Supporters of Town of New Paltz police officer Robert Sisco, who has been under intense public scrutiny since he posted a politically-charged rap video in uniform last week, marched through town on Father’s Day to show that they stand with him. Their action was met with at least two separate counter-protests. As temperatures rose and and tempers flared, the local police were called at least once during the walk down Main Street from the Tops supermarket plaza parking lot to the post office.
Kristin, an organizer of the support march who did not provide another name, said that she does not know Sisco personally, but was moved to act because she believes he has the right to express himself. A particular bone of contention has been that he had appeared to record his rap video while on duty, which some transgender people have said makes them feel unsafe seeking aid from the police. Kristin, for her part, sees it as evidence that Sisco was “proud of being an officer,” despite the “terrible things” other police officers have been blamed for around the country.
Using a small amplification device worn about the neck, Kristin urged her fellow Sisco supporters in the parking lot near the pandemic-closed New Paltz Cinema to be mindful of social distancing and the need for face coverings. Of those masks, she added, “I do believe that’s your right. I’m ready to get my own antibodies.” She was advising that they’d all get a chance to speak once the march reached the post office when the first round of counter-protestors arrived.
Outnumbered four to one, this new group was voluble. They all but entirely drowned Kristin out with their chants. One organizer of this counter-protest advised ahead of time that the tactic was to surround the marchers and, using large banners and a lot of noise, make it appear that the entire group was a Black Lives Matter rally. The hecklers began speaking negatively about police in general and Sisco in particular. A shouted exchange between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” occurred before the procession downtown began.
“We were willing to have a civil conversation about our differences,” Kristin said. She supports the right to expression by all. She expressed skepticism that any New Paltz police officer would ever get away with treating any group of people poorly.
Given the way the two groups were intermingled on their way down Main Street, Kristin got her opportunity for her own antibodies. Many tried to shout over the megaphones. Quite a few people were not wearing anything on their faces, or did so in a way that didn’t entirely cover both nose and mouth.
With such close contact in 90-plus-degree heat, the march only got down Main Street about to Oakwood Terrace without police involvement. It wasn’t immediately clear who got officers involved. Sergeant Keith Lewis had the opportunity to practice de-escalation techniques as he listened to complaints about people bumping into one another. He fielded at least one request to file a noise complaint.
While the bulk of the marchers continued onward, this group of counter-protesters lingered to speak with the officer. He told them that it could be possible to file a noise complaint, as they had passed into the village, but also noted the deliberate antagonism between the groups. “Maybe if you went on the other side of the road” rather than screaming in their faces, he suggested, conflict could be avoided.
“It’s a free speech rally,” came the reply.
A few blocks farther down the hill is Elting Memorial Library, a site of many demonstrations in New Paltz. A different group, organized by someone who gave the name Summer, was waiting on the lawn with rainbow banners and signs supported black and trans lives.
“I started this event while worked last night,” Summer explained. “We want [Sisco] to be fired, and to support our trans family.”
This group was larger than the pro-Sisco one coming down the sidewalk, with a half-dozen rowdy hecklers harrying them as they walked this gauntlet. Though the encounter was loud, no overt aggression was evident. All the protestors and counter-protestors continued down Main Street, with the pro-Sisco group hurrying to make the light at Chestnut and get a brief reprieve in which to regroup.
Relative calm emerged as members of that group headed into the Mobil store to purchase drinks, and the counter-protestors handed out bottles of water they’d brought themselves.
The final battle was held in the outdoor eating area temporarily sited in that parking lot, where a lone couple finished their meal in stunned silence and quietly slipped away. The conflict took on a different tone, with small groups of partisans breaking off and engaging with the other side. With the backdrop of constant megaphone use, all these conversations were shouted, many with anger.
A growing group of onlookers filmed the goings-on. At times, even the amplified voices of counter-protestors were drowned out by revving engines. Groups of motorcyclists at the traffic light won the noise contest at one point, and a man driving a large truck bedecked with several flags circled the area, gunning his engine with every pass.
Officer Sisco, the local flashpoint for this moment in history, is presently on administrative leave pending an internal investigation. How long that investigation might take was not responded to by the town supervisor and the police chief at press time. The town board has called an emergency meeting this Wednesday, June 24 for the sole purpose of going into executive session to address a personnel matter.