ITHACA, N.Y. — Last weekend, more than 200 people involved with the Black Lives Matter movement marched from the Ithaca Commons to Beverly J. Martin Elementary school.
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The march, organized by Cornell’s Black Students United, ended at the school and concluded with a three-hour teach-in discussion about the forms of violence and insecurity faced by people of color in Ithaca. The event was designed to raise awareness and inform about the struggles of people of color in the local community.
Bobby J. Smith II is a graduate student at Cornell and an active community organizer in Ithaca’s Black Lives Matter movement.
The following is a transcript of an interview with him.
Q: What does “Black Lives Matter” mean to you?
A: “It’s a way of life, a movement to honor and preserve the lives of black people who have been [historically] disadvantaged, by structural inequities, especially in food, prison and school systems. It’s about the community working together and talking about the issues.”
Q: Why did you get involved with the Black Lives Matter campaign in Ithaca?
A: “A group of people began to mobilize in Ithaca to talk about Black Lives Matter and I wanted to get involved and see how we can address the problems that communities face.”
Q: What was your role in the march on Saturday (October 24)?
A: “I organized the march, coordinated volunteers and logistical plans with the help of a small committee.”
Q: What prompted the march?
A: A group of people got together at the end of the summer, in wake of the Black Lives Matter convening in Ohio and the South Carolina Church massacre, in Ithaca to discuss having an open-community conversation on Black Lives Matter and how it impacts Ithaca and from that meeting we began organizing the march/protest/event.
Q: What was the purpose of the teach-in part of the protest?
A: “We held the teach-in to think about the actions and inactions that are taken in terms of racial equality and what we can actually do to engage and fight these issues. The teach-in was specific to Ithaca, but we also wanted to use it to address the greater injustices and inequalities across America to show that Ithaca is not an exception to these issues. Regardless of race, sexuality, gender, we wanted people to get together in the spirit of a teach-in stemming from similar activities developed by the Civil Rights movement and really talk about what was going on.”
Q: Do you think the march and teach-in was a success?
A: “Attendance really surpassed my expectations, I knew we were gaining momentum, but to have 300+ people come out really surpassed my expectations. I had never seen that many people mobilize and organize in Ithaca and it was amazing to see this many people take action for Black Lives Matter and express their interest for the movement.”
Q: Do you think there is anything about Ithaca in particular that contributed to the success?
A: “Definitely. The Ithaca community came out in numbers to show up to this event. It was really attended by people in the community who wanted to find out what Black Lives Matter was and learn about what the movement is all about.”
Q: Do you think Ithaca is unique in some way in terms of these issues?
A: “Not at all, I don’t think Ithaca is special in the way it address these issues, but Ithaca is unique in the way it talks about these issues. People say that Ithaca is ten-square miles surround by reality, and it takes a while to break out of that way of thinking and talk about these issues, but once the community does, they really start the express a desire to learn and do something about it.”
Q: How do you think the teach-in portion of the event went?
A: “I think people gained from the teach in. The breakout groups allowed intimate conversation about issues of rights, food justice, gentrification, and holistic community support in Ithaca. The purpose of the event was to say that these things are happening right here in Ithaca and I think that people were definitely having more and more conversations about what is happening.
Q: Is there anything you’d change if you could do it again?
A: “Honestly at this point I don’t think I would change anything. What this shows is that you don’t have to be an official organization to come together and talk about the problems in your community. However, true success of this event will be measured by how much action begins to take place in Ithaca.”
Q: What kind of changes would you like to see on a local level?
A: “I would like to see more action taken. Action can be defined however people want, but I’d like to see people talking about these issues more and thinking critically about engagement that impacts and empowers the community. I’d like to see us all come together at a table and have a conversation about actions.”
Q: What is the next step you’re planning to take?
A: “We’re going to have a follow up meeting in a couple of weeks to talk about our next step. We want to remind people that actions can take any form and to join existing organizations that are already doing this type of work in Ithaca. We want to talk about how the event went and report on the action items that we discussed at the teach-ins. Because of the way Ithaca is set up we need to move past the idea that Ithaca and the university are separate communities.”
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