Queens, NY – As the FBI and NYPD Counterrorism analysts try to identify the fringe groups that many speculate are hijacking peaceful demonstrations that were meant to bring justice for George Floyd and highlight other black lives that were cut short due to racism and/or police brutality — a southeast Queens activist held his own rally in Queens Village on Wednesday to take back their story.
James Johnson is the founder of Opportunities for Southeast Queens Millenials, an organization for Millennials and the Generation Z residents of southeast Queens. The group hosts job banks, panel discussions, networking sessions and encourages young adults to uplift their communities through civic engagement, leadership, advocacy and financial self-sufficiency.
“There are some white people who wear Black Lives Matters t-shirts, but then they come and are destroying our communities and start looting and tearing things up, and they actually initiate the looting themselves, but when the media outlets point their camera they only point it at the few black people that are next to them wearing the t-shirts,” said Johnson. “This then reflects right back onto the black community, so that’s why I wanted to hold this rally.”
More than 300 people showed up to the rally, which was held outside Hollis Deli located at the corner of Hollis Avenue and Francis Lewis Boulevard to demand new legislative policies, to remind fellow citizens to take the Census to bring resources to that area, to register to the vote, and to elect people that align with their values.
“We care about our neighborhoods in southeast Queens, and we are not going to tear our own community up,” said Johnson. “In addition, we are not going to let people come here and try to change the narrative of our community in southeast Queens. We know what we have and we know what we want.”
Johnson is a liaison for the southeast Queens community for the city’s Comptroller’s Office, he is a member of DC 37 Local 371, a public employee union, and his parents — an 1199 SEIU membership clerk and property protection agent — are members of 1199 SEIU and the TWU Local 100.
He also spent nearly two years working at Boys Town, a non-profit that is sponsored by ACS to help at-risk youth. Johnson created OSEQM last year, to help youths and young adults get careers in all industries in New York so that they can give back to their neighborhoods and society at large.
Johnson reportedly lost 17 pounds battling the coronavirus, but still felt it was important to organize a rally.
“For years, I heard this narrative that Millennials and young people aren’t engaged or civically active, but we just had over 300 people come out in front of a deli that wanted to make change right now,” said Johnson. “They want to walk to the corner store, they want to walk down the block or they want to walk to their jobs without having to be stopped by a cop. Millennials are feeling defeated and I wanted to encourage them that we are going to stay together.”
The southeast region of Queens is one of the few multi-racial and multi-ethnic communities in the U.S. where immigrants, black and brown folks make as much or outearn their white counterparts, but it is also taxed more than the millionaires and billionaires living in wealthier neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and the residents don’t always see their tax dollars working for them.
“We have home ownership, we have essential workers here — most of us do not have the luxury to work from home — we drive the buses, we drive the trains, we deliver food, we take care of our kids in our community,” Johnson said. “And as far as labor goes, southeast Queens is labor. We are civil service workers and we know that our parents worked really, really hard to get what we have. We know they struggled and worked 12- to 13-hour shifts, but we want more.”
Johnson believes the community wants more jobs, more public transportation, youth centers and better investments in their neighborhoods and are just as aggravated as other neighborhoods impacted by police brutality and a lack of resources. But he says he won’t allow outsiders to come to this part of Queens to destroy what their forefathers have worked for and that their children simply want to build upon without being harassed by cops and being forced into curfews.
“This community wants better, a lot of us want better, but we are not going to destroy things to get it,” said Johnson. “Our grandmothers, our grandfathers and our parents worked extremely hard to get this.”
Johnson also doesn’t care for the disparities in which the citywide curfew is over-policed in black neighborhoods versus white neighborhoods.
“Our parents weren’t home enough to give us a curfew because they are working so hard as essential workers, so why should we give a damn about a curfew now,” said Johnson. “They have to change, [the police] need to leave us alone and stop harassing us. It’s a strategic thing for why they are attacking our communities, because they want our communities back and that is why they are attacking us like that. That is why [the curfew] is happening to us.”