Speaking Out for Racial Justice on the Lower East Side

"Running to Protest" participants head north along the East River. All photos by Kari Jensen.

“Running to Protest” participants head north along the East River. All photos by Kari Jensen.

This story was written and reported by Kari Jensen.  

As racial justice protests continue here in New York City, here is a look at one of the recent events that took place at the East River Park Amphitheater.

“Running to Protest” attracted hundreds on June 14th for a 2-mile, casual run (with Covid-19 masks and social distancing), followed by an on-stage rally.  Speakers – from the city’s running crews – denounced racism, police brutality, and the killing of black people, such as George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.

“You just got to continue talking about it and don’t just let a week or two go by and think that it’s all over,” said Coffey, a filmmaker, who organized the event to advocate for change.

Coffey goes by his surname only and founded Define New York Run Club. He said as a tall, black runner he is repeatedly and unfairly targeted by police. More recently, his wife had told him that their six-year-old daughter was afraid to go outdoors. “She’s afraid of being black,” Coffey said. “She didn’t want to go outside anymore because she thought she was about to get killed … Kids will pay attention to every single thing that’s going on.”

Mitchell Silver, at left, Coffey, at right, and others on stage at the East River Park Amphitheater.

Mitchell Silver, at left, Coffey, at right, and others on stage at the East River Park Amphitheater.

Mitchell Silver, a runner and New York City Parks Commissioner, talked to the crowd about how the pandemic was disproportionately affecting black and brown communities.

“All my friends are saying, ‘What can we do?’ There will be a time to ask, ‘What we can do?'” Mr. Silver said. “But right now the question is, if you’re white, ask someone, ‘How do you feel? How do you feel?’ We’ll get to the ‘do’ later.”

Mr. Silver also spoke about family concerns. “I have two sons and I have six grandchildren. Four will be black men,” he said. “The reason why I march: Both of my sons have been victims of racial profiling and one of them didn’t handle it too well. As a father, what breaks me up is I could not be there to protect them or be there to help them through that. It’s a damage that they’re carrying with them for the rest of their life. This runs deep. And the only crime they committed was that they were black and they were stopped. Again and again and again.”

Coffey, holding a megaphone, shown in silhouette, speaks to the crowd, while Cheryl Donald, at left, looks on.

Coffey, holding a megaphone, shown in silhouette, speaks to the crowd, while Cheryl Donald, at left, looks on.

Cheryl Donald, co-captain of the Brooklyn Track Club, followed Mr. Silver. She told the crowd that her father is a retired United States Army two-star general. She holds multiple degrees and is a homeowner. She also heads the New York office of one of the largest federal agencies in the United States Department of Health and Human Services and she owns a mental health practice.

Yet, as a black woman, she is regularly confronted by negative racial stereotypes. “I have to work hard to get the benefit of the doubt with every new interaction,” Ms. Donald said, “to fight off the micro-aggressions that I may be too difficult, have an attitude, be mean, lazy, combative, and, as all my sisters know, angry. If I don’t have the benefit of demonstrating my worth, I have the very real possibility of becoming the next Breonna Taylor, the next Sandra Bland, or the next Shayla Martin.”

Ms. Bland, a black woman, died in police custody in Hempstead, Texas. Ms. Martin, a black woman and runner, was targeted and arrested for barely breaking New York City’s recent curfew.

“As we continue the dialogue today,” Ms. Donald said, “I challenge you all to check your assumptions about who black women are and reflect on every micro- and macro-aggression you have displayed toward us that furthered the society’s narrative that our black womanhood doesn’t deserve respect and that our black lives don’t matter. Because they matter. Every day I matter. Every day we matter. Black lives matter.”

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Jessie Zapo, a coach, art therapist, and founder of Girls Run NYC, introduced herself as “a white woman who leads several communities that are diverse communities.”

“I want to speak to the white people here and allies or hopefully future allies,” she said. “If you are a white person who is creating spaces … look around you in your space, whether it’s an event, a race, a club, a crew, whatever. If your space is not diverse, I want you to ask yourself these questions: ‘What am I doing consciously or unconsciously to create this space that is not inclusive? What is my responsibility?'”

Good intentions are not enough, Ms. Zapo said. “You have to follow it up with actions.”

Speakers also included Dao-Yi Chow of Old Man Run Club, Power Malu of NYC Bridge Runners, Julissa Tejada of WilPower Fitness, and others. To listen to the “Running to Protest” on-stage talk, see the Citius Mag podcast.

Coffey said he hopes to plan another protest-run. For updates and information, see his Instagram page: @thatcoffeyboy. The social media site, @JusticeForGeorgeNYC (Instagram and Twitter) provides centralized information and updates on protests in all five boroughs, as well.

Coffey also launched a short film on YouTube that he acted in, co-wrote, and co-produced. It’s called “About the People,” features an all black cast, and “examines social injustice and racial inequity in black and brown communities.”