How Activists Worked to Fight Against Racial Injustice, Even In the Midst of the Pandemic

The pandemic changed the way that Hudson Valley social justice groups organized, but many saw their involvement increase as a result of George Floyd’s murder. These groups, and the people who study them, weigh in on how the internet changed how individuals react to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Warning: This story contains mentions of racism, violence, and police brutality that some readers may find upsetting.

Isis Benitez represents Planned Parenthood at a rally last summer. Source: The New Paltz Voice

On any given day, 22-year-old Isis Benitez has to navigate through a protest to get to her job as a community health promoter at the Planned Parenthood health center in Poughkeepsie. Pro-life activists—sometimes in groups, sometimes as individuals—stand firm in front of the entrance to the center, wearing scowls and wielding signs advising against abortion. 

Benitez notices their anger: toward her workplace and the services they provide, toward the people who depend on these services and toward the world, in general.

George Floyd’s Murder Fuels BLM Activists

Last summer, Benitez found the roles reversed. At that time she was the protester, fighting for a much different cause: a demand for racial justice, she says, and a reimagining of policing in our country. In Poughkeepsie, where Benitez has lived since she was five years old, this took the form of protests, rallies and marches, the latter of which she participated in frequently. 

“Can I stop looking the way I look? Can my family stop looking the way we do? Yeah, you can sit back and relax, but we can never.”

Isis Benitez

Unlike the protesters she encounters on a regular basis at her place of work, these marches were blanketed in solidarity and strength. “It was just a totally different, powerful, strong, amazing energy that was going on,” Benitez said. “When you saw those protests, those rallies, those marches, everything over the summer, you saw so much anger, forced into power. You saw so much strength, forced into power.”

Power is a term being used frequently to describe last summer’s mobilization of the Black Lives Matter Movement. 

After George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020 protestors rallied nationwide, fueled by outrage towards a system that has historically let them down. Behind the Black Lives Matter social movement—the origin of which dates back to 2013—protesters took to the streets to make their voices and their demands heard. 

BLM Protests Continue Despite Global Pandemic

There was one factor at play, though, that made last summer unlike any civil rights movement in our country’s history: It was set against the backdrop of a global pandemic. Despite this, the mobilization of the movement continued throughout the summer, thanks largely in part to the efforts of local activists. 

A year ago, COVID-19 was still a relatively new enemy. Across the country, states were still adhering to strict lockdown restrictions. For many Americans, it had been nearly two months since they had left their residences for anything other than essential outings. According to the New York Times COVID-19 case tracker, on May 26—the day after Floyd’s murder—the United States had a seven-day average of 21,842 new cases. Comparatively, this number seems less alarming. Consider, however, that at the time, it was double the seven-day average from just two months prior.

Across the country the Black Lives Matter movement mobilized in overwhelming numbers in spite of the spreading pandemic. According to the New York Times, which compiled data from four national polls in June of last year, there were anywhere between 15 and 26 million people who attended a Black Lives Matter protest from June 4 to June 22, making the demonstrations the largest the country has ever seen. 

Even without this data, visual evidence alone lent itself to the sheer size of the movement and inspired even more people to take to the streets. Footage of NYPD officers shoving protesters into unmarked vans flooded social media. Images showed peaceful protesters being tear gassed by police to clear Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Park in order for former President Trump to hold a photo-op in front of a church. Wide and aerial shots captured the massive crowds who came out to march.

“Looking at that movement, one would think that there was very little impact of the pandemic on it,” said Brian Obach, professor of sociology at SUNY New Paltz. “People were more distanced, people [were] masked, but otherwise [it was] a pretty unimpeded turnout.” 

Power of Graphic Video Footage Showing Police Violence

While Floyd’s death was the catalyst for last summer’s activity, it was in no way the first of its kind. The police killings of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Michael Brown—all of which happened in 2014, received national attention and news coverage. While these incidents sparked isolated outrage, it was nowhere near the level of what occurred last summer. 

Obach, who has conducted research and contributed to journals on the topic of social movements, cites one important factor of Floyd’s death that set it apart from the countless other police killings of Black people throughout our country’s history: video footage. 

“We’ve had many shootings, murders, however you want to look at it–police violence against Black people for decades,” Obach said. “And it’s not unknown. These things are reported.” 

Obach explained, however, that in Floyd’s case there were dramatic recordings of his death. Americans could see the violent crime for themselves. “That sets it apart from many of these other cases where there’s no footage at all, or it’s not clear.” Obach said that the graphic nature of that documentation “had a significant role in the mobilization we saw.”

Poughkeepsie-based activist Tracy Hunter argues, however, that the footage of Floyd’s murder was not an anomaly. “People saw what happened to Eric Garner,” Hunter said, referring to the famous case on Staten Island in 2014. Garner was a Black man from Staten Island who was suffocated after being placed in a prohibited chokehold. “That was on video, that was on TV. I don’t know why that didn’t bring more people together. But he certainly was strangled to death while we watched it on TV, and it didn’t bring people out.” 

Warning: This video shows events leading up to George Floyd’s death that some may find upsetting.

Activist Group ENJAN Finds Ways to Operate Remotely During Pandemic

Hunter—“Pronouns her/she”—has been a member of the Poughkeepsie chapter of the End the New Jim Crow Action Network (ENJAN) since 2013. The group, which dates back to 2012, is dedicated to ending mass incarceration and the expansion of the criminal justice system, which they say “disproportionately targets African Americans and Hispanics.”

