At Olivia Kim’s statue of Frederick Douglass in Washington Square Park. In the background, marchers walk from Manhattan Square to the Hall of Justice. [5/30/20. Except where indicated photos by David Kramer] On Douglass, see “The greatest American of the nineteenth century”
Until yesterday, I was last at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park in Manhattan Square in late April when photographing Shawn Dunwoody’s murals.
Due to the pandemic, the park was empty and tranquil. Little did I know — but not really surprised — that my next visit would be in very different circumstances.
In the morning before the rally, I biked and walked Joseph Avenue, the epicenter of Rochester’s 1964 riots, The 2020 protests and violence in Minneapolis and other cities made me think of 1964, when during the tumultuous 1960s, racial inequalities and oppression sparked what some call urban insurrections.
On a coolish but pleasantly sunny day ideal for urban cycling, on Joseph Avenue I found reminders of July 1964 and of the progress towards racial justice still to be accomplished. The area around Joseph Avenue, like other parts of Rochester, continues to suffer from generational poverty and racial segregation and inequalities.
To be sure, progress has happened. For example, the Joseph Avenue Arts and Culture Alliance brings music, dance, theater, and visual arts to families and children throughout its neighborhood. New events are initiatives are underway.
A once empty plot is now a flower farm.
On buildings and walls, murals and paintings express hope and strength.
Nonetheless, for all the signs of hope, strength, community and revival, Joseph Avenue and other neighborhood are still burdened by generational poverty and racial segregation, inequalities and injustices. The promised reforms following the 1964 upheaval remain unrealized.
Addressing and fixing these fundamental problems are why thousands gathered in solidarity at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park and then marched past the statue of Frederick Douglass towards the Hall of Justice. As so many have reported, the mood at the rally was one of passionate determination, just as the message was one of committed, but non-violent, activism.
At the rally, we heard speeches from organizers, community activists, a song from local singer-songwriter Danielle Ponder and from RCSD student Tian Stephens a recitation of Douglass’ address, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?,” originally given not far away in Rochester’s Corinthian Hall in 1852.¹ Musicians played drums.
Joining in solidarity, people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds carried signs with phrases like “Hold Police Accountable” and “We Are Equal.” Many in the crowd of several hundred chanted “Black Lives Matter” and the now-infamous, “I Can’t Breath.” Despite the depressing contexts that made the rally necessary, the rally goers celebrated hope, strength, community and empowerment.
At the rally, I met Geary Bka Kholaa, aka The Real Kholaa. Kholaa was in the very front, taking photos, recording speeches and leading cheers. A Rochester native, Kholaa is a singer, model, and radio personality on 104.3 WAYO. She attended the Hochstein School of Music and Monroe Community College for performing arts.
Kholaa offers her experience of the day:
I attended the rally to stand against the injustices towards black people specifically. We have fought for freedom that we have yet to receive. Freedom should not have to be granted or obtained. We should have been born free. Yet, in our daily lives, we are still enslaved when doing basic activities like jogging, barbecuing, and going to the corner store. I attended to be a voice of reason but also a voice of power and change. My voice illustrated passion and anger at times at the justice system, at corrupt police and even black people who have hate for other races. It’s not about color it’s about right from wrong. Period.
During the speeches, I felt hurt. The speeches spoke about how we are tired of seeing the black face displayed to the world for a lynching. I felt exhausted before we even started marching. As a black woman, I felt sad and hopeless for my black brothers and sisters, my nephews, and friends. I also felt empowered to make change and fight against the wrongdoing done to black people and other minorities. However, it was great to meet others just as passionate for the cause as I am. I didn’t know any of the people I marched with but the cause we marched for made us related by default.
To me, the rally meant unity. It meant justice will be served eventually. The rally gave us hope. The rally represents much more than being loud and fighting for a cause. It showed that together, all of us can be powerful. There should be no such thing as white supremacy or white privilege. That so called privilege automatically makes other subjects inferior and powerless. The rally meant we were all equal for a change.
I hope that the rally will help police to think two, three and four times about placing their hands on us, mistreating us and or killing us without resisting or threatening. Pulling out a wallet to identify yourself, or pulling out a cell phone, along with having a motor traffic violation, or jogging while black should not be a death sentence. The rally has to open their hearts, minds and eyes to the changes that need to surface in the world.²
For Kholaa, the rally meant bonding with people she did not know. I felt the same way. For me, solidarity — along with a common belief in messages sent and received — also means reconvening with friends and friends of the magazine.
After the rally, I biked the long way home down the Canal Path, feeling inspired and proud to be a Rochesterian. Quite literally, I did not hear about any violence, vandalism or looting until I tuned in the six o’clock news with Don Alhart. Matching my immediate response, the incidents reminded Alhart of Joseph Avenue in 1964 when he was a WHAM intern.
While Alhart said the circumstances and scale were not comparable — as do I — the images of burning cars was eerily reminiscent of Police Chief William Lombard’s overturned patrol car. Perhaps if the promises of 1964 had been realized, we would not see history repeating itself.
There is much we still need to know about how the violence began and spread: to use the terminology of Sheriff Todd Baxter and Mayor Lovely Warren, who hijacked and trapped who and why. One thing is clear. Not only did the organizers and the vast majority of rally participants renounce the violence, those still at the Public Safety Building actively tried to prevent and stop it.
On tonight’s news, Don Alhart told us that 3,000 people volunteered to clean up the mess, amplifying the message of hope, strength, community and empowerment. I’m still proud to be a Rochestarian.
¹ A light post placard on Corinthian Street explaining the “Corinthian Hall Intervention” that recognized and reclaimed unmarked history of the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Sewing Society. When reading the placard, I saw comparisons between the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Sewing Society (“sewing” was dropped from the group’s name in 1855) and the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement.
To learn more, I turned to Dr. Hinda Mandel, Associate Professor/ School of Communication/ RIT, who co-wrote the placard:
It’s an interesting and noteworthy comparison, particularly in how it makes a historical thread connecting social-reform movements across centuries. The Rochester Ladies’ was a very complicated group (from the perspective of a 21st century academic studying them!). They were not for women’s rights nor were they integrated. They were Evangelical Christians and upper-middle class, and they devoted their life’s work for the abolishment of slavery, and were committed to aiding Frederick Douglass do his Underground Railroad work. Through their entrepreneurial efforts and organizing, they raised thousands of dollars over the years in which they were active (1851-1868) to aid escaped enslaved peoples and support Douglass’s newspaper. So I would say they believed black lives matter but under terms “comfortable” to them.
² On reddit, a photo of Kholaa was posted without her name, drawing this comment:
Did you even ask for her name? She was the liveliest protester that day. Her energy kept our spirits up the whole day. Please say her name! Use your platform to uplift the individuals you saw fighting to be heard.
I too was energized by Kholaa’s spirit. Now you know her name.