Syracuse, N.Y. — On their 30th day of marching through Syracuse, a group of about 45 protesters took shelter from a sudden rainstorm in the downtown Marriott parking garage.
The garage meeting was a reckoning. The group was nine days away from its promise of 40 days of peaceful protests against police violence and systemic racism in Syracuse. They all grappled with a question:
What are we going to be on Day 41?
Protesters challenged their leaders about fundraising, their schedule, their demands and their connection to other groups.
The reckoning had loomed for some time. The group had marched more than 100 miles through city streets, targeting racism in police departments and society. Along the way, the first-time activists celebrated reforms and, so far, the wind is at their backs.
“I want to know: What are we going to do after the 40 days to make sure the people are aware we’re still here?” Derrick Campbell asked of leaders. “Are we going to keep marching? Or are we going to sit down?”
The group, Last Chance for Change, picked a name that matches what they see as the urgency of the moment. Its organizers work in schools, on roofs and at the airport. Some quit their jobs. They grew up on South Avenue, East Fayette Street and Rockland Avenue. Many bring a story of a police run-in that interrupted their lives or one of someone close to them.
They believe change is coming.
“We have a blank check for reform,” organizer Ragin Mickens has told protesters.
The protesters are diverse, young and detached from the political system. Syracuse.com briefly surveyed 83 protesters: The median age is 26. About 60% have lost their jobs or income from the coronavirus pandemic.
Fewer than a third identify as Democrats; the rest are leftists, independents, progressives and democratic-socialists. They are Black, white, indigenous, Latino and Asian, and they show up every day.
“Syracuse is gonna get the change,” said Kayla Johnson. “This is the time. If it ain’t the time now, it ain’t never gonna be the time.”
The heartbeat of a movement
Last Chance for Change has become the local enforcement arm for the new movement, a daily reminder of the work being done behind the scenes by many. At least 15 groups have contributed to reform here since the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
CuseYouthBLM was created, like Last Chance for Change, as a response to Floyd’s death. Other groups like Black Lives Matter, the Syracuse Police Accountability and Reform Coalition and Raha Syracuse have roles.
By marching each day, Last Chance for Change has provided a consistent show of outrage.
People come to them. In the East Side, a teacher stopped grading papers to march. In the South Side, a woman working a shift at KFC bolted from her job, arms spread wide while walking alongside the protest. Some bystanders simply raise a fist on their porches and smile.
“They see us doing it and they come out. They get behind us,” leader Nate Flagg said.
Police are within earshot as marchers chant: “Get your foot off my neck and give me my respect!”
They’ve marched into a Lowe’s over an organizer’s firing. They sat in at a Texas Roadhouse after a protester was not allowed to wear a Black Lives Matter face mask while working. They occupied the entrance to the Onondaga County Justice Center after an organizer’s brother was allegedly beaten during an arrest.
They showed up three days in a row on the front steps of the Catholic Diocese, on behalf of Walter Johnson, a Black student at Bishop Grimes who was searched by police for marijuana in January.
The diocese met with activists in June. Officials issued an apology and created a scholarship in Johnson’s name, protesters said.
Beyond the activism, the group of 50 often stops mid-march, dons gloves and picks up litter in parking lots and gutters. They’ve beautified at least a dozen blocks.
Thirty-eight days ago, the marches started spontaneously as nothing more than a meet-up. The group skewed younger and included only a few of experienced activists.
On May 30, hours of peaceful marching ended with vandals shattering windows at police headquarters, the courthouse and downtown businesses.
The roots of the group came the next morning. Nate Flagg helped clean up the mess downtown. Hasahn Bloodworth showed up with his mic and amplifier for the next day of protests. Kayla Johnson and Dramar Felton separately came to break the city’s curfew. Flagg texted Curtis Chaplin, who became an organizer.
None had ever led this kind of an effort. They consulted Twiggy Billue, a decades-long activist in Syracuse for 35 years who heads the local chapter of the National Action Network. She drew up a plan in the notes app of her phone for the group on how to protest, communicate with each other and deal with reporters.
“Daily meetings,” it started, with a numbered list of what the group needed to continue marching.
“This movement is different because it’s from the ground up. It’s organic. It’s not from an organization that has had roots here for 20, 30 years,” Billue said. “It’s truly about people being tired of being tired of being sick of being tired.”
As the group kept marching, it evolved. It first protested George Floyd’s death. Then it protested for “the George Floyds of Syracuse,” compiling a list of people alleging police brutality here.
On June 6, Chaplin spoke for the group at a Black Lives Matter rally of more than 2,000 people. Last Chance had told politicians they wouldn’t lead a march that day. But as Chaplin finished and called the group away from the rally, BLM protesters went along. Soon, a following of several hundred stretched three blocks.
There was something here to harness.
“A lot of people don’t know why they’re here, they just know they’re supposed to be here,” Flagg said. “Now they see action and words matching and problems becoming solutions. They’re like, ‘Oh my God, we need to get in on this.’ ‘’
The public’s outrage has produced reforms statewide and in Syracuse, where on Juneteenth, Mayor Ben Walsh announced 16 steps to reform the police.
Last Chance for Change leaders say they want to defund the police department but not abolish it. They often chant: “Bad boys! Bad boys! Whatcha gonna do?! Whatcha gonna do when we defund you!”
