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Social Justice

At the Black Lives Matter Protests in the Hudson Valley

On the ground in nine municipalities across the region.

Protesters at Kingston City Hall on Saturday, May 30.
Phillip Pantuso
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Something snapped in American society when Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd on May 25, 2020, Memorial Day in the United States. The following day, protesters took to the streets in the Twin Cities; every day and every night since, more people have marched, in cities and towns across the country, defying curfews, the pandemic, and the at-times violent police response. Defying, finally, the expectation of what life in this country should be like for its Black and brown residents.

Perhaps the size of the showings has something to do with all of us having spent months under shelter-in-place orders. It certainly has much to do with seeing yet another unarmed Black man killed by law enforcement. But if the protests were at first a paroxysm of rage at the ugly specter of police brutality, they’ve since become something more joyful: a collective coming together of the masses in solidarity, hope, and the sudden realization that a better way seems possible. The angel of history, turning its face to the future.

The mass demonstrations sparked by Floyd’s death are the broadest in US history. All 50 states and Washington, DC, have held protests. In many large cities, they’ve become a nightly ritual, but what feels truly significant are the people in hundreds of smaller towns who have taken up the cause as well, many with scant histories of participation in social movements. Some of these events are happening in unimaginable places: Some 200 people rallied this weekend in Vidor, Texas, a notorious “sundown town” with a long historical association with the Klan. A mostly white crowd came out in Corbin, Kentucky, a town of 7,000 known for a 1919 riot in which a white mob forced nearly all 200 Black residents onto a freight train out of town.

Here in the Hudson Valley and the Catskills, there have been dozens of protests, all of which seem to have been peaceful. Over the past few days, River staffers and contributors have fanned out across the region, from Poughkeepsie to Delhi, Kingston to Callicoon, to capture the spirit in the streets. Here is what we saw.

Poughkeepsie

Credit: Khalil Rashaad

Tuesday, June 2
More than a thousand people took to the streets of Poughkeepsie to join the “We Can’t Breathe Protest” against ongoing police brutality in the United States. The protest began on the corner of Market Street and Church Street. Protesters lined both sides of Church, while passing drivers honked their horns and raised fists out of their windows in solidarity for the protest and the Black Lives Matter movement. As the crowd grew, the Poughkeepsie Police Department, wearing full protective gear, stood as a wall overlooking the protesters while blocking off Market Street. Protesters carried signs with various messages: “Black Lives Matter,” “Say Their Names,” “Defund The Police,” “Justice for George Floyd,” “End White Silence,” and many more. They united in various chants: “I Can’t Breathe,” “No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police,” “Say His Name, George Floyd,” “Say Her Name, Breonna Taylor,” “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.”

Protest organizer Robert Pemberton gave a short speech to the crowd, encouraging everyone to keep the proceedings peaceful. Shortly after, protesters piled into the streets, heading toward the Mid-Hudson Bridge.

Credit: Cerissa DiValentino

Later, while the crowd marched down Main Street, a young, teary-eyed Black woman stopped in front of a Black police officer standing to the side of the crowd. With her fists clenched and sorrow in her voice, she pleaded with the officer to consider his position: a Black police officer in the United States of America, a country, she said, that was not going to protect him as a Black man, even if he had a badge. With his gaze set over her head, tears filled his eyes as the woman told him that he wasn’t safe, either. A few white protestors stood beside her, watching in the event that the young Black woman needed to be defended. The Black officer remained entirely silent. The woman shook her head, wiped the tears from her face, and turned away. With rage in her voice, she rejoined the protesters’ chant. — Cerissa DiValentino

Credit: Khalil Rashaad

Newburgh

I.

On the evening of March 27, officers from the City of Newburgh Police Department fatally shot Tyrell Fincher. The police and Orange County district attorney David Hoovler were quick to point out Fincher’s supposed connection to a previous crime, and the department released images of his killing taken from one of the officer’s body cameras, which allegedly depict him pulling a handgun.

Later that night, dozens gathered to express their anger and grief at the killing. They chanted anti-police slogans, set a fire at an empty intersection near where Fincher was killed, and pelted officers with rocks and bottles as they attempted to approach. Police and the media uniformly described the event as a “riot,” and mayor Torrance Harvey reportedly had the Army National Guard on standby to respond.

In mid-May, the city released a statement on joint law enforcement operations in Newburgh. They announced that the residents should expect to see New York State Police, Orange County Sheriff, and FBI join the local police department on city streets. The mayor, city manager, and city council applauded all of the law enforcement agencies involved.

As of this writing, there have been no updates on Fincher’s killing from Hoovler, who was tasked with investigating.

