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Taking a look back at last year's summer of unrest

One year ago this week a nation watched in anger as Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on the neck of George Floyd, killing him in the process. 


For Buffalo resident and elementary school teacher David Hall, the viral video of the Floyd murder was a precursor to his own run-in with law enforcement that very day. 

“Did I have any weapons in the car? Did I have any drugs in the car?” he said “And at that time, I think my pride was just shot because I'm literally watching this video of this happening to this man and then 15 minutes later the same thing is, you know sort of happening to me. So that is what really pushed me into like getting out on the streets.” 

And people took to the streets. 

The killing of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others sparked protests in Western New York, starting with a May 30 gathering in Niagara Square which saw protestors clashing with Buffalo Police Officers and damage done to local businesses. 

Speaking out has never been a problem for Hall, who was often seen with megaphone in hand leading chants or talking about the injustices facing African Americans across the country. 

He said he grew up seeing law enforcement with rose-tinted glasses. 

“I went to Bennet high school,” he said. “So in high school and every day we would come in to like security checks. So there was always a sense of safety, I guess from security and police officers and people who held that title.” 

That all changed May 30 of last year. 
“I feel like my eyes were opened after watching that video and then experiencing something very similar to it on the same day that this man died and it did. It opened up my eyes. It was like, wow, the world that I was living in 30 minutes ago is not the actual world that I'm living in right now because this is happening to me.” 

Despite the negative publicity the May 30 protest garnered, the rest of the summer in Western New York saw civil rights actions sprout up almost on a daily basis. From the city center to the suburbs and out to the City of Niagara Falls and Rochester. 

The height of the COVID-19 pandemic mixed with the anger and exhaustion from the continuous instances of police brutality is what brought people to the streets, said Buffalo Poet Laureate Jillian Hanesworth who is also the Director of Leadership at Open Buffalo, 

“It was like the frustration of constantly having to choose personal safety over justice,” she said. “You know, everybody's at home because they don't want to get this virus but we have to take to the streets because we aren't even safe in our own homes in Breonna Taylor's case.” 

Hanesworth was happy to see this newer, younger subset of Buffalo’s progressive movement emerge last summer but recognizes many of the non-Black marchers lacked the connections to the community they purport to stand up for. A community-first approach has kept Hanesworth grounded in her work. 

“We have this entirely new generation and group of young leaders and progressives that want to come out and want to be heard,” she said. “But the reality is they're not going to face the same dangers in the community that I will as a black woman.”  

In the winter of 2019, Hanesworth wrote a poem in tribute to Gil Scott-Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised—not knowing it would become a sort of rallying cry 18 months later: 

“I did not realize when I wrote The Revolution Will Rhyme, I didn't know that it was going to become a part of this movement.” 

Capturing the movement was an integral part of summer, and whether it was a march towards Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown’s residence, or covering events in Rochester after the release of the video of Daniel Prude’s death, Carmen Paul Cibella was there with his camera. 

“I saw real people with real experiences of injustice of discrimination of oppression,” he said. “I've seen a community that's been-- brutalized, honestly, ripped of hope.” 

Cibella said he and other white allies have to do their part in supporting the movement. 

“I've seen this from a variety of angles from what my students see from what my friends see what my family sees what the actual people on the streets that are out there fighting see,” he said. “And you know, I try my best to capture that for my camera and to share their stories and the messages that the people that are out there fighting have to say.” 

Unfortunately, these largely peaceful protests and marches weren’t always met in kind. 

Numerous instances of violent pushback occurred in response to the marches and Hanesworth says until Black and Brown people with the same humanity and respect as whites these problems will persist. 

“Until we can recognize that black and brown people in this country are not treated equally,” she said. “We're always going to have a long way to go.” 

12 months after Floyd’s murder and the conviction for his killer, Hall was pleased with what was accomplished last summer, not just with the numerous reforms to law enforcement and criminal justice being made, but with the possibility of new leadership in Buffalo and Western New York for years to come. 

“I think if we go another six months down the line, like we're going to have a really good headstrong set of leaders,” he said. “It might just be five or six of us that are really pushing to step out and speak up and take action. And I think that that's probably the biggest change that I see is like people, really seeing what we're doing, seeing how we're doing it, learning from it and taking action from it.” 

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Thomas moved to Western New York at the age of 14. A graduate of Buffalo State College, he majored in Communications Studies and was part of the sports staff for WBNY. When not following his beloved University of Kentucky Wildcats and Boston Red Sox, Thomas enjoys coaching youth basketball, reading Tolkien novels and seeing live music.
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