NYC Celebrates Juneteenth Amid Weeks of Racial Justice Protests

Following a day of civil protests, vigils and marches, Juneteenth celebrants peacefully reveled and relaxed on Friday in historic Fort Greene Park. (Courthouse News photo / Josh Russell)

BROOKLYN (CN) — While daily demonstrations and protests continue across New York City into the fourth week after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, thousands of Brooklynites supporting the Black Lives Matter movement peacefully took to the streets on Friday to celebrate the Juneteenth. 

Also known as Freedom Day, Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of more than 250,000 slaves at the close of the Civil War. 

A century and a half later, a crowd of thousands — activists, allies and a handful of local politicians — gathered on Friday afternoon on the steps of Brooklyn Museum at the intersection of Eastern Parkway and Washington Avenue, near Prospect Park.

Speaking on a megaphone on the sidewalk in front of the museum, Josué “Josh” Pierre, a Haitian-born Democratic District Leader, called to cut $1 billion from the NYPD and reallocate those funds to the city’s public school system.

NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, the highest-ranking black elected official in New York, said the civil rights protests and demonstrations occurring across the country since George Floyd’s death are the result of a nation that has failed to address the historical context of slavery to this day.

“When we talk about Juneteenth, we are talking about American history,” said Williams, who as New York City Public Advocate, is first in line to succeed a mayor who is removed before the end of their term.

NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, the highest-ranking black elected official in New York, said the civil rights protests and demonstrations occurring across the country since George Floyd’s death are the result of a nation that has failed to address the historical context of slavery to this day. (Courthouse News photo / Josh Russell)

“Frankly speaking, if we had full understanding in this country of what Juneteenth has meant for this country, we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place,” Williams added.

“We are here because a country has refused to reckon with and atone for the original sin and refused to talk about how to fix the fact that we had an entire race enslaved in this country that was there simply to undergird the system of privilege that we have here in 2020,” he said.

“It should not have taken three weeks of unrest and how many people killed in all to celebrate Juneteenth. Equity and justice should not be revolutionary words. They are only revolutionary words in the system that is built on enslaved people, in a system that is about privilege,” Williams said on Friday afternoon.

Jabari Brisport, a black public school teacher and a Democratic Socialist candidate for state Senate, blamed capitalism for the nation’s original sin of slavery and the systematic racism that supplanted it.

“I stand before you today on Juneteenth as a proud black socialist,” Brisport said triumphantly from the steps of the Brooklyn Museum.

“Because I know, and we know, it was capitalism that brought black people to this country,” he said. “It was capitalism that fueled redlining in education and housing and health care.”

Phara Souffrant Forrest, another Democratic Socialist candidate on the June 23 ticket for the 57th Assembly District, followed Brisport on the steps of the museum.

Forrest, a union nurse, said Friday that she’s tired of “being a sacrificial lamb” along with other essential workers during the coronavirus crisis.

“I’m tired of the bullshit. I don’t want to hear about the half-assed excuses from our politicians,” she said. “I don’t want to hear about ‘We can, but.’ Who’s tired of these ‘buts?’”

“No more cuts to things that we actually need. Defund the fucking killer cops called NYPD,” she exclaimed to cheers from the multiracial crowd.

Last weekend, 15,000 people, predominantly dressed all in white, packed into the same location to rally in support of the Black Trans Lives Matter. Spray paint stencils of the movement’s name were speckled on sidewalks around the museum.

At the top of the steps on Friday, Brooklyn poet and organizer Jive Poetic recited “Go Home,” a meditation on the lessons and survival instincts that black parents pass on to their children to navigate a turbulent and often violent environment.

“Do not run, do not cry,” he said through a black and green bandana that covered most of his face. “Thin skin will only get you eaten alive in these streets.”

“We still do not know what happened to little ‘Tasha, still do not know who killed Rasta Mike, still do not need to not know what happened to you, too,” he continued.

“Have instincts for a reason, use them, use them like childhood streetlights, they will always tell when it is time to go home,” concluded the poem.

As thousands of pedestrians marched downtown from the museum toward Brooklyn Borough Hall, several hundred cyclists remained gathered by the museum for a 17-mile Freedom Ride honoring Juneteenth organized by the Good Company Brooklyn Bike Club.

Thousands gathered on Friday afternoon outside of the Brooklyn Museum to commemorate Juneteenth, a celebration of the emancipation of more than 250,000 slaves at the close of the Civil War. (Courthouse News photo / Josh Russell)

Dubbed “#RouteWithAPurpose,” their ride began at the steps of the Brooklyn Museum, traveled south to Coney Island and ended in the historic district of Fort Greene Park.

The route included refreshment stops at Black-owned restaurants along the way.

“Juneteenth is the emancipation of Black Americans. It is a day of freedom and independence,” said Andrew Bennett, the club’s founder. “The feeling we have when riding down a street on our bikes provides a sense of freedom, so we wanted to pay homage to it all on this day.”

The Juneteenth celebration commemorates the day Union troops, led by Major General Gordon Granger, arrived in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, to announce to slaves there that they were free.  

The announcement came more than two months after Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s surrender in Appomattox, Virginia, and two years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation — which changed the legal status of millions of people to free but effectively freed very few, if any slaves.

Over 90 marches, vigils and events were organized for this year’s Juneteenth, according to Justice For George Floyd NYC, a comprehensive guide to the dozens of daily protests and marches occurring every day in New York City over the past four weeks.

Thousands of celebrants congregated in the historic Fort Greene Park in Central Brooklyn in the golden hour just before sunset on Friday.

The Juneteenth celebration there was reminiscent of the Fourth of July with outdoor grilling, picnicking, and revelry filling the center of the park.

Hundreds of dancers throbbed on park’s hillside as DJs played jukebox staples of the black funk and soul canon like Ann Peebles and Cameo, along with selections of the contemporary Brooklyn Drill-style rap of Pop Smoke — a 20-year-old Brooklyn rapper who was killed during a robbery earlier this year.

Once an enclave to black bohemians and artists, the brownstone-lined namesake neighborhood is still home to the headquarters of filmmaker Spike Lee’s movie company, 40 Acres and a Mule.

The name of Lee’s production company is a direct reference to a Reconstruction-era promise to freed blacks that never came to be: property that was confiscated from Confederate landowners after the Civil War was supposed to be redistributed to black families in 40-acre plots.

Earlier on Friday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new city commission commemorating Juneteenth to understand the effects of structural and institutional racism in New York City.

The mayor said the Racial Justice and Reconciliation Commission will create a historical record of racial discrimination, with an emphasis on housing, criminal justice, environmental racism and public health.

“New York City is the safest big city in America with crime at all-time lows, yet communities of color bear the brunt of crime and incarceration,” he said. “Racism has been a pervasive and consequential force throughout the city’s history and we cannot go back to the status quo. We must use the past to inform and inspire the present, to promote the dignity and well-being of all New Yorkers, and their full inclusion in the life of our city.”

Two days earlier, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday for state employees. He also pledged to advance legislation to make Juneteenth an official state holiday next year.

“Although slavery ended over 150 years ago, there has still been rampant, systemic discrimination and injustice in this state and this nation, and we have been working to enact real reforms to address these inequalities,” the governor said.

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