‘The Wrecking Crew’ reflects on 2020 protests
- Published: September 8, 2023
In the summer of 2020, 46-year-old Black man George Floyd was murdered by white police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Chauvin — who was later convicted for the killing — handcuffed Floyd and held him face-down on the street with a knee to the neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds. Unable to breathe, Floyd died on the street — and in death, became an international symbol for victims of police brutality. Thousands of people across the U.S. took to the streets in protest.
Yellow Springs became part of that series of protests: For 25 weeks, YS Speaking Up for Justice led a series of weekly marches and rallies.
These events were often organized and led by a group of village youth and young adults who became known as “The Wrecking Crew” — a name bestowed upon the group by local activist and mentor Bomani Moyenda to communicate the swiftness and the intensity of the youths’ dedication to antiracist action.
Last week, on Monday, Aug. 21, Moyenda and several members of The Wrecking Crew gathered in Antioch College’s MacGregor Hall to discuss the 25 weeks of non-stop organizing and protests.
The 365 Project sponsored the event, titled “The Wrecking Crew Reflects: Youth Organizers Share Their Experiences of Organizing Anti-Racist Protests, Rallies and Marches Following the Murder of George Floyd.” Moyenda moderated the panel of young activists, all of whom were ages 9–25 at the time of the 2020 protests: Arielle Johnson, Julia Hoff, Angela Allen, Alaina Hoff and Ezra Lydy. Julian Roberts and Sofia Gisslen participated in the conversation virtually.
During his introduction of the panelists, Moyenda recalled that Roberts was the main catalyst for keeping the protests going.
“She said, ‘I don’t know what kind of plans you have, but I’m just letting you know, I’m planning on leading a protest.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, we’re going to march down the street, down the sidewalk?’ She said, ‘No, down the middle of the street.’ And that’s what she did. And it just kind of went on from there,” Moyenda said.
The following are edited excerpts from The Wrecking Crew’s conversation. The organizers discussed their evolution as a force for change, which included community education and outreach. They talked about pushback that came from within the community, and reflected on the ways their experiences continue to impact their lives.
Arielle Johnson: “Three years ago, I was 17. It was an amazing experience, and my role changed and evolved. I was invited to speak at the library [where some protests were held] by Julian [Roberts]. Then eventually, I took more of a leadership role; you just kind of do whatever is needed.”
Julia Hoff: “I was 18 at the time and oh, gosh, it was an incredible experience. … We really just worked tremendously as a team, and stamped out where we were needed. A lot of what I did was with one of my really great friends, Nya [Brevik]. She’s not here tonight, but she is missed. … We would get in contact with speakers and plan themes. And we really saw a need for an educational component.”
Angela Allen: “My role was wherever [Roberts] needed me to be, however I could support her. … I’m opinionated and I was definitely pretty passionate about some things, so I think that’s kind of how I started to take more of a leadership role within it.” [Allen was 25 at the time of the protests.]
Alaina Hoff: “I was 20 when I started helping gather up all the information for the rallies, and that’s pretty much what I did. … I did a lot of background stuff. I also helped get together informational pamphlets for whichever topic we were doing at the time.”
Ezra Lydy: “I was 9 then. I think I was the emcee for a little bit.”
Julian Roberts: “I was 21 back in 2020, and my role was really to work with everybody in the community, and also to spread awareness of not only things that were taking place in town, but also in cities and towns around us. That was through word of mouth, social media, reaching out to people and just using each other as resources. … It seemed like a perfect situation where there were people there with the same goal.”
Bomani Moyenda: “If you could reflect for just a minute on some of the feelings and thoughts you had when you first saw the video of George Floyd having his life choked out of his body.”
Johnson: “I remember watching it over and over and over again. I remember being deeply disturbed, but also, I felt like I had to confront my identity as a Black woman. I don’t think I had done that before. And that shocked me because I’m adopted, and I was raised by two white parents. And living in Yellow Springs, I thankfully was never really confronted with anything nasty growing up, too much. But that kind of was a wakeup call for me.”
J. Hoff: “Obviously, it was deeply disturbing and horrifying. … I really began to confront my whiteness and the ways in which I contributed to the problem. Because as I was reacting to the shock of witnessing that, I was also reacting to the fact that all of my friends of color, my Black friends — it was something that they had seen before and had been seeing before, and it was something that I had the privilege to not see in the same way.”
Allen: “I don’t think I actually watched the full video. … I don’t think I could have operated in a productive capacity had I let myself experience what that video truly made me feel. … As Black people we’ve experienced so much, and [George Floyd’s murder] was just so prolonged and exaggerated. And the look on the officer’s face, just so nonchalant, it’s just really hard to process: How am I going to manage my emotions from day to day; how am I going to go to work?”
Roberts: “I felt like I couldn’t sit still. … The fact that we were even getting pushback from a small, progressive town is eye-opening in itself — imagine how it is across the entire U.S.”
