By: Keith S. Shikowitz
In the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the knee of Derek Chauvin, sparked many protests around the country and an epidemic of rioting, looting, arson, beatings and killings of police officers and other innocent people around the country all in Floyd’s name. All of which Floyd’s family has condemned this violence saying that he was a peaceful man and would not want to see this happening.
In contrast to the riots in major cities around the country, five recent protests in Rockland County, one in Nanuet, one in Nyack and one in Spring Valley and two subsequent ones in Haverstraw and Stony Point all were peaceful and paid homage to Floyd’s memory. The theme of No Justice, No Peace was the rallying cry for these events.
The Spring Valley event on June 4, was advertised as a candlelight vigil, not really a protest, was held at the Memorial Park. There was a police presence, but no one had a problem with it. Although they were needed when one attendee, Otis, got a little mouthy with Mayor Alan Simon of Spring Valley because he did not like his policies and felt he had no right to be there. “It don’t make no sense what you are doing to our community. You don’t need to be out here. You are not the supporter of us.” He turned to the crowd and exclaimed, “Simon is not a supporter of us! Simon is the reason we are going through what we are going through!”
While all of this was going on the President of the Spring Valley NAACP Chapter, Willie Trotman in the middle of his welcoming of all the participants, said, “We have a program. We are going to continue that program and if at sometime Otis doesn’t stop, we’ll ask him to leave.” Reinforcing the message that this was going to be a peaceful event.
Calvin Demetrius, the Spring Valley NAACP Young Adult Committee President, on the reason for the event stated, “We felt that prior all of the other marches, rallies and protests were focused on anger and frustration but, sorrow was another emotion we were all feeling so we just wanted to bring the community together and be able to have that solemn release as well.”
Trotman explained how this event was given life. “Calvin approached us and he is with the young adult’s committee, because there were protest marches they decided we needed to do a vigil. I thought that was incredible and I thought that was a great thought. So, we proceeded with it. Because people have been locked inside with the virus going on, people haven’t really had a chance to grieve. I thought it was a great idea and we came up with this concept. It’s going to be for George Floyd, but it is also going to be a general grieving time.
Some of Floyd’s relatives came to the event. Trotman had no clue as to how many people were going to be attending. “There is a march that they are having that is going to come here also. It’s leaving from Village Hall and coming here so we have no clue. The police here are also going to participate as a part of the program. NAACP of Spring Valley has a good relationship with Spring Valley Police Department. It is a very diverse department. We laud them on that. It’s a community related department. We work very well together.”
Assemblywoman from the 97th District, Ellen Jaffee felt this is very important to be engaged with. “First of all with the loss of George and how that occurred. It was an unfortunate set of circumstances that happened with the police. Just recognizing and remembering him. That was something that the family and the community were able to do.”
According to Jaffee there also needs to be a very real conversation about the behavior and of how we respond and how the communities respond to the diverse communities that we have with people of color and different backgrounds. “We passed a number of pieces of legislation in the state to be able to respond to this type of issue of the discrimination and the abuse. That has to end. That’s the other part of this conversation given what occurred with George and what continues to happen across our state. It is something that we need to assure we move forward with the legislation we’re working on, we’ll pass it and stop having the discrimination continue in order to move forward with much more substantive communities working together and moving forward. Providing our youth with a future in a much more positive way.”
One issue that was a hot topic in the latter part of 2019 was the attacks on people of the Jewish communities in Brooklyn and in Rockland. Emphasizing the December stabbings in Monsey, the question was asked, Will the conversation include religious intolerance as well?
Confidently, Jaffee replied, “Of course. Any kind of behavior and intolerance is unacceptable. We have to be respectful of everyone no matter what background they have, no matter what religion, no matter what the reality is of who they are. We have to have that kind of respect assuring that we don’t have the issues that impact so many in our communities. Especially communities of color. Discrimination is unacceptable.”
She pointed to the need to assure that children have equality and opportunities for education so that they can vote in an informed way. “We need to assure that the families are not discriminated against and that they can handle things financially with decent jobs and can walk through communities without being abused. This is unacceptable and it’s something we need to continue.”
