Youth-led Protest Urges Syracuse Police to Remove Officers From Schools

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Syracuse: 4 people stand on street encircled by crowd

Gabe Stern

Protesters form a circle around Shakira Neal and Ruell Branch in Syracuse Friday

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Pressure is mounting on city lawmakers to change how the Syracuse Police Department operates: The state passed two sets of state-mandated police reforms this week that Syracuse will implement. A still-unresolved contract between the city and the Syracuse Police Benevolent Association will likely head to arbitration. Protest organizers have vowed to march across the city for 40 days, part of the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd. 

On Friday afternoon, day 14 of the protests, another group mounted its pressure. Organizing under the name Cuse Youth Black Lives Matter (CuseYouthBLM), a set of 10 organizers from a local high school had pushed three specific demands from city hall. One would give the Citizens Review Board power by reforming its structure; another would increase transparency in SPD’s new officer hiring process. This would include implementing a system similar to the Brady List. 

As what appeared to be over 2,000 people filled Clinton Square in downtown Syracuse in support of the movement, some of the early chants referenced the CuseYouthBLM’s first demand: removing Syracuse police officers from city schools. 

Syracuse: Young man and woman wearing matching black T-shirts, shorts, smile and pose on sidewalk

Gabe Stern

Ruell Branch and Shakira Neal, of Henninger High School in Syracuse, were among the co-founders of CuseYouthBLM.

“That’s our first demand. Pushing for that, that’s what we’re doing,” said Shukri Mohamed, one of the organizers of CuseYouthBLM. “And hopefully that reaches across the nation that we don’t need police officers in our schools to be intimidating us, when that’s supposed to be a safe place for us to be learning, and feeling safe.” 

CuseYouthBLM is a chapter of a larger Black Lives Matter network in Syracuse that includes Last Chance for Change, the group that is marching for 40 days, and Syracuse Police Accountability and Reform Coalition (SPAARC). SPAARC sent a letter to City Hall on behalf of 14 organizations with eight demands for heightened police reform across the city. CuseYouthBLM’s demands make up three of them. 

“All of our groups have the same types of demands,” said Shakira Neal, 17, another founder of CuseYouthBLM. “So we all kind of feed off of each other.” 

How student group formed

Days after the video went viral showing Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck, which led to Floyd’s death, Ruell Branch, also 17, texted Neal. “I think we should start a group,” he said. They texted two other friends. A group chat swelled to 20, 50 and soon, hundreds of students. They started collaborating with Black Lives Matters organizers from Syracuse over Zoom calls.  

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By 4:30 p.m. Friday, hundreds of Last Chance for Change organizers arrived at Clinton Square as the two rallies meshed into one. Neal and Branch would soon lead the 2,000 people through the city. But before they did, a Last Chance for Change organizer spoke. 

“When it comes to the BLM group, our demands are pretty simple — defund the police, and reinvest into the communities,” he said. “Part of defunding the police is getting them out of schools to which our students and our kids attend.” 

At a press conference Friday, hours before the protest began, Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh indicated that he had received the list of demands from the protest organizations and was ready to sit down with organizers. 

Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh: smiling headshot Ben Walsh in dark suit with short brown hair

City of Syracuse

Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh

“I have not had the opportunity to sit down with the official organizations and protesters to talk about specific demands. I’m ready and willing to do that,” he said. “I tried to put that out to make sure that those organizations are aware of that. But I want to be respectful of that and their process, and so I’m ready to engage when they are. But this is their process, and they own it, and I’m very respectful of that.” 

At the same time, Walsh and Police Chief Kenton Buckner have given several press conferences related to an uptick in violence over the past month. One of them was on Thursday, when an officer shot Jakelle Smith, 23, in the jaw. There were no body cameras on the scene. Walsh has long pushed for more body cameras at SPD, steadily increasing the number since he was elected and trying to secure the funds to provide a body camera for every officer.  

Buckner said the officer shot Davis after he saw him reaching for a gun. That information came solely from the officer. 

As the rally wrapped around the Strathmore area of Syracuse and back toward downtown, Jakelle’s brother, Andre, 25, held a “Justice for Jakelle” sign.  

“You’re gonna tell me all this shit that my brother did, but you’re not going to show me proof?” he said of the investigation. He added that his brother, who suffered nonlethal injuries, is “95% of the reason I came out today.” 

When the protesters returned to Clinton Square the wind was too strong for the planned candlelight vigil. So they turned on music and started dancing.  

And soon they dispersed. Weeks of planning had gone into the rally, where hundreds RSVPed to the Facebook event and 4,000 people followed the @cuseyouthblm on Instagram. 

In a post Friday evening, Branch and Neal posted a set of images with scenes from the march: them yelling into megaphones and the thousands in the crowd who followed them. 

“This day will go down in history,” they said.

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