The Protester Perspective: Q&A With Student Activists
Three students open up about their thoughts and experiences amid new momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Around three months after Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and civil discourse transpired across the globe in response to the killing of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis, MN, a similar story surfaced in Rochester, NY — 20 miles from the SUNY Brockport campus.
An autopsy report from the Monroe County Medical Examiner’s Office, dating back to March, gained national attention. The report indicated that Daniel Prude, a Black man who had been physically restrained by police officers while suffering a mental health episode, died in the manner of homicide. The causes of death were listed on the report as "complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint, excited delirium, and acute phencyclidine intoxication."
Rochester protests endured, now fueled by the local incident.
Louis Chavez, a senior studying art and photography with a minor in museum studies and public history, brought their camera. Victoria Davis, a senior English major double minoring in film studies and Spanish, joined in with the community advocacy group Free the People Roc. Taija Taylor, a junior communication major and Spanish minor, showed up because she feared for herself and for those who share her skin color.
"Black Lives Matter’s invitation for all to join the fight for Freedom, Liberation, and Justice is at the very core of the College’s institutional learning outcome of civic engagement," said Director of Community Development Karen Podsiadly. "Through our programs, activities, and teaching, we encourage students to work to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and develop the combination of knowledge, skills, values, and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and nonpolitical processes."
Taylor encourages her peers to take part in engaging in anti-racism initiatives by doing their research, making donations, contacting congressmen and local leaders, and holding others accountable. She and Davis both hold leadership roles in the Women of Color Empowerment Club on campus, Taylor as director of communications and Davis as director of media.
Taylor's message to all: "Stay involved, and stay aware."
In a Q&A with The Port, Chavez, Davis, and Taylor share thoughts and experiences from their time of activism and advocacy:
What has made you passionate about the Black Lives Matter movement and motivated to work toward initiating change?
Taylor's journey with the BLM movement began with its reason for inception: the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012. "His death shook me. I went to a PWI (predominantly white institution), and I felt at the time that I had to support. I had to remind people that my life and the lives of all Black people were in danger and we matter," said Taylor. "I hated the idea of looking back and seeing that I was complacent. I wanted to be a part of change."
Passionate about social justice for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color), Davis calls the movement "common sense."
"As a Puerto Rican woman, I recognize the duty I have to advocate and use every privilege I have in order to elevate Black voices and fight for justice," she said.
Also a non-Black person of color, Chavez says that their advocacy efforts alongside Black peers take an intersectional approach — and an artistic one. "I utilize my art practice to contribute to the cultural history surrounding these issues and seek to connect my interest in visual studies to those of movement building here and around the world," said Chavez, who plans to pursue graduate studies in the field of film and photographic preservation.
Photos by Louis Chavez
What has your experience protesting this year been like?
"We seek to make significant structural changes in favor of more compassionate and just responses to poverty and mental health in our communities, and to this end we are winning," said Chavez. "Public outcry is an important and critical tool, and we are witnessing the effectiveness of communities who stand together against injustice."
While anyone can organize a protest, Taylor has observed that protests managed under strong leadership are more likely to remain cohesive. She saw leaders and protesters of all different backgrounds and heard messages of all kinds. Frustrating to her were the protests organized by political leaders looking to promote their agendas and the people more concerned with property damage than with death.
While also frustrated, Davis says that much of her protesting experience this summer has been filled with "love and light."
"I attended weekly protests organized by Free the People Roc, which centered Black joy and teaching moments," she said.
What was the most intense moment you witnessed or experienced?
Taylor, who said she was thankful to be able to stay distanced from violence and rioting, heard intensity in the words of advocates looking to hold politicians accountable.
Chavez found it surreal to see pepper balls and tear gas aimed at peaceful protesters, who were using umbrellas and Rubbermaid lids for protection, in small Western New York cities. Davis was one of those umbrella-holders, and she chose to stand in front of fellow protesters in an effort to protect BIPOC behind her. Suffering from asthma, she has experienced temporary loss of sight, trouble breathing, and vomiting. Even so, the word "beauty" came to her mind when reflecting on protest intensity.
"During these nights, I witnessed the beauty of community and Black leadership. We proclaimed justice through chants and songs while marching," said Davis, who will pursue a master’s degree in library and media science. She hopes to work as a librarian in a school with a high population of Spanish-speaking students and/or people of color. Another dream is to produce television shows that tell coming-of-age stories highlighting underrepresented groups.
Photos by Victoria Davis
What lessons do you hope our local community can take away from the events of this year?
"I hope that people can see that standing by and doing nothing is unacceptable," said Taylor, whose goal is to become a public relations specialist. "And that's not to say that everyone has to get out on the ground and protest. There are so many other ways to get involved. You can sign petitions, donate to bail relief funds, work to educate your friends and family on what Black people are going through."
Chavez hopes community members realize the power that results from coming together, especially through challenges. "There is nothing that we can't achieve when we show up with love, commitment, and clear goals to guide us," they said. Chavez, like many other locals, has looked to Rochester organizers for direction when it comes to prioritizing demands for change.
What hopes do you have for the future?
"I hope that justice is given to those murdered by the police and that those responsible are charged," said Davis. "I hope that policing is revolutionized in a way that allocates more funds to mental health services and community resources. I think in order for this to happen, white people and non-Black people of color need to center and uplift Black voices and leadership." Davis has made an effort to do so on campus by prioritizing education about activism, racism, and social justice throughout her three years as a Resident Assistant.
Podsiadly encourages all students to engage in civil discourse and remember that their voices matter. Opportunities for individual student development and engagement on campus include activities such as Deliberative Dialogues, Critical Conversations, Community Conversations, training and leadership programs, and the new intercultural center.
"The recent establishment of the Joey Jackson Intercultural Center (named for CNN Legal Analyst Joey Jackson '88) is a demonstration of the College’s commitment to foster an inclusive and supportive environment that inspires students to become engaged members of the SUNY Brockport community and beyond," said Podsiadly. "The Center is also dedicated to providing students of color with opportunities for leadership development, celebration, collaboration, education, and reflection on a range of issues related to inclusive excellence."
Chavez agrees with Davis that change is necessary and believes it will be possible with unity, commitment, and people from all walks of life coming to terms with injustices and cruelties.
"It is imperative that we all work to change this culture for the better," said Chavez. "I have great faith in our collective ability to do just that."
"We have to come together," said Taylor.
Podsiadly said the BLM movement, its leaders, and student activists are profoundly impacting the campus and surrounding communities.
"As with every movement throughout history, the dedication and commitment of those willing to engage in making a difference brings us that much closer to realizing freedom, liberation, and justice for all," said Podsiadly. "As we continue to participate, watch, and/or support student activism, it is my hope that we will each be inspired to be civically engaged."
Photo by Taija Taylor
BLM artwork Chavez created as part of a photography class assignment — using the Cyanotype process of photography, which utilizes UV light to set images into paper, fabric, or other materials — will begin traveling this month to the Davis Gallery at Houghton House at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. The work is part of an exhibition titled, "Crafting Democracy: Fiber Arts and Activism," which will run through December 1.