Activists Applaud Juneteenth’s Recognition But Want More Substantive Change

Demonstrators in Queens and around the country gathered to mark the holiday and to call for racial justice.

Kiara Thomas Jun 22, 2020

“No organized march or rally has been a celebration,” said Joshua Milien, one of the leaders behind a Juneteenth march from Queens Civil Court to St. Albans Park, remarking on the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations in New York. “It’s just people being frustrated with what’s going on. With black pride and black happiness, we wanted to use that frustration and make it a celebration.”

Some of the 50 demonstrators dressed in formal attire as they marched to the park on a holiday marking abolishment of slavery, accompanied by deployments from the NYPD’s 103rd and 113th precincts. 

‘We only asked for the officers that murdered Breonna Taylor to be arrested, but they’re giving us everything in the world besides that.’

Pedestrians and passing motorists cheered with balled-up fists held high. At one point in the march, a uniformed MTA bus driver asked one of the organizers for his megaphone and led the crowd in chants of “Black lives matter!” 

Throughout the gathering, activists demanded investment in black-owned businesses, the end to gentrification and of corporations infiltrating the black community. 

“Our neighborhood needs to stay as close to locally-owned as possible,” said Justin Crossfox, noting that Jamaica, Queens’ is about 50 percent African American. “We do have a really large black population and I think it needs to be very black-owned.”

On June 19, 1865, the enslaved people in Galveston, Texas were informed by Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger that they were free. The announcement came two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln. The 155-year-old celebration has taken on new national significance amid the protests that have followed the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Similar Juneteenth events were held around the country Friday but the holiday is still new to many people.

“I’m going to be honest — embarrassingly,” said librarian Kat Baumgartner who joined the procession, conceding that she had only heard of Juneteenth recently. “It’s not something I ever learned about in school.”

On Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order to recognize Juneteenth as a paid holiday for New York State employees. He plans to make the holiday permanent in New York next year. Texas, Virginia and Pennsylvania are the only other states that recognize it as a paid state holiday. 

Senators Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Tina Smith and Ed Markey proposed a bill, co-sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn, to make Juneteenth a federal holiday on Friday. And businesses —  including Nike, Uber and J.C. Penny — announced the date would be a paid holiday for their employees.

Milien was appreciative of the growing recognition of the date but, when all is said and done, “It’s another propaganda blow up,” he said. “It’s trying to distract us from what’s really going on. At the end of the day, we only asked for the officers that murdered Breonna Taylor to be arrested, but they’re giving us everything in the world besides that.” 

Kentucky Police officers Jon Mattingly, Myles Cosgrove and Brett Hankison entered Taylor’s home during a no-knock search warrant for a drug investigation in March when Taylor and her partner, Kenneth Walker, were sleeping. Walker, a licensed gun owner, called 911, thinking that the police were burglars and exchanged fire with the police. Taylor, black and unarmed, was shot by the officers. Hankison was fired and the other officers involved are on administrative leave. No one has been charged. 

Last week, the Louisville city council passed Breonna’s Law, banning no-knock warrants.

“We are a free people and we will use our freedom to continue to fight for everyone else who suffers,” said Tyrell Hankerson, Pastor of the Social Justice Ministries at the Excelling Church on Woodhull Avenue in Queens and a cosponsor of the Juneteenth event. “We will use our freedom to fight for those who don’t have a voice.”

“You’re seeing a much younger generation being uninhibited, unafraid to say, ‘My life matters,’” said Sky Downing who took part in Friday’s march. “I think that is becoming more and more [of an] instinct for some people.” She added, listing the names of people of color killed by police over the years: “The cause of why this happened I don’t like.”

The march concluded with the crowd kneeling for eight minutes and 46 seconds with their fists in the air to represent the length of time Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck. Participants wondered aloud how the officer could have stayed in the position for so long “without mercy.” 

After almost nine minutes in the sun, demonstrators mingled with their neighbors at St. Albans Park, eating food from black-owned restaurants and celebrating emancipation. 

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