Observing Juneteenth: A march to the Art Museum, a fashion show, ‘Jawnteenth’

Chris Bowman holds up a fist demanding justice for Black people in the U.S. during a Juneteenth march in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Chris Bowman holds up a fist demanding justice for Black people in the U.S. during a Juneteenth march in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Updated 1:20 p.m. Saturday

Residents across the Philadelphia region are observing Juneteenth, in commemoration of June 19, 1865 — the day Union soldiers gave enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, news about the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier and the surrender of the Confederacy months prior.

I Will Breathe protest moves through Center City

A few dozen protesters blocked a lane of traffic on Market Street and around City Hall in an effort to raise awareness of Juneteenth, police brutality, and issues of inequality before a planned celebration this afternoon in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The demonstration was organized by a newly formed group called I Will Breathe, which 22-year-old Nasir Bell said he formed with a friend not long after being arrested by Philadelphia police.

“We got arrested Monday night for protesting, and then that following Wednesday I Will Breathe was started, and it just took off from there,” Bell said.

Nasir Bell (on the bullhorn) chants “I will breathe” at a protest march on Juneteenth. Bell, 22, started his organization, I Will Breathe, will other protesters he met during his arrest at a protest in Philadelphia on June 1. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

He said his experience with police violence during demonstrations over the last few weeks had solidified his resolve to push for widespread social change.

“They started shooting at us, tear gas, bullets. But it was worth it, ‘cause look where we are now,” Bell said.

At one point, demonstrators blocked traffic outside the Municipal Services Building on 15th Street with a “die-in,” lying in the road for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on George Floyd’s neck, with Floyd’s death the result.

“We have to come to Center City to protest, but this is what’s going on in the hood every day,” an organizer told the crowd.

Emotions were mixed, with participants chanting the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in between calls of “Happy Juneteenth.” Demonstrators planned on linking up with a separate action staged by Resist Philly, with whom I Will Breathe organized the day’s events.

Emotions were mixed, with participants chanting the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in between calls of “Happy Juneteenth.”

Long term, organizers hope to raise the profile of Juneteenth nationally, and believe today’s peaceful protest is a start.

Protesters laid in the intersection of 15th and JFK in Philadelphia for 8 minutes and 46 seconds and organizers called out George Floyd’s last words. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“We preach peace, solidarity and love,” Bell said. “We have white, Black, everything in between.”

By 2 p.m., about 100 protesters were marching up Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which had been closed to traffic. At one point, a drumline materialized and played alongside marchers. Near the museum steps, demonstrators joined in from the group Resist Philly, with whom I Will Breathe helped organize the day’s event.

The visible police presence was limited to a few Civil Affairs vehicles trailing protesters and several bike units along the march route.

Group brings high fashion onto Philly sidewalks for Juneteenth

A fashion show made a runway of the Old City sidewalks  — albeit a little bit behind schedule.

Brand management group World of Grandeur organized the fashion and art performance to model clothes made by Black designers in support of Black Lives Matter.

The event kicked off in front of the Liberty Bell, and though it started more than an hour late, around 30 people were on hand.

The Juneteenth fashion show featured clothes made by Black designers in support of Black Lives Matter. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Just after 2 p.m., models walked down the bricks of Independence Plaza wearing flowing garments in bright colors and West African designs made by Miss Glam, a Philadelphia resident originally from Liberia who sources all her fabrics from African producers.

“We want to show we are as great, as amazing,  and as beautiful as anybody else, and we deserve to be free and alive,” said Wasiymah Josey, events coordinator for World of Grandeur.

The Juneteenth fashion show featured clothes made by Black designers in support of Black Lives Matter. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Organizers planned to march across portions of the Underground Railroad. Donations are going to different organizations working in support of Black lives.

Protesters with the Black Lives Matter march down Pine Street on Juneteenth in West Philly. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

BLM’s ‘Jawnteenth’ celebration in West Philly

About 4 p.m., as Friday’s “Jawnteenth” event got underway in West Philadelphia’s Malcolm X Park, things resembled a well-planned block party, with food vendors and DJ’s on hand. The festivities were billed as a “celebration of Black joy, freedom, and resistance,” with musical performances, speeches, and music scheduled into the early evening.

Fifty-second Street was closed down as marchers paraded along a short route in the area, with demonstrators on horseback bringing up the rear.

Al Lynch rode his horse to Malcolm X Park from North Philadelphia to celebrate Juneteenth. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“We’re riding for the cause, Black lives does matter, we love being Black,” said Al Lynch, sitting atop a horse named AJB Classic Babe.

Lynch is part of a program that teaches riding and horsemanship to young people in Philadelphia.