II.

On the evening of June 2, demonstrators were to gather in front of the Newburgh Police Department for a silent protest. Working with law enforcement, organizers of the event were quick to lead hundreds of participants to the grounds of Orange County Community College, across the street from the police station.

Following the prolonged silence, organizer Micha Miranda encouraged attendees to make themselves heard via an impromptu open mic. Mayor Harvey and police lieutenant Kevin Lahar were both invited to speak, the former calling for unity and the latter declaring that “All Lives Matter.” When one Newburgh resident described the beating he had received from local officers in front of his daughter, Harvey attempted to quiet him. A subsequent speaker questioned why more of the young black men of Newburgh were not in attendance.

Not once did a speaker acknowledge that, less than three months ago, the police had killed one of their neighbors. — Arvind Dilawar

Kingston

Credit: Vianna Koegel

Wednesday, June 3
The first “Wednesday Walk for Black Lives” protest in Kingston drew roughly 2,000 protesters, just days after a youth-organized march to city hall also drew a large crowd. Throngs of protesters packed into Academy Green Park, spilling out onto the streets and stoops around the green. Spread throughout the park were 144 placards bearing photographs and names of Black lives that have been lost due to police brutality: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, Dante Parker, Tamir Rice, and many more. “We thought we were coming out for just George Floyd or maybe 10 people, but as you can see, it looks like a cemetery out here,” protester Ronette Parker said. “So absolutely no more can we just stay silent.”

Speaker after speaker took the stage.

Credit: Vianna Koegel

“We have a duty to our young people to make sure that the world they live in is equal, not only for them, but their children and their children’s children,” Kamora Houser, one of the co-organizers of last Saturday’s youth-led march, said. Her voice climbed. “And for that I will continue to fight, I will continue to fight, I will continue to fight!” she said, repeating the phrase eight times, as the crowd erupted.

Later came Rashida Tyler, founder of the Real Kingston Tenants Union and a Citizen Action of New York board member. Citizen Action organized the march, which will recur every Wednesday for the foreseeable future. “This is who we are,” Tyler said. “Remember this moment when anyone tries to be divisive and say we can’t come together. We can. We will. We’re moving forward.”

Credit: Vianna Koegel

Later, Citizen Action’s Fanon Frazier asked the crowd to raise the placards in the air for all to see. Suddenly the park was a sea of Black names and faces. “Say their names,” a young Black woman calls out. The lofted placards were carried on the march, down Broadway—where protesters knelt for nearly nine minutes in memory of George Floyd—across Prospect to Franklin Street, and all the way up to Clinton Avenue and back to Academy Green Park. “No justice,” they chanted, “no peace.” — Cerissa DiValentino and Phillip Pantuso

Warwick

Saturday, June 6
Despite being an hour and a half apart from each other in place and a day away in time, two separate protests—one in the college town-esque village of Warwick on Saturday and the other in the bucolic bait-and-tackle town of Callicoon—rallied their predominantly white communities in an overwhelming show of support for their Black and brown neighbors. The anger, pain, and sorrow they expressed for the latest Black victims of police brutality—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others—were palpable in every ear-ringing chant of “No justice, no peace” and “I cant breathe.”

You couldn’t ignore it. Some onlookers in Callicoon looked on cautiously. Some strolling the sidewalks of Warwick threw up peace signs and powerful fists in support, while others hung posters condemning police violence on their porches. 

Credit: Dalvin Aboagye

“The outpouring of support has been phenomenal because, there are a lot of people that have experienced racism within the community and others that have expressed that they’ve seen other people that have been racist,” Ronald Martinez, the lead organizer of the Warwick protest, said about the gathering of a few hundred people. Martinez and fellow organizer Michelle Foster spent the last week turning their online musings into physical action after local criticism and racist threats emerged on social media. 

It’s the first step in a larger push for local reforms, including promoting more diverse narratives in the Warwick Central Valley School District curriculum and encouraging civic engagement among all Warwickians. The groundswell of support has been tremendous; Martinez and company say over 2,000 people signed a petition supporting these initiatives. — Dalvin Aboagye

Callicoon

Sunday, June 7
In adjacent Sullivan County on the following day, Zariina Padu and her brother Hanrii Padu of Callicoon eagerly opened their hearts and minds in the same streets where they’ve come face to face with intolerance. 

After marching through the area surrounding Main Street, she and several other Black townspeople gave impassioned pleas for understanding as their neighbors, teachers, and friends sat in a clearing overlooking the Delaware River. 

Credit: Dalvin Aboagye
Protest organizers Hanrii Padu and Zariina Padu.

