December 20, 2020
Each evening, as dusk falls on Manhattan’s Morningside Heights neighborhood, 78-year-old Sonia Jaffe Robbins leaves her apartment where she has isolated since the coronavirus pandemic began in March. She joins a small gathering at the intersection of Broadway and 111th Street, wearing a surgical mask and carrying a sign that lists the names of Black people killed by police. As traffic roars by on Broadway, drivers shout support out their windows, bicycle delivery workers raise their fists, and the bus offers a blaring honk.
This group has a different tenor than many of the demonstrations that took place across the nation after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police in late May. The protesters are all white and nearly all senior citizens. Yet people in this demographic come from powerful protest traditions of their own, and nationwide, seniors have demonstrated in support of Black Lives Matter, despite their increased vulnerabilities to coronavirus.
The protest in Morningside Heights began in June, when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio imposed a curfew. Mary Peppito, a local lawyer with the Legal Aid Society, circulated the idea amongst a few friends, who spread her email wider throughout the neighborhood. The group met when the curfew began at 8 p.m. to support the larger demonstrations downtown. Because these protesters were in an age group particularly susceptible to coronavirus, they maintained social distancing by creating small contingents every few blocks, which made a staggered experience for drivers and pedestrians on Broadway.
“I was coming back from dinner at Le Monde and I saw this gaggle of geriatric white folks holding signs that say ‘Black Lives Matter,’” Catherine Roskam, who has attended the protest since September, tells Mic. “So I joined them.”
Dan McSweeney did too. A veteran and longtime neighborhood resident who works in historic preservation, McSweeney says that at age 50, he’s one of the younger ones there.
The group demonstrated nightly until Election Day, but a smaller faction continued to protest on Saturdays, meeting at dusk for 15 minutes on the median with their signs and soliciting honks from passing vehicles.
Robbins has participated in the protest nearly since its inception, but her first instinct was to march downtown. Her political awareness began early — her grandparents immigrated from Eastern Europe and were communists, so her family members were blacklisted during the Red Scare of the 1950s. She knew she was an outsider when her high school held mock elections and she was one of the few students who voted for Adlai Stevenson, not Dwight Eisenhower. She went on to march on Washington, D.C., in 1963, protest the Vietnam War, and stage sit-ins with the Women’s Liberation Movement. But with the current pandemic risk factors, she felt unsafe riding the subway or marching in a crowd.
“I was feeling really depressed and upset by that,” she tells Mic. So when her neighbor mentioned the protests on Broadway, she leapt at the opportunity to go.
Other protesters are longtime activists as well. As bishop suffragan of New York, Roskam marched with the Episcopal church in New York’s 1984 Gay Pride Parade. Peppito, who started the protests, coordinated canvassing efforts to get out the vote for Joe Biden.
“The upsurge that started in the spring is absolutely unprecedented in American history.”
“For older white people, if they were people who were involved in the uprising of the ‘60s — not just the Civil Rights Movement, but also the anti-war movement, the New Left kind of folks — they may have self-organized,” says Deva Woodly, an associate professor of politics at the New School.
According to a June Quinnipiac poll, 58% of all people over the age of 65 supported the protests that occurred after Floyd’s death. Calculations by The New York Times showed that up to 26 million people participated in a Black Lives Matter protest over the summer.
“The upsurge that started in the spring is absolutely unprecedented in American history — the largest demonstrations ever,” Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, tells Mic. “They registered a wide sentiment on behalf of equal rights, the likes of which we never even saw in the ‘60s.”
These protests haven’t been isolated to Manhattan.
In June, Jerry Hull went out in front of his Portland, Oregon retirement home with a sign that said “Black Lives Matter.” Hull, who is 75 years old and white, tells Mic that he needed to do something after witnessing racial injustice in the country — especially because he has children and grandchildren who are not white. The next day, 16 people joined him. The day after that, 50 residents came to protest, some in wheelchairs. A volunteer placed stickers 6 feet apart on the sidewalk for social distancing. Hull estimates that 80% of the responses from passersby were positive.
“Five percent gave us fingers other than thumbs that indicated some displeasure,” Hull says.
At a Boston retirement home, residents hold monthly demonstrations. Howard Luckett, an African-American man who is 92 years old, holds a sign that says “#GeorgeFloyd” and reads, “Am I next?”
In Kentucky, a group of seniors staged a sit-in on the front lawn of the state’s attorney general’s home to demand justice for Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old EMT killed by Louisville police during a botched raid in her own home. Police issued citations and arrested Mary Carrigan Holden, who was mending a dress as she protested.
“The arresting officer was very kind and even rolled the windows down,” Holden told the local ABC affiliate, WHAS. “I got some special treatment … because I was white, you know. And old.”
Over the summer in New York City, Carlos Polanco, a college student and activist, organized Black Lives Matter demonstrations. At times, white protesters stood in front of him to protect him from police.
“I think some of these folks lived through moments that were very tense,” Polanco tells Mic. “These people lived through the Cold War, they lived through Vietnam, they were protesting wars … They got that. They got why we felt the need to protest.”
The pandemic and political unrest this year have been galvanizing.
Credit for this collective action goes to the Movement for Black Lives which, since 2014, has focused on organizing, educating the public, and coalition-building. During this time, police continued to inflict violence on people of color, up until May when a white woman in Central Park called 911 on Christian Cooper, a Black man who was birdwatching. Just hours later, Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police.
According to Woodly, the New School professor, the 2016 election of Donald Trump “took all the air out of the room” from movements like Black Lives Matter. But particularly with his response to the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump made racism more visible. The current pandemic has only exacerbated these tensions.
“Folks who are older are especially vulnerable to this disease,” says Michael Jeffries, a professor of American Studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. “This is a life-or-death time for those folks. They know that their lives are directly affected by the actions of their government and the executive branch in particular. I think it is also the case that the Black Lives Matter movement has revealed the immediacy of the threat that racism poses, not only to Black people, but to democracy as a whole.”
Luckett, the nonagenarian protester from Boston, emphasized that the older activists participate in part due to a sense of duty and lasting purpose. “We all want to do our part,” he says. “We don’t want to leave this world thinking that it’s going to continue. We want to leave a legacy. … Let’s do it together. We’re stronger together.”