Editor’s note: This article is part of our continued efforts to cover the protests in Rochester. As we are students first, we are unable to capture everything, every night. For all of our News coverage on these events search the tag “Daniel Prude.”
More than 300 people tuned in to Free the People Roc’s virtual teach-in last Wednesday to hear about their work in organizing the recent demonstrations for Daniel Prude and fighting for the abolition of the prison industrial complex.
But not everyone was there to listen and learn.
As Free the People Roc organizer Stanley Martin began to speak, an anonymous Zoom attendee broadcasted disruptive video and audio for all to hear — a practice known as “Zoombombing.” The attendee was promptly muted by the Zoom host, Associate professor of Anthropology and Director of the Susan B. Anthony Institute Kristin Doughty, and removed from the event as Martin continued to introduce herself.
Ashley Gantt, another organizer who works with the New York American Civil Liberties Union, jumped in after Martin finished.
“I don’t know what that was that just interrupted but I just want you guys to know, if for some reason we do get a hacker and we get interrupted, we are committed to coming back and having this conversation,” Gantt said. “We get tear gassed every single day, we can be back here in spite of the hackers. So if it does get hacked, log right back on, we’re coming back.”
After, Doughty muted all attendees except for those speaking. Other similarly disruptive “trolls” were kicked out of the event, and the teach-in, one of the major events in the two-day Scholar Strike at UR, continued without a hitch.
The event brought in a wide variety of people, from members of both UR and the Rochester community. Some were sitting alone in their homes, others in masked groups outdoors — all of them were there to hear some of the most visible leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement in Rochester speak.
“I’m just so impressed by the amount of people who actually tuned in,” Martin said. “I think it speaks to this appetite for real, long-lasting change. People are sick and tired of seeing the same institutions be present in our lives, knowing they don’t work and actually harm us.”
A testament to this dedication to change is the fact that members of Free the People Roc (FTP) have been protesting every single week for the past 15 weeks, according to Gantt. “What’s been happening with Daniel Prude isn’t anything new,” Gantt said. “We’ve been protesting, and now we just have a focus on Daniel Prude.”
But their focus extends past organizing demonstrations. Before the deaths of George Floyd, Daniel Prude, Breonna Taylor and so many others rocked the nation, FTP was organizing in the community around mass incarceration and the criminal justice system. Gantt emphasized, however, that they worked on many other issues plaguing Rochester, such as disparities in healthcare, education, and housing.
This multi-faceted approach extends to their stance on defunding the police as well, and helps explain why defunding the police isn’t as scary as it sounds. To Martin, defunding doesn’t necessarily mean abolishing the police, but rather, reallocation of the police’s financial resources to where they can do the most good.
“The police currently get $148 million a year, [yet] they only solve 29% of crimes,” Martin said. “And 86% of crimes [in] Rochester are poverty-based crimes […] Instead of convicting people for poverty — because that is literally what’s happening — let’s get to the root of poverty […] the police [receive] $148 million while our schools are taking a 20% pay cut for the next five years […] our kids in the city don’t even have access to even a basic education — not even a quality education, just a basic education.”
There’s also a great irony, Gantt said, in the police using rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray that is paid for by Rochester citizens on Rochester citizens. “We are paying for this,” she said. “We’re paying for this chemical warfare that the police are using against us.”
But FTP’s ultimate goal is to abolish the police by continuously cutting the budgets until “they are not a group that exists to terrorize and brutalize” the community, Stanley Martin said.She also added on that “we truly, truly believe that the police should not exist, especially [since] the police were founded as slave catchers to protect property, not to assist people who need help.”
FTP has moved from language calling for de-funding the Rochester Police Department (RPD) to disbanding as well. This is due to the “level of violence and occupation” that protestors have witnessed these past couple weeks, according to Martin.
“I, and many others, have been there night after night, and the PTSD and trauma from being shot with tear gas and pepper spray simply for marching is something that just instills and reminds us how brutal the police officers are,” she said.
