ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- At first, George Floyd’s death on Memorial Day sparked outrage over a stunning display of police brutality caught on video, driving thousands of people to protest in New York and across the country.
Rallies denouncing the black man’s death in police custody -- a white Minneapolis police officer held his knee on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes as Floyd said "I can't breathe" -- continued amid the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 24,000 New Yorkers. The historic nature of the movement came into focus this past week.
Beyond opposing decades of police misconduct, New Yorkers marched in the streets because COVID-19 was disproportionately killing those in communities of color, laying bare inequality in the health care system.
Crowds gathered daily in cities from Rochester to Yonkers and Binghamton to Poughkeepsie, decrying the economic injustices reflected in the fact 20.5 million pandemic-related job losses nationally hit black and Latino workers hardest.
And now, it has all come together to expose the scope of generational suffering caused by systemic racism and discrimination, according to a USA TODAY Network New York analysis of pandemic data and interviews with more than a dozen protesters, advocates and health experts.
“They are protesting against police brutality and excessive force, no question,” said Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, director of the Equity Research and Innovation Center at Yale School of Medicine.
“But they’re also protesting for the ability to live their lives fully and completely, and to not have their lives cut short, either by force or preventable diseases,” she said.
Among the findings:Black and Hispanic New Yorkers, excluding New York City, represent 32% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths, and just 21% of the population.41 hospitals have closed across New York since 2003, including many in low-income and minority communities devastated by COVID-19 deaths linked to poor access to health care.A majority of African Americans nationally, 60%, said they were less likely than whites to have everything done in the hospital to save their lives during the pandemic, a recent NAACP-sponsored poll found.64% of African Americans worried they would get less access than whites to COVID-19 testing, and 58% didn’t trust police to fairly and equally enforce social distancing orders.People of color have borne the brunt of record-high job losses nationally, including unemployment rates of 16.7% and 18.9% for African Americans and Latinos, respectively, compared to 14.2% of whites out of work in April.Blacks and Hispanics are more than 50% more likely than whites to experience some form of force in interactions with police, a Yale University study found.
What protesters say about how Floyd died, COVID-19
Many protesters across New York described emotional reactions to the graphic video of a police officer in Minnesota grinding his knee into Floyd’s neck before the death.
“If you went to a movie and saw a scene like that, you’d be clutching your seat,” said Jim Bostic, a Yonkers community leader and former NBA player.
“To see it happen in real life, to a living, breathing human being — that was the tipping point. It was hard to look at. I’ve seen it all, but that gripped me. I wanted to jump through the TV screen,” he said.
The police officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with second-degree murder, and three other officers involved in the case face aiding and abetting charges.
Bostic, executive director of the Nepperhan Community Center, suggested the video tapped into growing frustrations in communities of color reeling from COVID-19 unemployment, as well as prior law-enforcement abuses.
“We’ve been under the cloud of police brutality in Yonkers,” said Bostic, 67, noting federal government had oversight of the city police department in past years due to misconduct.
“There’s a new generation of young people who are saying they won’t tolerate this kind of behavior,” he said.
One of those young people is Calvin Demetrius, who organized a vigil in Rockland County. He expanded on how Floyd’s death was the catalyst for an explosion of racially charged activism after months of pandemic-fueled isolation and uncertainty.
“The situation piled on top of more lingering pain,” said Demetrius, the 28-year-old president and chairman of the Spring Valley NAACP Young Adult Committee.
“With people not being able to leave the house, this increasing rate of unemployment, that cooped-up frustration, that cooped-up anger, it didn’t fade away like before,” he said.
“After other situations, you would return to normal. You would have to go to work in the morning,” Demetrius said. “Now there is no normal.”
Meanwhile, the protests have heightened awareness of the inequity in everything from law enforcement and health care to paid sick leave and job opportunities, said Fabina Benites, 38, director of the Multicultural Resource Center in Ithaca.
“Folks are starting to grow more conscious and connect the dots,” she said.
The situation was acute in some Hispanic and Latino communities because many people worked in low-wage essential jobs that helped fuel their higher COVID-19 infection rates, said Kevindaryan Lujan, an Orange County legislator.
"There are so many things we are worrying about," Lujan said. "We feel all this tension, fear and anxiety."
New York's largest upstate cities of Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse have among the highest poverty rates and highest childhood poverty rates in the nation.
Yet despite the many interconnected issues, the video of Floyd’s death fundamentally served as a striking example of inhumane treatment of minorities at the hands of police, many protesters said.
“A police officer just had his knee on Floyd’s neck like he was casually sitting on a couch,” said Domari Greene, 30, who organized a daily protest at the city of Elmira’s police department.
“We feel like they think it’s something they can get away with because they have been for years,” he said, adding protesters aim “to put a stop to this and want to continue the movement outside of every time someone dies.”
Further, some advocates suggested the diversity of the tens of thousands of people protesting across New York underscored the power and significance of the message.
