To be honest, I’ve never celebrated Juneteenth in my life. For most of my 29 years on this Earth as a Black man, the only spark that holiday has ever evoked in me is that it’s the 48-hour mark before summer officially begins here in New York — it’s a grace period to test out how you’ll be spending the next three months avoiding a heatstroke. Things are drastically different this time around for more reasons than one because of, well, 2020 -- but mainly due to the recent police killing of George Floyd that sparked our current state of social unrest.

Today, Juneteenth will be a day where many Black people across America will be protesting in the streets rather than grilling or (social distancing) on a beach. To get a better idea at what that might look like, I headed over to a local protest at McCarren Park in Brooklyn on Wednesday, June 17th, that’s been going on daily since George Floyd’s May 25th murder. What I saw definitely sparked something in me. However, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that is.

blm protests NYC

Photo by @DeeKnows for HNHH

It’s been nothing short of amazing to witness the historic number of people rallying across the world in protest of police brutality, an issue that for me personally goes back to the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo. Even at eight years old in a pre-social media era of the late ‘90s, I knew this was a situation way more important than my Pokémon cards or obsession with Big Willie Style at the moment. The term “41 shots” is still ingrained in the back of my memory, and now over 20 years later he’s joined by the likes of Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, and an unfortunately long list of countless others that aren’t even making headlines. I made it a mission to see what it’s like on the forefront for those out here currently protesting, and what I found out was that, while split on a lot of other current affairs, the fight for police reform and race equality altogether feels more united than ever here in New York City.

Black lives matter protester NYC

Photo by @DeeKnows for HNHH

"I’m here because I’m heartbroken and I want to make a change."

- Maya Flores, pictured above

A lot has changed since my last time marching in the streets to protest social injustice. I was 21 and beginning my writing career when Trayvon Martin, a Florida teenager who had turned 17 a few weeks prior, was killed on February 26, 2012 because of one major asshole who for no reason needs to be name-dropped here. All I kept thinking was that we could’ve been in high school together, and to think that young men like myself were being murdered because of our skin color got me super vexed. We marched from Union Square to 34th Street in Times Square, a mob of thousands being very vocal along the way about our disproval of the fact that Trayvon’s killer still remained free due to some “stand your ground” law. It felt amazing, but then something I didn’t expect happened: nothing.

The guy got off; the world went on. People honored him on his death anniversary, but otherwise Trayvon nor his family ever really got the peace they truly deserved. That situation jaded me from the whole topic of protesting, and instead I chose to pay respects from afar every time I saw our judicial system continue to display a lackluster response to Black people being murdered as the years went on. Things took a turn though when it became clear that one of our biggest threats as Black people, Black men in particular, ended up being the police.

nyc protesterPhoto by @DeeKnows for HNHH

"I feel like this is a beautiful thing, you know? Great change is happening, and I hope it just continues."

- Day-Day, pictured above

Every person you meet will give you a different perspective to describe their relationship with the cops. Ask a Black man and, while the stories may vary, feelings of uneasiness, tight-chested anxiety, and even mortifying fear are shared experiences. We’ve seen our brothers, dads, big cousins and uncles alike be arrested in front of our faces, or better yet our neighborhoods being circled every hour with pairs of menacing glares coming at you from the passenger and driver seat of a police cruiser. In short, many Black men carry around real-life trauma when it comes to their experiences with the police. Regardless of the reason for getting in a position to be arrested, it’s the treatment during and afterward that proves to be the problem.

If a white supremacist could shoot up a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine churchgoers in the middle of Bible study, and be treated in a manner akin to security escorting and a Number 7 on the menu at Burger King during his arrest, why the hell does it take deadly force to take down a reportedly inebriated Black man carrying a taser? Right or wrong in his actions, Rayshard Brooks deserved better that, and every other Black person as well that lost their lives due to an underlying prejudice that many cops share when it comes to apprehending us.

The protest at McCarren Park looked culturally different than what I expected, but I also had to consider where I was. Native New Yorkers who’ve lived long enough will always give you stories of the days when Williamsburg was nothing but autobody shops, factories, and abandoned buildings; the Willysburg of today is anything but that. In its place is a Millennial eutopia filled with commissioned graffiti art and the city’s best pre-COVID-19 nightlife — it’s a far cry from the side of Brooklyn where the relationship between the community and cops can often still feel tense. There was a side of me that felt like I should’ve been surrounded by more of my people, but another that understood that we need allies in this fight as well. The city of New York is one of the most diverse in the world, so of course that would display heavily during a protest taking place in a gentrified neighborhood similar to my own just a few stops away on the L train. 

NYC BLM protestPhoto by @DeeKnows for HNHH

"This is important to me because this is my reality. I am a Black person, and I’m a woman. My perspective may be different, but I have brothers so it’s personal."

- Jessica, pictured above

The faces and races of those in attendance varied, plus a newfound support from the LGBTQ community was present as well — all Black Lives Matter, indeed —much in part due to a Black Trans Lives Matter rally that drew thousands to the steps of Brooklyn Museum earlier this week. Although their plight is more in response to Trump’s recent regulation that would erase health care protection for transgender patients, it’s that shared sense of wanting to rally for a better world that helps unite all issues in the Black community into one overall problem worth addressing.

The only conversation that may need to be had with those organizing protests is where they actually need to take place across the city. As we marched through the architecturally-savvy neighborhood of Greenpoint in an effort to “wake people up” both literally and figuratively, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were in the right area — shouldn’t Canarsie be getting some love too since they more frequently experience the police brutality we’re literally marching for? The answer might simply be a matter of planning and safety, but it’s worth looking into if we really want lasting changes when it comes to policing and the justice system in urban communities overall.

Photo by @DeeKnows for HNHH

While it’s very apparent that we still have a ways to go on this oftentimes winding road towards revolution, people are definitely setting themselves up in the right positions and exercising the right mindset to make a change that hopefully will result in a lasting impact on the world. The emancipation of slavery may sound like a long time when thinking of it as 155 years ago, but it hits closer to home when you realize that’s only about four or five generations back in your family tree.

A lot of the social problems we deal with today are still in progress because it’ll simply take more than a century and a half of freedom to undue racial issues that slavery created for almost twice as long. My stance as a Black man in America will always be to value myself, my community, and stand up for it when it’s clearly being disrespected or devalued. I’m glad we now have many outlets, by the borough at that, to do so if we want on this historic Juneteenth. 

BLM NYC protesterPhoto by @DeeKnows for HNHH

"I’m 19, and I’ve been out here since the second day of protests. We just come out each and every day. We are here with intent, we are here with purpose and we’re here to make change."

- Clive Destiny, pictured above