Protesting in the era of Covid-19: A student perspective

A Black Lives Matter Solidarity and Peace Vigil was held in Phoenicia Park on July 26, organized by a group of local residents. (Photo by Violet Snow)

I first found out that Phoenicia was hosting a Black Lives Matter vigil a week before the event. It’s easy to feel like you should be doing more when you’re just sitting in your room reposting political content. But protests get results; the past few months have shown that.

 I had wanted to take part in one that took place a half-hour or so from my small town. Since I’m close to a family at a high risk for the coronavirus, being in a tightly packed crowd of sweaty, yelling people read like a sadistic joke. 

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This vigil, however, I could do. We wouldn’t be marching or yelling, we would be sitting six feet apart and listening to speakers, poets and musicians from the community. I could finally go out and join the fight for change in person. I felt proud to be attending. 

Later that day the anxiety started setting in. 

Despite living in a congressional district that is almost evenly split between the two political parties, it sometimes feels like the liberals around here are drowning in red. While volunteering for my congressman in 2018, I became used to having doors slammed in my face and walking up front paths lined with Trump and Blue Lives Matter flags.

In my small high school, conservative teenagers say the n-word, tear down posters for the school’s gay-straight alliance and flush them down toilets, use anti-gay and anti-Jewish slurs, shout their beliefs in class apropos of nothing, call liberals slurs and “snowflakes,” and make school a challenge for members of marginalized communities. I am grateful for the fact that I go to a school with some who share my beliefs, that the school professionals handle these issues with respect and dignity, and that we flipped a congressional seat in 2018 with a candidate I was glad to support. 

But it still can be hard to deal with our divided community. When I started thinking about sitting in a small park with no cell service, I was nervous. My mind spun nightmarish images that clashed with the pride I felt for the community that organized such an event. As we drove to the event, I imagined a mob of counter-protestors, violence, yelled threats — things that I knew were unlikely, but have also happened in this country and hurt people. 

Thinking about the future

The anxiety didn’t last. I was given a chance to interview the organizers of the event, Maryanne DiPalma and Klaus Buchele, as well as two of the speakers, Deborah Zuill and Mikaela Tali. When I asked Ms. DiPalma why she decided to hold a vigil instead of a protest or march, she said, “We want people going home thinking about how they can contribute to improving conditions.” 

This differs from a protest, where the attendees come with a goal in mind and march to get the attention of people who otherwise wouldn’t fight for that goal. The vigil was meant to make the attendees be the ones to think about how to go forward, maybe even learning and changing their opinions because of the event. 

Being too afraid clashed with what I had been telling all my social-media followers alongside every Black Lives Matter post, petition or informative article: that one voice, one body, one vote really can make a change, that every person counts. This vigil was the first chance I would get to show up in person and stand for what I believe in outside of cyberspace.

The vigil

The vigil took place in a little park off the main road. When you’re standing there, you feel like you’re being cupped by mountains. People were scattered across the field, on blankets or lawn chairs, holding BLM flags or wearing BLM shirts. Everyone had on a mask; it was the first time I saw 100 percent of people taking those instructions seriously. A breeze whistled through the trees, carrying voices that echoed off the rock face on one side of the park, making them thunderous and powerful as they reverberated back to the crowd.

The speeches were inspiring, the poetry amusing, and the singing beautiful and ethereal. One man spoke on behalf of his Kingston youth group, about what it has been like to exist during this harrowing time. Deborah Zuill spoke as Sojourner Truth, whom she has portrayed for years. (Stone House Day, a local event at which Ms. Zuill performs, was cancelled for the first time in years because of the coronavirus).

Toward the end of the event, the organizers called for silence. It fell over the crowd, and we stood still, listening to far-off bird calls and thinking about George Floyd, for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time George Floyd had a knee on his neck.

I had done this before, prompted by viral social-media posts. At home, or wherever we happened to be, we were asked to use the silence to reflect on privilege, Floyd’s life, the Black Lives Matter movement. So I had set a timer on my phone, and I stared at my posters and jewelry collection and decorative pillows and other bedroom accoutrements.

The experience had felt important and transformative, but it didn’t compare to what it was like when over 200 people fell silent at once. I saw people with their heads bowed. People sprawled across the grass, serious, stony-faced, or sad. I heard birds chirping and kids laughing as they played on the playground, cognitive dissonance described by a sound. I lowered my head, watched the wind blow the grass, and thought. 

What I thought about

I thought about George Floyd’s family. What would they say, seeing the impact they’ve had on an entire country? Is it fair to put the credit or the pressure of the resurgence of this movement on them? 

I thought about politics. Are the bonds that unite us really stronger than the ones that break us apart? It doesn’t feel like it. Because here I am, afraid of physical harm coming to me from people opposing a peaceful vigil to support black voices — even though it didn’t happen, racism and violence are prevalent in my life, and, I would say in the lives of all Gen-Z activists who stay informed about these issues. Because here we all are, we being my family and friends and political party, ready to go vote for a candidate we don’t respect, because it is our last, desperate hope to defeat the current leader (leader being in position name only, an accident of the electoral college system.) 

I often feel like I’m done hearing from the other side, done fighting in the comments section of an Instagram post, and I feel like my time is better spent educating people I can actually reach, sharing resources and fighting alongside them so we make the changes we want to see through the sheer number of people voting blue. I thought about how the fact that black lives matter has been so politicized that when thinking about it I automatically associate it with politics. People can’t stand up for what should be a humanitarian cause without critics drawing attention to the political implications. 

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When the silence ended, it felt like the entire field took a breath. I didn’t know what other people had thought about, but I knew we had done what the organizers and speakers had wanted us to do — come together.

After the vigil

This kind of protest felt different to me from the women’s marches in 2016, which my classmates and I attended, bright-eyed and fresh to the world of politics, feeling like change was just around the corner. Different from the protests on the news, full of people who know change is far from around the corner, rightfully angry and done with the government. 

At this event, we were resigned and fed up, but respectful. Angry that we still need to argue that black lives matter, but happy to hear some new voices. Thrilled to be among neighbors, but uneasy about getting too close. This is the new reality, what protest is like, what living in a pandemic is like. 

There is so much I would change about the world right now if I could. But this kind of event, where it seemed to me like everyone in attendance wanted to become a smarter, more nuanced thinker, a better community member, a true ally, someone who can really help the Black Lives Matter movement? That I would keep.

Sophie Frank
Junior, Onteora High School

There is one comment

  1. Catherine Budd

    Wow!
    I found Ms. Frank’s letter to be instructive, insightful, moving, and impeccably-written.
    I’m a guy in my 60s. When ‘they’ say that our youth our future, I am heartened to know that Ms. Frank is part of that future.

    David B.
    Saugerties

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