She touted her respect the police force, for the work that they do, but added that they also have to assure that they are in the same path with assuring that there is no abuse of people of color or different backgrounds.
One question in the Floyd case was the training of the officers or lack thereof. Will any legislation deal with training for police in dealing better with community relations?
Yes. It has to be something that is included in the conversations as we move forward. And also to assure that if anyone on the police force is doing anything unacceptable and they have a history, that history can not be hidden either. That’s another issue that’s been discussed. I have great respect for most of our police. There are those who are not responding appropriately. It is very unfortunate. It is something that we need to work on together.”
New York’s Bail Reform law has let rioters and looters out and all these people who committed violent acts out with no bail. Who can now go commit more violence and mayhem bd do more harm to innocent people and police. There is nothing to guarantee that they show back up for trial.
Jaffe’s answer to that was that it was a terrible situation. It was devastating but she has no control over that. But we need to be very responsive to that. “I thought they were there on behalf of working on this important issue. Pushing back against the kind of discrimination and violence. People got out of control. We also need to be responsive to the people who lost control. They can not be excused for that.”
In a statement she was going to deliver had elected officials been able to speak, she said, “We must demand better from those who are charged with protecting and serving our neighborhoods in the hopes that we can build a better, stronger, more diverse community. I believe now is the time for us to come together.”
Many times when these types of events happen, the local governments aid in the organization of the event. Alan Simon Mayor of Spring Valley said, “We work with the NAACP, but this is their affair. They put it together. We helped them with this sign. We helped them with masks for people who come without masks. We have a certain allowance of masks for people who don’t have them or don’t want to wear them. The true meaning of this is exactly what is said there. We must recognize the problems that a mixed society has. We can’t know what everybody else knows in terms of their life history.”
He feels that what can be done, is to get together as human beings and share. Talk about it together. Learn from each other. “I can never tell you what a black parent feels then his kid goes out and what his fear is in terms of what can happen. But I can tell you what it was like as a Jew growing up in Illinois during WWII. We all have lived through different types of hell. What we have to do is to be able to share the experience. That’s essentially what we have to do. We have to be able to get together and resolve these differences. Create a real understanding and do what we have to do to live peacefully and well together.”
One of George Floyd’s cousins, upon arriving at the park with the march from Village Hall, spoke to the crowd. “Before I leave. Before I get off of this mike, I want to say, take care of your community. Take care of your family. Take care of your home. We are able to handle things as black kings and queens. We are able to handle that, but not our black princes and princesses. We have to make sure we take care of them. Take care of your black kings, black queens, black princes and black princesses. Take care of your community.”
As many others later in the event told the assembled he emphasized the power of going out and vote and encouraged them to go out and do that and put whoever they want to put that position. “What matters is what goes on in your community. You need to go out and vote for your community. Go out and vote for your community. I was mad that I was unable to put my one vote in East Ramapo because that’s where I live.”
Demetrius, who was the main emcee of the event took to the podium. “Thank you everybody. We appreciate you coming down here. We showed unity. We showed solidarity. What I want to do is welcome you all. As you can all see, we are together right now. It’s a shame that such a tragedy had to take place in order for us to have this, but it had to happen. Thank you all for marching. We’re going to continue and start our program. For those of you who don’t know, the NAACP is the oldest Civil Rights organization in the country. As you know, our history is great but as you can see, we are still fighting today. Once again, I hope you all realize what you are doing here. Today is not the last day. Today is the start.”
Nana Gross co – emcee welcomed the crowd as well. “It’s so beautiful to see everyone here today. I just want to say thank you for coming. We need to be together. We need to have a time to grieve and a time to express our feelings and feel supported at this time.”
Demetrius announced that the theme behind the vigil was going to be unity and where we go from here. “As you see in the news, they spread a lot of information. A lot of the anger. A lot of the frustration from the looters. They won’t show the protestors. Realize that today we’re coming together as one. We’re not about that looting, that anger. We’re coming together and we’re moving forward from that.”
First, to start this off we are going to introduce Reverend Darwin Abraham, pastor of the Hudson AME Zion Church. “As we come together, they asked me to ask you to continue social distancing. That we can continue to show the love that we have for one another.” He then gave an opening prayer.
