued. “And don't feel discouraged because the work is being done. The seeds you plant today will be trees tomorrow.”
Alexis Ramirez Espana
Alexis Ramirez Espana, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, discussed why she attended the protest on May 30 in New Brunswick.
Ramirez Espana said, “I had been sharing posts, like online on Instagram, but I felt like I needed to do more than just share. So I attended because I felt like if I went to the protest it would be like I was actually doing something to demand justice and change.”
“I learned that at least three or four people have been murdered by police in New Brunswick, and that was surprising because I have not been aware of that,” she continued.
“It was just nice to know that there were others who believed in the same thing you did … We were united,” she said, describing the atmosphere of the protest.
Now, Ramirez Espana is continuing to share resources on social media, especially to those who may need counseling services due to the trauma of experiencing or witnessing police violence.
“All these freedoms that we have are here now (due to) revolution," she added. "So I would encourage everybody to keep participating this and to not stop believing in the cause because this is now a global thing and there's other people in the world protesting for Black lives and protesting with us."
Raaed Syed, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, reflected on his experience on May 30 at the Newark protest.
He said it was beautiful and recounted moments of solidarity. “It was peaceful enough to the point where as I approached this sort of center of Newark, there was a small group, (approximately) three Black men praying, and I recognized that they were praying their afternoon prayers. Amid all this noise and hordes of people they were facing Mecca and praying to their God. And I joined them, and it was a beautiful moment of unity. They embraced me, were super happy to see someone standing with them, and it was just such a touching moment.”
“Obviously I will never understand and never really comprehend the experience of being a Black man in America, but as a Muslim, I do understand what it's like to sort of be judged for how you appear or be labeled unjustly. And so for that reason, the cause really resonates with me,” he added.
Syed also discussed how he felt urged to take steps further outside of posting on social media and is now helping organize a protest in Montville, New Jersey, to continue spreading awareness.
“I think the one barrier people have to protesting that I'm seeing pretty commonly is, you know, fear of COVID-19 and that's understandable," he said. "But that aside, I mean, it is an experience that is eye-opening, and I really do mean eye-opening in the truest essence. You are hearing and seeing and witnessing and feeling something that is rushing through the veins of not only people of color in this country, but of all people in this country at this very moment because we feel the injustices or the wrongdoing of the murder that is going on in this country so regularly.”
Maithili Patel, a Schools of Arts and Sciences sophomore, explained why she attended a protest in Cleveland, Ohio, and how violence was escalated by police.
“I hadn't been seeing a lot of people in my community going out to show support, and I really feel like this entire situation with Black Lives Matter and police brutality, I don't think that it only applies to one race. The African American group is the most affected by it but I feel like as human beings and as part of the community at large, every community has a responsibility to show support and help use our platforms to raise awareness.”
Patel described moments of solidarity at the protest, discussing how inmates from a prison also banged on windows to show support for protestors.
She also talked about the police escalation that occurred. “One group that was standing outside of the Justice building were throwing plastic water bottles — small ones — kind of at the door. No one was going past the steps or anything, they were just throwing the water bottles, and then police came out in full riot gear, and there was no riot at this point. There was no riot, there were probably like two or three people who threw one or two plastic water bottles at the door," she said. "In retaliation, police fired tear gas into the crowd. There were babies and children in the crowd and they threw tear gas into it.”
“As the night went on, it became a lot less about the protest and a lot more about the vandalism and looting,” Patel said.
Patel also said that she is working to get her parents to come to a protest to understand why she attends them. “Especially for college students, I really do believe that silence is the language of the oppressor. There are people who are deliberately choosing not to see from another person's perspective,” she said.
Daniela Slanina, a School of Arts and Sciences alumna, is a Class of 2020 Rutgers graduate. She described a protest she attended in Clifton, New Jersey, on Tuesday. She said she attended her protest to use her privilege properly.
“I am a white woman. I've been paying attention to social justice issues. I've been trying to keep myself well-informed since the second half of high school up until through now. I was around for Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, years back, and these names are names that I've been hearing for years, and the situations are situations I've been hearing for years, and it's just exhausting. I know the privilege that I have, and I felt that, as a person who's trying to be an ally to people of color and specifically Black people in this situation with police brutality, that my representation and my voice should be there and should be heard and seen by the police, especially in this area,” Slanina said.
Slanina also discussed what her next steps are after attending the protest in Clifton. “Personally, I'm educating myself right now," she said. "I went out and purchased some books that were written by Black authors in an attempt to find more understanding because, with this taking the nation in the intensity that it has, it's bringing up conversations with family members. And I just want to be as well prepared as I could be to face these family members and have these difficult conversations with them and explain why I'm doing what I'm doing.”
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