How Activists Brought Black Lives Matter to NYC’s Most Conservative Neighborhoods
By Ryan Songalia
August 4, 2020, 2:59pm
“It’s especially important with this movement to bring the message into these specifically conservative neighborhoods.”
QUEENS — When Black Lives Matter came to Bayside, they brought reading material. A poster board with comments printed out from the neighborhood’s Facebook group was placed in front of their table, alongside Rice Krispies treats and PPE kits, as they set up for their counter-protest of a pro-NYPD “Back the Blue” rally early last month.
Among the comments on the poster were anti-Asian statements, like a reference to “Kung Flu” and a post from someone calling Korean and Chinese people “cockroaches.” Others praised the so-called “Whitestone Wolverine,” who had attempted to run over protesters on the sidewalk and charged at them with a bladed weapon a short distance away about a month earlier. He was subsequently charged with attempted murder.
Bayside, like Whitestone, is an affluent and conservative neighborhood in northern Queens that borders Long Island. The well-kept lawns and absence of a subway station make it feel less like a part of New York City, and more like a small town suburb.
While Queens’ public image has been defined by the electoral victories of progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, there are still enclaves of support for Donald Trump in his home borough. This was one of the few areas in New York City he won in 2016.
“Everyone is well aware that the further out you go, you’re entering Trump territory,” said Jessica, who organized the counter-protest outside Crocheron Park with another woman, Kelly. “That’s where you want to say Blue Lives Matter, but it’s essentially anti-Black Lives Matter. That’s all this bullshit is.
(Jessica didn’t want her last name published due to threats she has already received. “The number of death threats via social media has sucked,” she said. “I'd hate to wonder what I'd have to deal with if they had my full name.”)
What started as a handful of people swelled to a diverse array of approximately 75. Their numbers were boosted by partnering with Warriors in the Garden, a collective of young activists based in Brooklyn who have been on the frontlines of protests against police brutality throughout the city. The Facebook page for the event had seen only about 20 or so committed to attend, though Jessica said they’d have marched even if it was just her and Kelly.
Though organizers initially wanted to occupy the parking lot, that was reserved for the pro-police contingent. The route approved by police would take them through the neighborhood’s Main Street, Bell Boulevard, before ending at the 111th Precinct.
After a few minutes of chants like “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “No justice? No peace!,” it was clear that the same sentiments that existed in the Bayside Facebook group were at loose in the real world. While a few honked their horns or clapped in support, others shouted insults along the route, trying to instigate an altercation from behind the police line.
After pausing to take a knee on Bell Boulevard, a decision was made: The march would head straight back to Crocheron Park. “[The police] were trying to guide our route, trying to tell us what we had to do,” Kelly said. “And that’s when Jessica and I decided, ‘Fuck this.’”
Upon approaching the park, the Black Lives Matter contingent say, they began citing crime stats and drug disparity numbers. That, said Dwreck Ingram, a member of Warriors in the Garden, is when they were spat on and had things thrown at them.
“That’s initially when it escalated and we got on our megaphones and we started spouting and listing off different facts and numbers and figures,” said Ingram. “It got highly emotional.”
Inside the gates, it looked much like a Trump rally you’d see in a battleground state.
People wore MAGA hats and various “blue line” designs. There were placards strewn about for Thomas Zmich, the Republican candidate for the 6th Congressional District, whose campaign promises include to “defend America by stopping socialism and preserving our history.” There were older people and children, men and women, but this crowd, though much larger than the BLM side, was far less diverse.
Once both parties were inside, the escalation didn’t take long. Another Warriors member, a 21-year-old named Yacine Diallo, was pushed by an NYPD officer during a face-to-face argument, and subsequently arrested. Another had his face coughed in by an NYPD officer as he walked by. Another man, who remains unidentified, struck a woman in the face with an open hand, but was not arrested.
“It’s important because people’s lives are at stake,” said that woman, named Kristen, about why she showed up despite being outnumbered. “This isn’t just a matter of opinion, like I like ketchup on my burger and you like mayo. People are actually dying over this and I will put my white self in front of the Black people and protect them, and stand up to the other white people and let them know, this shit doesn’t happen anymore.”
Scenes like this, while overshadowed by more high-profile actions in Brooklyn and Manhattan, have been commonplace in Queens as the national protests following the killing of George Floyd entered the suburbs. While neighborhoods like Astoria and Long Island City are reliably progressive, parts of Queens remain bastions of deep conservatism. Some locals are hoping to change that narrative.
The largest sustained protest movement in American history hasn’t passed by nearby Flushing, a growing enclave of Asian immigrant groups rivaling the more famous Chinatown of lower Manhattan. There, protesters have held up signs in Mandarin which translate to “We all come from the same tree so we should not fight," and in Korean that read “Black Lives Are Precious,” an approximation of Black Lives Matter. Another reads “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power,” a throwback to Asian solidarity with the Black Panthers in the 1960s.
Kate Zen, the interim director of Red Canary Song, has been active in advancing the cause of sex work decriminalization following the death of Song Yang in 2017 during a police raid, and speaking out against the so-called “walking while trans” loitering law that has been used to target transgender sex workers.
When a pro-NYPD rally was announced for July 3, Zen, along with organizations like the Flushing Anti-Displacement Alliance, MinKwon Community Center, and Queens DSA, decided to meet them head-on at the steps of the Queens library in Flushing.
The pro-NYPD rally, organized by 17 different tong xiang, or Chinese provincial, groups, outnumbered Zen’s contingent by as much as 3-to-1, but Zen persisted with her messaging, that police have targeted Chinese immigrants as well. Her fliers stated that the root cause of crime is economic, and provided statistics on racial bias in policing against Black people and Asians, drawing a link of commonality between their causes.