To them, defunding means ending police use of federal surplus military-style equipment and diverting some police funding to social services.
Also, the leaders want to disband the police’s Gang Violence Task Force, which they blame for harassing and over-charging Black residents in poor neighborhoods.
But they do not want to remove school resource officers, a common demand among other groups. SROs help prevent violence, Last Chance for Change organizers say, citing their own experiences in high schools.
“Do you know how dangerous that is?” Flagg said. “You in the street, you from the hood, you from over there, they from over there. Y’all going to the same school. There’s nobody there to protect you.”
Last Chance for Change organizers showed up along with a dozen groups for a meeting Thursday with Walsh and city and school officials. Walsh promised he would create a timeline of action in two weeks.
A month into the daily protests, the Last Chance group settled on these demands:
- Undo the curfew that Mayor Ben Walsh imposed (then lifted) following the protest in which buildings were damaged
- Repeal the state civil service law that shielded officers’ discipline records
- Change the department’s use-of-force policy to stop excessive force
- Implement the U.S. Department of Justice’s Ferguson Report here
- Give the Citizens Review Board power to discipline officers
Even if the demands are met, leaders said, they hope to keep up the energy. They’ve raised a bail fund, should their protests lead to civil disobedience, and they want to turn the group into a nonprofit organization.
But protesters said they worry that the national moment could fade if furloughed protesters go back to their day jobs, energy wanes and the reforms stall.
Getting to this point
The group has almost fallen apart several times. They’ve had to manage personalities, conflicts and differing visions. Several organizers have been kicked out of the inner circle.
Most of them carry bad experiences with police:
When Flagg was 17, he pleaded guilty to second-degree robbery for robbing some college students at gunpoint. He spent nearly four years in state prison on the original charge and another five in prison for non-criminal parole violations.
Chaplin spent much of his childhood bouncing between foster homes. He joined the National Guard to protect a country he feels hasn’t done the same for him. The Syracuse Police Department turned him away when he applied for a job, he said.
Felton spent nearly a year in jail on bail before getting a gun charge dismissed. The judge ruled the officer had no reason to pull Felton over, which led the officer to the gun. In that year, the mother of his two kids left for South Carolina while he was in jail, he said.
“I just wanted people to hear my story,” Felton said. “I wanted people to feel my pain.”
On June 10, Day 10, the heat index reached 96 degrees. Chaplin doubled over and threw up in the grass. A few hours before the protest, Bloodworth’s cousin was killed. Then five gunshots rang out.
The shots came from the housing complex a block away, and no one was injured. Still, it rattled the protesters and organizers. A quarter of protesters surveyed had lost a close friend or family member to gun violence.
Despite the heat and hardship, they marched.
On Day 15, a fight broke out among some of the marchers. Some organizers and protesters had to step in to break it up.
Shortly afterward, six Syracuse police officers arrived. No one was arrested or injured.
The next day, Chaplin apologized to the group, calling it a family dispute.
“Within all families, you have quarrels, you have debates, but you keep fighting for that objective,” he told protesters. “We do apologize for it getting to levels that it should never have gotten.”
Some protesters were told to take a break to relieve the tension. Most eventually came back.
Chaplin laid out the day for protesters: There would be poetry readings, cleaning up a block in the Valley neighborhood, and ice cream.
But first, they had to march.
On Day 26, Felton’s brother Joshua Felton was arrested by Syracuse police. He said officers beat him after he gave himself up for an arrest. Police said he was arrested after fleeing officers.
That day, Dramar Felton spoke to the protesters. He explained what his family alleges happened to his brother. Felton cried and the protesters cried, too. He jumped as he chanted.
“If I had long enough arms,” Felton said, “I would hug all of you.”
In the days after, in open mics and dialogue days, white protesters said they better understood what it might feel like to be harassed and beaten by an officer. And the strangers had coalesced into something unfamiliar to the organizers.
“My whole family, I don’t deal with my family like that. Ain’t no love there,” Flagg said. “For me to get that from other people, it feels crazy. We welcome each other into our homes. It’s the trust, the love, the family-oriented stuff.”
On Day 30, during the parking garage rainstorm reckoning, leaders reminded their group that they were new to political activism, which carries benefits and drawbacks.
The leaders tried to be reassuring. They took credit for reforms that didn’t occur in decades of activism.
On Day 31, Bloodworth and leader Mered Billue admitted they will evaluate whether they’ll continue after the 40-day mark, though they still want to protest police brutality.
Afterward, 17-year-old protester Sophie Heffner urged the group to hold fast.
“I think at a time when we’re questioning why we’re out here … we need to remember why we’re in this,” she said. “We’re all here for the same reason, even though it affects each person personally in a different way.”
Thirty-eight days ago, leaders had no voice in the political system and then found themselves part of a movement. They want to elevate the voices like theirs, even if they separate themselves from other activist groups.
“The community, we need to hear their voice,” Flagg said. “People shun them and try to silence them and treat them like their opinions don’t matter, pretty much.”
So, while the group tries to define itself, this much is certain:
The group will hold a meeting seeking the opinions of their neighbors and friends to make sure leaders deliver on the reforms.
That meeting will be today, and then they will march.
Reporters Chris Libonati and Patrick Lohmann can be reached at Clibonati@Syracuse.com and PLohmann@Syracuse.com.