On Sunday, June 7, 2,000 people march through Port Chester peacefully calling for an end to police brutality and systemic changes nationwide. It was one of thousands of protests that has occurred across the U.S. after Minneapolis resident George Floyd died due to a police officer kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes. Matt Mooney, Port Chester minister in training and one of the march’s organizers, leads the procession up Westchester Avenue as they call for unity. The group started in Columbus Park and marched through the community for several hours.
Victoria Bresnahan|Westmore News
On Sunday, June 7, 2,000 people march through Port Chester peacefully calling for an end to police brutality and systemic changes nationwide. It was one of thousands of protests that has occurred across the U.S. after Minneapolis resident George Floyd died due to a police officer kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes. Matt Mooney, Port Chester minister in training and one of the march’s organizers, leads the procession up Westchester Avenue as they call for unity. The group started in Columbus Park and marched through the community for several hours. Victoria Bresnahan|Westmore News

For one day, the agony felt across the U.S. echoed through the streets of Port Chester.

On May 25, the country collectively paused its relentless anxiety over the COVID-19 pandemic and shifted its focus to a new jarring issue: the death of George Floyd. A graphic video swept across the internet exhibiting his slaying at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. For 8 minutes and 46 seconds, Floyd laid on the ground with a knee across his neck, begging for breath and his mother’s help. Three other police officers were there. None of them stopped the murder.

It was all over a suspected forged $20 bill.

This is not an uncommon story. Data compiled by Mapping Police Violence shows black Americans are three times more likely to be killed by police officers than their white counterparts. Often they are unarmed, and usually the cops are never charged with a crime. Over the years, these incidents would spread across the news and spark marches and protests against racially fueled police brutality throughout the country. Within a few days, the tragedy is generally forgotten.

George Floyd’s murder was historic for multiple reasons. The officer responsible for the murder, Derek Chauvin, was charged with murder within a few days—an unusual act attempting to hold the police accountable. Around a week later, the other three cops who failed to protect him were also arrested.

Equally momentous, the incident also triggered an intense reaction nationwide. Despair overcame the peaceful demonstrations, which advanced into multiple days of rioting and looting in cities across America—starting in Minneapolis where protesters set a police precinct ablaze. In chaotic scenes in most major cities, both nonviolent and brutal demonstrators were met with tear gas, batons and rubber bullets from aggressive uniformed cops.

For a while it seemed the world was on fire—in a deep, complicated pit filled with despair, rage and frustration. And on Sunday, June 7, those kindling complexities were felt in Port Chester. But the flame remained centered around compassion and political action—no violence was sparked in the Village.

Whitney Renee Black, a 29-year-old Weber Drive resident, rose out of the woodwork to organize a local Black Lives Matter protest against police brutality. Around 2,000 people—a diverse crowd both from the Village and neighboring communities—assembled at Columbus Park that day to shout from the rooftops their support for the movement.

With the help of Port Chester Trustee Joan Grangenois-Thomas and in collaboration with village officials and the Port Chester police, the protest was planned to be peaceful—and that’s the way it stayed. Police officials say there were no arrests and no property damage spawned from the event.

After a rally at Columbus Park filled with tear-jerking and heart aching speeches from residents, politicians and religious figures, protesters took to the streets with their master crafted signs painting a clear message about justice and equality.

“You’re what’s making America great again,” a woman shouted as the swarm of demonstrators left the park. The destination, initially, was Girtman Memorial Church of the Living God on New Broad Street. But it ultimately continued for several hours—up to Regent Street, Park Avenue School and down King Street before coming to a final halt at the Weber Drive Housing Complex.

From the first to last mostly face-masked protester, the procession took 11 minutes to pass a single point.

Throughout Port Chester, the same chants echoed that grieving cities across the U.S. bore witness to over the weeks. Every call of “say his name” was met with a booming “George Floyd.” Each “hands up” was matched by a grand “don’t shoot.”

“Port Chester is and always will be a diverse community,” Mayor Richard “Fritz” Falanka assured the marchers early on. “This is a village that comes together to support all of our residents in their time of need. Let’s go together to show justice for our community.”

Sunday was Port Chester at its finest, expressed Assemblyman Steve Otis—who was still flabbergasted the following day.

“I found it such a moving, unifying event. Anyone would come away from that with those feelings and sense people’s affection for each other in that march. It says such beautiful things about Port Chester,” he said. “Everyone cared for everyone and cared about these issues. It’s something that all of Port Chester can be proud of.”

Enough is enough

Eight minutes and 46 seconds feels endless.

When the procession orbited around the Church of The Living God, marchers dropped to their knees—some using signs for padding—raised their fists in the air and silently waited.

“You were kneeling for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. That wasn’t comfortable, was it?” Trustee Grangenois-Thomas shouted, signaling it was time to get up. “Imagine 400 years of that. The knee of oppression started with slavery. Went to Jim Crow. Went to mass incarceration. There has always been oppression—economic injustice and racial injustice—400 years of that. We can’t breathe.”

