New Paltz rallies against hate in its schools & beyond

A Rise Against Hate vigil — a community response to hateful incidents in our schools and beyond — took place on Saturday in front of Elting Memorial Library in New Paltz. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

A gathering of some 50-60 people in front of Elting Library as the “Rise Against Hate” rally began on Saturday, June 8, soon swelled to a crowd of nearly 200 like-minded souls, who came out on a sunny afternoon to stand in solidarity against recent incidents of racism and anti-Semitism in New Paltz schools.

“We are here not just to denounce hate, but to celebrate love,” said Barbara Upton of New Paltz’s Women in Black organization. The group helped organize the rally after middle school parents (and spouses) Alexandra Zissu and Olli Chanoff came to them with the idea for a community-wide response to the swastikas found in the middle and high schools and students calling each other the N-word.

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“We believe in the dignity of every human being,” said Upton. “And the best thing we have is all of you. A better world is possible and we’re going to create it.”

While the rally was planned in reaction to incidents in the New Paltz School District, organizers said the issues are part of a broader problem in the community that needs to be addressed.

The event received support from more than a dozen area organizations, including Moms for a Non-Toxic New York, The Maya Gold Foundation, The ReSisterhood, New Paltz Democratic Women, New Paltz Racial Equity Coalition, March On Hudson Valley, Indivisible the Fight Is On, AAUW- Kingston, ENJAN- End New Jim Crow Action Network, Move Forward New York, Indivisible Ulster, U-Act (Ulster Activists), Ulster Immigrant Defense Network, the Rondout Valley High School Human Rights Club, Concerned Parents of New Paltz and New Paltz Socialists.

A number of speakers gave brief remarks, including Superintendent of Schools Maria Rice, Deputy Mayor of New Paltz KT Tobin and Board of Education trustee Sophia Skiles, who urged those assembled to “listen, believe and show up for each other.”

“There is so much to be done,” said Tobin. “Problems don’t go away on their own. And we can’t solve them as individuals; we need to use our collective voices.”

Tanya Marquette of Concerned Parents of New Paltz noted the years she has been at odds with the New Paltz Central School District over the way they handle sensitive issues, saying she believes they have a policy of denial. “We must talk about the issues, even when they’re uncomfortable. When you see an issue, address it.”

Additional speakers included Amy Myslik, representing Jen Metzger’s State Senate office; Masha Shmarina, a student involved with Amnesty International; Jane Toby, of Jewish Voice for Peace; Gallo Vasquez, of New Paltz Socialists; Rachel Labare, of New Paltz Democratic Women; Elana Michelson, of Ulster Immigrant Defense Network; and Victoria Nazario, speaking for the Rondout Valley High School human rights club. “Be the solution,” she advised.

Nazario was accompanied by fellow members of the club, senior Francesca Wolfe and tenth-grader, Kasey Arnold. Before the rally, Arnold explained that their club advocates for anti-bullying, adding that it goes much deeper, as well; their purpose is to raise awareness of all human rights violations and issues that need advocacy. Wolfe said the group participated in the recent Women’s and Pride marches in New Paltz and has made trips up to Albany to speak on behalf of farmworkers.

It was difficult to hear the exact words of every speaker, given the inadequacies of communication by bullhorn and quite a lot of traffic noise, from car and motorcycle engines and car radios. Many drivers gave quick beeps that came across as sympathetic to the cause with one driver shouting “2020” out the window.

But the signs told the story even without the speeches: “Love, not fear. Everyone is welcome here.” And “Hate has no place in New Paltz,” and “Racism is Learned.” One sign simply said, “Love is the Answer,” with another offering “The Golden Rule: Google It.” And several signs carried by young students were simple and to the point: “I deserve better.” And “Don’t Be Mean.”

Carol Nolan of the U-Act Ulster Activists group held a sign reading, “Hate has no home here.” Her reason for attending, she said, was simply “a desire to make New Paltz a progressive place.”

Even the t-shirts worn by some participants served as signs: “We Will Not Be Silent.” And “The Future Looks Bright.” One man’s well-worn t-shirt read, “I Stand with Planned Parenthood.”

Zissu and Chanoff, the initiators of the “Rise Against Hate” rally, attended a Board of Education meeting several weeks ago to invite administrators and trustees to support the event. In addition to the remarks made by Superintendent Rice and trustee Sophia Skiles, the rally was attended by board members Diana Armstead and Glenn LaPolt. Councilman Dan Torres and former BOE member Steve Greenfield were also seen in the crowd.

Live music was provided by the ReSisterhood Choir and the activist brass band Tin Horn Uprising, whose rousing tunes enliven many such rallies and marches across the Hudson Valley.

Amy Trompetter’s Redwing Blackbird Theater puppets made an appearance, as well, with a performance featuring the devil and three deer, the latter puppets with sweet papier-mache faces and twig antlers. According to Trompetter, the choice of these representations relates to an old saying about “the deer among the devil,” with the deer representing the Native Americans and the devil the European explorers. The deer who “graze and don’t pounce” represent peace and kindness, she said, and “the right of everyone to be here and in the right frame of mind.” The ultimate message, she added, “is be kind.”

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