‘Mattering is the minimum’: 2 years later, western Mass. organizers reflect on George Floyd protests

Simbrit Paskins, at center holding a microphone, and Stephany Marryshow, at center holding papers, lead a crowd in Holyoke, Mass., during a Black Lives Matter protest in early June 2020. (Courtesy of Stephany Marryshow)

Spring of 2020 is marked by two gruesome historic events: a global pandemic, and the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, sparking international protests.

Protest organizers spent a lot of time and energy bringing people together in western Massachusetts to voice their anger and frustration.

Organizer Simbrit Paskins led over 1,000 people in Holyoke for a Black Lives Matter protest in early June that year.

Paskins, a queer Black woman, was teaching in Holyoke at the time. She felt a disturbance ripple among communities of color there, as well as in Springfield, where she grew up.

“Everything was shut down, and this man is, like, being suffocated on TV, and we needed to scream,” Paskins said. “And people came out to do it together.”

Listen to the audio version of this story at NEPM.org.

Stephany Marryshow, who helped organize the protests with Paskins, said it was bigger than anything she ever imagined.

“When you think of movements for Black people and people of color — huge movements like that — I’m 30 years old. I never got to really experience those things, and be a part of something that huge,” Marryshow said. “That alone was life-changing for not only me, but for a lot of people.”

Paskins and Marryshow said they organized about 15 protests at the time, including the one in Holyoke.

Paskins said each protest revealed specific race issues each city was dealing with, and noted that they were all different.

“What Holyoke needed wasn’t exactly what Springfield needed — policy-wise, action-wise, education-wise,” Paskins said. “And what Springfield needed, Chicopee was just figuring out that, like, ‘Hey, we might have a race problem.’ Like, what? And a lot of that contributed to how each action was handled.”

A crowd of more than 1,000 people gathered in front of City Hall in Holyoke, Massachusetts, on June 2, 2020, to protest police brutality and the killing of George Floyd. (Ben James / NEPM)

Marryshow said the demonstrations not only brought these issues to light, but allowed people of color to be heard in a way she hadn’t seen before.

“People felt represented. They felt heard,” she said. “I think it was a huge deal to be united with so many millions of people across the country, and not even just this country, but internationally — like we’re all protesting at the same time.”

Marryshow said this was a great first step, but that as time progressed, support from local officials waned.

“I think some of what happened — like with politicians, and police commissioners and things like that — was very performative,” she said. “As soon as things died down, so did their efforts, and so did their promises.”

Marryshow and Paskins said they were exhausted — not just from organizing protests, but from holding the sadness and suffering of those protesting.

Paskins recalled how she felt after one of her last demonstrations, in Ludlow.

“I remember people giving me — I remember someone putting down, like, a Gatorade,” she said. “I think a friend had, like, an electrolyte tablet that she would give us, and I could not move, I could not speak. I just sat.”

Protesters across the region shared that collective exhaustion from Black people dying at the hands of police officers.

New crowd, same anger

At a protest in Springfield that same week, City Councilor Justin Hurst stood with a crowd outside Nathan Bill’s bar, chanting, “Take your knee off our necks!”

“How many times do we have to tell you we can’t breathe?” Hurst said.

Near the same bar in 2015, off-duty Springfield police officers beat four Black men, prosecutors say. More than a dozen officers were charged with taking part in the assault or trying to cover it up.

Bishop Talbert Swan is president of the NAACP chapter in Springfield and an organizer of that 2020 protest. He said he’s been thinking about the two officers convicted of assault charges this spring in the Nathan Bill’s case. The judge gave them no jail time.“

Bishop Talbert Swan, president of the Springfield, Massachusetts, chapter of the NAACP, addresses the crowd at the conclusion of the Springfield march on June 6, 2020. (Ben James / NEPM)

There’s a reluctance to charge police officers,” Swan said. “We see a number of those officers got off, including the ones who got convicted, who won’t spend a day in jail as a result of it. So once again, it seems as though justice has not been served in the case of Springfield police brutalizing its citizens and violating their constitutional rights.”

Last week, another officer involved in the Nathan Bill’s fight was acquitted of assault.

Police Superintendent Cheryl Clapprood’s office did not respond to NEPM’s requests for comment on this story.

Swan said he has seen limited police reform since the protests.

In July 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice accused the Springfield police narcotics unit of using excessive violence with impunity. Although the narcotics division has been disbanded, the DOJ and city officials announced a consent decree last month that would apply to the entire police force.

“I think it’ll be a positive thing towards bringing about police accountability,” Swan said. “They would not listen to the citizens who were telling them that this type of widespread brutality was happening. So they had to listen to the federal government.”

Another change underway is the Springfield Police Department getting more civilian oversight.

In February, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled the City Council has the authority to create a five-member police commission to oversee the police department, instead of a single commissioner.

Still, looking back a couple years, Swan said he believes some protesters weren’t really motivated by these kinds of police reforms.

“I think a lot of white liberals were protesting Trump being in office as much as they were George Floyd being murdered,” Swan said.

Swan said many white people identifying as allies were quiet about police brutality after last fall’s election, as Democrats now control the White House and Congress.

“The same issues that we were protesting when Trump was in office, we’re challenging and protesting today,” he said. “But their response as allies today is to tell us to ‘quiet down,’ ‘give the man a chance,’ ‘don’t be so divisive.'”

Bishop Talbert Swan, president of the NAACP chapter in Springfield, Massachusetts, stands in front of Nathan Bill’s pub two years after a police brutality protest was held in front of the bar. (Nirvani Williams / NEPM)

Refocusing on Black joy

Paskins and Marryshow said they were tired of hearing about seminars about how white people could be less racist. Instead, they wanted to focus on Black joy.

After that protest in Ludlow, both women were exhausted, but had to hurry to Springfield for an appointment.

“We had to be here. The space was vacant,” Paskins said. “We had to, like, meet the landlord, and figure out — like, that feeling was, like, I don’t think I want to be there again.”

A gathering at The Ethnic Study in Springfield, Massachusetts, in May 2022 included students and educators, along with Simbrit Paskins and Stephany Marryshow. The students’ stories appeared in a newly released book, “Dear Freedom Writer: Stories of Hardship and Hope from the Next Generation.” (Courtesy of Stephany Marryshow)

They created The Ethnic Study, a café, co-working space and bookstore centering voices of color, BIPOC and trans authors, and women. They host community events in the space.

“We just sit here with some cool colored lights and music, and everybody works on their stuff, painting and drawing and collages, and whatever else people are doing to make space for that,” Paskins said.

And this gets to the heart of what they want their business to become.

“What are the other ways that we can help to create spaces that just, like, give life to people of color existing and thriving? Right. That phrase sort of started to ring out at the end of 2020 — of, like, we don’t want to just matter,” Paskins said. “We want to, like — mattering is the minimum, I think was what people started to say. We don’t want to just survive. We want to thrive.”

So now, Paskins said, the big question is: How do we get there?

Ben James and NEPM’s Karen Brown contributed to this story that was originally published on NEPM.org, a partner of the New England News Collaborative.