Gillian Rose is a recent Manhattan College graduate who lives in Staten Island.
Staten Island has been the butt of many jokes. Take, for instance, Pete Davidson describing his thoughts on going back to Staten Island for Thanksgiving; “I know Staten Island isn’t all heroin and racist cops, it also has meth and racist firefighters”. Yet funny as it sounds, unfortunately it is one of the many harsh realities that people on Staten Island know to be true. Staten Island has always been “the forgotten borough’ of New York City and the Island’s reputation is well earned. However, cultural, political, and economic events of 2020 have proven that even here, there can be hope for a better, more united and just future on this island that I call home.
Despite being located in one of the most diverse cities, Staten Island is the least diverse of the boroughs. 61.7% of the island is White, 18.3% Hispanic, 8.6% Asian, and 9.3% Black. Growing up here, I remember being in gym class, casually hearing kids yell out things like “beaner” to the one and only Hispanic kid in the class. I had no idea what the word even meant. When I asked the kid who said it, he told me “It means dirty Mexican. My dad taught me.” At my south shore Staten Island elementary school, our 5th grade social studies teacher had no problem telling us that Black people were called the “N” word with the hard r (yes she said the word with no hesitation). In this light, it should have come as no surprise that the grim origins of the slogan “I Can’t Breathe” now synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement today were brought to light in the video footage of Eric Garner being murdered by police on Staten Island in 2014.
By the time the 2016 Presidential election campaigns were on, I had escaped the smallness of my hometown to go away to college, yet could see on social media the reactions from my former friends of friends and neighbors. Aside from the typical “Make America Great Again” posts, I saw comments from Staten Island locals that said “Cops are just doing their job, it’s never a race issue and Eric Garner was a criminal anyway!” as well as, “Black people and immigrants have nothing to worry about. Our tax money is always going towards them just because of a skin color.” It was as if every issue for them lead back to race and race alone— it was never anything else. Of course, you could say that about the whole MAGA campaign itself. Even at the start of 2018, a white middle aged woman sprayed her face with acid and claimed a Black woman attacked her in the Arden Heights neighborhood. After much investigation, it was revealed that the woman made it up. Now that I was only reading about all this from afar, I felt like living in Staten Island was akin to living through an episode of South Park.
But my college escape was thwarted by COVID-19, and as the shutdown came into effect, I found myself not only back on Staten Island, but also at home with my mother who is a nurse on the frontlines of the pandemic. When this pandemic hit hard in March she lost 14 patients in 4 hours. After the first week of April (which was the most impacted month of the virus in New York City), she told me “I stopped counting after 31”. Yet the Staten Island community was already discussing reopening non-essential businesses 2 weeks into the lockdown. The community here has no end to its perception of being oppressed. Days after George Floyd’s death, a protest erupted right across the street from my house—not demanding “Justice For George Floyd,” but rather, to demand the re-opening of the local tanning salon. They weren’t chanting “I Can't Breathe" or “Black Lives Matter,” but instead they were fighting for their right to tan, demanding “All Businesses Are Essential”. MAGA to the end.
But as we witnessed all over the country—in the North, in the South, in cities and the smallest of towns, online and out in the streets, the cultural and political tide was turning. And though I never thought I would live to see the day, the political climate of Staten Island seemed to change with it. What felt like overnight, the first Black Lives Matter protest on Staten Island occurred on May 30th at the 120th Precinct in St. George, the same neighborhood where Eric Garner was murdered. It was a peaceful demonstration of about 100 people with Al Sharpton in attendance, despite there being very little coverage of it happening.
As the days progressed, the protests moved from the North Shore neighborhoods to the predominately white South Shore neighborhoods of the island. Within 2 days, attendance went from 12 people to 500 people who marched through the New Dorp neighborhood. The Staten Island Advance considered it to be “one of the biggest demonstrations on Staten Island in recent history” as it was so massive that Hylan Blvd, one of the busiest streets in Staten Island, was blocked from the outside. Eventually that 500 person protest grew to 1,800 as people from all over the island were moved to protest. And though the reporting claimed the demonstrations were violent, these protest were anything but. People left and right were offering help to each other—they provided snacks, drinks, cardboard for signs, masks, and hand sanitizer and all of it was free. Residents supported the movement as they watched from their front porches, some even emotionally touched by the actions taking place.
In these few days of protesting, people who doubted Staten Island would ever even have a demonstration, people who thought that it was going to turn violent, and people who thought crime rates would go up in Staten Island because of those marches were proven wrong. Instead, Staten Island made sure that “Black Lives Matter” was still heard even after the initial protests, culminating in a series of events on Juneteenth where community leaders and organizers began to share their messages of peace and hope for a shared future.
The Young Leaders of Staten Island, with the help of Ranti Ogunleye brought their community together with a barbecue where they provided free masks, refreshments, and most importantly, registered young people to vote and fill out the census. Count and be counted. Ogunleye is no stranger to social justice issues. He was part of the North Shore’s Curtis High School’s Global Kids organization. In the past 20 years, Ogunleye has mentored a variety of Young Leaders as both a teacher and as a support system.
“Along that journey of marching, all around me were young people that I saw!” Ogunleye shared as he described what he saw at the protests. “All these young people that I had worked with and guided are now in positions where they’re in college or out of college. And they look at me as a person who supported them,” he said. Ogunleye expressed his concern about the divide between the older and younger generations when it comes to discussing racial issues. “The young people have given us energy and breath of fresh air, so we’re excited!” he expressed with gratitude.
He also brought a different viewpoint to my eyes, as he said it wasn’t just the South Shore that suffered from racism but the North Shore as well. “We have to think about racism in a bigger context,” he said. “When we think of the structures in place that allow this to continue, it’s deeper than a personal opinion.” We then got into a discussion about history and how it is taught in schools. Aside from just learning about the meaning of Juneteenth, I explained how I didn’t learn about Christopher Columbus and the dark history of colonialism until my high school years. “The Declaration of Independence, we know their intentions weren’t for everybody,” Oguenlye said. “Now we know that, we’re aware, but what are we gonna do about it now? Do you become complacent and say ‘you know what? Let me just bend and do what the structures tell me to do or do you have a hand in shaping and restructuring it for the young people? And I think that’s what we need to do”.
I then turned the conversation around and asked Oguenlye what he thought about the tanning salon protest that happened across the street from me. “This COVID situation has really hurt a lot of businesses so I do understand, but nothing could be more important than a person’s life,” he said. “What we’ve put in this country is the value on a paper dollar or the value on the business. We have not put value on life and until we put value on everybody’s life and everybody’s life matters because they keep saying all lives matter, it just so happens that when it pertains to Black lives, it matters less.”
We discussed the importance of the Juneteenth holiday, a holiday that many people “didn’t even know…existed until Trump said something”. We both expressed our concern around the lack of education, as Oguenlye said, “You don’t think they do that on purpose? That one segment of history that is so impactful? We have to re-educate ourselves about these systems, re-educate ourselves about the past, and understand that the things we [think we] know to be true are not really the truth. With all the information at our fingertips, it’s our responsibility to learn the truth.”
And it’s the next generation of Staten Islanders that are asking the right questions and have had the loudest voices in these movements. From social media to the marches, it’s organizers like 21-year-old Erica Melton who raise those voices. An activist who is also a proud Curtis alum, Melton shared her experiences with me at the Juneteenth Community Picnic in Clove Lakes Park she organized.
“When I first heard about Eric Garner it hit home because it was a block away from my house. Then secondly, I knew Eric Garner because I went to school with his kids, so it hit a different kind of scene,” Melton said. Melton’s goal has been to make Staten Island a better place and to bring a lot of positivity to her community. Melton had thrown parties with her cousin, Kim Rogers at the homeless shelter while also providing them with care during the holidays since she was 16-years-old. “It was nurturing, and it was very exciting. Seeing everyone come together to help out the community a little more,” she said.
I asked Melton more about what she thought about the political differences of the North and South Shore of Staten Island. Melton visited the South Shore for the first time ever at the march at the South Shore. She found that this was true for many of her peers that lived on the North Shore as well. “The [physical] divide between all of us and all of them, that’s what makes it so hard. But when you go on that side you won’t really see people like me,” she said explaining the lack of diversity in the South Shore. The North Shore wasn’t without its concerns either, as Melton said “Overall, I feel like we could definitely do better on this side. Over the years, it’s gone from worse to a little better.” However, Melton said that we can’t blame the people on the South Shore entirely. But we can blame them for not educating themselves on certain issues.
“I got the idea [for the Juneteenth picnic] from a friend. She was like, ‘I think you should do a peaceful picnic for Juneteenth’. I said, that would actually be a good idea.” and asked for donations as well. Melton was able to make over $700 in 5 days in support of the peaceful picnic while also working 2 jobs. “I cried a couple times doing this. I'm not going to lie, because it makes me emotional seeing everyone,” she told me as she pointed to the crowd of people that showed up. Everyone was socially distanced with their own friends and family, showing that we could make a point even during a pandemic. “I wanna do more things like this for the community because I feel it’s for the kids,” she said.