The protests sweeping much of the nation reached New Paltz and Kingston Saturday, albeit in a more peaceful form than the one which has rocked Minneapolis and other cities in the wake of several racially charged killings around the country by police officers.
In New Paltz, demonstrators stretched from Lola’s Cafe to La Charla, holding signs calling for an end to racial inequities in policing, while drivers honked their horns and waved placards of their own. They then marched uptown before looping back and dispersing.
Marchers also took to the streets in Kingston on Saturday afternoon. Demonstrators walked from Academy Green down Broadway to Kingston City Hall. We have a few photos from that event, but the rest of this article refers to the New Paltz event.
The spark for the current wave of demonstrations and riots in the United States was the death of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police officers, one of whom put a knee to Floyd’s neck for several minutes and allegedly killed him, events which were caught on video. However, other people of color have fallen victim in recent weeks, including Breonna Taylor, who was killed when Kentucky police executed no-knock warrant against someone already in custody at her home, and Ahmaud Arbery, victim of an extrajudicial killing in Georgia while he was jogging.
“I’ve been following black lives matter since I was in middle school,” said Poughkeepsie resident Eevee, who declined to provide a last name. “I’m 21 now, and I did a report on Eric Garner when I was 14. Nothing has changed.” Garner, suspected of selling cigarettes illegally, died while in a choke-hold administered by a New York City police officer in 2014. That officer was not indicted, spurring a similar round of protests and unrest.
Crawford resident Nate Bodon provided a more extensive perspective after the New Paltz event. “I think it’s important for people to come out and support and say enough is enough. We’re fortunate in the Hudson Valley that police brutality is not as prevalent … as it is other places … although we may not experience police brutality here in the same way we do elsewhere, we still experience racism and bigotry in levels that make us feel unsafe in our own homes and communities, and every community in this country needs to understand that.
“We are tired of being scared. We are tired of being held back because of the color of our skin. That’s why people are angry and why we are protesting. I will say that we are very fortunate that today’s protest took place in a liberal town with a police force that is friendly to the cause. That’s not the case in a lot of places where we are seeing rioting.”
Bodon’s assessment of New Paltz police concurs with the experience reported by event organizers Kevin Halcott and Emily Cooke. Officers came out to direct vehicular traffic and temporarily closed some roads to cars during the march.
Royal Parker, who spent much of the afternoon leading chants with a megaphone, told Anton Stewart of New Paltz’s public access television committee, “I want justice for everyone like myself who has experienced police brutality with no prosecution behind it.”
Stewart also asked about the choice of location. “You’re standing in probably one of the most inclusive communities in all of America. What are you hoping to achieve here? Why are you protesting here?”
“We’re protesting here because protesting needs to be heard all across the world, because injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere,” said Parker. And “a people united can’t be divided.” While he did not condone the looting and violence elsewhere, he said he understands the frustration from which it emerges.
Bodon hopes to see more open communication on issues of race, saying that people of color are “tired of explaining the issue to white people” when to them the problem is obvious. “Today’s march included a majority of white people and I think that’s important because it shows that people on both sides of the line have had enough.” To further that position as an ally, “I would ask white people and white-presenting people everywhere to use their privilege to stand up for minorities in any situation they can, whether it’s intervening in a situation that is unsafe for people of color, or standing up to their own racist friends and family.”
Social distance and social action uneasy allies
During the protest, volunteers in orange vests worked to maintain the rules of engagement for this pandemic while people exercised their right to free speech. They handed out masks, encouraged people to spread out farther along Main and side streets and implored people to disperse after the march rather than congregate in front of the library. It resulted in an action that could be measured in linear feet, and a crowd spread out enough that it was difficult to estimate the number of people involved. Despite those efforts, which included ground rules calling for ten-feet of social distance rather than six, the pandemic norms were not maintained consistently.
“It’s hard to shout while wearing a mask,” New Paltz Deputy Mayor KT Tobin remarked at one point, as she connected with other volunteers to strategize how to get people to stand farther apart. Wearing masks was the norm, but as the temperature rose, it became more common for participants to leave noses uncovered, or even hang the face covering under the chin.
The fact that this event was outside likely also reduced the chance of infection, but town supervisor Neil Bettez, who only rode past on a bicycle to reduce the risk to himself and his young son further, was concerned. “We all support the cause, but this is more than ten people and I do not see social distance.” He was watching the protestors march up one side of Plattekill Avenue and down the other, and he wasn’t seeing six feet between any two people. There was still more congestion along Main Street, where car traffic kept the protestors largely on the sidewalk. “I would not call this a success” from a public health standpoint, he added, despite the willingness of organizers to work with officials. “It’s hard to control a crowd,” he said, and “We’re endangering people’s lives.”
Furthermore, Bettez is charged with overseeing the town’s budget in a time of unprecedented fiscal uncertainty. “This is a parade without a permit,” he said, noting the police officers would be paid overtime for closing off the street and directing traffic. Town parade permits are costly because they are intended to recoup the price of that additional police protection, and demonstrations that are intended to remain on sidewalks but do not — including this one and the flag appreciation walk in 2018 — does not get paid for by organizers in the same way. His challenge is that elected officials cannot regulate based on the content of the message, and he is concerned about the possibility of having to give similar deference to other groups, whether he personally agrees with their message or not.
By some measures, this event was an unambiguous success. There has been not rioting or looting in New Paltz, no reports of altercations with police. It may be a couple of weeks before it’s known if anyone caught a coronavirus and perhaps longer to assess the financial hit to taxpayers. In a time of pandemic, free speech carries new costs and consequences for anyone willing to exercise it.
Videos from the New Paltz event: