By JohnCarl McGrady, editor in chief
After the suffocation and murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of a police officer, since charged with murder, protests erupted across the country. Though directly spurred by Floyd’s death, the protests harkened back to several other recent murders, including those of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, aslo unarmed black people killed by police. The protests were also, more generally, against the epidemic of police brutality in the United States and racism in the country as a whole.
The protests reached Nantucket on June 1st, with somewhere between 250 and 500 people showing up at Tom Nevers Field at 5:30. The actual number is hard to gauge, because protesters mostly arrived in cars, remaining spread out to prevent a major coronavirus outbreak in the midst of the global pandemic, and often remaining in their vehicles for the duration of the protest. While some estimates have fallen outside of the above range, it seems to be the general consensus. Regardless of the exact number, the protest was massive, and possibly the largest in Nantucket’s history.
“I didn’t expect it to be nearly so big,” said Liela Marrett, co-organizer and speaker. Marrett is currently a high school student, like most of her co-organizers, and will graduate in several weeks. “It was amazing,” she said the day after, “the turnout was incredible.”
It was certainly unprecedented. Cars blanketed Tom Nevers Field, festooned with posters reading “black lives matter,” “no justice, no peace,” and other phrases associated with the racial justice movement. Some were more radical. One massive sign that appeared to be black paint on a large wooden board read “DEFUND THE POLICE. ABOLISH PRISON.” Others leaned more into creativity and art, including a poster of a masked man reading “no impunity for killer cops.”
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Johnny Sussek, another of the co-organizers, admitted. “I didn’t expect this, though.”
No one did. Social media was flooded with pictures and videos of the protest, including the live Instagram video by co-organizer and high school junior Christian Mack that garnered over 800 views, included at the top of this article. Along with fellow high school students and organizers Sydney King, Chevelle Williams, and Brianna Leveille, Mack chose not to speak at the event, leaving that to the other organizers, but was still a powerful presence on social media.
“At one point, Johnny [Sussek] came running up to me, and he said ‘the line is down to Lola Burger’,” Mack remembered, “I thought ‘that can’t be right,’ but people just kept coming in, and I was like, ‘oh my god, he’s right.’”
The protest was scheduled to start at 5:30, but speeches began closer to 6:00, since people were still arriving well after the start time. Tom Nevers Field is far from where most people on Nantucket live, and the heavy attendance made traffic slow. According to Marrett, some members of the local black community felt that the field was too far out of the way, and wanted the protest to be more disruptive and hard to miss. Because of this suggestion, the organizers decided to move their planned moment of silence from Tom Nevers to Main Street, where the end of the protest would be harder to ignore.
“It was partially my idea,” Anderson explained. “That way, people who were downtown could just happen upon it.”
Once at Main Street, protestors took a knee for the eight minutes and thirty three seconds, the time it took the police officer who killed Floyd to suffocate him. Several spontaneous chants swept the crowd during this protest as activists of all ages joined together in solidarity.
The protestors filled Main treet, kneeling across the cobbles as well as on the sidewalks, several moving through the crowd hoisting signs over their heads.
“I thought it was going to be mostly just high school students,” Marrett admitted, “cause that’s who we were able to spread the word to on social media, you know? But Britney [Anderson] told me, people are spreading this all over Facebook…and it ended up being a lot of adults there, too.”
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the age range at the protest was massive, drawing on every generation. Still, it was high schoolers who organized the protest, and all but one of the speakers was under the age of 20.
Anderson, Marrett and Sussek stood in the back of black pickup truck to read their speeches, using the bar as a makeshift lectern. Anderson took the megaphone first, fumbling with her papers for a moment before diving into a passionate and powerfully forthright speech.
“All the gang like behaviour I’m seeing is from the police,” Anderson said, her voice trembling, “their job is to protect us, not oppress.” Anderson went right for white slacktivism, saying she’s “tired of people claiming to be allies and not being there when we need them.”
Anderson attacked Nantucket’s police specifically, and the hate crime from two years ago on the African American Meeting House, drawing loud applause. Sussek took the megaphone when she finished, his papers held at his side, ignored for almost the entire duration of his speech.
“As non black allies, all white people…must try their hardest to empathize…and most importantly use their platforms, their privileges to fight for justice,” Sussek’s voice carried through the crowd. “It’s 2020 and we find ourselves at battle.”
Someone behind him yelled “still!” and Sussek held the megaphone out in his direction. “Say that louder, please!”
Sussek is a natural orator, carrying himself with the fervent gravitas of an experienced speaker, though he says he hasn’t spoken on this issue before. “I haven’t thought about race in this depth, to this extent, before,” he admitted. “Why is that? Why was this not taught in school?” Even over the phone a day later, Sussek is still impassioned, still trying to lay out his grievances with the system and what he thinks needs to be done about it. “What are you doing?” He asked me at one point. “I have links to petitions, if you want them…we have to confront our truths and our own journeys, as white people.”
