Hundreds of demonstrators packed Muller Plaza and downtown Oneonta on Sunday to call for justice for George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man from Minnesota who was killed Monday, May 25, when Derek Chauvin, a white officer with the Minneapolis Police Department, knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Chants of “no justice, no peace” reverberated off the facades lining Main Street as demonstrators, clad in face masks, raised fists and waved handmade signs proclaiming “Black Lives Matter,” “speak truth to power,” and “I can’t breathe,” some of Floyd’s reported last words.
“I did this for you. I did this for your neighbors. I did this for us,” said 18-year-old Sadie Starr Lincoln, a senior at Laurens Central School and one of the event’s organizers.
Lincoln said she was inspired by similar events organized in Albany and Binghamton and wanted to organize a rally closer to home. “I also want to make sure local people of color know that they are safe here in Otsego County and that my generation will no longer let police brutality be accepted.”
“I wanted to make sure George Floyd, and all other people of color killed in hate acts, have the justice and memorial they so deserve,” she continued. “This is America. We need to stand united. Killing innocent black men does not make us united — that’s embarrassing.”
Sidney resident Carrie Bentley attended with her sons, 8-year-old Samuel and 6-year-old Gideon.
“My son is black. We’re a multiracial family, and it matters to us — it matters to me,” she said, tearing up, her hand on Samuel’s shoulder. “This isn’t the future that I want for my son. He deserves the same rights as everybody else.”
“Seventy percent of America says that it matters to them,” Bentley continued, over chants of “black lives matter!” from the crowd. “They say they care about what Martin Luther King said and that they would have marched with him then, but if they’re not marching now, then it’s not really true.”
A megaphone, sanitized between each use, was passed between several local residents who shared their experiences as black people living and working in the greater Oneonta area.
The Rev. LaDana Clark of Oneonta shared a story from her days as a driver for Birnie Bus Services, when she called the police for help in dealing with an “irate” customer.
“You know what happened? They arrested me,” Clark said. “They went on the bus to the white man and they asked the white man on the bus what happened. They never even questioned me. They just told me to get in my bus.”
“As a former police officer, I want you to know I don’t hate police,” she continued. “As a former member of the United States Army, I do not hate police or law enforcement. I was a part of the team, but right is right and wrong is wrong.”
Jonathon Brown, a 22-year-old Long Island native, recalled an incident that occurred last year outside the hookah lounge on Main Street in which he confronted a white man passing by who used the n-word in reference to the nearby Jamaican restaurant.
“Do you know how he responded? He said ‘Do I need to go get the rope from my truck and hang you from a tree,” Brown remembered. “I would love to say that I was surprised. I would love to say that the police officers in Oneonta did something, but they did not. They escorted him home and yelled at me and my friends to disperse. No one stopped to speak to me for a minute.”
“How do you think it feels to be someone who has fought so hard for black people in this community, fought so hard for Asian people, for Latinos, for everyone — to have someone say ‘I’m going to lynch you’ in 2019, so casually?” Brown continued.
Shannon McHugh, a member of the Oneonta Commission on Community Relations and Human Rights, recalled the city’s 1992 “blacklist” incident, in which an elderly woman was allegedly attacked by a man she claimed was black, though she only saw a hand “that might have been gloved.”
“She told the police, and the police went to go hunt down every single black man they could find in this community,” McHugh said.
In response, SUNY Oneonta handed over to the Oneonta Police Department the names, addresses and phone numbers of “every single black student on campus,” McHugh said. “One hundred and twenty-five black men were pulled out of showers, were taken out of class, were taken from their homes and brought down in broad daylight to police stations.”
The Oneonta demonstration was peaceful and nonviolent, but organizers explained how other demonstrators across the country resorted to violence after centuries of peaceful pleading for just and equal treatment went unanswered.
“Nobody is advocating violence, but when our government says you have no rights, when police put their knee on your neck and remind you that you have no respect in a community — in a country — where you are constantly, for 400 years, trying to fight for your rights, sometimes the only thing you can do is burn down the ... building,” Clark said. “People feel as if they have no rights and they have no other tactic to use because they can’t use the justice system. Nobody can use the justice system that we have right now.”
“I’m sick of people telling black people that we cannot be angry,” Brown said. “The least they can do is give us access to our own emotions. You will not tell us we cannot be mad, you will not tell us we cannot be angry and you will not tell us how we will go about feeling the racism that you have never experienced.”
“There are so many white people asking ‘what can we do?’” he continued. “The first step is to be quiet and listen. The first step is to read. The first step is to watch. The first step is to learn. The first step is not to tell black people that you can’t curse and you can’t scream.”
“To me, activism isn’t an option. It’s the least we can do,” Lincoln said. “We owe it to the next generation so they don’t have to witness what we have had to.”
Quoting President Barack Obama, she continued: “‘Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek,’ and I truly believe that.”
Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.