Speech at Brookhaven Fire Department Protest 8/2/20

“I want to acknowledge all of you who came out here today to affirm the idea that there is no home for hate here, specifically that the Confederate flag should have no place on our fire trucks, no place in our fire department drill teams, and that our beloved  first responders, who are here to serve everybody at our moment of greatest needs, should not be defending or making excuses for displaying the Confederate flag in the course of their duties.

So I honor you for standing up to say this, for affirming the fact that there should be No Home for Hate here.

I want to also acknowledge the Brookhaven Fire Department who have put out two public statements apologizing for this display. Just today the Fire Department released a statement saying that they would be undergoing implicit bias training and that the persons most directly involved in this incident will be placed on suspension pending investigation

I commend the department for taking these steps, I really do. But I want to talk about what else needs to happen and why.

About three years ago, we found that the Holbrook Fire Department website had the Confederate flag all over it. The drill Team, had as their icon an image of General Robert. E. Lee holding the Confederate Flag and a Sabre. The website talked about how members of the squad, (folks who are still on the squad today) I might add,  in were handpainting images of the Confederate flag on their drill team helmets. This iconography was proudly displayed as part of the Holbrook Fire Department’s history. 

So about three years ago, we brought this to the Holbrook FD. We reached out to them, asking them what is the relationship between this department and the Confederate Flag? Why is this the icon that they deemed appropriate for their drill team? 

Are you aware, we asked them, that the Confederate Flag was created by the Southern states that broke away from the Union in the 1850s,  primarily over the issue of the enslavement of African people. Let me be clear: this was the flag of people who believeed that the enslavement of folks of African descent, people like me, should be continued and preserved, far into the future.

When the state of South  Carolina seceded in 1860, it explained clearly why it was breaking away from the union.  It did not speak about the tariff, or about states rights. It broke away, under this new flag ,”due to the increasing hostility on the part of non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery” and the because of the election of a president, Abraham Lincoln, who believed “that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.” This, clutching on to slavery, is why the Confederate flag was flown, and what was at the center of the Civil War.

Are you aware, we asked the Holbrook FD, that the Confederate Flag was revived in public life in the 1950s when the civil rights movement began making headway and pressing for an end to Jim Crow in the South?  This flag reappeared in national public life in a big way when President Harry Truman desegregated the U.S. armed forces and supported anti-lynching bills? This was the time in Missisippi people began waving the Confederate Flag and putting it up — it was a way to signal their oposition to the federal governments efforts to remove racism, racial exclusions and violence from the infrastructure of public life!

We brought this all to Holbrook Fire Department. Why are you flying this flag? When did this come to be the icon of your drill team? Why have other fire departments all throughout Long Island, never said a peep, about this issue. They see the flag flying, they see the helmets, they see the icons, when and why is this Confederate flag a part of fire department culture? We brought this all to them.

We HARDLY. COULD GET. A RESPONSE. 

We were fluffed off, told it was a personnel issue, and a misunderstanding, and the webpage was scrubbed. That was it. And here we are three years later.

So no, at this point, we are not going to accept that this was an isolated incident, an individual error, or a misunderstanding.

There is a relationship between Long Island’s Fire Department drill teams and the Confederate flag. This relationship is well-documented by the Frie Departments thesmelves. So we want to know: what is this about? When did these drill teams take on the Confederate flag as their icon and why? Has anyone from within spoken out about this, if not, why not? This is the investigation we are looking for, not one focused on a lone individual who made a poor choice, but one that dares to be honest about the reality that all is not well. 

No amount of implicit bias training will be sufficient to sidestep this very explicit history where a symbol of hate, of holding on to slavery, of holding on to  Jim Crow, has been been part of the culture of Long Island drill teams.

So before we can accept the apologies and the implicit bias training and the feel good slogans, please, let’s have the truth. What is this about? When we know what this relationship is and has been, we can talk then more honestly and in a more informed way about what type of changes are necessary to heal this breach and set a new course. 

