Sharing their stories amid a nationwide movement

They are young, from 17 to 32. All four grew up on the North Fork. They are African Americans who watched the video of George Floyd being slowly murdered by a white Minneapolis police officer. And they are now living in the America that killing created.

They are speaking out, attending peaceful protests and vigils and demanding fundamental change. There is America before Mr. Floyd’s death and America after his death. They are the George Floyd generation.

“There is a lot that needs to be done and that needs to be talked about,” said Kenny Black of Mattituck, 27, the sales manager at Little Lucharitos in Aquebogue. “As a whole, there is more light being shed on this issue and more people talking about it. We are trending in the right direction to get this to never happen again.

“I never thought my voice would be heard or make a difference,” he added. “Look at some of the celebrities like Colin Kaepernick and what he was protesting and how it was so misunderstood. It had nothing to do with the flag or disrespecting America as a whole. He was trying to shed light on something we are dealing with to this day.”

Times Review Media Group interviewed Mr. Black along with Jayla Moore of Greenport, 17; Karre Brown of Riverhead, 32; and Rynese Smith of Bellport, 27, about how they grew up and how they see the world around them in the aftermath of Mr. Floyd’s murder and weeks of nationwide — and worldwide — protest. Their voices were calm, their words measured. They are speaking the language of young black men and women everywhere who feel the words “equal protection under the law” have meant something far different for them than for white men and women. They want people of all groups to listen, carefully, and to see the truth. And then act. They are not asking for anything special — just that the country’s ideals and constitutional principles be applied equally. 

“When I saw the video, I cried,” said Ms. Brown. “I wept through it. It was disgusting to see. I saw that one officer kneeling on his neck and the other officer playing security while Mr. Floyd is dying. It was heartbreaking.

“Have there been real gains? I think we have made gains,” she continued. “I think back to segregation. If it were not for the civil rights movement, so I could go to school with people of other races, I wouldn’t be where I am now. That generation fought so hard for it.”

Karre Brown, left, and Jayla Moore at Mitchell Park in Greenport this week. (Credit: Steve Wick)

Of the protests nationwide, Ms. Brown, who is pregnant and due in August, said, “This is a journey I want to take. I don’t want my child to fight as hard. If I do the fighting now, she won’t have to fight so hard.

“Personally I am grateful for this moment. Because I have been going to protests since 2014, in NYC, the Women’s March in D.C. … out there in the streets, and this is probably for me the biggest movement I’ve ever seen.”

Ms. Moore, a soon-to-be senior at Greenport High School, said the video changed her life. At the June 3 Greenport vigil following Mr. Floyd’s death, she stood and calmly spoke to hundreds of people.

“This has happened before and I’d seen it on the news or read about it on social media,” she said. “It was always out there. But to see that video — it is heartbreaking. No one wants to see that. It opened my eyes. It changed my life and gave me an appreciation of my life and my brother’s life. It’s hard to explain.

“I don’t understand fully the world,” she added. “But just seeing it is so unreal. But this is the world we live in today.”

Rynese Smith in Bellport. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

Ms. Smith, who grew up in Greenport, has a master’s degree in social work. Growing up in a small village in some ways was sheltering — but only slightly. 

“When I saw the video I was hurt,” she said. “The man kneeled on his neck and is comfortable doing that for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. To see that happen to someone, all I could feel was hurt. That it could happen to us because of the color of our skin. You lose words. For someone now to be outraged and upset about it is totally fine with me.”

Mr. Black was born in Albany but grew up in Greenport, where he had family. When he was still in school his family moved to Cutchogue and he graduated from Mattituck High School in 2010.

He attended the May 31 protest in Riverhead and then organized a vigil in Peconic a few days later. His reaction to the Floyd video: “I was confused as to why this is still happening.”

“The man is just sitting there on top of George Floyd. It hurts. You get filled with so much rage and so much hatred at everyone and everything around you along with a rush of emotions …

“The entire world is fighting off a global pandemic and we are supposed to be in a quarantine and not being allowed out and how is that possible you have so many deaths that were so brutal,” he went on, “and you look at Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and enough is enough. How much more can you take …? Anyone who stands for equality is exhausted.”

In her interview, Ms. Moore spoke of early morning jogs in Greenport, wearing a hoodie on streets where a young black girl drew attention, and having a police car stop to ask her what she was doing. The message to her was: Hey, you are black. What are you doing here?

Hundreds attended a vigil at Clinton Memorial AME Zion Church in Greenport June 3. (Credit: Jeremy Garretson)

To Mr. Black, being a teenager and playing basketball in parks in Greenport meant enduring police coming around to inquire what he and his friends had in their bags — all the while watching white kids play and not go through the same thing.

