Since January 2015, New York activists have gathered every Monday evening for “People’s Monday.” Organized by NYC Shut It Down, the event draws protesters to Grand Central Station and other locations, where they share one story of police violence against a person of color. They then set out on a march – chanting along the way and stopping in crowded areas to continue telling the victim’s story. Each week in January, one People’s Monday participant will share their story with Narratively’s Daniel Krieger and explain why they’re taking action.
Who: Keegan Stephan; 33; organizer, journalist, law student; Queens
I grew up in Alaska, so I never saw racial injustice firsthand, never experienced the violence of it. My father is a Republican who thinks that wealth distribution is fair, that hardworking, smarter people get what they deserve. That just never made sense to me because there were so many people of color who were obviously extremely hardworking and not making as much money as wealthy CEOs, who are all white. I came to New York City and lived in the South Bronx, but I was still largely isolated from racial injustice and violence because I wasn’t a person of color. When videos started emerging of police violence across the country, the magnitude of the injustice really shook me to the core. There was no way for me to not get involved.
I’ve been involved in street demonstrations for the last ten years – for the NYC cycling advocacy movement, Occupy Wall Street and Sandy relief. In all of them, I was in a leadership role and a very vocal spokesperson. When these huge Black Lives Matter demonstrations erupted, I had to be a part of it. I wanted to get on the streets, but it was very clear that it was not my place to be in a leadership role or be a spokesperson for this movement – it’s not my issue to talk about – so I started documenting the demonstrations, taking photographs and sharing them on Twitter.
The cops try to stop me from taking photos all the time, especially when they’re making arrests. Around January 2015, there was a particularly violent arrest going on – a black man was face down on the street and a cop was on his back. This was at a Black Lives Matter march after Eric Garner, and that’s how he was killed, so I ran over and was trying to film. I know that you can’t obstruct an arrest, so I wasn’t getting in the way, but as soon as I started filming a cop immediately pepper sprayed me. That’s an extreme version of what happens all the time. They’re always trying to shove your camera away, get in your way, and if it’s nighttime they’ll shine a flashlight directly into your lens. It’s standard operating procedure for the NYPD.
After the non-indictments for the cops that killed Eric Garner and Mike Brown, thousands and thousands of people gathered in Union Square and marched through all of New York City every single night for months. People’s Monday evolved organically from that. Our founding members started leading marches to Grand Central. We started talking about what we could do to best get the word out, to honor different victims – black and brown people killed by police. That’s when the idea for writing out the facts about what happened to them and reading them aloud to people in Grand Central came about. Nearly every week I make a photo collage of the facts of the events and post them to social media.
2017 is scary. I don’t really know what to expect once Trump is president. Trump’s rhetoric and the right-wing rhetoric in general is that people who get assaulted by the police deserve it. I fear that we’re going to get more violent policing, and I’m also afraid that it’s going to empower other racist elements. Recently, one of our members was standing in Grand Central holding a sign when a man walked up to him, took his picture and called him a “faggot.” When the member asked what he was doing, the man hit him in the stomach with his umbrella and knocked his phone out of his hand when he tried to take a picture of him. This kind of thing never happened before Trump was elected. Since the election, we’ve had these incidents of overt violence, even in front of the police, and they refuse to do anything.
I’ve pretty much stopped talking to my immediate family about everything I do. But a few of my cousins contacted me out of the blue on Twitter and said they saw the stuff I’d been sharing about demonstrations and thought it was really cool. I hadn’t spoken to them in ten-plus years. Since then, I’ve been mentoring them on issues of racial justice.
I don’t waste my time trying to argue with people who aren’t going to get it, so I don’t argue with trolls online and I don’t talk to my family because I know they’re not going to come around. With Trump’s win, now I worry about them feeling empowered to bring it up with me because they feel that they’ve won or something. On the other hand, maybe this will be a gateway for me to talk to people who were too conservative to talk to in the past, but are good people. I’m a little bit hopeful that if my family does bring up politics, I could say, “You know, the people you support are assaulting my friends and they might assault me just because of the politics that I hold. Is that the movement you want to be aligned with?” Maybe that will get through to them, and maybe that’s a door we could walk through.
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Come back to Narratively every Wednesday this month for more Protest People.