And lastly, I want to talk about why this is not a trivial matter. Because of the kids. I am standing here for all the little girls and boys whose eyes light up with excitement and pride when the fire department trucks roll through. I’;m here for all the little girls and boys who look to the dire department and see heroes, whose first understanding of public service comes from this vision that there are people who sacrifice their time and their safety to help others in their hour of need. We owe it to these chidlren to do better and to demand better.

I’m very sorry this has happened, but now that it has, we have to make sure it never happens again. Let me be clear:  on Long Island, we do not want to see first responders, fire department trucks, flying the Confederate Flag on the street, at their drill team events, or on their webpages. And if there are people who are in these units, who cannot give this flag up, who cannot honor a fallen brother without waving this flag, who believe that this is such a part of their culture that they cannot do without it, those people need to do something else. We have to get to the root of this and decide that all our communities matter, all our children matter, and that right is always right.”

William Floyd Must Fall! Chanting Down Monuments to Violence in Eastern Long Island

Photo credit: WISTFUL HEART STUDIOS™ https://wistfulheartstudios.com/

 

 

At a busy intersection in one of Long Island’s most diverse communities, a statue of William Floyd stands. In Mastic, New York, William Floyd’s name is ubiquitous; it marks a major thoroughfare and the local high school. Shirley, an adjacent town, even considered rebranding itself as Floyd Harbor in the 1980s in order to burnish its image. The William Floyd statue has been standing on the corner since 2013, but for how much longer? During this summer of racial reckoning more than three thousand people signed a petition calling for the statue to come down. A counterpetition bearing a similar number of signatures insists that the William Floyd statue stay exactly where it is.

New battlefields are emerging as the chant Black Lives Matter comes to the suburbs and rural communities. In a country where anti-Blackness is stitched tightly into the national fabric, wherever the march route ends, there is always much more work to do. In Eastern Long Island, this summer’s Black Lives Matter marches lead directly to the base of the William Floyd statue—among other places.

William Floyd was the only Long Islander to sign the Declaration of Independence. He risked life, land, and liberty to support a revolution that upended the 18th century British empire. William Floyd was also, from cradle to grave, a slaveowner and a land-grabber. The monument honoring him was erected in Mastic not in 1850, or even in 1920, but in the year 2013. This is a 21st century monument, installed on municipal land, with the support of the Suffolk County government. That no elected official questioned the propriety of installing a statue of slaveowner in the middle of a diverse community illuminates a simple reality:  memorializing William Floyd in heavy metals is a question of who has power and place.

There is little disagreement about the facts of Floyd’s life in late eighteenth/ early nineteenth century New York; it is the meaning of this history that is contested. The Floyd plantation was built on the dispossession of the Unkechaug people from their land and the enslavement of African people. These acts of violence were heritage for William Floyd.  According to Brookhaven Town records, his great-grandfather, Richard Floyd I, was buying and selling enslaved people in 1672. Young William inherited captive Africans from his father and also bought others. Ten years after signing the Declaration of Independence, William Floyd “purchased a boy named Philip.” It was never a truth self-evident to William Floyd that many of those around him– the Unkechaug “servants” that his family kept in a tight web of control and the enslaved Africans on his plantation—were deserving of any measure of freedom.

By 1790 when many of his local peers opted to emancipate their captive Africans, according to the Federal Census, William Floyd held 14 people in bondage; he was the largest slave owner in Brookhaven town. Beyond the particular individuals (known only by first name in his ledger) held on his plantation, William Floyd’s fortune was deeply entangled with “the peculiar institution.” The Floyd plantation was a node in what historian Jennifer L. Anderson calls “the Atlantic plantation complex”:  enslaved Africans working on Long Island plantations produced wheat sold to Caribbean plantations in order to feed enslaved Africans producing sugarcane for the “insatiable grinding mills.” William Floyd’s relationship to slavery is not a matter of the burial sites or the diets of the people he held in bondage until their last breath; slavery was the lifeblood of his livelihood, wealth, his political standing.  Simply put, William Floyd was not a champion of freedom for all of us.