"If you look into those crowds in some of the cities, and even here locally, there is a multi-racial, multi-generational group of people who saw the horror of that video, and it pained them," said Patrick Johnson, 58, program director of the Street Team and Save our Streets in Utica.
"And if it's just going to be black people fighting for justice, it's going to take many lifetimes to see justice,” he said. “The reality is when white people stand up, it gets people's attention."
How the way Floyd died, COVID-19 are connected
Weeks before protests erupted, communities of color expressed concerns over injustices linked to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
As evidence mounted that high rates of chronic illnesses in African American communities left them especially vulnerable to the virus, national polling in early May offered a glimpse into their fears.
A majority of African Americans distrusted police and government leaders’ ability to handle the pandemic. They also worried the health care system would fail them in the face of the deadly virus, the poll by the African American Research Collaborative found.
Nunez-Smith, the Yale health equity expert involved in the poll, said it revealed African Americans “have really deep concerns about their ability to be treated fair by the police, by the government and even by us in health care.”
“Those are not irrational concerns or irrational fears,” she said. “Very sadly, they’re grounded in data and evidence that consistently signal really disparate treatment as a group.”
Yet the confluence of Floyd’s death and the pandemic’s toll on all aspects of life in communities of color seemed to stand out amid centuries of racial discrimination.
“Health care is just one component of the injustice,” said Elisabeth Benjamin, a health care expert at the Community Service Society, which is based in Manhattan.
“There’s food insecurity and the kinds of jobs available are more dangerous in the face of the pandemic, and the housing and overcrowding situation are more dangerous,” she said.
“It is a perfect storm of injustice, and people are right to be mad.”
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Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick attributed the protests in part to governmental failures to protect people from police violence and COVID-19.
“The failed federal leadership is what’s caused people to take their matters into their own hands,” Myrick said. “It’s like the grown-ups were asleep at the wheel and someone has to step up.”
“The people stepping out on the streets is what I see — people who lost confidence (in leadership),” he added.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo connected the myriad reasons for the protests to “chronic institutionalized discrimination.”
“And there's no doubt, that this nation as great as it is has had the continuing sin of discrimination … and it started with slavery,” Cuomo said Monday during a press briefing.
“So, let’s use this moment as a moment of change,” he added. He has proposed strong laws against police brutality and more equity for affordable housing and education aid.
What protesters say about solving inequality, police brutality
When young activists approached Mount Vernon Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard about holding a rally at city hall, she provided access to her Zoom account to connect 40 community leaders — ages 20 through 70.
About 1,500 people showed up for the rally Tuesday evening to tell their stories, register to vote and raise their voices against Floyd’s death.
“They provided an open mic so people could speak their pain and speak their anger,” said Patterson-Howard. “It was the young leaders who drove it. It was their time to speak their truth. It was their time to speak their pain.”
At the end of the rally, she announced a phone number that protesters could text if they wanted to remain involved in efforts such as the alternatives to incarceration program.
More than 150 residents have responded.
Westchester County Legislator Christopher Johnson, D-Yonkers, took part in protest marches on May 31 and June 2.
The May 31 march, which began at Yonkers City Hall with about 1,000 people, ended up five hours later at Lincoln High School, after stops at two police precincts, and a demonstration on the Saw Mill River that stopped traffic for a time.
The Tuesday march, with about 200 people, ended up at Yonkers police headquarters, where protesters presented a set of demands to Police Commissioner John Mueller.
Protesters wanted police to wear body cameras and engage in anti-bias training, as well as more community outreach. Mueller emerged from headquarters to meet with the demonstrators, who asked him and his officers to kneel with them.
Mueller and PBA President Keith Olson both took a knee in solidarity with the marchers.
Mueller said the department would develop anti-bias training programs, but noted the body camera issue was stalled over costs and the need for union approval.
“From a community perspective, it was amazing to have people gather and show their emotions,” said Johnson, 35.
Newburgh Mayor Torrance Harvey, the first black man in the role despite 73% of the Orange County city being people of color, noted the protests offered a renewed hope for more diversity in government, citing how hundreds of people turned out for a peaceful rally Tuesday.
As for COVID-19, Ken Thorpe, chairman of the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease, said the virus preyed upon those harmed most by limited access to health care.
In fact, the prevalence of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, is 40% higher in African American adults than white adults, said Thorpe, who is also an Emory University professor.
Solving the health problems spotlighted by the pandemic in part requires spending a lot more health care dollars on primary care and preventive medicine, as well as promoting more diversity among physicians and medical providers to bridge the trust gap.
Yet the police-brutality protests and pandemic, in many ways, have finally shown the “stark reality of what this legacy of racism and bias has done to the health of people of color,” Nunez-Smith said.
“We’re absolutely witnessing history here, and there is no doubt this is a turning point."
Contributing: H. Rose Schneider of the Observer-Dispatch in Utica; Lana Bellamy of Times Herald-Record in Middletown; and Charisse Jones of USA TODAY.