On May 30th, as demonstrations began cropping up all over New York City to protest the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Rev. Al Sharpton and his National Action Network held a rally and a march on Staten Island.
“[It] felt like it was a photo-op,” said 23-year-old local entrepreneur Kevin Walton from Mariners Harbor. “It felt like people just came to say, ‘Hey this is wrong, this is bad, we did this together, and then we'll go on about our lives.’”
According to one of the protesters, 21-year-old Isaiah Buffong from Port Richmond, it felt like a political attempt, particularly from older people, to manage the protesters.
“[They] were like, ‘Guys this is where we've been; come with us now,’” he recounted. “We didn't vibe with that, so as we — and it was about 50 of us — were walking back down Bay Street, we could still see the unrest that the collective had.”
So after local politicians and community leaders left the NAN march, young people continued the protest from the 120th Precinct in St. George to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
During an impasse with the NYPD and New York State troopers, a disparate group of young Black people confronted the police. The protesters spoke directly to NYPD Assistant Commanding Chief for Staten Island, Kenneth Corey, about past cases of police brutality on Staten Island, particularly noting the 2014 killing of Eric Garner, which became a flash point for police abuse, and the 1994 killing Ernest Sayon in Park Hill.
Though this confrontation didn’t turn violent, the anger from the protesters led to some tension that attendees felt slightly muddied their message.
“In my opinion, we weren’t really handling ourselves the right way,” Walton said.
Ranti Ogunleye, Cornerstone Director of the Gerard Carter Center, then offered his space to some of the young protesters so they could create a concrete place where they thought local activism should be.
“The passion was all there,” Ogunleye said. “It was just getting them into a place where they can flesh it out and I provided my home.”
Days later, several protesters from the group, all in their 20s, formed the Young Leaders of Staten Island (YLSI) — a group advancing social justice in Staten Island.
Though the members of YLSI broadly represent the North Shore from Mariners Harbor to Stapleton and Park Hill, many of them were already friends or “friends of friends.”
Buffong said that one reason the group formed is that many Black residents feel ignored by those who are supposed to advocate for them. He recalled that during a recent public safety hearing in June, NYPD First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker “spoke for two hours and then as soon as it came to people giving their testimonies, he left.”
On June 5th, YLSI organized over 500 protesters to march from Park Hill to the 122nd Precinct in New Dorp. Two days later, NYPD estimates reported that the group led one of Staten Island’s largest public protests by assembling approximately 1,800 people outside the landmark Conference House in Tottenville.
While these marches were initially organized to demand justice for Black people killed by the police, YLSI also began discussing tangible reforms.
“We talked about legislation — [repeal of] section 50-A — before it was passed,” Walton, one of YLSI’s members, explained, referring to the now defunct state law that shielded disciplinary records of officers. “We talked about voter registration, about the census, about getting out to the different town hall meetings and holding elected officials accountable.”
The group also wants to rectify racial disparities in the NYPD’s ranks. They point out that despite the NYPD comprised of 55% people of color, only 11 % of high-ranking officers are Black.
Tarlice Harris, a 22-year-old member of YSLI, suggested that over-policed communities could instead empower unarmed, non-law-enforcement personnel to maintain public safety. Eventually, this combination of reforms is intended to end the “Million Dollar Block” system, the concept in which the government cumulatively spends $1 million per city block to incarcerate residents.
“If [that] money was spent into intervention and prevention not only will it address the social ills, but it will begin to break down the structures of systematic oppression,” Ogunleye, who has acted as a much older mentor for YLSI, explained.
William Bailey, a 29-year-old from West Brighton, stressed that the group’s goals extended beyond police reform, to “apply pressure [on elected officials] for everyone who looks like us.”
To that end, the group has been hosting recurring “Burgers and Ballots” events that serve as both voter registration and census completion drives. The first one was held on Juneteenth.
Buffong noted that YLSI’s geographic reach allows “Burgers and Ballots” to change locations and bring the community engagement directly to the people.
To date, YLSI has registered 125 people for the census and 85 people to vote. The first “Burgers and Ballots,” which was held at the Carter Center in Stapleton, and was one the borough’s most successful single census completion drives, with 80 registrants. The event even attracted supporters from other parts of the borough, including 25-year old Nicolette Suberska, who travelled from Eltingville to show support.
“YLSI made sure everyone was enjoying themselves and remaining safe and socially distant,” Suberska said. “[They] also partnered with a number of neighborhood organizations whose booths were present for information.”
One of their local partners, La Colmena Community Job Center in Port Richmond, hosted their July 12th event.
YLSI’s racial justice work, in particular, has also attracted interest from Staten Island’s almost exclusively white South Shore. Harris thinks this support is as much indicative of the group’s tangible successes as it is of YLSI’s dedication to peace.
“When I was marching there was this guy screaming some racist things to this Black lady,” she said. “I had to tell her ‘this is peace, this is love, and we're not here for this; don't focus on that.’”
Restraint in the face of racism has, unfortunately, been instrumental during the protests.
“For our June 5th protest, when we went to the 122nd [Precinct], one of our main promoters was getting death threats,” Michael Animodi, a YLSI member, said. “People on the South Shore were saying, ‘if you come over here, we're going to have our guns ready; I dare you to come and loot my house.’”
Death threats – which have been accompanied by white supremacist counter protests – pose a danger to the activists, but the older Black residents have still been heartened by their work so far. Ogunleye pointed out that many older residents, including local civil rights activists, have been impressed by the unprecedented solidarity of the community YLSI has so quickly developed. Walton noted that many of the older activists who have previously seen white supporters “come out of guilt” are surprised by what’s seen as a “spirit of love.”
“I've even had old civil rights activists, our elders — seventy years old, eighty years old — telling me they've never seen this,” he said. “They said before they saw [white] people come out of guilt and now it’s out of love.”
In channelling this support, YLSI’s event today is a first of its kind march along Staten Island’s former Underground Railroad route from the Sandy Ground Settlement — the oldest continuously inhabited free Black settlement in the country. On August 1st, the “Path of Liberation” Celebration participants will march 10 miles from Sandy Ground to Port Richmond in an effort to connect Staten Islanders with a relatively unknown part of the borough’s history.
A movement this young will likely encounter challenges as it continues to develop, but the larger Island community sees these young people as the most equipped group in quite a while.
“Sometimes the climate chooses the type of children that are born, so if you're in turmoil the type of children you will bring into the world are warriors,” Ogunleye stated. “I think these young men and women are like warriors that are equipped now with knowledge and have the energy, and they’re humble enough to take the little wisdom we have and flip it.”