By way of excuse, statue supporters say that William Floyd was a man of his time — which is a way to not say that William Floyd was a white man of his time. More precisely, to not say that William Floyd was a white propertied man of his time whose wealth and political status depended on owning the bodies and futures of other men and women of his time.

In saying that William Floyd was a man of his time they do not say that there were other men in this time. Floyd’s time was also the time of Denmark Vesey, an enslaved man in South Carolina who plotted a rebellion to burn the plantation economy of Charleston and its plantocracy to the ground. Denmark Vesey also had something to say about freedom.

William Floyd’s time was also the time of Elias Hicks. Born within 50 miles and ten years of Floyd, Elias Hicks was a farmer, landowner, and Quaker who became an abolitionist. At the age of thirty, Hicks began to free the human beings he held as captives and spent the rest of his life preaching, teaching, and writing against the evil of slavery in America. Hicks insisted that an economic strategy, a complete boycott of slavery-associated goods, was needed to topple slavery.  On his deathbed, it is said, Elias Hick insisted that no cotton blanket, a product of slavery, should be used to cover his body for warmth or as a shroud. Elias Hicks was also a man of this time.

Those who insist that William Floyd be venerated are wedded to the notion that African enslavement and indigenous dispossession are collateral damage in a grand and glorious narrative of (white) American achievement. In this narrative, the success and wealth of Europeans and their descendants matter more than the lives of others. This, by definition, is a racist ideology.  “They teach us that, yes, he was a slave owner, but he did all these other great things. He’s presented as this complex hero. And if you feel some sort of way about that, you’re the problem. It’s like we are being gaslighted.” So says one the organizers supporting the statue removal. But slavery was not just an unfortunate detour on the road to the Declaration of Independence. Slavery is violence; the destruction of families, rape, forced labor, branded flesh sizzling, the ocean saltiness swallowing up generations. Settler dispossession of indigenous land was not an unfortunate historical outcome. It is genocide, the destruction of whole clans, histories, and knowledge traditions; it is a child’s brain matter smashed against rocks. The impulse to justify this violence as necessary, even heroic, is exactly what must be torn down, brick by brick, and word by word.

‘Where does it end?’ critics of the statue’s removal demand. ‘What will happen if we stop idolizing purveyors of racist violence and justifying their ideologies?”  Well, hopefully we will build a more perfect union! Antiracism, in the late twentieth/early twenty-first century, is, too often, a dish best served lukewarm. Ours is a society reluctant to depart from the institutions and traditions bequeathed us by violence even while fervently professing a desire for healing. In this country we stand as pillars of salt, facing backward frozen while seeking forward motion. Chanting down statues is not a substitute for legislative, economic, or political transformation, but we should not underestimate this powerful ritual. Breaking the idols to racism that casually dot our public landscape is an act long overdue. When the William Floyd statue in Mastic falls, it will not end the legacy of this or any other “founding father.” It will be a beginning. Statue removal, as much as statue erection, is a public history act; it is a way to burrow deeper into a complicated national past and make sense of it, together.

Click HERE for more information about the William Floyd Must Fall Vigil & Protest on August 22, 2020 in Mastic, NY. 

 

Reflections at Stony Brook University Town Hall, June 18, 2020

On this eve of Juneteenth I’m sharing the video of my remarks at a Stony Brook University town hall about systemic racism. The text follows:

 

 

 

 

My name is Abena Asare and I’m Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History in the Dept. of Africana Studies.

We meet today in the midst of an uprising against state-sanctioned violence targeting Black and African American people in the United States. This uprising is focusing on transforming systems of racial violence and the individuals and institutions that defend, benefit from, and justify these systems. This is an uprising watered by the blood of Black folk, Black trans people, men women and children who have been lynched at the hands of the state. We sit in the shadow of families and community members who have HAD to organize, and march, and protest and give public statements, in the midst of their mourning.

So we say their names! Rayshard Brooks, Maurice Gordon,  Tony McDade, Elijah McCain, Sandra Bland, Philandro Castile, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Korryn Gaines. We say their names to make the state’s violence visible. We also say their names because each of these losses ruptured a whole world; these were unique, inividual human beings who were relatives, mothers, friends, loved ones. Each is irreplaceable. These are not hashtags or bodies, each of these precious ones was someone’s whole world.

