A Southside 'Gentle Giant' leads local Black Lives Matter group, brings hope to Syracuse

Anthony Harper is no stranger to the violence in Syracuse and is rallying his community together to create change.

Anthony Harper sits on a bench near Mountain Park Avenue, hunched over his phone, wearing a black baseball cap, a gray tank top, dark blue denim, and light brown work boots. He stands up, he is 6-feet 5-inches. His arms stretch out like tree trunks with hands the size of catcher’s mitts. His arms are sculpted with hard muscles and tattooed with thick black lines that swirled around his shoulder blades and on to his chest.

"I always wanted to do something for my city. Something for black people in general... Because we are getting picked off, and fast." - Anthony Harper

Despite Harper's tough exterior, one friend calls him a "gentle giant." He is deeply-rooted in the community as a teacher of at-risk youth in Syracuse and founder of the local Black Lives Matter group.

He led the protest in downtown Syracuse on July 18 and another outside of the Onondaga County Justice Center July 29 after Maurice Crawley, member of the “OG Against Violence" group, was arrested.  

Harper, 25, describes Syracuse as "his city, full of his people," and says he wants to help the black community and youth in his hometown.

"I’m from Syracuse, the Southside, I’m pretty sure you heard a lot about that side of town,” Harper said in a deep voice as he looks forward intently. “All the murders that you’ve been hearing about…that’s the Southside.” 

Harper said walking away from the issues of crime and violence in the Southside neighborhood would go against everything he’s about.

It should be noted that 49 percent of Syracuse citizens under 18 years old are living in poverty. Furthermore, within the Syracuse City School District, the average graduation rate is 52 percent compared to the average graduation rate of 84.4 percent within suburban districts, according to Onondaga County Health Assessment.

Harper said he was able to stay on the right path because growing up, he was surrounded by positive role models.

Now he works with the at-risk youth in Syracuse at the Syracuse City School District's McCarthy at W.R. Beard program. The children Harper works with do not have a healthy, encouraging support group, he said. 

"One of my 9-year-old students got shot in the head and came back to school bragging about it," Harper said.

He looked away and shook his head, rubbing his hand across his closed fist.  

Harper said it is easy to look at kids on the outside and judge them, but that people don’t know what really goes on in their lives. He said most are kids that are lost live in a broken home.

Rahize Seals, an activist from Syracuse that works with Harper in Black Lives Matter, said Harper really cares about the kids in the community and does his part both inside and outside the classroom. 

"There would be a couple kids on the street and he would go up to them and ask them how they were doing,” Seals said. “I call him a gentle giant because he’s a good guy and he cares.”

A friend and fellow activist Brittany Lancto said his perspective may be different from others because he grew up in the same neighborhoods as these kids and dealt with violence himself growing up, . 

"He’s relatable. It’s different when kids are subject to someone telling them what to do rather than sympathizing with things that they have gone through in their lives as well,” Lancto said. “I think kids understand that he’s been in their shoes."

Harper explained he and his family have been through a lot.

“I’ve seen the cops come to my house and slam my mother on the floor, toss my baby sister in the air and mace my father,” he said. "I’ve been shot at, stabbed, I was never supposed to go through any of that. None of us were."

When Harper found out his little brother’s best friend had been murdered in 2013 however, he was motivated to do more. He began the Black Lives Matter Syracuse Facebook page to bring awareness to the problems with police brutality in the black community.

“I always wanted to do something for my city. Something for black people in general,” Harper said. “So I started the Facebook page to bring people’s attention to what the hell is going on.”

He sat up straight and raised his voice.

“Because we are getting picked off, and fast. I mean,” he took a deep breath and slouched back down, "It’s just complicated." 

Lafwan Dowdell-Flood, Harper’s mother, explained that he is the kind of person who refuses to give up on anything he cares about.  

"If I had been one of those few parents that said, ‘No, I don’t think you should get involved in this’, he would have done it anyway,” Dowdwell-Flood said. “That’s just who he is.”

Harper hopes he can bring some positivity back into the community. Specifically, he wants to give hope to the black communities of Syracuse. 

"I love the hood so much and I love my people so much,” Harper said. "We are the bomb and I just want to give that sense of pride back, that spirit back."

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