For many of them, the experience of living while Black in a town where less than one percent of people look like you (Callicoon is 95 percent of white) has been riddled with tales of misunderstanding and abuse that has taken an immeasurable toll on their wellbeing.

“I’m really here to just speak to the community and kind of wake them up to let them know we’re here and our lives matter, and don’t just judge us because of our skin. We should have the same rights that everyone else has,” Padu said.

Credit: Dalvin Aboagye

The largely white congregation at both gatherings seemingly couldn’t agree more. Their discontent towards the treatment of their Black counterparts is indicative of white America’s increasing approval of anti-racism protests nationwide.

Once the raucous calls for change died down, a somber scene played out. A moment of silence, lasting 8 minutes and 46 seconds, was observed to contemplate the final moments of George Floyd’s life. Some took the break to meditate and pray for those that have suffered for what often feels like an eternity. — Dalvin Aboagye

Beacon

Saturday, June 6
Ciarda didn’t plan to interrupt Mayor Lee Kyriacou before he finished speaking. But she couldn’t abide what she heard.

In good faith, she and her new friends, including Xavier Mayo and Stefan Seward, organized the city’s second Black Lives Matter protest since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. Hundreds of people solemnly marched from the city’s Main Street to the mound at Pete & Toshi Seeger Riverfront Park to hear personal testimony of police brutality and other forms of racism. To the organizers and the jeering crowd, the mayor’s monotone reading of a letter of support from the city’s police department was offensive.

“Let’s talk about it,” Ciarda pleaded. “We got my brothers right here next to me, all harassed by the police every day.” She wiped tears from her eyes. A woman shouted that her son gets harassed, too.

“I don’t want to disrespect the mayor, but I want to let him know that it’s time to take action,” Ciarda said, to cheers and applause. “You might not be able to feel my personal pain. You might not be able to feel all our personal pain. … You can see what’s going on. And you’re the one. You can take power. You can take control of this.”

An energetic young white woman took the microphone next: “Mr. Mayor! Your entire city is here with us in solidarity. We do not want to hear a letter from the cops talking about how they stand with us. … What are you going to do for us? What are you going to change? … How are you going to make sure this does not happen in our city ever again?”

Kyriacou never recovered the crowd. Shaking audibly, with sunglasses on and his arms in his hands, he defended his City Council record on Beacon’s police problems and read quotes from Frederick Douglass, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. “He’s gotta go,” said one woman. “If you really believe in it, put the paper down and speak from your heart!” shouted a young man. “Goodbye,” said another woman.

Finished, Mayor Kyriacou folded his paper and moved to the side of the mound. Ciarda called another man to the microphone and everyone heard more about the police. — Alexander Reed Kelly

Delhi

Credit: Lissa Harris
Demonstrators in front of the Civil War soldiers’ monument in Courthouse Square. Atop the monument stands a figure of Peace, her sword wreathed in laurel.

Saturday, June 6
Delaware County residents turned out in a forceful show of support for Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protesters in an “Honoring Black Lives” event that drew hundreds to the small village of Delhi.

“We’re here as a monument to Black lives, and we’re here to mourn. But we must also be here to take an oath that we will do the uncomfortable work of looking racism in the eye,” said organizer Christina Hunt Wood, addressing the crowd from the village gazebo. Wood is a local Black artist who works on rural culture and race; she is also a cofounder of Fair For All, a group that has been working since 2017 to get the Delaware County Fair to ban the sale of Confederate flags.

Credit: Lissa Harris
Organizer Christina Hunt Wood addresses a crowd of more than 500 in Delhi’s Courthouse Square. Wood is an artist and cofounder of Fair For All, a group that has been working since 2017 to get the Delaware County Fair to ban the sale of Confederate flags.

“I’m really proud of Delhi,” organizer Quinn Kelley said, getting a little emotional at the sight of the crowd.

After a brief address from organizers, protesters spread out along the length of Main Street, holding signs and chanting “Say his name: George Floyd!” “Black lives matter!” and “No justice, no peace, no racist police!”

The event was mostly free from conflict; at one point, protesters helped a village police officer move traffic cones so a US Mail truck could get through, its driver honking in support while demonstrators cheered. One counterprotester who carried a sign declaring “BLM Causes More Black Deaths—Convince me I’m wrong!” walked along the street holding a child by the hand, aggressively confronting several protesters, while others nearby worked to keep the situation calm. People laid wildflowers under photos of 36 Black men and women killed by police, arrayed on the lawn in front of Delhi’s Civil War soldiers’ monument.

Credit: Lissa Harris
A protestor lays a flower for David McAtee, a Louisville man shot and killed by police on June 1, 2020.

