Teens and Twenty-Somethings Take The Helm In Protests To Demand Racial Justice On East End

Hundreds of people participated in a protest on Friday in Sag Harbor against police brutality and racism. ben parker photo

By Alec Giufurta

After seven large-scale protests swept across the South Fork last week, organizers are now looking forward, strategizing about how to ride the wave of nationwide momentum for racial justice. But on the South Fork, these organizers look different than their national counterparts: they’re younger.

At least five of the South Fork’s protests were either organized or co-led by a teenager, or a 20-something. From Bridgehampton’s June 2 demonstration — one of unprecedented magnitude for the East End — to East Hampton’s Sunday march of nearly 1,000 people, younger organizers drew crowds of younger generations.

In Sag Harbor, more than 300 demonstrators gathered Friday for a protest organized by a newly formed local anti-racism youth-coalition: East End Against Hate, which, as of Tuesday, had 95 local high school and college student organizers coordinating to plan protests and events.

Brooke Canavan, 19, a 2019 graduate of Pierson High School and founder of East End Against Hate, planned the Sag Harbor protest. It was the first protest she’d ever organized.

Ms. Canavan originally attempted to use an iMessage group chat to organize East End Against Hate, recruiting members from a post on her Instagram story. “I said send your number and I’ll make a group chat, so then we were past the amount … [of] people you could have on a group chat,” she said, then taking the group onto a different platform — GroupMe — which allows for much larger group chats.

Hundreds of people participated in a protest on Friday in Sag Harbor against police brutality and racism. ben parker photo

With the Sag Harbor protest, Ms. Canavan described both an unexpected and uplifting experience in executing the event.

“It’s very physically, mentally exhausting,” Ms. Canavan said in a Tuesday phone call, noting the many small detailed aspects in organizing a rally she did not initially expect to encounter. The coalition constructed a schedule of speakers, introductions, and movements in 15-minute intervals, she said.

In Sag Harbor, protesters marched to the peak of the Lieutenant Corporal Jordan Haerter Veterans’ Memorial Bridge, before making their way onto Main Street. At the conclusion of the rally, several speakers alternated at a podium to address the crowd.

One speaker asked protesters to raise their hand if they were under 30. To cheers and applause, a near unanimous showing of hands proved what many could see: the leadership of a younger generation.

Ms. Canavan said she specifically sought out the younger demographic, using Instagram to promote the event’s flier.

“If you posted something on Facebook, you’d probably attract a bunch of moms,” Ms. Canavan said in explaining her decision to use Instagram instead.

Hundreds of people participated in a protest on Friday in Sag Harbor against police brutality and racism. ben parker photo

Social media has been a key tool for organizers. The video of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pinning George Floyd under his knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, resulting in his death — first spread online, igniting global protests over police brutality, racial injustice and white supremacy.

In a testament to Mr. Floyd’s death, many national protests and all of the local protests, sans a June 4 vigil in Southampton Village, have included 8 minute and 46 second moments, in which demonstrators knelt or laid face down in the street — sometimes in silence, sometimes chanting “Say His Name. George Floyd,” “I can’t breathe” or “Mamma.”

In planning the Sag Harbor protest, Ms. Canavan initially did not want to communicate with police, she said, but eventually relating her protest plans to the village chief of the police, Austin J. McGuire.

Throughout last week’s protests, East End police departments acted by closing roads for protesters. In East Hampton, during protests on both Saturday and Sunday, officers mounted on bikes roamed the crowd, keeping cars off the road.

Taliya Hayes and Anna Hoffman, recent college graduates and members of East Hampton High School class of 2016, organized the Sunday rally. Friends since high school, they started planning the rally together just one week prior, on May 31, Ms. Hoffman said.

The Sunday protest drew unprecedented crowd sizes, overflowing the grassy island of the Hook Windmill, and, while marching, filling the stretch of Pantigo Road between Egypt Lane and Main Street. Ms. Hayes and Willie Jenkins, organizer of the June 2 Bridgehampton protest, used a portable speaker to address the massive crowd.

Hundreds of people gathered in Bridgehampton on Tuesday evening to protest the death of George Floyd.

The first major protest in the area after the death of Mr. Floyd in Bridgehampton, which took place over a closed Montauk Highway, also saw notable contributions from younger generations.

Lisa Gagliardo, 23, of Brooklyn, co-organized the demonstration. Protesters, starting at the Bridgehampton Community House, proceed to march, bearing a host of homemade signs and echoing chants by bullhorn.

And although the crowd represented a diverse age and race demographic, the helm of leading the chants fell to youths.

Trevon Jenkins, 19, a college student and 2018 graduate of Southampton High School, instructed portions of the crowd as they followed his passionate cries, including “No justice, no peace, forget these racist police.”

Ashley Peters, 18, after attending the Bridgehampton rally, chose to lead chants in some of the week’s other demonstrations. Ms. Peters captivated protesters through her voice in Sag Harbor on Friday, and in East Hampton — her hometown — on Saturday, also sharing her own experiences with racist attacks.

Camryn Highsmith, a college student and 2018 graduate of Southampton High School, led the crowd in a march down Main Street in Sag Harbor on Friday, demanding they speak up to decry racial injustices: “The fact that a policeman [can] kill a black man in broad daylight, that should not be normalized,” Ms. Highsmith told The Press while marching.

Speaking to the power of such a large youth involvement, Ms. Canavan acknowledged a feeling that they may be taken slightly less seriously. However, she remained confident in her group’s ability and power: “Regardless if they like us or not, will attract more attention to get our point across.”

Scenes from the protest.

The power of younger generations is not exclusive to the East End. Across America, young activists, particularly of color, have led in protesting issues ignited by the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor: Police brutality and systemic racism, Time Magazine reported.

Young activists also have a history of driving pushes against injustice. During the Civil Rights Movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, was instrumental in organizing student activism — including sit-ins, protests and voter registration pushes — among black college students.

And although many of the students organizing protests on the East End are white, Ms. Hayes — co-organizer of Sunday’s protest — appreciated the display of allyship, telling The Press in Bridgehampton on June 2: “When you have this type of unity, nothing but good things can come from it.”