Stepping Up for Justice
Stepping Up for Justice
Eight activists battling racial injustice tell their stories as they witnessed and experienced movements of social change.
rotests erupted across the country and around the world last summer in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent killings of Black and Brown people at the hands of law enforcement. Meet the people who spearheaded, participated in and created momentum for Syracuse’s plight for justice.
Nathaniel Flagg found the 40 consecutive Last Chance for Change protests he attended to be somber occasions.
“I barely talked to anybody unless it was about the purpose of what we were marching for,” he said.
Flagg sees Last Chance for Change as a vehicle for helping his city fight systemic racism in a constructive way. He joined protests in New York City in the wake of George Floyd’s death and he wanted something different for Syracuse.
“I went down there and got involved,” Flagg said. “The way that they turned it, they started destroying their city.”
Flagg has first-hand experience with police in Syracuse.
“[I] know what it’s like to be singled out as a black man,” he said.
Talking about society in general he added, “they try to label all black men as statistics, yeah they’re gonna be dead or in jail. That’s how they look at us.”
The Last Chance for Change protests grew to over 1,000 people and were a visible presence for more than a month. It makes Flagg proud.
“For all those people to be with us and for them to stay non-violent, it was beautiful,” Flagg said. “I’ve never felt so proud of Syracuse in my life until that day. I was just proud to be able to be a part of that.”
The protests started right outside of Cherilyn Beckles’ apartment.
“I thought, ‘let me go show my support,’” she said.
It was her first time experiencing a protest.
“I was mostly photographing. I’m a person of color so it’s important for me to be there and document what’s going on,” Beckles said. “It’s important for my voice to be heard.”
After seeing many new faces on the streets, Beckles knew she had a role to play.
“I thought it was important to be photographed from a POC perspective, which doesn’t happen in most stories in America,” she said.
Beckles’ said the protests had a profound impact on her and gave her a new sense of community.
“To see all those people come out, it touched me,” Beckles said. “I have experienced microaggressions and racism, so to know I wasn’t alone was a beautiful thing.
“It was more than just protests.It was really a family.”
Ian Hackett was ready for the protests as they marched down his street. He had seen the video of George Floyd’s murder. He started to tune into podcasts featuring Black Lives Matter protests. It clicked.
“I was fired up,” he said. “I was mad at Trump, I was mad at the realization that we’re so much further behind than I thought we were. Enough is enough. I’ve had enough.”
Growing up, Hackett could answer any question about the bible.
“When I was younger, I was pretty judgmental, I grew up in this box and things worked for me in this box,” Hackett said.
Now, he’s defining Christianity on his own terms, he believes that resistance is a spiritual act.
Hackett knows there is more work to be done. “It would be naive to think that the fight is done in Syracuse, or that even the work of helping our country recover [from Trump] is done by the election of Biden and Harris,” Hackett said.
But he is hopeful that protests in Syracuse and elsewhere in response to Floyd’s murder are the start of something lasting.
“From that initial movement, a lot of cool things are coming out,” he said. “My hope is everyone will just keep pushing kind of where they are and where they feel called.”
Kayla Johnson remembers a woman who confronted her while Johnson marched down East Genesee Street.
“The lady basically rolled her window down and she said, ‘you’ll never get change,’” Johnson said.. “I let it process and then I literally just fell to my knees. … It really made me feel worthless. … Black people are still going to die no matter what. I just don’t feel like it’s ever going to stop.”
But Johnson overcame the feeling of helplessness and marched on. And she thinks the protesters will, in fact, make a difference, saying the experience of protesting has already changed her life.
“We built a family over the summer,” she said.
Voting is the key to change, Johnson said, and she hopes young activists transition from the streets to the voting booth.
“I really care about the people in the city,” Johnson said. “We’re not going to really get … change until we get the right people in office. “
Johnson’s attitude allowed her to turn a negative into a positive when she lost her job at Enterprise due to the coronavirus.
“When they let me go, I really was like, ‘yo, there’s so much stuff I could be out here doing, that I should be doing,’” she said.
Johnson herself is making the pivot into politics and is running for Syracuse Common Council.
Before the summer 2020 protests, Drama worked at Pastabilities and performed and produced music. He’s known in Syracuse for making music with his twin brother in their group Twin Rugers.