“As a young kid in Greenport we were definitely misunderstood,” he said. “As a teenager I remember multiple times being stopped and searched unlawfully because we were black and had a book bag. The police would ask us, ‘What is in the bag?’ … It was completely wrong to even challenge us in that way. To assume we would have drugs — we just wanted to play basketball.”

The different treatment he observed growing up was glaring and absurdly obvious. “If [white kids] were walking with us, it was the bigger black kids getting searched and spoken to in a disrespectful tone,” he said. “Our parents warned us to be complacent and make it easier for the cops. As much as we wanted to express our concerns being searched like that, we really had no power to do so.”

Looking back, Mr. Black said, “I have lived on the North Fork my entire life and I have experienced racism for those 27 years.”

While he was in high school, Mr. Black said he and some friends went to a house party in Peconic that included white and black kids. When the party ended, a mixed group walked up the street and someone in one of the homes called police to say someone was looking in cars to see what he could take. 

“We were walking innocently and were cornered from both sides. It was on Bridge Lane. Five or six squad cars came and they immediately assumed it was us. We were held up against the police cars. They didn’t allow us to call our parents,” he recalled.

“We ended up getting handcuffed and brought to the station. I called my mother and I was crying and I needed her to come pick me up. A cop came into the room and he said he spoke to the man who called and he said it was … a white kid. They didn’t even stop a white kid. How do you get that wrong? Why did they take in four kids of color? Why did they mistake that?

“They released us to our parents. There was no reason to take us in like that … But it turned out more than it had to be.” As for the officer who said he talked to the homeowner who called in, Mr. Black said, “Yes, he was ashamed of the four of us standing there in fear. We didn’t fit the mold at all, but we fit another mold.”

Mr. Black greets an officer at his protest earlier this month. (Credit: Tara Smith)

For Ms. Brown, as she awaits her child’s birth, the moment is now to bring about something fundamental in America. The horror, she said, is that it took the murder of a black man — filmed for all to see — to bring it about.

“I think God sat us all down to be still,” she said. “COVID hit and everyone had to be home and everyone had to witness the same thing at the same time and no one could turn their back on what just happened. No one could say what they just witnessed didn’t happen.”

Asked if her child will have to hear the same rules so many black parents have routinely laid out for their children about encounters with police officers and other white authority figures, Ms. Brown said, “I know I will have to have the conversation with her. At this point it is what it is. I don’t want her to be in the world and be naïve. The best thing she can have is knowledge and truth. I won’t send her out into a dangerous world without that.”

Ms. Smith said she learned early on that being treated differently was pretty much the norm. “You hear things. You tell your parents. I would go home and they would explain the differences and where we came from. My family has always instilled our history in us. My older cousins, aunts, grandmothers, always told us history of black Americans and where we came from.

“You want to break down all barriers in the way that were created for black people,” she said. “It’s just from knowing our history of what we have been through — and how far we have to go. Let’s do this now, let’s make a difference now.”

Asked if the situation in the country after Mr. Floyd’s death feels hopeless, Ms. Moore said, “I don’t think it feels hopeless. Being a black female it makes me want to do more for others and to just continue to educate myself. I don’t believe it’s hopeless. But if I don’t do it, if I don’t change, nothing will change.

“I just try to keep moving forward and being positive and doing things to change my community,” she added. 

A scene from the June 3 protest in Peconic. (Credit: Tara Smith)

Ms. Smith also said she did not believe the situation now felt hopeless. “First we have to start making changes with our laws and the way things are structured right now,” she said. “It’s not hopeless at all. Moving forward we need change and not be comfortable where we are.”

But, she added, it should not have taken a man’s televised death to force change. “Why were chokeholds ever OK? A lot of change is going to come out of this. I am here for it … There is a lot of police on the North Fork that give our young black people a hard time. I see it more now. People avoid going certain ways because they don’t want to see a policeman. This cop may see me and pull me over. That’s just the name of the game and it’s really unfortunate.”

Ms. Moore said there was a time in her young life when she began to question the world around her, and how blacks were treated, but she didn’t speak up. That has all changed now. 

“I thought this is how it is. It’s not how it should be. If you are black, and you see something or experience racism, you didn’t get a chance to speak on it. There were times when it opened my eyes.”

Now, she said, people will speak out. There will still be “issues and problems and certain things, but honestly I would like my children and me not to have that conversation my parents had with me. There are unwritten rules we have to follow. I would like it if I didn’t have to do that with my children. I want them to grow up in a world where they don’t have to worry about the color of their skin. It would feel a lot better and a lot safer for African Americans in general.”

For Ms. Smith, what comes next is justice for George Floyd. “Justice must be served, then a sentence given,” she said. “And then change.”