Spurred in part by anguish over the results of last week’s presidential election and partly by the appearance of racist graffiti on campus, hundreds of SUNY New Paltz students walked out of their classes at noontime last Friday for an energetic demonstration against the policies of Donald Trump. Protesters rallied on the quad outside the Humanities Building while a smaller group trooped through the building’s staircases and hallways chanting slogans. Then they regrouped outside and marched into town, streaming six deep along the sidewalks and spilling over into the street.
According to student Oren Korashvili, who coordinated the event’s Facebook page, the demonstration had been organized by a coalition of campus groups including the Black Student Union, the Afro/Latino Community and the SUNY New Paltz chapter of New York Students Rising. “While we understand that Donald Trump was elected democratically, we’re looking to repudiate the hateful rhetoric targeting minorities,” he told the New Paltz Times when asked what the marchers hoped to achieve. “We want to show unity with groups that have legitimate reasons to fear now.”
Campus police chief David Dugatkin sized up the crowd at “somewhere around 500,” while the Times Herald-Record and WPDH estimated the number of protesters between 600 and 800. The group was racially diverse and mostly college-aged, although several SUNY faculty members reportedly participated as well. Many of those assembled wore safety pins, identifying themselves as “safe” persons to whom someone being bullied or harassed could turn for immediate assistance.
Homemade signs were in abundance, with “Not My President” and “Love Trumps Hate” among the more popular slogans. Nate Christian, a marketing major in his senior year, held aloft a Trump-shaped piñata. Shepherded by student organizers bearing megaphones, the group chanted a few slogans that would evoke nostalgia among Vietnam War protesters, such as “The people united will never be defeated,” along with many more topical chants including “Trump, you’re fired,” “Donald Trump go away / Racist, sexist, anti-gay” and “You can’t build the wall / Your hands are too small!”
As the line of march headed down Plattekill Avenue, turned east on Main Street and returned to campus via South Chestnut Street, one group of female students chanted “My body, my choice,” while a group of their male allies followed, echoing “Her body, her choice.” Voices could be heard chanting along with the protesters from the windows of an apartment buildings as they passed. New Paltz resident Kate Dvorkin, walking her dog across Main Street and smiling at the marchers, said, “I want to tell them all to run for local office! Channel it into getting involved.”
As passing traffic slowed to a crawl on Route 299, some motorists honked their horns in solidarity with the march, others in impatience with the delay. While spirited, the participants proceeded in an orderly fashion and no violence or vandalism was observed. However, Dr. Glenn Geher, chair of the Psychology Department at SUNY-New Paltz, reported in his blog in Psychology Today magazine that one of his graduate students had been “pushed against the wall” and “yelled at” by protesters in the hallways while proctoring an exam in the Humanities Building. “She felt physically threatened and even when she was recounting this situation to our team later, you could tell she was emotionally shaken,” wrote Geher, a self-described liberal and Clinton supporter who called for better listening and open-mindedness between the sides in the election debate.
As the marchers converged again on campus, several student leaders stood on concrete benches to address the crowd, making it clear that the graffiti found in a women’s bathroom in Bouton Hall earlier in the week had disturbed many of the students. A letter sent to the campus community by college president Donald Christian on Friday urged calm dialogue in the aftermath of the election, saying, “We will bring to bear all appropriate processes on any report of bias…We must expose these acts to uncover the bias and educate broadly to build solidarity and community against such harm.”
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But Christian’s vaguely worded statement did not divulge the details of the incident. Photographs taken of the graffiti before it was removed revealed that someone had written on the bathroom wall, “Isis is calling! Muslims can leave,” “F—k stupid Latino immigrants” and “F—k n—–s.” In the same handwriting, the name “Trump” was written twice, accompanied by a sketched heart.
“We already saw some of the results of this election,” Victoria Lopez, a member of NYPIRG and the Student Senate, told the crowd at the rally. “Those slurs were covered up and buried as if they never existed. We know the truth.” She urged protesters to “Educate those who are not tolerant. Educate your family. Educate your friends.”
“Why do we have to protest?” Gianni Ingenio, a senior majoring in Digital Media and Film Studies, asked rhetorically. “Somewhere there is a Latino family, somewhere there is a Muslim family holding their kids extra-tight. Somewhere there is a black couple about to get married, wondering if someone’s going to shoot up the church. I’m a heterosexual white male, and I’m with you!”
Student Association president Yaranny Reynoso exhorted her fellow students to get busy preparing to support progressive candidates in the 2018 midterm elections. “We will take control of the House. We will take control of the Senate,” she said. “Love trumps hate. Let’s keep fighting. Let’s continue these conversations.”
Several speakers mentioned that attendees should use the hashtag #protesttrumpnpz to post coverage of the march and rally on social media. Future opportunities for student activism, including organizing busloads of students to attend the January 21, 2017 Million Women March on Washington, were also promised.