Trotman welcomed the people on behalf of the NAACP, and especially on behalf of the organization’s young adult committee. “They came up with the idea. They said, we’ve been marching. We’ve been protesting and we’ve been rallying. We’ve been locked inside. We haven’t been able to heal. We would like to heal.”
In the midst of many municipalities calling for the defunding of the police department in their community, or the total elimination of them in others, Trotman praised the Spring Valley Police. “One of the proudest things believe it or not that Spring Valley has, is our police department. When I go all over with the NAACP to talk, I laud over our police department. We have the most diverse police department in Rockland County. We have more people of color on the Spring Valley police department than the rest of the county combined.”
The last time he met with them, he asked for a community liaison, they provided them with a community liaison. “I asked them to ask the police chief to take on ongoing racism. They agreed to do that. That was Spring Valley. We continue to try to get people of color on the Sheriff’s department and other police departments. We come here in peace today. We come and I am going to ask members of our police department to come up. We’ve had a wonderful relationship. I’m going to ask Lt. Oleszczuk and the rest of the police come up please.”
Oleszczuk thanked Trotman. “We really appreciate the opportunity to be here today and relay a very important message. The chief asked me to be here today and he gave me a bunch of statistics, about how many officers were born in Spring Valley. How many officers speak different languages, two or three languages. About how many officers were born in different countries. When I was thinking last night about the importance. This is not about numbers. It’s not about math. It’s not about percentages. This is about people. Citizens of Spring Valley are people just like the police officers are with the same concerns and the same issues. Instead of spouting off numbers about how many turkeys we give away or how many trips or languages we speak, we’re going to give a simple message to the community of Spring Valley. We’re going to give it a couple of different times so everyone can understand it.”
This message was given to the community in 7 languages including Spanish, Yiddish, Polish, Farsi, and Haitian Creole. Oleszczuk gave the English translation, “The police of spring valley condemn acts racism and cowardice in all their forms. We believe that together we are stronger.”
As Oleszczuk left the stage, Trotman returned and told the crowd that he wanted them to know that in Spring Valley Police Department, which is one of the smallest in Rockland County, has the highest ranking Latino female in the county, Detective Sergeant. “That’s pretty awesome for who we are.”
A variety of people, including pastors, reverends and other clergy, stepped up to the podium and gave speeches about their feelings on the situation. About the Black Lives Matter ideology. About what they felt was systemic racism and what they feel needs to be done to end it. They prayed, read passages from the Bible, from original poetry and sang songs of unity and remembrance of people who have died by police actions and others.
“I just want everybody to know, as far as that frustration, that anger, just the overall emotions that you have right now. I’m going to be honest with you. We need to keep that same energy when it comes time to vote. When it comes time to be engaged in the community. I DON’T WANT TO SEE THAT FOR ONE DAY!!! As you all know this is a larger problem. It doesn’t get solved by you being mad today. I want to see you with that same energy. I want to see you at the school. I want to see you at all of the meetings.”
Just as Floyd’s cousin did earlier in the evening, Demetrius emphasized the importance of voting. “I want to see you show up to the voting polls. Let’s make that very clear. When you see everybody here right now, we can make a difference. Imagine if each of you voted. Would we be in this situation? Think about it. Imagine if each of us held the politicians accountable. Would we be in this situation? Don’t get mad just right now. I don’t want to see that. Go to the polls. Keep the energy. Hold the people in power accountable. Yelling and screaming is the same thing a child does. We are not children. We are adults. We want change. Do something.”
He informed the people that when it comes to local elections, those are usually won by margins as slim as 200 – 300 votes. He told those who were not registered that they had a table in the back with voter registration forms. “It’s alright if you’re still not registered. If you know family who is not registered, please bring those forms to them. At the end of the day we can have as many protests, as many rallies, as many entertainers speak on it. Unless we do our part, nothing will change.”
He concluded is part of the event by stating, “I hope you see what we were able to gather here today. We have the family of George Floyd here with us. What I want you all to remember, is that things will not change unless we make that change happen. Without further ado, I will pass the microphone to his family as we mourn as a community.”
With passion and his voice strained from grief and his earlier presentation Conrad Floyd took the mike and called out three times, “No justice!” The crowd responded, “No peace!” each time. Say his name… crowd George Floyd, three times. Put your hands in the air for what you’ve been through. Put your hands in the air for what you’re going through. Put your hands in the air for what you’re not going to go through no more.”
Scanning back and forth over the crowd, he continued. “I’ll tell you this right now, the world came here today. The world is grieving for my cousin. The world is here and we’re going to stand strong. I sit back and look at the Jewish community and everything they’ve been through with the Holocaust. We’ve been through some if equal. I look at what they’ve got, their religion. Their homes. The way they stick together. They came from the Holocaust and they’re doing what they’ve go to do to get out of it. When are we going to do it? When are we going to own these homes? When are we going to own these cars? When are we going to stick together? I think it started right now. I think this is our time. United we stand (crowd – Divided we fall).”
Another cousin stepped up and began by asking the crowd, “Whose streets?” The response was a loud, “OUR STREETS!” We need to start acting like these are our streets. We need to start having each other’s backs. Who got my back? Crowd – I GOT YOUR BACK! They’re not taking the power from us… we gave it away. You know why we giving it away? It’s because we’re divided. We need to start standing as one. When I came down here, I’m not doing this for my cousin… not just for my cousin I should say. We’ve got to mourn this. You can’t mourn this. (He pointed to the family assembled behind him) We’ve got to mourn this. You can’t know what we’re feeling. When you’re marching, you’re not marching for justice. We need to be marching for change. When we don’t get justice – crown SHUT IT DOWN!!”
This was truly a message of unity being sent to the world at this event. Rabbis, Imans, pastors, Reverends and people of all colors, ethnic groups and ages, were there to say, “We’ve had enough of discrimination, hatred and man’s brutality to his fellow man. No matter what form it takes, IT IS WRONG.”
Rabbi Yisroel Kahan addressing Floyd’s family, “We breathe the same air. We bleed the same blood. We’re all God’s creation. It wasn’t justice. It was murder. There’s not a single person on the face of this earth that thinks he deserved what happened. I hope the officer and the people who did this to him face justice. Justice will be served. I hope he will not have died in vain. We all need to work together, recognize who we are, what we are. You own a store, three are yellow apples, red apples, green apples. It doesn’t matter an apple is an apple. A human is a human. We all stick together. We can all get together. If I am better than you are today, you’re better than me tomorrow, then we’ll all cease to exist. If our born informed and what they hear messes up the way we treat each other. It’s on us, all of us to come together as a beautiful colorful community that Spring Valley is over 15 nationalities. I’m glad I was able to be here. I’m sorry for your loss. Your loss is our loss.”
Iman Syed Ali and his wife brought flowers and a wreath to present to the family. “We came from Suffern. We did a rally there for Floyd. The rally was about love and to be kind to all. People marched for George Floyd. People marched for equality. People marched for love. This is about spreading love and to be kind to all. If you possess hate, you will walk around in darkness. You will be blind. It’s very important at this time that we seize this moment and deliver a message of love and harmony.”:
Conrad Floyd spoke for the family, “A message I would like to convey is that in my opinion, I know we’re going through globally, the coronavirus. It’s put us in a state of despair where we’ve lost homes, lost jobs, unemployed, some homeless. Things of that nature and can’t go outside. It’s just confined. My cousin dying opened the cages and opened everybody up allowing all of the emotions they’ve been going through since the coronavirus and for years in the past to today to come together to stand for something.”
Another family member summed up how this can never happen again. “This ends when we can stop being envious and jealous of one another. It ends when we can come together for something that actually matters. It ends when the brutality stops. Brutality ends in fatality. Unfortunately, my cousin was murdered at the hands of someone who was supposed to protect and serve. Now we all know there are good cops and there are bad cops, If you stand there and watch a co – worker take an innocent life, and not say nothing, then you’re just as guilty as he is. The realization is that we are not going to stand for this anymore. By all means necessary we need to come together. We’ve got to speak in unity.”