The Black Lives Matter movement stresses that police brutality is an artifact of institutional and systemic racism, not unlike the struggles people of color have faced for centuries. Black, while urging the crowd to remain peaceful, said this protest is necessary because people are rightfully infuriated to see another black man mercilessly slayed.

“Police brutality has been a constant. Especially when it comes to black men,” she said. “You must know your rights. But even when you do know your rights, they still kill us. I want you to know that I will walk and I will speak for every single one of you. I am unafraid and unapologetic.”

In fervent speech, Reverend Patrice Kemp said his predominantly African American church, St. Frances AME Zion, has been proudly fighting these injustices for over 170 years. And they have no plans to stop.

With a poetic eulogy met by thousands of cheers, the pastor described how black people came to America—stolen from their homes, stripped of their language and religion, to build a country that has “never been meant for us.” Their lineage, he said, makes them the strongest of the strong—direct descendants of those who persisted despite the cruelest circumstances.

The community is ready to take that knowledge, embrace it, and use it as their figurative blade to charge into the battlefield of lasting change.

“I’ve heard people ask, ‘why do we march?’ Why protest when we don’t even know who George Floyd was? Why march when we’ve been marching for 60 years and it doesn’t do any good? We protest during the pandemic to produce policy that will paralyze police brutality that will propel us into a perpetual praise,” Kemp boomed, and later continued: “(Our) frustration comes from years and years of marching, oppression. Years of fighting injustice, inequality and systemic racism. And we’ve come to a place now where enough is enough.”

Equally important as black people rising to their empowerment is the role white people play in the movement—the general tone is their silence is deadly. Rebecca Wagner, a Port Chester High School Class of 2009 graduate, rallied the crowd by sharing her perspective as a white woman who she claims was raised in a racist household.

Considering herself one of the lucky ones, she grew up to realize how dangerous that rhetoric is. Now, she urges her peers to use their privilege to be active proponents against discrimination.

“To my non-black friends, we need to be the voice. We need to educate and inform our friends and family about what is and has been occurring for far too long. And this doesn’t end with police brutality. Your friend might not get that job they deserve or that house loan because they are black. We need to have these conversations,” Wagner said. “Let’s face racism in the eyes and demolish it. Black lives matter; no lives matter until black lives matter.”

Calling for police reform

George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Three other uniformed cops watched and did nothing.

Coming from a background in military police himself, Reverend Kemp emphasized “not all cops are bad.” Speakers from Port Chester genuinely recognized brutality is not a major issue in the Village. In fact, police officials said the department was supportive of the protest—Captain Charles Nielsen even lent out his megaphone to make it more impactful.

However, the movement after Floyd’s death has reinvigorated discussion nationwide about police reform and holding officers accountable for their actions. Across the U.S., calls on local departments to condemn the officers involved in the Minneapolis tragedy have been consistent.

While recounting a conversation he had with his 9-year-old daughter, Port Chester Police Chief Christopher Rosabella did just that. With wide-eyed apprehension, she asked him if he knew who George Floyd was and why the police killed him.

“So, we had a conversation. And I told her the officer was wrong. He killed George Floyd, he was arrested and hopefully he will go to jail for a long time,” Rosabella said. “As a parent, I said let’s use this as a teaching moment. So I told her ‘you know, the other officers that were there should be arrested and go to jail for a long time as well.’”

The 9-year-old was confused, Rosabella said, and questioned why if they didn’t do anything during the murder.

“And there was my teachable moment,” the chief said. “Exactly. They didn’t do anything. We’re police officers, we’re supposed to protect the public from anybody that’s doing any harm. Even if that means protecting them from other police officers.”

If such a tragedy happened in Port Chester, Rosabella said in a later interview, the department would be open and transparent about the situation. They already aim to prevent abuse, he said, by incorporating annual training geared toward de-escalation techniques and limited use of force.

Still, at the march, in a flamboyant purple jumpsuit, Port Chester activist Zeltzyn Sanchez placed herself in the center of marchers circled on New Board Street. A comrade stood behind her flailing a pie chart depicting the Village budget, with $12 million allotted towards policing, as she called on local officials to defund the police—an initiative progressive protesters across the country have been pushing with some success to reallocate police monies to other social departments.

“Policing is not more important than providing community services, policing is not more important than youth and adult programs. Policing is not more important that economic opportunities and development, libraries, culture or our health. We understand they need to be prepared, but why do we keep militarizing them?” Sanchez questioned. “This year, they’re getting an extra $3 million. That’s $3 million when we have people who are homeless. When we have kids who don’t have a hot meal to eat when they go home. I want to see real action.”

The idea is, the police wouldn’t gain intense empowerment through funding if other departments, such as mental health and social services, were more able and involved in the work cops are tasked to handle now.

Rosabella respectfully disagreed with the attack on their budget.

“Each community has to take action in what they think is best for their community,” he said. “In Port Chester, I think the police department and the community get along. There’s no reason to defund us. We serve a purpose and we’re going a good job at it.”

