Social media and word of mouth brought out hundreds of mostly young people from Saugerties and surrounding communities last Thursday for a “Walk 4 Black Lives” demonstration in the center of the village. As many as 500 people participated in the event on June 12, estimated Cameron Costello, one of the organizers.
What’s happening in hundreds of communities across the nation is happening in Saugerties. Events such as the June 12 one in Saugerties have been drawing larger-than-anticipated participation. The participants vow continued demonstrations until their goals are achieved.
“We used Facebook, Snapchat – social media and word of mouth,” explained Costello, a freshman at Marist College. “I reached out to a lot of people I thought would come, and asked if they would want to help, or be interested, especially friends I had gone to other protests with.”
Most of the marchers were from Saugerties, said Alexander Santiago, the other main organizer. “This [Saugerties] is my home town …. I would expect some people from outside, but mostly from Saugerties.” Santiago, a 2018 graduate of Saugerties High School, works at Slices restaurant.
Local government officials, including town supervisor Fred Costello and village mayor Bill Murphy, were among the participants. Town board member John Schoonmaker spoke at the rally preceding the march.
Santiago asked the participants to give themselves a round of applause for the great turnout. “I keep hearing and seeing that all lives matter, it’s not just black lives that matter. But no one said only black lives matter,” he said. “All lives will not truly matter until black lives matter, though. The truth of the matter is that many of us walk and drive around with the fear that something we say or do, or even the look on our face, could cause one of us to not return home to our families.”
He told a personal story. “I, myself, have faced this fear, and that is not even the worst of it,” he said. “When I was 17, I was pulled over for what seemed like no reason. Three sheriff’s cars pulled me over to tell me my muffler was too loud. They kept talking, shining flashlights in the car – three sheriffs for one 17-year-old boy. I was literally shaking because I didn’t know what was going to happen next. When I took my car to the mechanic the next day, he said it was silent. There was nothing wrong with my car.”
He thanked the many police officers who “do what you have pledged to do, to serve and protect,” But it was important to do even more. “I just ask that you enlighten your peers and help them see, not from your point of view but from our point of view,” Santiago urged. “The only way we can make a change in this system is together.”
The several speakers elaborated on the themes of the event.
Pastor Tim O’Dell of the New Life Church in Saugerties said he was proud of his former students in the crowd, and of the young people. “I know that your generation will do better,” he said. “The death of George Floyd has brought us face to face with the sins of racism and injustice that I, as a pastor, have to respond to in word and deed.”
O’Dell cited the Book of Genesis to say that God created human beings — “and that means all human beings — in his own image.” Citing a 1989 resolution adopted by the Assemblies of God, O’Dell said the church statement condemned racism as a sin, and that “our fellowship is reaffirming and redoubling our commitment to the course of action that was laid out by that historic document.”
Even the first black president of the United States had to face racists who “questioned his legitimacy,” noted Comfort Akpan, a Saugerties High School senior. She decried “a world that seemed almost full of racism, hatred and injustice.” At times she felt almost embarrassed that her parents were immigrants from Nigeria, she said.
“No longer will we let our voices be silent when there is still so much left to say,” she vowed. “No longer can we act as if because it is not happening to us in front of us or around us, that it is not happening. Change must come now, and it starts with all of us. Together we can mold a new idea of society. When I see all of us here, it gives me hope for the next generation.”
Shai Brown of Citizen Action said she hadn’t slept since George Floyd was murdered. “I’ve been on the front line, and I’ve been fighting ever since. And this exhausts me,” Brown said. “I’m not standing up here for color. I’m not standing up here for black or white. I’m standing up here for right and wrong.” She began naming victims of racism, starting with Floyd, but stopped after the first few, saying the list is too long; “I would be up here all day saying all these names.”
There’s a contrast in social attitudes. When a white person murders a black person, “it’s a mental-health issue,” she said, “but George Floyd, for a counterfeit $20 bill, is killed.”|
Brown finished with a call for people to vote and to press elected officials for to bring about change.
Town councilman John Schoonmaker began by leading a cheer: “When I say Saugerties, you say, rise up.” After several rounds of cheering, Schoonmaker said, “Look at the crowd that we have here today. When I was a child, I would never have imagined seeing a crowd like this out here. As Shai was saying, change is coming. In Saugerties, we have 300, 400 people here marching down the streets, to make sure that they know that this has to happen. When we were out on that corner, I had someone yell at us, White lives matter! In 2020 we have people booing us for holding a black-lives-matter sign. People standing up with signs, showing they care about the wrongs in today’s society, forces others to see the issues,” he said.
Demonstrations expose the issues, an important role. “How do we actually get things done?” Schoonmaker asked. “It’s coming to us [elected officials] and banging down our doors and telling us what you want. I had a local lawyer reach out to me to say, I want to start working on the citizen review board in town. I said, yes, we need to start doing this because we have a federal government, Trump in charge and the Republicans in the Senate that are not going to do the things we need.”
Constant public pressure is needed. “That pressure starts here,” he said.
Asserting that ordinary citizens hold the power “if they start banging down the doors,” they can bring about change. “There’s an election every year, not just 2020 or 2022, but every year,” Schoonmaker said. “My term is up in 2021, and there are elections in those off years. Those are the ones that have the real power; those are the ones that could completely change the system.”
He asked the marchers to attend town-board meetings and county legislature meetings. “Tell them what you want. Our job is to listen to you.”
Following the speeches, the crowd formed into lines several blocks long for the march through the village.