YORKTOWN, N.Y. – What does it feel like to be a minority in a predominantly white community?
According to Census data, that’s a question about 31,000 Yorktown residents, or 84 percent of the town’s population, will never be able to answer.
Though many of those same residents surely have opinions about the nationwide movements that have taken place in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, it was their turn to listen on Sunday, June 7.
As part of a “March for Civil Justice,” hundreds of mask-wearing and sign-toting protestors—chanting phrases like “no justice, no peace” and “black lives matter”—made a 0.7-mile walk from Yorktown Town Hall to Jack DeVito Field. Minority residents, speaking to a captive audience, then shared their experiences growing up, living and working in Yorktown.
Maya Edwards, a Lakeland High School student whose family moved to the area a year ago, said racism is very much alive in Yorktown. Her younger sister, she said, was called “the N-word with a hard er” while riding the school bus. Maya said her own bus mates were surprised to learn her family lived in a “nice” neighborhood.
“At first, you want to be mad at the kid, but where do they get these words from?” she asked. “It’s coming straight from the house. Racism is not something you’re born with; it’s a learned behavior.”
Tamara Gonzalez Tesker, a Lakeland High School graduate, said Yorktown Heights “is the only place where I’ve witnessed and have been a victim of racism.” Once, while working as a cashier at Kmart in the Yorktown Green Shopping Center, her line had no customers while a white cashier’s line had two. Another customer was joining the white cashier’s line when Gonzalez Tesker attempted to call her over, only to be answered with a middle finger and some slurs.
She said she also experienced racism on her first day as a new sixth-grade student at Lakeland Copper Beech Middle School, when she attempted to sit with other students at lunch.
“One of the kids responded, ‘Ew, you’re not even white. You look dirty. What even are you?’ ” said Gonzalez Tesker. “I ate lunch alone that day…I felt that it was my fault that I’m Spanish, and I should feel bad about that because no one would ever accept me.”
Nueteysh Laguerre, speaking on behalf of her brother, Tony, said he experienced racism while playing lacrosse for Lakeland/Panas. She spoke about the time he scored a game-winning goal in triple overtime. But what should have been a revered memory of his is tainted forever.
“It was the first time to my face that I’ve been called the N-word and a monkey,” Nueteysh said, reading Tony’s words. “Real racism isn’t Nazis and swastikas. It’s some 17-year-old growing up, overanalyzing how people perceive them in every situation, and some 17-year-olds knowing they will always have power over someone who is different.”
Dejon Reid, whose son attended Yorktown High School, said his son once walked into English class wearing a hoodie and holding a pack of M&M’s when his teacher said, referring to the 17-year-old fatally shot in Florida in 2012 while visiting relatives in their gated community, “Here comes Trayvon Martin, with a pack of Skittles. He may just be shot.”
“My son’s pigmentation should not be the brunt of any joke,” Reid said, “especially from an educator who has been entrusted with the responsibility to provide a healthy and safe learning environment.”
Due to COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings, the Yorktown Police Department could not legally permit the event to take place. But the department closed roads and officers were on hand to ensure the rally remained incident-free, which it mostly did. One protestor had a medical emergency and passed out on the field, prompting police officers to rush in and offer assistance.
“Nobody is saying all police officers are bad, because I have police officers in my family who are trying to end this oppression and end this discrimination,” said Jayden Hernandez, a Yorktown High School graduate. “But when you have 10 [bad] officers and the rest of the justice system is not saying anything, they are not fighting anything, then that makes them all bad.”
The event came together in just five days. It was organized by high school students with the help of three adults: Marisa Ragonese, Rachel Frederick and Marni Marron, who named their ad hoc group Yorktown for Justice.
Days before the rally, hundreds of comments poured into the town of Yorktown’s Facebook page, many debating the appropriateness of the rally.
Though many offered support, some were upset that this protest was being allowed to happen during a pandemic while churches and schools were closed. Some also took issue with the closing of the track at Jack DeVito Field to accommodate the rally. Others contended the issues of institutional racism and disproportionate police brutality against minorities are false narratives.
The event was emceed by Giovanna Phipps, a Yorktown High School student.
“We are all here today to begin the work of eliminating racism by educating ourselves and those in our community, and supporting people of color in America, and right here where we live and work,” Phipps said.
The final speaker of the day was Daks Armstrong, a school counselor at Yorktown High School. He said Sunday’s rally was a good start toward healing.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘Well, what am I going to do now that I’ve been here? Now that I have my sign and I did my hashtag and I took my selfie and I’m with my friends and we’re the ignoring the coronavirus,’” Armstrong said. “‘What are we going to do after today?’”
Armstrong said he was “retiring” from protesting after Sunday’s event, saying black people have done their part.
“This is your movement, white people, what are you going to do?” Armstrong asked. “Are you going to use your privilege to do something good? I hope you will…If you’re standing on this field, you are not the problem. But you know someone who is.”