Even as we say their names we realize that we cannot finish; the list is just too long. Those cut down explicitly and covertly by our state keep coming even as we weep, and get our degrees, hold our zoom meetings, and raise our children in fear and hope. This problem of state lynching which is a manifestation of society’s investment in morbid anti-blackness is not a matter of a few bad apples on the police force, or a particularly sympathetic victim, a particularly brutal death; we are speaking today about the routine, deadly violence that has kept the wheels of this country’s economic and political system churning as it has for the past 400+ years. What does it mean to say a enough! Enough already.

We begin by taking stock of where we are.  I need to acknowledge the decades of organizing and labor that have led to this current moment. We need to know that the Black Lives Matter movement, founded by 3 Queer Black Women n 2013 is a reclaiming and reignition of the Black Freedom Movement that extends back to the 1970s to the Black Panther Party, to  SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960,  to Ida B Wells and her campaign against lynching in the 1920s, to Frederick Douglass who asked in the 1850s what to the slave is the 4th of July, a question that fundamentally is not about where Black people fit into the nation, but really about where the United States fits into the annals  of global inhumanity.

So where are we?  In the past three weeks, the Minneapolis City Council voted to disband the city’s police dept and instead fund public safety system.

The University of Minnesota has also  severed all ties with the police department.

Increasingly, folks around this nation are willing to acknowledge that pouring money into  police state, does not make us safer, but that it does make the country more unequal and definitely more deadly for Black and Brown, poor, and disabled folk. More people around the country are beginning to step towards a realistic vision of public safety.

This past Saturday, 15,000 ppl marched through Brooklyn to protest this state’s violence against Black trans women who face disproportionate levels of harm both at the hands of police in the streets.

Racist statues are tumbling into the sea, pulled by the hands of people who believe that we need other iconography, others images for our public spaces.

At the same time, over these past week, we have seen police assaulting protestors in our urban areas.  We are living through a time where police are pepper spraying crowds of protestors in the midst of  a deadly virus that specifically attacks the human respiratory systems.  This should be considered a crime of war and must be stopped immediately.

What I’m saying is that this fight is far from over; this is not the time for platitudes and complacency. Not at all.  This is a moment when each of us, individually and corporately are being invited to take a look at our power, where did we get it from, what is the nature of the power that we hold, and what do we want to do with it.

Which brings me to Stony Brook and to this meeting today. We should be clear about on thing. Many of the institutions that have been quick or slow to release statements declaring their support for Black LiVes  have yet to do anything at all to address the  systemic racism that plagues their institution. And no a panel, or a town hall does not count as something.

It may be convenient to wring our hands about about George Floyd, but we must acknowledge that there is a man called Akbar Rodgers, a Freeport, LI man, not too far from here, last December 2019, who was beaten and assaulted within an inch of his by the police in Suffolk County. We have to acknowledge Jeffrey McClure a 26 year old man who was shot and killed by the police in Northport just a few days when his father called 911 for psychiatric help.  In Suffolk County, black and brown people make up just 17% of the population, but account for 53% of felony arrests. In fact, the US Justice Dept is currently reviewing Suffolk’s record of traffic stops and race because the data is so egregious. (I want to thank Nia Adams of the Long Island Progressive Coalition for some of these statistics). So what is Stony Brook University’s relationship to the Suffolk County PD? Stony Brook is the largest emplyer, the economic hub of the region, what does it mean for our institution to lead in saying our budget and our practices should reflect our values?

When university release these  Black Lives Matter statements  we must ask how these relate to the ongoing “reopening plans” that do not take into account how Black and other communities of color are being affected by the COVID 19 epidemic. My colleagues Joseph Pierce and Odalis Hernandez in the UUP have written an open letter insisting that the question of reopening and how it is done IS a racial justice issue, is an equity issue, and that we must protect the most vulnerable members of our community as we make these plans. I would encourage you…

As we wring our hands about George Floyd we would do well should consider our own university’s links to prison labor. In 2019, Stony Brook University and the hospital spent nearly 40,000 on prison-made goods. Thanks to historians Rob Chase and Yalile Suriel for these numbers. Our institution is tied up in our national nightmare of racial violence. The question is what are we willing to do about it.