Besides their call for the de-funding and disbanding of the RPD, FTP’s other demands are to fire and prosecute the police officers and sergeants involved with Daniel Prude’s murder, to free all the protestors that have been arrested since May 30, for Mayor Lovely Warren and Deputy Mayor James Smith to resign, and lastly, for Daniel’s Law — a law that requires health officials instead of police officers or any “violence workers,” a term the FTP organizers used, to respond to mental health calls — to be passed in the city, county, state, and even nation.
Martin said that the FTP will continue to organize demonstrations until every last demand is met, and even after those demands are met, since there will still be more work to be done.
Junior and FTP organizer Indy Maring spoke about the University’s complicity in Daniel Prude’s murder and in the racial injustices in the city of Rochester.
For Maring, it’s unacceptable that Daniel Prude was admitted to, and then released without treatment from, UR’s Strong Hospital mere hours before his death.
“It’s important for us as students to know that we need to demand more from our university community,” Maring said, their voice breaking with emotion. “We need to be demanding answers from URMC about why [Daniel Prude] was sent home. We need to know what happened in those hours that he was in the hospital, that he was sent home to then be murdered by the police, […] leaving his brother with no option other than to call the police.”
Another implication against UR looked at broader issues facing Rochester. Recent graduate and now master’s student at Warner Lara Andree wrote in the chat, “The UR is the largest form of gentrification in the entire Rochester community” – a sentiment echoed by Gantt as well.
“Let’s talk about how you are gonna give back to this community that you are literally – quite literally – displacing Black and brown and poor people from,” Gantt said. “The [University] has so much more to do.”
And what UR needed to do, according to attendees and organizers alike, was make Douglass Leadership House permanent, a long-standing demand from students, as well as have very intentional strategies for recruiting people from underrepresented communities, particularly in healthcare fields.
FTP organizer and Nazareth College student Serena Viktor focused on mental health representation. “There are sometimes very unique experiences and unique traumas that happen to people of color that only people of color will be privy to. There are culture and nuances that happen that sometimes lends itself well when you have a therapist in front of you who has the same cultural experiences as yourself.”
The responsibility to address UR’s role in the community doesn’t just fall upon administration, however. It extends to students as well.
A major point that many attendees agreed with was to work on combating the notion that the 19th Ward, and Rochester as a whole, was a dangerous place that students shouldn’t wander through.
“When you’re in that community, you need to take it as your own. This is our community,” Maring said. “That’s the problem with students, that they come to [UR] for four years and they talk shit about [UR], they talk shit about Rochester, they don’t ever get off-campus, they don’t ever interact with the community.”
Maring added that “there’s something wrong if you’re living there and you’re not building community with the residents, that you’re there to stay in your bubble […] You’re committed to staying in this universe, your Rochester bubble, and not committed to being a Rochester citizen, a Rochester community member.”
Senior Owyn Guinnip wrote in the chat, “The University rhetoric that is fed to students about the ‘dangers’ of the 19th Ward is disgusting and pervasive!”
By engaging in the nearby neighborhoods and not fearing them, Viktor said, you can learn and grow, and find out that a lot of the biases and prejudices that you have are actually not true.
Maring also encouraged people to break out of their bubble at UR as well, and to support student organizations and groups that are working to fix racial inequities. “It is all of our issues; it is not just the issues of Black and brown students,” they said.
The issues that Rochester and Black and brown students face aren’t intractable and hopeless, according to FTP organizers. FTP itself had one of its demands met with the resignation of Rochester Police Chief La’Ron Singletary and much of his command staff.
But, as many reiterated again and again, change must come from collective will and collective action.
“Everything that you need to rise up against injustice, to stand up for what is right, is already on the inside of each and every one of us, we just have to know that we have the power,” Gantt said during the talk. “The students have the power, and it’s in the people.”
News Editor Michael Vilakazi and contributing writer Haven Worley contributed to the reporting for this article.