The size of the crowd was estimated at roughly 500 to 700 people, a massive event for a town with a population of less than 5,000. In recent years, a high-profile Second Amendment rally drew about 50 to Courthouse Square, and an anti-fracking protest at the height of local tensions about gas drilling drew about 350.

Delhi is the county seat of Delaware County, whose population is a little under 45,000, putting the size of the protest at more than one percent of the county’s entire population. The county is 95 percent white, with Black residents making up only about two percent of the population. In the 2016 election, Delaware County voters went for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton almost two to one.

Delhi village police chief Mike Mills, who issued a statement of support before Saturday’s event, said the protest was peaceful. “It was nice to see a community event like that go off as well as it did,” Mills said. — Lissa Harris

Full disclosure: Protest co-organizer Quinn Kelley is Lissa Harris’s first cousin.

West Haverstraw

Saturday, June 6
Dozens of people lined both sides of Route 9W in the latest of local protests calling for justice for the victims of police brutality. Since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25, protests have taken place across the globe including Rockland County demonstrations in Nyack, Nanuet, and Spring Valley.

In this latest mass call for widespread criminal justice reform, nearly 50 demonstrators held signs reading “no justice, no peace,” “justice for George,” and other powerful statements as cars drove by with drivers honking their horns in support, some holding their fist in the air and yelling “Black Lives Matter!” Protesters stood in front of the Samsondale Plaza before marching south along Route 9W and stopping at the intersection of 9W and US-202.

Credit: Annemarie Durkin

The demonstration came just days after Rockland County executive Ed Day released a statement on his Facebook page warning “organized anarchists” threatening violence would be dealt with “swiftly and with extreme prejudice.” The post has since been edited, after a slew of county residents and community leaders expressed concern and outrage over its wording.

“I recognize that this statement, while meant to be reassuring, caused additional fear and anxiety in local communities of color that were already on edge,” said Day in a press release Thursday, following a meeting with community leaders. One of the meeting participants, Reverend Nathaniel Demosthene of First Timothy Christian Church in Spring Valley, called Day’s original statement “tone deaf” and said it needlessly politicized the issue. “Bring Rockland together, don’t threaten the outsiders,” Demosthene said.

Rockland County has a long history of racial disparity in its criminal justice system. According to data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, in 2018 Black people comprised about 11 percent of Rockland’s population, but made up 28 percent of the county’s arrests and 48 percent of all prison sentences. Black people were arrested at a rate of 2.57 percent, while white people were only arrested at a rate of 0.62 percent.

“Moving forward, we’re looking forward to more positive racial relations in Rockland,” Demosthene said. In his press release, Day pledged to maintain dialogue with the working group of county leaders moving forward. “This conversation was an extremely important step towards deepening understanding, developing shared goals, and creating the relationships needed to address the myriad issues we face today both in Rockland and across our nation,” he said. But Day was not present at the rally on Saturday, and he has not been reported to be at any other demonstrations thus far. — Annemarie Durkin

Yorktown

Sunday, June 7
The protest in Yorktown started with a Facebook post.

Town supervisor Matt Slater posted a “Public Safety Update” on Yorktown’s official Facebook page last Monday, addressing rumors there would be a protest that night.

“According to the [Yorktown Police Department], which is actively monitoring social media and other intelligence resources, there is no indication of any such planned protest for our Town this evening,” it read.

Though many comments expressed relief, Rachel Fredrick, a mother of three and elementary school teacher, reacted differently.

“This makes it sound like it’s a good thing we’re not protesting police brutality,” she wrote in a comment.

Six days later, an ad hoc group of Yorktown residents and high school students had thrown together a protest that drew an estimated 1,300 people. The crowd gathered at Town Hall, then marched three-quarters of a mile to the town’s rec center. A group of high school students led the procession, leading call-and-response chants with the vivified crowd.

Credit: Roger Hannigan Gilson
Yorktown High School students lead call-and-response chants during a June 7 protest against police violence and racism in America.

Several people spoke outside the rec center about their experiences of racism in Yorktown, a municipality of 36,000 on the northern edge of Westchester County that is three-quarters white and four percent Black.

Yorktown High School counselor Daks Armstrong was the last to address the mostly white audience, telling them the importance was not in the march, but in what they did afterwards.

“It’s not my job anymore,” Daks, who is Black, said of addressing racism. “The job is for white people, quite honestly. … What are you going to do? Are you going to use your privilege for something good? Because I hope you will.”

The march was peaceful. The only time police approached was to help a young woman who fainted in the crowd. — Roger Hannigan Gilson