There’s anxiety among older Chinese immigrants who lived through the Cultural Revolution about the civil unrest in the country, Zen says. She tries to apply the messaging to how it impact Chinese immigrants in their everyday life, whether it’s delivery workers having their e-bikes seized by the NYPD, or street vendors in Chinatown and Times Square being fined and having their goods confiscated, or sex workers being arrested.
“We talk about how police are incredibly discriminatory, especially towards folks for whom English is not their first language,” said Zen. “Walking into the precinct they’ll be asking for something, they’ll be treated very dismissively if they can’t articulate their problems very well. Oftentimes language accessibility isn’t as good as it needs to be.
“We try to emphasize that the police are discriminating against Black people, but they’re also discriminatory against us, and this is a moment to hold police accountable because Asians are not served well by these police.”
Zen says a far greater struggle has been trying to counter misinformation on the social platform WeChat, which has worked with Chinese authorities to censor pro-democracy messaging that has stemmed from the protests in Hong Kong. She says the platform often amplifies Chinese translations of Fox News and other conservative outlets, and that fear mongering with videos of Asians being attacked by Black and Brown people has spread on the platform.
“We have to try to dispel some of these myths and really get people to see a different picture than what’s been painted,” said Zen. “That’s really challenging. Certainly a protest won’t get to the root of this problem, fighting echo chambers and media bubbles, that’s a huge issue. It’s the same thing that’s happening in the middle of this country.
“I don’t think we can counter the degree to which people have become reactionary and right wing in the last four years. Not easily, not quickly. It’ll take a long time for these conversations to have any impact.”
Middle Village, like Bayside, was Trump country in 2016. Sunday, July 19 was the fifth vigil that Katrina Colletti hosted at Juniper Park, just underneath the flagpole. When she first began holding vigils, random people would interrupt the eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence in knelt observation with racist and offensive outbursts, she says.
She says that people in the area had found her LinkedIn page and called up the animal hospital she worked at and told the doctor that she had mistreated their animals in an attempt to get her fired.
“On the other hand I’ve met a lot of people I wouldn’t have met otherwise from doing this that are really supportive and are starting to get more engaged, which is my purpose in starting this,” said Colletti.
None of that acrimony was on display this day as she and a dozen others wrote messages in chalk on the ground while 2Pac’s “Keep Your Head Up” played through Colletti’s phone. “If you’re sad about John but don’t support BLM, you need to think about that,” read one of the messages. Another, written by Katrina, read, “Change is coming, Middle Village.”
Change, she says, has to incorporate areas like Middle Village, to achieve progress.
“It’s especially important with this movement to bring the message into these specifically conservative neighborhoods. A lot of cops live here, cops are pocketed in these conservative neighborhoods,” said Colletti. “If the message isn’t brought here and is just reverberated in places where everyone agrees, then it’s not really gonna push the movement forward as much as it should be.”
About a dozen people were on hand by the time the featured speaker, Andrew Ocasio, arrived. Ocasio pulled out his phone to review the points he wanted to touch on, and then went into the story of how his mother, parole officer Sandy Guardiola, was shot and killed by a police officer in her bed during a 2017 wellness check.
“Everyone wants to clamor for Blue Lives Matter. Well, my mom wore blue,” said Ocasio. “Blue lives can’t matter when underneath it is this,” he says, pointing to his brown arm.
The passers-by mostly shot curious, if not particularly supportive, looks, though a few stopped to offer supportive messages. “This is dope, thank you for doing this,” says one woman, who had just finished her jog. Two other women stopped, and after witnessing the chalking, grab a piece of chalk to write their own message, before walking off. “Gives me a little more hope about having babies,” said one of them.
How one defines progress is a matter of perspective in these neighborhoods. Zen argues that funding should be reallocated from the NYPD towards housing, education and other sectors, which is line with the messaging around the “Defund NYPD” campaign in New York. Colletti said that, at least in Middle Village, a message of reform over defunding is more likely to stick, but conceded that incrementalism wouldn’t bring about the change she says is necessary.
For Ingram, who is Black, a complete “paradigm shift” in politics and other social systems would be required.
“At a very high level, it would be bringing attention to the vilification of Black bodies, ending police brutality and then restructuring systems in a way where people of color don’t get victimized by those same systems that are helping white supremacists,” said Ingram, as he held a bullhorn that he said was thrown to the floor and broken by one of the pro-NYPD demonstrators.
Moments after the chaos began in Bayside, the air came out of the confrontation. The Blue Lives Matter crowd poured out on to the streets, with one man on a bullhorn trying to shout down the BLM side, telling them, “No one cares what you think,” and another flipping the middle finger and shouting curse words. Another shouted at them that they were lucky that the police were there to protect them. The man seen on video striking Kristen rode out on his motorcycle, delivering a parting middle finger to the crowd.
Kristen had been inclined to press charges, though the local precinct declined to arrest the man, saying that they wouldn’t pursue charges, because the strike was with an open hand. The Black Lives Matter group decided to eventually visit the 111th Precinct, but a week later, to protest against that decision by the NYPD.
If the Bayside crew had their way, they’d like to be out on the streets each weekend, making their message heard.
“Anything to make them feel uncomfortable is a victory,” said Jessica. “For racist people in this community, get familiar with being uncomfortable. We’re here and not going anywhere.”
Correction: This story has been updated to accurately characterize who organized a protest in Flushing.