So

The cry Black Lives Matter is not only about the police as an isolated institution; the cry Black Lives Matter is looking at systemic racism and the way it is reproduced and protected and furthered by a number of institutions across society. This country, has historically, in law and in practice, valued property and wealth, and the need to defend these, more highly than it has valued the lives of many of us within its borders–specifically Black, Brown, and indigenous folk. In a country located on stolen land, built through stolen labor, the cry Black Lives Matter in 2020 is a call to do the necessary work of imagining and pursuing a future that is not forever trapped within our violent racialized national history.

 

Food Crisis in Suffolk County, NY

 

People from all walks of life are being hit hard by the COVID crisis. Many in our communities are seeing their income drastically reduced, losing their jobs, and/or facing health crisis with attendant financial costs during this time. Individuals and families throughout Suffolk County are struggling to secure food. Some in our communities do not have the means to buy food for themselves  and their families. Others may have the means to purchase food, but due to age, health status, illness, pregnancy, transportation difficulties, distance from stocked supermarkets, federal restrictions on using SNAP benefits for delivery costs, and other factors are unable to secure the necessary food.

Historically marginalized communities are facing disproportionate harm in this public health emergency. Throughout Suffolk County, indigenous, African American, Latino, immigrant, low and fixed income, undocumented, and elderly communities, among others, are facing particular hardship because of already existing vulnerabilities in our nation’s social services, labor, and health systems. Homeless and unhoused persons, as well as families with disabilities face new obstacles in their ability to secure food and medicine. As a region with high levels of income inequality, and a history of racial and economic segregation, Suffolk County’s disparities may be deepened because of the COVID crisis.  The temporary closure of schools, churches, non-profits and other key community institutions has left many families increasingly dependent on a limited and shrinking set of networks for access to necessary goods and services—including basic nutrition.

In our region, the COVID-19 crisis has put unprecedented stress on our emergency food aid systems. Food pantries and food banks throughout Suffolk County are facing overwhelming amounts of need and continue to issue urgent calls for donations and volunteers. School districts throughout Long Island have become emergency food access points by providing “grab-n-go” lunches to ensure that families who rely on freed and reduced breakfast and lunch continue to receive nutrition throughout the unprecedented period of school closure. New networks of mutual aid have sprung up throughout the island to respond to this reality, and diverse community organizations have had to quickly take up the problem of food aid because of the urgent levels of need among their members and clients.

We have been heartened and inspired by the heroic efforts of long-established organizations and newly developed mutual aid networks alike. There have been generous outpourings of donations of money, time, and food as people throughout Suffolk strive to take care of another.

AND YET, existing systems are not sufficient. We have seen the pictures of the long lines of cars wrapping around block by block when food pantries have sporadically offered drive- by pickups. We know that individuals take risks when they entrust their EBT cards to others for shopping because SNAP benefits cannot be used to pay grocery delivery fees. We know that many people with disabilities are unable to wear the masks required in public shopping establishments and unable to wait on queues to receive food. We know that many in our communities are unable to navigate the process of finding a food pantry that is open, speaks their language, and can meet their needs. We see people involved in mutual aid efforts contract COVID-19 and sicken as they serve their community.

We do not know how long it will be until Suffolk County is open for business once again. We do not know how long our public and private schools may be closed or what types of shelter in place, quarantine or isolation policies may be enacted to protect human life in our area. Without maintaining adequate nutrition for all throughout this crisis period, the eventual recovery that will come to Suffolk County will leave large swaths of the community behind.

Local food and justice advocates call upon county, local, and regional governments to work together to implement an emergency food aid delivery system in Suffolk County. It is prudent to implement and publicize this capacity now, knowing that foresight, preparation, and community participation will be critical to the efficient function of any such initiative.

Sign here to join our petition for a county-wide emergency food hotline.