Sophia Gisslen: “I was very deeply horrified, feeling intense rage and anxiety. I remember talking to my friend on the phone asking, ‘What can I do?’ I feel like in that way, my initial instinct was to go to her because she was my closest friend at the time, and a Black woman. I think I was sort of putting her on this pedestal and expecting her to have the answers [to] ‘What should I do as a white person?’“
Moyenda: “I think there’s a lot that goes into how to be anti-racist. It’s complicated and it’s difficult, and it’s probably why so few people do it, but we’re really proud of the approach, you know, of your self-assessment. … I remember seeing you all after rallies, getting together and meeting at a picnic table on the [Mills Lawn] school grounds, planning for the very next week. That had to be stressful to know that you were doing this every week — coming up with a topic. What was that like?”
J. Hoff: “We would have so many group chats. And we decided to meet after the rallies … [and] delegate all the tasks that we wanted to have done. So that included somebody on social media that would be posting on Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat, wherever, trying to get more young people involved.”
Allen: “It was hard, but that team — even if we didn’t always get along — bonding over something that was larger than us, something that we wanted to do, and change, and be in the world, when we were figuring out who we are in the world, was just so incredibly powerful.”
Roberts, representing the group, wrote a list of demands that included the establishment of a Community Review Board, or CRB, that would have input regarding the conduct of the Village police department. In response, a CRB committee was established, composed of community members and Council liaison, who drafted documents that would legitimize the board via legislation. To date, Council has not formally approved the board.
Roberts: “We were getting pushback, because of course there were safety issues involved in the protest. … But also, just in general, people didn’t necessarily want us to step outside of the box of what a protest rally should look like in their eyes.
J. Hoff: “We saw how we could write demands that we thought people from the community and Council members could fulfill to make people of color just in general feel welcome in the community — it was a lot of presentation of documents.”
After Roberts drafted the demands, the organizers attended two meetings, which lasted a total of six hours, with members of Village Council and the police department. The meetings were called “restorative justice circles,”but from the group’s perspective, the meetings were used as invectives against the organization.
Allen: “You know what restorative justice is? I’ll explain it to you, how it was explained to me. Imagine someone vandalizes a lady’s house. Instead of going to jail, [the perpetrator] goes over to her place, and they talk it out. The lady says, ‘This is how you can make it right. I need [the perpetrator] to come over at these times and clean up my garden.’ [Then the victim will] say, ‘Job well done, I forgive you,’ and move on from that. [In Yellow Springs, it was as if] we were the ones that were doing damage. … [We were told] ‘You guys need to stop. You’re costing us money. We’re trying to cut these expenses.’ And we’re like, ‘We’re going to march regardless. Do you guys know that we have a right to do this?’”
Roberts: “I think what stuck with me was, we were quite literally handed a list of all the things that the town has done for Black people in the last few years, and why we should basically shut [the protests] down. … It’s interesting to see how the knowledge that Yellow Springs is a liberal town is used to then perpetuate racism within the Yellow Springs government. I also think another thing that was equally as disturbing was the way that some of the Village Council members doubled down after the fact by asking that we make public apologies to them, and to the chief of police at the time.”
The panelists spoke about how their experiences as part of The Wrecking Crew influenced their next steps over the following three years.
Johnson: “I had a complete career change. I went for biochem pre-med at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, and then something felt very wrong. … I looked at psychology and I looked at medical anthropology. So those are my two majors right now. [I also went] back to the Bahamas and saw my biological family, and heard from them that they were so proud of my work here. … They have their own struggles of oppression and racism that felt worse to me than the stuff that I was dealing with here. … And so, my focus is on people of color and mental health, because I think that for our communities, it’s a struggle to get help.”
J. Hoff: “I’m doing an internship this summer with NCCJ, which stands for National Conference for Community and Justice Accreditation. … It’s taught me a lot about humanness. … There’s a lot of going into schools and working with young folks — teaching diversity, equity and inclusion. And I think it really did start with the work we were doing back in 2020.”
A. Hoff: “I’m probably going to lean towards social work, but I am not entirely sure. But that’s where I found my purpose. I worked a lot with kids, so I was really focused on working with them, and teaching them that they have autonomy, that they can speak out for themselves, and helping them do so. I work with medical students, and basically do mock patient visits. I give them feedback. I’m helping them to be the best doctors for their patients holistically, not just with medicine, but with interaction, with care and with autonomy, and all those things that are really important.”
Roberts: “I haven’t had a chance to be as involved as I was in 2020 because of nursing school, going back to school full time, and going into the workforce [as a nurse]. … You know how social injustices can affect how somebody can get health care, how patients are treated. I think it was an experience that allowed me to dig deeper in different life experiences, and specifically in a place where people are vulnerable and sometimes must completely rely on the goodness of other people.”
Gisslen: “This year I’m working as a house advisor … [and] we don’t get paid enough. A lot of people in this position are getting discriminated against, and most people are relying on financial aid to go through school. People don’t really have the option to quit this job. So, we are all collectively unionizing, and we have a lot of plans for how we want to make it a more equitable workplace.”