Future of the movement–it’s for the children

After Rosabella had that deep conversation with his daughter, he said she astutely concluded: “I think if he was white the officers would have acted different. It doesn’t make sense; we’re all human.”

Because of that, Rosabella suggested this Black Lives Matter protest is also a march of hope—hope for a better future, because the children watching now will make that happen.

In the sea of 2,000 protestors, many, if not most, were youthful. A diverse horde of teenagers and young adults eagerly attended to take a stand for their future—they see this as their movement.

“At first I was nervous because of everything going on with the police at these things. But then I heard my dad talking to someone who was really bigoted and ignorant about everything going on, and I was like ‘screw it, I have to go,” said Krista Morlino, a 16-year-old Haines Boulevard resident. “Because black lives matter, and it’s just as simple as that. At this point, it’s not a politics thing. It’s people getting hurt and that sucks. And it’s something that keeps happening. No one should go through that, no matter what race.”

Young people recognize the hypocrisy in the system. At 10 years old, Madison Pool rallied the protesters at Columbus Park by sharing her childlike wisdom.

“My parents tell me if I hurt someone I will get in trouble. And if they hurt me, they will get in trouble. So how come the police have been hurting, no killing, black people and still haven’t gotten in trouble?” she questioned before a cheering crowd. “My dad told me, let’s plant the seeds of love throughout the world and watch it blossom, (outgrow) this hate. Right over wrong, good over evil, equality and respect that we deserve. It’s time to make a change and that time is now.”

Cydney Eunice Carby, the organizer’s sister, fervently declared now is the time to change and that starts at home. Calling on parents across the Village, she said they must teach their children to be better humans than the world currently sees.

“We just want to live. We should not be persecuted because we arrived black. We can’t have it anymore; we can’t do this no more,” Carby exclaimed. “Racism is taught. You are not born a racist. Parents teach their kids—take care of your children. If your kid wants to be a cop, teach them the right way. Every life matters.”

Proactive adults expressed passion in their belief that the youth of today will make a better tomorrow. After all, if nothing else, they are aiming to make a difference for young children of color.

In a heart wrenching demonstration that triggered tears streaming down her face, Bush Avenue resident Eugenia Buie called up young black children to stand by her side. Listing the names of victims who died for no reason, she said “we march so these kids have an opportunity to live.”

“We’re not asking for handouts; we’re asking to breathe. We’re not asking for 40 acres and a mule; we’re asking to breathe. We’re not asking for you to repay us for 401 years, we’re asking you to allow us to breathe for our future,” she professed. “These black lives matter, y’all. These kids matter. And it’s time for the police, the destructive police, to get your knee off our necks. Enough is enough.”

Change through democracy

“I want to thank everyone that came out here today. But don’t come here just to take a picture so you can post it on your Instagram. I have been to other Black Lives Matter protests and one thing stays the same: I leave with a sense of emptiness,” Zeltzyn Sanchez bellowed to the group. “Performative allyship will not be celebrated. We demand a commitment from our representatives.”

Sanchez was echoing a motif of the afternoon: marching isn’t enough. To enact long-lasting change, elected officials must endorse new policies.

In a dramatic presentation, County Executive George Latimer addressed the crowd by first calling up Port Chester Village Manager Christopher Steers, a black man, and Trustee Luis Marino, who is Latino. Before the gazing crowd, they all held up their arms together.

No arm is different, Latimer stated, they are all human. And they should be treated that way.

“We have to treat each other as individuals. Like Dr. King said, by the content of our character and not the color of our skin,” the county executive said. “That is our commitment as officials. And by God, this time, in the memory of George Floyd, we’re going to make progress for people who have waited a long time for progress.”

Latimer was making the point that democracy facilitates changes. But it only works, as Trustee Grangenois-Thomas continuously emphasized, if people use their voice through voting.

When President Donald Trump was elected, Carby said racism across the U.S. swelled. Urging the crowd not to let it happen again, the Weber Drive resident urged them to take political action to squash blatant discriminatory behavior.

“You’ve got to vote. We let Trump get in office and he woke up the sleeping racists. Racism was always here, but it was sleeping for a minute,” she said. “The first day Trump got into office, every bigot in every corner of the U.S. woke up full throttle. It’s not just racist cops, there’s racists in every position. Your lawyer, your doctor, the deli store owner. We won’t have it no more.”

Trump isn’t even the biggest picture, Buie added through a megaphone. The most impactful changes come through local legislation. That’s why throughout the day Grangenois-Thomas frequently reminded the crowd of elections on the docket—the Port Chester Board of Education ballots were due on Tuesday; New York Democratic primaries are on June 23.

Reverend Kemp echoed similar remarks, specifically calling on millennials. Young people dominated the protest, yet often fail to show up at the polls.

“All politics is local. Go vote, and not just in the general election,” he said. “And any politician who will not say black lives matter does not deserve your vote, because all lives don’t matter until black lives matter.”