In addition to holding town halls and public education sessions on issues related to mass incarceration, ENJAN would hold biweekly meetings at the Family Partnership Center in Poughkeepsie.“We were very hands-on, in-your-face, meeting people one-on-one, prior to COVID.”

Shuttering of businesses and stay-at-home orders changed this, of course. It was around this time that Benitez joined the group. A lifelong activist, she heard of the group through her boss. Upon joining, Benitez got to see the group grow after meetings were switched to a virtual platform. She specifically references a meeting early on in the pandemic where there were about 30 people on the call. “It was dope to see that for ENJAN,” Benitez said. 

Eli Appelson, a student at Vassar College, joined ENJAN around the same time as Benitez. He believes the shift to Zoom meetings was a direct catalyst for the group’s growth, as “the virtual environment is conducive to anyone being able to come.”  

While Hunter agrees with her ENJAN colleagues, she also believes that this uptick in new members isn’t unlike trends she’s seen within the group in the past. “Whether it’s virtual or in-person, you’re gonna have people who can make it, you’re gonna have people who can’t make it,” Hunter said. “It’s just life in general. You can’t always control that.” 

Also out of the group’s control was the attention and increased attendance they would see after Floyd’s murder. According to Appelson, the group’s Instagram account grew from just 100 followers to nearly 3,000 after the mobilization of the Black Lives Matter movement. According to Hunter, the events of last summer made “white people realize that Black people are not crazy.” 

With the renewed attention, ENJAN broadened their goals; Rather than focusing all their attention on ending mass incarceration, they began holding discussions on the history of racism in American policing. Despite the ongoing pandemic, the group was expanding and reaching people in new ways.

Activist Group O+ Uses Power of Art to Motivate Social Change 

Across the river in Kingston, another activist group was feeling disheartened as the pandemic continued to spread. The O+ Festival was dealing with the reality that their marquee event—a massive music and arts event where underinsured musicians and artists perform in exchange for healthcare services from onsite doctors, dentists and other specialists—would not be possible for 2020. This was a major challenge for the organization, which has grown to include and assist hundreds of artists and musicians each year since the first festival in 2010. 

As Black Lives Matter took to the streets, Joe Concra, cofounder of the event, immediately understood the importance art would play in the organization. “Historically, art has always led the way in social movement change,” Concra said. “You look through any big movement politically in the world and it usually has art at its forefront.” 

Artist rendition of three of the many slain by police: Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery Source: The New Paltz Voice

With this belief in mind, there was no hesitation when three artists with ties to O+—Jalani Lion, Dina Kravtsov and Mat Schulze—requested the organization’s assistance in securing a space for a mural in support of the cause. The resulting piece, aptly titled “Black Lives Matter,” is located at 695 Broadway in Kingston and “memorializes and honors Black lives by calling for an end to systemic racism, racial violence and police brutality,” according to the organization.

Concra believes that art is a gateway to change. As he puts it, “visual protest leads to action, and to things that actually change people’s lives and change people’s daily struggles.” He has seen this first hand. In graduate school at Marist, amidst the beginning of the Gulf War, Concra was asked to help paint a banner to bring to an anti-war march. Upon arriving at the gathering—which was held on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.—Concra and his colleagues were placed at the forefront with the sign they had been commissioned to make. 

“It really made a lot of press, the pictures of that banner. So the words got out, but the visual got out. And it spread like wildfire,” Concra said. 

This led Concra to a realization: “You can really have an impact with visual language.”

Visual language has probably never been more important than during a pandemic, when forced isolation has led to a rise in already high-levels of media and news consumption. Last summer photos of the words “Black Lives Matter” painted across streets in cities and towns across the country were some of the most visible and viral images of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We’re visual people. We drew before we wrote, before we had language,” Concra said. “So I think that we are good at that, and I think that’s why people respond.”

The BLM Movement Pushes Through a COVID Winter

As the summer came to an end, temperatures dropped in the Hudson Valley and people were forced back inside. Activists were no exception to this. At the same time, the election of President Joe Biden caused some white allies of the movement to back off of the still pressing issues that plagued Black Americans; going “back to brunch,” as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put it.

“Mobilization is very difficult to sustain. You can only go to so many protests, and in large numbers. There’s only going to be a quarter of activists that remain,” Obach said. “But we refer to waves of protest for a reason. They come in waves and waves break and go down.” 

When opening Twitter or turning on the news, footage of masked protestors in overwhelming numbers no longer fill up feeds. That doesn’t mean the Black Lives Matter movement—or its goals—have been forgotten. 

According to Obach, it’s groups like ENJAN, who have been around since before the mobilization, that will continue the work and be strengthened. “They’re not going to be the 10,000 people in the street kind of organization, but maybe before they had a core of five people, and now they’ve got a core of 20 people, because people came in from this movement,” Obach said. “A small percentage of those people will remain engaged and remain in these organizations, and it’s these organizations that sort of carry the ball forward.”

For Benitez, the fight is far from over. 

“Can I stop looking the way I look? Can my family stop looking the way we do?” Benitez said, “Yeah, you can sit back and relax, but we can never.”

Jake Mauriello

Jake Mauriello is a New Paltz graduate from Rockland County, New York with a masters degrees in journalism and public relations and minored in film and video studies. He was the editor-in-chief of The New Paltz Oracle and has bylines with Bandsintown and in StudyBreaks Magazine.

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