Youth-Led Protest Calls for Defunding the NYPD

Teenage activist Tehreem Saleem wants the mayor to invest in communities not policing. She is not alone.

Kiara Thomas Jun 9, 2020

A dozen people lined the sidewalk on Sunday at the corner of West 21st Street and Eighth Avenue in front of a bordered up Raúl store. “Black lives cannot be replaced,” “We are with you” and “No justice, no peace,” decorated the wooden boards over the luxury home decor shop. The sun shined in the eyes of the racially diverse protesters while they held up signs. The words on the store weren’t their work, but the chanting was. 

The mayor says he won’t be reducing the NYPD budget by the $1 billion advocates have proposed.

“We are here today because we stand with our black brothers and sisters every single day and demand justice for the countless victims of police brutality and systemic racism,” yelled 17-year-old Tehreem Saleem who led the demonstration. “We are here today to be part of a revolution that will dismantle the system.”

Sunday concluded the second weekend in a row in which New York City was roiled by Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The protests — sparked by bystander video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd and suffocating the unarmed black man to death while he begged for his life — also expanded globally, reaching as far as Germany and Australia. 

“Defund the NYPD,” said Saleem, a second-generation Pakistani-American. “We’re not investing in our communities, especially the communities of color. If you really look at the statistics, the amount of money that we have to give to the police every year is insane. On top of that, you have people in schools with metal detectors having to wait in those lines. You see the expansion of policing, but you’re not seeing the contribution to the community.”

Relenting to public pressure, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Sunday he would invest more in youth programs and cut the NYPD’s annual $6 billion budget. Although he hasn’t provided exact figures, the mayor said he won’t be reducing the budget by the $1 billion proposed by elected officials, advocates and the city’s comptroller, Scott Stringer. 

“We’re committed to seeing a shift of funding to youth services, to social services, that will happen literally in the course of the next three weeks,” de Blasio said. “But I’m not going to go into detail because it is subject to negotiation and we want to figure out what makes sense.” 

Saleem marched with her younger brother, friends, a teacher of hers from the NYC Salt Photography Program and other supporters from her Chelsea neighborhood. The Student Body President at Baruch High School, Saleem led her first demonstration after joining the Youth Activists-Youth Allies Network, an organization that teaches leadership skills to aspiring social justice activists. Her passion for social justice can be seen in her articles, one of which was about a lack of cultural appreciation in her high school.

“Tehreem did an amazing job planning [the demonstration] out as she did,” said her friend Camilla Harden. “Her speech was great. I’m really impressed. […] Justice is long overdue. We’re done. Everyone is done. We’re not doing this again. This time things really need to change.” 

A few days earlier, Saleem created a poster for the march, distributed it and posted it on social media. The demonstration was designed for people who were uncomfortable or unable to protest due to COVID-19. She wanted people to chant from their windows or in front of their buildings, similar to the 7 p.m. chant for essential workers. 

“It felt good [to protest] even though it wasn’t the largest protest I’ve been a part of,” said her brother, Amir. “It felt good because I know how much it meant to my sister.” 

After the group chanted and Saleem delivered her speech, the group marched down Eighth Avenue. “Where is the Love?” by Black Eyed Peas played on a portable speaker. “No justice!” she shouted, as the others followed with, “No peace!” Pedestrians and bikers clapped and gave a thumbs up to the crowd. The occasional car horn honked in approval. 

“I think this is probably the most important movement in the world right now,” said Scott Thode, Saleem’s photography teacher. “We all have to [support this movement] whether you’re black, white, Hispanic or whatever. […] It’s about being out there and saying this is wrong and we need to fix this.”

Saleem plans to continue going out every day to demonstrate so that more people from the neighborhood will join her. 

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