Drama took his artistry to the streets when he marched with Last Chance for Change for 40 days. He remembers the first march.
“I had a poem that was illustrated off a rhyme, a rap song,” Drama said. “It was a peaceful poem and I said it throughout the march.”
Drama said he could relate to George Floyd and that what happened to Floyd could happen to him or his friends and family.
“I’ve been in the judicial system and it has not treated me right,” Drama said. “I made the mistakes that I made, yet, at the same time, I was targeted as a young black male in my community”
Drama says people need to focus on fixing the system.
“I didn’t just look at the gangsters that were leading people down the wrong road,” Drama said. “I looked at it as … the system that was built against people like myself and the people that I was raised around.”
Shantel Shepard is an American Sign Language interpreter who volunteered her services during the summer 2020 protests. She grew up with deaf parents who taught her ASL, enabling her to use her skills to assist Black deaf protesters.
Her boyfriend, a cancer survivor, didn’t want to protest because of the coronavirus, making it difficult for Shepard to be there as much as she wanted.
“It was like a 40-day thing,” she said. “So I wanted to make as many of the 40 days as possible.”
So, Shepard decided to march as safely as she could.
As the mother of a Black son, she took the call to action personally.
“When you see certain things going viral like police brutality, you have to really put yourself in those shoes,” Shepard said. “That could really be me or my family.”
Shepard attended her first protest for Trayvon Martin in Washington, D.C. It helped her realize that protests were a force for good.
“I wanted to see if it’s really as violent as everyone was saying,” said Shepard, adding that a lot of people choose not to protest because media accounts made the protesters out to be violent. “But when you went out there, it was really beautiful.”
After years of shuffling back and forth between New York City and Syracuse, Elias Gwinn fell in love with Syracuse’s community and the city’s abolitionist history.
“Syracuse in general has a long history of activism,” he said. “Like centuries old.”
While living in New York City, Gwinn participated in other civil rights protests such as Occupy Wall Street and some of the first Black Lives Matter protests.
“I was down in New York when the Eric Garner thing happened and we took over the West Side Highway in Manhattan,” Gwinn said. “I felt called to be an additional voice.”
After George Floyd’s murder, Gwinn was ready to march once again.
Gwinn has given a lot of thought about peaceful protesting and the ongoing conversation about rioting.
“If you don’t want buildings to burn and stuff like that, stop police [from] killing people,” Gwinn said. “If you don’t want people to act a certain way, don’t create an environment where they have no other options.”
Gwinn marched in the 40 protests in Syracuse over the summer.
“For the first 20 days or so I didn’t speak to almost anybody,” Gwinn said.
As relationships grew, he and his new friends would stay after marches to help clean up trash.
“We are actively taking steps to do good things and make things better,” Gwinn said.“Our voices are needed.”
Clifford Ryan is a grassroots organizer and founder of the organization OGs Against Violence. Born and raised in Syracuse, Ryan has seen the inequalities in the city up close. After losing his son and multiple family members to gun violence, he dedicated his life to advocacy and activism.
Ryan is fighting to end multiple scourges on his community: racial injustice, socioeconomic inequality and gun violence.
“At any given time, you can hear shots fired,” Ryan said of Syracuse. “At any given time, someone could lose their life. You got a poverty rate, that’s one of the highest in the nation.”
Ryan has noticed the disparities in urban areas in Syracuse compared to suburban ones like Cicero.
“It’s like … night and day, No sirens, no police, you could leave your front door open,” he said of the suburbs.
Deconstructing The Divide
His organization, OGs Against Violence, using the old slang term for “old guy” or “original gangster,” stands for Our Generation Against Violence. Ryan’s organization offers mentoring, intervention, prevention, conflict resolution and mental health services.
Ryan builds relationships and uses donations to provide resources like clothing, diapers, and food to those in need. An avid supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, he saw the 2020 protests as a chance for change and rebirth.
“My role was, as an advisor, in that regard, to help keep the peace, so that Syracuse didn’t have to go through what they went through in Portland or in other cities,” Ryan said.
“My job was to get everybody back so that they wouldn’t get pepper-sprayed and beat by the police.”