Protesters celebrating Juneteenth at Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia took to the streets chanting “I love being black!” (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“This isn’t really a celebration,” Lynch said of the Juneteenth commemoration. “It’s [a] fight for liberation.”

“We’re just fighting for rights right now, just to be treated civilly,” he said.

Demonstrators marched around Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia, demanding racial justice and celebrating Juneteenth. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Kevin Garcia-Ramirez came to Philadelphia from New York years ago as a teacher.

He was at Jawnteenth Friday because “I spent a few years teaching a lot of Black kids from Philadelphia, at a boarding school about 20 minutes from Philly, and I just felt like I feel for them,” said Garcia-Ramirez, who is now a community worker.

“I’m not of African American descent, whatever it is this African American community wants to accomplish … is up for them to decide and for them to support. But I can speak to police reform.”

As someone who has had a public service job, he said there’s sometimes a difficult tension between trying to keep people safe and telling them what to do. He said he can’t imagine what African American and Hispanic officers are going through right now and the conflict they must be feeling.

Garcia-Ramirez said he has nothing personally against police officers, that he has had positive and negative experiences with them himself. Many of the daily stresses that are part of working in the education system are also part of policing, he said, and without substantive reforms both systems are doomed to fail people.

“We have not respected and leveraged what it is to have an honest conversation about mental health and the stress these officers face,” he said. But he emphasized that he sees some parallels between education and law enforcement and said there’s a concept in teaching called emotional constancy.

“You have harsh feedback sometimes from the people you work with — sometimes they’re wrong and you’re right, sometimes you’re wrong and they’re right. … If you don’t have emotional constancy and you’re a police officer on the frontlines of this, you’re a liability, it’s just that simple.”

The feedback is clear, he said: There has to be change. “And not adjusting to it is cowardly at best and willfully racist at worst.”

The Positive Movement Entertainment drill team leads a protest through West Philadelphia on Juneteenth. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Casey calls for federal holiday

Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware are among the 47 states to mark Juneteenth officially. Last year, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf designated June 19 as “Juneteenth National Freedom Day,” creating a special holiday for some state employees. Earlier this week, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney followed suit, declaring the day an official holiday in the city.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., believes it should become a federal holiday.

“This Juneteenth, and every day, Black Lives Matter,” he said in a statement Friday calling on the federal government to recognize the holiday.

Casey and other elected leaders are framing this year’s Juneteenth as especially urgent, given nationwide calls for an end to systemic oppression against Black Americans.

“Black Americans continue to be disproportionate victims of hate crimes and police brutality, and the recent murders of George Floyd and others underscore the inadequacy of passivity and the cruel impact that slavery, and much of its aftermath, has had on our country and its citizenry,” Casey said.

Black leaders demand New Jersey end the War on Drugs

A group of Black leaders came together Friday to discuss steps New Jersey should take to scrap the state’s drug and prison policies. In an hourlong discussion online, they asked New Jerseyians to support state bills that will free incarcerated individuals, decriminalize cannabis, and move money towards community outreach programs.

“The drug war has been a war on Black people,” said Rev. Dr. Charles Boyer, of the group Salvation and Social Justice, who helped organize the press conference.

Boyer said community members are using this year’s Juneteenth to push for policy reforms to keep Black Americans from being disproportionately punished and imprisoned by racialized drug laws. That includes asking residents to support S2525, a State Senate bill that would decriminalize cannabis and retroactively expunge the criminal records of thousands of people imprisoned for cannabis-related offenses. Boyer also demanded that given the health dangers of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers should speed up the release of imprisoned individuals, measures included in bill S2519, particularly in light of the tremendous impact the virus is having on incarcerated people of color.

Leaders also flagged S3309, a bill that could establish and fund violence intervention programming that has already had demonstrable success in parts of the state.

“We understand that trauma has been allowed to ripple and fester in our communities,” said Aqeela Sherrills, with the Newark Community Street Team.

He wants to see $20 million in funding used to expand programs that are already working but are in need of more resources.

“Dedicating resources in Black communities is not a radical or irrational ask, as much as it is treated as such,” said Brandon McCoy, with New Jersey Policy Perspective.

McCoy estimated that the state spends about $670 million a year solely to enforce drug criminalization, including arrests, judicial functions, and corrections. Those numbers, though, likely understate the full costs, he added, saying that money has brought little in the way of reduced substance abuse, overdose deaths, or improved quality of life for New Jersey residents.

“It’s a complete waste of our collective resources,” McCoy said.

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This article has been updated to present some comments made at the “Jawnteenth” event in fuller context.

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