Sussek segued his speech into a section about how to fight the battle he was describing, saying “it’s our job to turn red or blue, into red and blue. It’s our job to turn me or you, into me and you.”
He finished with a call for justice and passed the megaphone to Marrett. Marrett spoke quietly at first. She explains “I haven’t really done any public speaking before.” After a minute or so, Marrett froze. At first it seemed she might be nervous of speaking in front of so many people. Someone yelled encouragement from the crowd.
It wasn’t that.
“After listening to Britney [Anderson] and Johnny [Sussek], I wasn’t that nervous,” she laughed the day after.
People closer to the front could see, however. Sussek put his hand on her shoulder and leaned over to whisper something in her ear.
It was tears. When she began speaking again, her voice shook with emotion. “I’m tired of waking up in fear every day. I’m tired of being terrified of an institution that’s supposed to protect and serve me.
I’m tired of worrying about my older brother who no longer lives at home, afraid he could be shipped away from me at any second because he likes to listen to his music loud, like Jordan Davis did. I watch my sixteen year old cousin get his license and immediately imagine his death after being pulled over by the police like Philando Castile.”
Her voice broke.
“We’re traumatized!” She lifted a hand to her mouth and broke down in tears again. Several people in the crowd were crying. Her speech reads ‘I’m traumatized.’ She made the change on the spot.
“Liela’s speech was incredibly emotional for me,” Williams would say later.
“It was painful,” Anderson paused, even days after the event, when recalling it. “I started crying too.”
Marret’s hesitations were gone. Her voice carried, now. The crowd was hers, clapping and cheering at multiple points for the remainder of her speech.
When she finished, local racial equality activist Rose Marie Samuels spoke about how her child was hit by a car, an event that never led to any arrests. After this, the crowd was beginning to return to their vehicles when a ten year old child took the stand.
The moment was unplanned, Marrett said, but she also believed it was a good moment for the protest. He read a short piece of writing he had written, a sort of spoken word poetry.
After he finished, Sussek instructed protestors to drive into town for a moment of silence, and the protestors broke apart.
“I watch my sixteen year old cousin get his license and immediately imagine his death after being pulled over by the police”Liela Marret
One notable factor of the Nantucket protest, as compared to other protests, was the lack of police presence. Nationally, the police have been violently interfering with protests and breaking them apart using tear gas, rubber bullets, and on at least one occasion, actual gunfire. This aggression from police has, in many cases, led to escalation, looting, and riots, though it is unclear how much of this is perpetrated by outside agitators and even the police themselves.
On Nantucket, the police remained out of the protest. “I expected them to show up and break apart [the protest]” Mack said. “But It’s probably good they didn’t come, at least [in uniform].”
This sentiment was largely echoed by other organizers.
“On the one hand, the police should have been there, protesting, to show solidarity. They aren’t the ones who killed George Floyd. On the other hand…” Marrett trailed off, clarifying later that she meant uniformed police presence could have caused the protest to become more aggressive and less focused.
Though local police have not engaged in the kind of police brutality that has happened in other communities, there are still accusations of racism from locals.
As alluded to in Anderson’s speech, many feel that justice has not been served with regards to the vandalism of the African American Meeting House. “There definitely should have been answers by now” Anderson said. “It shouldn’t be two years with nothing.”
Some have even gone far enough to suggest a coverup, accusing the police of knowing who the culprit is and not arresting them. “The town most definitely knows who did the vandalizing and it is being covered up. Just like the little boy who was hit off his bike, they know who did it,” Williams alluded to Rose Marie’s experiences. “The town wants everyone to believe we’re this perfect little island with no issues and I see through it.”
The police have denied such accusations and repeatedly refused to comment for Veritas, continually avoiding questions about the African American Meeting House hate crime. In an article published earlier this year, Veritas reporters failed to receive any comment of any kind from local or state police officials on the status of the investigation, steps that have been taken, or the accusations made by locals. Mack doesn’t believe there is a coverup, arguing that people are quick to make assumptions, but “in reality, there is no evidence.”
One sign at the protest read “NPD, your silence speaks volumes,” NPD standing for Nantucket Police Department.
Looking forward, the group of activists, brought together by a series of Instagram DMs and text messages, is unsure about the future.
“We’re definitely planning more,” Marrett said. “This isn’t the end.”
Anderson echoed this sentiment, saying “we’re trying to organize something.”
Beyond this, however, lies the uncertainty. No one is sure exactly how the movement will continue, or what events will be planned in the future. Whether or not people will stay focused on the issue also remains a major unknown. Organizers worry that the attention on racial injustice from the general public will wane, just as it did after the Ferguson protests in 2016.
“I don’t think it’s going to affect much,” Marrett admitted. “I hope it does, but I just don’t think anything will change.”
“I do think these protests are going to make a change,” Williams argued. “Whether its peaceful or not. We have an unreasonable president, and if we have to wait until November, well, then riot on through.”