Protesting beyond the screen: True civic engagement

George Floyd’s name echoes through America nine months after his murder. After witnesses filmed a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for a reported eight minutes and 46 seconds, a national cry for racial justice surged.

Infographics, petitions and letters circulated the internet, and protests developed across America, eventually spreading internationally. Demands for equality, justice and reform rang through the nation. Danny Malone, 21, was one of the voices at protesting on the Ithaca Commons, calling for politicians to hold the Ithaca Police Department (IPD) accountable for its own history of offenses.

“The IPD isn’t perfect; they try to act like they are, but they have their record with brutality,” Malone, who was born and raised in Ithaca, said. “They’ve abused people I know.” 

“A month of fake protesting and posting on social media isn’t enough. If you really want to be an ally, you have to do more: educate yourself, learn your microaggressions, learn your history,” Malone said.

To create change, further action must occur beyond social media posts. Yasmin Rashid grew up in Ithaca and later returned to the city as a community activist. 

According to Rashid, who recently announced her candidacy for City of Ithaca Common Council, “it gets to the point where somebody has to have a seat at the table in order to institute effective change.”

How to determine the success of a protest?

FiveThirtyEight, an American website with a focus on opinion poll analysis, politics, economics, and sports blogging, developed four broad criteria to evaluate the success of a protest.

The swell of Black Lives Matter protests in Ithaca encouraged further civic engagement. There were about 4,000 more registered voters in 2020 than in 2016, but as of Nov. 4, 2020, overall turnout was lower than 2016.

Community activists become political leaders

The increase of political attention and activism brought new community leaders into the political sphere. Rashid, a Workforce Coordinator at Ithaca Reuse, spent the past summer advocating for her community. Currently, she is an executive board member for the Unbroken Promise Initiative, a grassroots racial justice nonprofit. Her advocacy work stemmed from a community need and Rashid decided entering politics would allow her to amplify the voice of herself and other Black and brown constituents.

 Similarly, Veronica Pillar found herself entering a special election for a seat in the Tompkins County Legislature in District 2 after becoming involved in community activism like the Tompkins County chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and Mutual Aid Tompkins. 

“I really want to center and prioritize anti-racism and look at what do poor working-class people need the most, what are Black and brown people saying, indigenous people, trans people, immigrants,” Pillar said. 

Hope for Change

Rashid and Pillar both believe that there is hope for Ithaca, regardless if they win their respective races. 

“This is about my life and making sure that me, my children, generations to come and the children in my community are able to regain hope and understand what the possibilities really are,” Rashid said. 

Though Rashid and Pillar still have time to wait before their respective elections, their work as well as the work of other community activists and protestors in Ithaca have inspired electoral consequences: On Feb. 22, Mayor Svante Myrick released a proposal reimagining public safety. The proposal aims to “abolish the police,” replacing the IPD with armed “public safety workers” and unarmed “community solution workers.”

Mayor Svante Myrick released a proposal to “abolish” the Ithaca Police Department. The proposal intends to replace police officers with armed “public safety workers” and unarmed “community solution workers.” Current members of the IPD will have to re-apply for a position in the new department.

Prior to the release of the proposal, Pillar said she “sees a lot of readiness to really shift things, to hold elected officials and other people accountable, but also I think we have to keep encouraging each other to keep that energy up.” It seems Mayor Myrick and the city of Ithaca agree.

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